Jeff Fynn-Paul

The myth of New World genocide

Christopher Columbus sails for the New World (Credit: Getty images)

Shortly before the coronation of Charles III, a group of indigenous leaders from around the commonwealth released a statement. They called on the King ‘to acknowledge the horrific impacts on and legacy of genocide and colonisation of the indigenous and enslaved peoples,’ including ‘the oppression of our peoples, plundering of our resources, (and) denigration of our culture.’ Charles was told to ‘redistribute the wealth that underpins the crown back to the peoples from whom it was stolen.’ Yet the argument that Britain should pony up for its historical sins is based on a number of rickety assumptions.

One of these is that a substantial portion of the wealth of the UK, or the British Crown, derives from slavery or colonial exploitation. Famously, empire often cost more than it brought in. And, like the rest of northwest Europe, the UK was already wealthy before colonialism or the slave trade. Western Europe would have remained rich even in the absence of overseas adventurism. Germany, for example, was one of the world’s richest areas, long before it gained any colonies. It’s true that overseas resources were exploited; but this was not the sole source of Europe’s wealth. Far from it.

Even more questionable than the call for reparations are the claims of ‘genocide’ in the context of New World colonialism. Until a few years ago, only a tiny fringe of historians believed that European colonialism in the New World was ‘genocidal’. In the six-volume, 3,000+ page Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas (published 1996-2000) several dozen specialists saw fit to mention genocide precisely twice. In both of these instances, the scholars in question do so only to reiterate that it did not apply.

There are many reasons why historians long shied away from using the term ‘genocide’. There was a recognition that the word should be reserved only for extreme cases, such as the Nazis’ attempt to eliminate Europe’s Jews. Using

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