European Exploration of America

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Describe the effect of European exploration and colonization on African and Native American cultures. How did each group react to confrontations of societies?

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A basic element of the mythology Europeans created about both the African and Native American cultures was that these people, before European contact was made, were basically "savages" and lived in a primitive, non-civilized condition. This then justified whatever kind of exploitation and mistreatment that was carried out, from 1492...

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A basic element of the mythology Europeans created about both the African and Native American cultures was that these people, before European contact was made, were basically "savages" and lived in a primitive, non-civilized condition. This then justified whatever kind of exploitation and mistreatment that was carried out, from 1492 on. It is a good idea to look at Thomas Paine's essay "African Slavery in America," written in 1774. Paine states,

The managers of that trade [i.e., the slave trade] themselves, and others, testify that many of these African nations inhabit fertile countries, are industrious farmers, enjoy plenty, and lived quietly, averse to war, before the Europeans debauched them with liquors, and bribing them against one another; and that these inoffensive people are brought into slavery, by stealing them, tempting kings to sell subjects, which they can have no right to do, and hiring one tribe to war against another, in order to catch prisoners.

The European slave-trade destabilized the economy of western Africa and inhibited it from benefiting from the technological advancements which were made possible in Europe at least partly by the exploitation of resources and people from non-European lands.

The situation was somewhat different with the Native Americans, but similarly, their existing civilization was dismissed by the Europeans as a form of savagery. In addition, huge numbers of the indigenous Americans were wiped out when they came in contact with Europeans because they had no natural immunity to diseases such as smallpox, which the Europeans carried. The coming of the Europeans was seen as an apocalyptic, almost supernatural event by many Native Americans. The Europeans' weapons, body armor, and horses, all of which had never been seen before on the American continent, made the Europeans appear superhuman or even godlike to some. Two books which are worth consulting for an analysis of the contact between Europeans and the indigenous people of America are American Colonies, by Alan Taylor, and The Invasion Within, by James Axtell.

An aspect of the differing reactions by these two continents to the Europeans is rooted in the fact that Europe did not at first send its own people to "colonize" Africa as it did America. Only later, in South Africa, parts of North Africa such as Algeria, and a few other areas did this happen on a more limited scale. One might consider whether this is the only reason that eventually the African countries were able to form independent nation-states as they are today, while the indigenous Americans were not. The latter were largely the victims of either unintentional (because of the diseases alluded to) genocide, or in fact deliberate genocide, with the relatively few remaining people dispersed, placed on "reservations" or "reserves," or intermarried with people of European and African descent.

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Colonization in Africa devastated the continent; from the earliest days of international slave trade in the 17th century to the Belgian presence in the Congo during the 20th century, European colonization resulted in the exploitation and death of African people. The slave trade vastly decreased the population of Western Africa and led to constant war between some nations, due to the economic benefit of selling prisoners of war as slaves to European traders. Enslaved Africans were treated very poorly and often violently abused by their owners and separated from their families. In the 20th century, the "scramble for Africa" led many European countries to claim land in the continent in order to exploit its natural resources. One especially brutal example of this colonization was the Congo Free State, most of which is the Democratic Republic of the Congo today. Belgian King Leopold III used African slave labor to extract the country's ivory and rubber, and the violence of Belgian officials combined with the diseases they spread in the country lead to a death toll that may have constituted almost half of the Congo's population prior to this colonization.

Similarly, European colonization in the Americas resulted in widespread violence, spread of disease, and population decrease for the Native American people. Initially, Native American people aided and traded with the European explorers. However, as they began to settle in the Americas, Europeans began to spread diseases like smallpox which the Native Americans had no immunity to, displace them from their land, and defy treaties. As the U.S. expanded in the 19th century, Native Americans experienced continual displacement. Additionally, many served in the Civil War in the hopes that their service to the U.S. would benefit their people, but soon after, the government passed the Indian Appropriations Act that denied any autonomy to Native American nations. Also in the 19th century, Native American boarding schools were established to take Native American youth from their homes to assimilate them into white American culture.

In reaction to European colonization, Africans and Native Americans practiced some forms of resistance. In the 19th century, Africans began using armed military engagement as well as forms of guerilla warfare against European colonizers. Some African countries managed to drive away European colonizers altogether; for example, the Ethiopian army gained their land back from the Italians and successfully resisted colonization. Native Americans also fought a number of wars against the Europeans, such as the Battle of Little Bighorn and the battle at Wounded Knee. These acts of armed resistance were largely unsuccessful, as many more Native Americans than European Americans died, and they continued to experience displacement and violations of land treaties.

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