A tragedy of mutual misunderstanding

I'm now a couple of chapters into Bailyn's book, and rather than being a straightforward morality play, with either the English or the Indians as villains, I am seeing the early years of English settlement in North America as a tragedy of mutual miscomprehension.

Perhaps the most crucial factor at work was how empty North America seemed to the English colonists, versus how full it was for the native Indian inhabitants of the eastern forests. My rough estimate from the figures that Bailyn provides is that England was populated at about 100 times the density of eastern North America. To English eyes, therefore, the Indians were barely using the land, and there was plenty of room for them to expand and establish plantations and towns. But the way of life that these eastern forest Indians had established, in fact, required 100 times the land per person as did the English way of life.

The above fact could be taken in two different ways: the Indians were ecologically wise stewards of the land, who respected its carrying capacity, or the English had much more efficient economic arrangements, and could make use of land far more effectively than the Indians could.

I am inclined, as is my wont, to suspect that all limited views have some truth in them. After all, there were so many English heading over to North America precisely because they had exceeded the carrying capacity of their own island, given the technology of the time. But it is also true that, had they adopted certain practices well-known in Europe, such as knowledge of how to replenish depleted farmland, that the Indians would have been able to expand their own population well beyond what it was in 1600, without severely damaging their environment.

What would've happened had each group been able to appreciate the viewpoint of the other, I know not. But it was not to be, and what actually happened fills me with sadness.


Popular posts from this blog

Fiat Currency

Panda Bob vs. Komodo Dragon