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In Stolen Continents: The Americas Through Indian Eyes, 1992.(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, A Peter Davison Book) Ronald Wright explores the history of five different Native American groups, the Aztec, the Maya, the Inca, the Cherokee, and the Iroquois, from the time of the landing of Columbus in 1492 until the time the book was published in 1992. This book was written to correspond with the five hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the “New World.
”Ronald Wright is a trained historian and experienced travel writer who taught history in Britain and became bored with the European emphasis the curriculum required. He began to explore other areas of history and ultimately concentrated his work on the Native North, South, and Central Americans. In addition to Stolen Continents, Wright has written Cut Stones and Crosswords: A Journey in Peru, On Fiji Islands, Quechua Phrasebook (a phrasebook of the language used by the Incas), and Time Among the Mayas.
The book is organized into three sections: Part One: Invasion, Part Two: Resistance, and Part Three: Rebirth. Within each section Wright includes one chapter for each of the five tribal groups.
Maps of the Americas are included for each of the five areas Wright discusses. In addition, he provides extensive endnotes, an ample bibliography and a most useful guide to pronunciation that helps the reader attempt to pronounce names that are likely to be unfamiliar.
Due to the limited space for this book review, the writer will focus solely on the chapters dealing with the Aztecs, but the chapters about the other tribal communities are equally interesting and important.Wright’s main thesis is that the arrival of Columbus in the Americas is not a discovery as much as an invasion. Wright quotes Dehatkadons, a traditional chief of the Onondaga Iriquois, “You cannot discover an inhabited land. Otherwise I could cross the Atlantic and ‘discover’ America”(Wright, 15). According to Wright, at the time the Europeans became aware of the land they would call the Americas there were approximately 100 million Native Americans living throughout the Americas. To put this in perspective one must recognize that this number represents about 20 percent of the world’s population at that time.
The British Isles had only 5 million people and Spain had about 8 million inhabitants. This number is equivalent to 1,310,770,385 compared to the world population today. By 1600 less than one tenth of the original population (10 million) existed. In today’s terms 1,048,616,308 would be killed in a little more than one hundred years. (Wright, 4, 11, 14).In the first section Wright discusses the arrival of Europeans among the Aztecs. He first writes about the Aztecs and their ultimate defeat by Cortés. The city now known as Mexico City was the heart of the Aztec Empire. According to Wright the city was far more advanced than Spain. It contained buildings painted with bright colorful murals. There were schools and shops. The city was clean. Wastes were removed and composted to be used as fertilizer.
The streets were swept and washed each day. The people bathed daily, unlike the Europeans “who made a point of being filthy” (Wright, 21). Despite this more advanced civilization and superior numbers the Spanish were able to conquer the Aztecs in 1521 just 29 years after the initial arrival of Columbus.In “Part Two: Resistance,” Wright explains the occupation of the Aztec lands for 300 years until Mexico achieved independence in 1810. Shortly after conquering the Aztec people Cortés invited Franciscan missionaries to come to New Spain and conquer the people religiously. Until that time, the Aztecs practiced their native religion openly but without the human sacrifice. Their religion was not absolutist like Christianity. The Aztec gods did not claim to be the only gods. It is likely the Aztecs would have added the Christian gods to their belief system, but they were not willing to give up their old gods. This position was unsatisfactory to the Franciscans who sought to destroy the culture and rebuild it more in line with European culture. Oddly enough the Aztec priests challenged the Franciscans to a debate. The event was recorded in the Aztec language and was sent to the Vatican where it lay in storage for four hundred years. Wright provides a translation of some of the debate. In the translation, the Aztec priests are remarkably scholarly, polite and eloquent speakers (Wright, 145-148). Unable to convince the Aztecs by debating the Franciscans turned to violence. They drove the Aztec priests from their temples and they “converted” thousands with mass baptisms. Consequently, the Aztec people were divided into two groups: those who genuinely converted to Christianity and those who worshipped their traditional gods secretly. A number of those who were discovered participating in the old religion were burned alive. In 1550 King Charles V ordered that all Indians in Mexico learn to speak Castilian. In the 1570s all work in the native language Nahuatl was forbidden.
Ove rtime each culture influenced the other. Ultimately the growing together of old and new beliefs would provide a synthesis that allowed the Franciscans to believe that had won and still allowed the Aztecs to believe their culture would survive. (Wright, 148-150).In part three, Wright discusses the rebirth of the Native American cultures. For the Aztecs their syncretic resistance that allowed them to survive did away with much of their original culture. It is difficult to determine if there are any pure Aztecs today. The definition of what constitutes a real Aztec is often one of semantics. Gaining independence in 1812 did not bring about a return to the tribal communities of the Native Americans. During the next one hundred years Mexico would suffer under the rule of dictators, become a part of France under the Austrian Duke Maximilian who had been appointed by Napoleon, fight a war with the United States only to see a good portion of their northern land taken from them and annexed by the United States, and numerous rebel attempts to assume control of the government. Throughout the twentieth century there was a great influx of “aggressive European migrants fleeing Franco, Hitler and Stalin” (Wright, 241-252). This led to intermarriages and a further dilution of the Aztec blood. Appearing to reduce the possibility of the Aztecs reestablishing themselves as a tribal community. There are positive signs however. Archeological discoveries are revealing much of their previously lost history. It appears unlikely that a pure Aztec tribe will ever reestablish itself.
The Aztecs have compromised and adjusted to change for more than 500 years. They will continue to survive but into a metamorphosed people.In conclusion, Wright’s book was an interesting treatment of the Native Americans. It is disturbing to anyone living in the Americas who has been taught history from the Euro-American victors viewpoint. Wright points out that unlike the colonies in Africa and Asia, but like Australia, the colonizers left the colony and returned to the motherland. Although this writer knew that the settlers killed many Indians, he had no idea that so many Native Americans were killed. The writer had no idea how sophisticated the Native Americans’ lives were prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Assuming Wright’s numbers are correct, the genocide committed in the European settlement of the Americas totals 90 million people. These are staggering numbers equaling more than eight times the number of Jews tragically killed by Nazi’s in World War II. Although the information Wright reveals is often tragic, he does not appear to have an axe to grind. He is not embittered. His point of view is surprisingly neutral considering he was writing about the Native Americans when he is British. This book is highly recommended and is an important book that should be read.