A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[AH] “Accounting for Thanksgiving’s Ghosts”

For Thanksgiving, Jacobin Magazine reposted a provocative essay by Suresh Naidu, imagining what the United States would be like if its indigenous population had not died or been killed, “Accounting for Thanksgiving’s Ghosts”. This United States would certainly have been fundamentally different.

If ten million Native Americans experienced .5 percent population growth — a possibly conservative figure, considering indigenous populations were likely nowhere near the carrying capacity of the environment (world population growth has been almost 1 percent per year over the twentieth century, maxing out at 1.18 percent) — then the United States would currently have at least 130 million natives.

If they had been treated the same way Protestant colonialists treated other native populations — segregation with little intermixing — the resulting impoverishment would have radically reshaped the American social landscape.

[. . .]

Let’s assume that American society repressed and excluded natives no more and no less than it does in the real world, and so suppose that they would earn the income per capita of current Native Americans, roughly $18,000 a year. American GDP per capita would fall from $54,000 to something like $40,000, roughly equal to France. Inequality would obviously be much greater, something like what contemporary Colombia — the world’s eighth most unequal country — experiences.

Of course, these are just rough calculations, and the entire exercise is pretty speculative. But the effects of this thought experiment ripple out in fascinating ways.

The whole American social structure would obviously have changed. The political institutions required would have probably made the United States more like Latin America than the United Kingdom.

Colossally larger humanitarian disasters — massacres, population displacements, and internment camps — would have been necessary to keep the native population separate from the settlers.

Slavery on a large scale would likely have been maintained. Columbus turned first contact into the first Atlantic slave trade, filling boats back to Spain with captured Native Americans. Recent scholarship has shown how violence and coerced labor played an important role in creating the conditions for population collapse in the New World. Just as European slave demand amplified pre-existing slave systems beyond recognition in Africa, so too in the New World.

Some of his demographic assumptions, as have been pointed out elsewhere, are problematic. Projecting a population of ten million Native Americans circa 1500 five centuries into the future, while using the rates of population growth of the medically advanced 20th century to do the projecting, has obvious issues. Were I to write this essay, I would have looked towards Africa during this time period as a control.

Naidu is correct, I think, in that the persistence of a substantial indigenous population in most of the United States will fundamentally alter the settlement patterns. South Africa may well be a useful paradigm, with the western and northern Cape being mostly Afrikaansophone thanks to the long settlement but the remainder of the country, conquered much more recently, being overwhelmingly non-white. The densely settled Mississippi, in this alt-US, may well be a significant barrier.

(The same principle, incidentally, holds for the other predominantly settler-descended societies of the Western Hemisphere, from the Southern Cone up to Canada.)

This is not an achievable alternate history, mind; some sort of epidemiological catastrophe was inevitable. It is possible, however, that it might have been less severe if there was less imperialism. The desire of European imperialists to take control of indigenous populations and to use their resources, labour and otherwise, to finance their empire-building aggravated the catastrophe that befell the peoples of the Western Hemisphere, “from Labrador to Araucanïa” as Naidu put it. If these people had been allowed time to recover and not (for instance) be made into serfs working for European overlords, I would be willing to bet that they could recover.

Table 4 Origins of New World Populations//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

Table 4 from Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian’s paper “The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas”, published in Journal of Economic Perspectives 24.2 (163-188), here reproduced for the ease of sharing, depicts the scale of the catastrophe. Could this have been avoided.

(More on this to come.)


Written by Randy McDonald

November 24, 2017 at 11:59 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I’ve wondered what things would have been like if Viking contact in ~1000AD had effectively transmitted European diseases to a large enough population base that it spread throughout North America. The tech differential at this point was much smaller and the incursions still likely would have petered out in subsequent cold climate periods, but the later contact would have met a recovered indigenous population that was no longer naive to many European diseases. It would have been much much harder to eradicate their populations to the extent that has occurred.


    November 25, 2017 at 8:45 am

    • The big problem, I think, is that the areas of northeasternmost North America that the Vikings came across had small and sparse populations, broadly distributed. Would not any epidemic diseases simply burn out in the wilderness of the subarctic?

      Randy McDonald

      December 3, 2017 at 3:26 pm

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