Avatar, James Cameron's blockbusting 3-D film, is both profoundly
silly and profound. It's profound because, like most films about
aliens, it is a metaphor for contact between different human cultures.
But in this case the metaphor is conscious and precise: this is the
story of European engagement with the native peoples of the Americas.
It's profoundly silly because engineering a happy ending demands a plot
so stupid and predictable that it rips the heart out of the film. The
fate of the native Americans is much closer to the story told in
another new film, The Road, in which a remnant population flees in
terror as it is hunted to extinction.
But this is a story no one wants to hear, because of the challenge
it presents to the way we choose to see ourselves. Europe was massively
enriched by the genocides in the Americas; the American nations were
founded on them. This is a history we cannot accept.
In his book American Holocaust, the US scholar David Stannard
documents the greatest acts of genocide the world has ever
experienced(1). In 1492, some 100m native peoples lived in the
Americas. By the end of the 19th Century almost all of them had been
exterminated. Many died as a result of disease. But the mass extinction
was also engineered.
When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they described a world
which could scarcely have been more different from their own. Europe
was ravaged by war, oppression, slavery, fanaticism, disease and
starvation. The populations they encountered were healthy,
well-nourished and mostly (with exceptions like the Aztecs and Incas)
peacable, democratic and egalitarian. Throughout the Americas the
earliest explorers, including Columbus, remarked on the natives'
extraordinary hospitality. The conquistadores marvelled at the amazing
roads, canals, buildings and art they found, which in some cases
outstripped anything they had seen at home. None of this stopped them
from destroying everything and everyone they encountered.
The butchery began with Columbus. He slaughtered the native people
of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) by unimaginably
brutal means. His soldiers tore babies from their mothers and dashed
their heads against rocks. They fed their dogs on living children. On
one occasion they hung 13 Indians in honour of Christ and the 12
disciples, on a gibbet just low enough for their toes to touch the
ground, then disembowelled them and burnt them alive. Columbus ordered
all the native people to deliver a certain amount of gold every three
months; anyone who failed had his hands cut off. By 1535 the native
population of Hispaniola had fallen from 8m to zero: partly as a result
of disease, partly as a result of murder, overwork and starvation.
The conquistadores spread this civilising mission across central and
south America. When they failed to reveal where their mythical
treasures were hidden, the indigenous people were flogged, hanged,
drowned, dismembered, ripped apart by dogs, buried alive or burnt. The
soldiers cut off women's breasts, sent people back to their villages
with their severed hands and noses hung round their necks and hunted
Indians with their dogs for sport. But most were killed by enslavement
and disease. The Spanish discovered that it was cheaper to work Indians
to death and replace them than to keep them alive: the life expectancy
in their mines and plantations was three to four months. Within a
century of their arrival, around 95% of the population of South and
Central America had been destroyed.
In California during the 18th Century the Spanish systematised this
extermination. A Franciscan missionary called Junipero Serra set up a
series of "missions": in reality concentration camps using slave
labour. The native people were herded in under force of arms and made
to work in the fields on one fifth of the calories fed to
African-American slaves in the 19th century. They died from overwork,
starvation and disease at astonishing rates, and were continually
replaced, wiping out the indigenous populations. Junipero Serra, the
Eichmann of California, was beatified by the Vatican in 1988. He now
requires one more miracle to be pronounced a saint(2).
While the Spanish were mostly driven by the lust for gold, the
British who colonised North America wanted land. In New England they
surrounded the villages of the native Americans and murdered them as
they slept. As genocide spread westwards, it was endorsed at the
highest levels. George Washington ordered the total destruction of the
homes and land of the Iroquois. Thomas Jefferson declared that his
nation's wars with the Indians should be pursued until each tribe "is
exterminated or is driven beyond the Mississippi". During the Sand
Creek Massacre of 1864, troops in Colorado slaughtered unarmed people
gathered under a flag of peace, killing children and babies, mutilating
all the corpses and keeping their victims' genitals to use as tobacco
pouches or to wear on their hats. Theodore Roosevelt called this event
"as rightful and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier."
The butchery hasn't yet ended: last month the Guardian reported that
Brazilian ranchers in the western Amazon, having slaughtered all the
rest, tried to kill the last surviving member of a forest tribe(3). Yet
the greatest acts of genocide in history scarcely ruffle our collective
conscience. Perhaps this is what would have happened had the Nazis won
the second world war: the Holocaust would have been denied, excused or
minimised in the same way, even as it continued. The people of the
nations responsible - Spain, Britain, the US and others - will tolerate
no comparisons, but the final solutions pursued in the Americas were
far more successful. Those who commissioned or endorsed them remain
national or religious heroes. Those who seek to prompt our memories are
ignored or condemned.
This is why the right hates Avatar. In the neocon Weekly Standard,
John Podhoretz complains that the film resembles a "revisionist
western" in which "the Indians became the good guys and the Americans
the bad guys."(4) He says it asks the audience "to root for the defeat
of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency." Insurgency is an
interesting word for an attempt to resist invasion: insurgent, like
savage, is what you call someone who has something you want.
L'Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican, condemned
the film as "just ... an anti-imperialistic, anti-militaristic
But at least the right knows what it is attacking. In the New York
Times the liberal critic Adam Cohen praises Avatar for championing the
need to see clearly(6). It reveals, he says, "a well-known principle of
totalitarianism and genocide - that it is easiest to oppress those we
cannot see". But in a marvellous unconscious irony, he bypasses the
crashingly obvious metaphor and talks instead about the light it casts
on Nazi and Soviet atrocities. We have all become skilled in the art of
I agree with its rightwing critics that Avatar is crass, mawkish and
cliched. But it speaks of a truth more important - and more dangerous -
than those contained in a thousand arthouse movies.
1. David E Stannard, 1992. American Holocaust. Oxford University
Press. Unless stated otherwise, all the historical events mentioned in
this column are sourced to the same book.
© 2023 The Guardian
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