Sunday, July 26, 2015

Scoundrel Times

History supplies an endless list of scoundrels, pirates, thieves and murderers who subsequently prospered. Their opposites, if not necessarily less common, are less prominent, and apparently less influential.

The Spaniards who came to Mexico with Cortez came to steal the Native American's gold, and save their souls for Christianity, but the catastrophe they brought had little to do with either purpose. Nearly 90% of the population of pre-Columbian Mexico perished as a result, but the overwhelming majority of them seem to have been killed by the diseases that the Spaniards brought. Disease and villainy more or less totally exterminated the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Caribbean.

The immense Native American genocide was mainly accidental, though one will not have any trouble finding plenty of villainy as well.

Many other genocides have a similar character, possibly including those of Stalin and Mao, but deliberate class extermination was also a motive. The Great Bengal famine of 1770 almost certainly fits that pattern. The famine was caused, or at least considerably exacerbated, by the greed and folly of the British East India Company, a peculiar colonial institution which gradually took over India by a mixture of war and enlistment of Indian allies.

The company's greed and policies caused (at least in part) the deaths of ten million inhabitants of Bengal and vicinity, but extermination of the population was neither the purpose or intent of those policies. Killing off the population almost certainly had a bad effect on the bottom line of the company as well as upon its reputation.

Of course the premeditated genocides of history are also plentiful, from the Athenian slaughter of the Melians to the Twentieth century genocides of Turkey, Germany, Rwanda, Serbia and so many others. Germany's genocide still seems peculiarly repellent, not only because of its extreme cold-bloodedness, but also because the victims or their survivors were especially eloquent.

Of course your mileage may vary, depending on your point of view.