It has become commonplace to attribute the European conquest of the Americas to Jared Diamond’s triumvirate of guns, germs and steel. Germs refer to plague, measles, flu, whooping cough and, especially, the smallpox that whipsawed through indigenous populations, sometimes with a mortality rate of 90 per cent.
The epidemics left survivors ill-equipped to fend off predatory encroachments, either from indigenous or from European peoples, who seized captives, land and plunder in the wake of these diseases.
Guns and steel, of course, represent Europeans’ technological prowess. Metal swords, pikes, armour and firearms, along with ships, livestock and even wheeled carts, gave European colonists significant military advantages over Native American people wielding bows and arrows, clubs, hatchets and spears. The attractiveness of such goods also meant that Indians desired trade with Europeans, despite the danger the newcomers represented.
The lure of trade enabled Europeans to secure beachheads on the East Coast of North America, and make inroads to the interior of the continent. Intertribal competition for European trade also enabled colonists to employ ‘divide and conquer’ strategies against much larger indigenous populations.
Diamond’s explanation has grown immensely popular and influential. It appears to be a simple and sweeping teleology providing order and meaning to the complexity of the European conquest of the Western hemisphere. The guns, germs and steel perspective has helped further understanding of some of the major forces behind globalisation. But it also involves a level of abstraction that risks obscuring the history of individuals and groups whose experiences cannot be so aptly and neatly summarised.
Invoking guns, germs and steel, or Alfred Crosby’s older catchphrase ‘Virgin Soil Epidemics’ (1976), as a blanket explanation for colonial American history can fundamentally misrepresent the historical experience. It can both erase the experiences of some Native peoples that did not adhere to these schemas, and reduce the staggering violence that Euro-Americans inflicted on Native people to a kind of over-determined background noise.
At a time when people are debating the nature and origins of globalisation, and the making and meaning of modern American society, we need a careful and more sophisticated understanding of this crucial chapter in history. Similarly, thinking of Indians as pawns in a fixed game overlooks how many of them harnessed colonial forces to their own agendas, for greater or lesser periods of time. Many Native peoples carved out lives for themselves amid the destructiveness and degradation of Euro-American rule.
Scholarship is uncovering the myriad ways that Native people addressed the ruin of epidemic disease. These responses included binding together with previously distinct communities to form more viable tribal groups or confederacies, raiding neighbouring peoples for captives to buttress their populations, instituting quarantines to check subsequent outbreaks, and experimenting with Christianity or new Native religious rituals in search of spiritual succour. Through such measures, some groups, the Cherokees, Iroquois and Blackfeet, for example, not only managed to rebuild their numbers, but probably grew more powerful than before.
European technological superiority, particularly in terms of guns, cannot serve as a blanket explanation for Euro-Americans’ ultimate triumph over Native North Americans. In early Quebec, Jamestown and Plymouth, colonists held an advantage in firearms only for a handful of years before Native people began building their own arsenals.
The founders of later colonies, such as Pennsylvania or Georgia, arrived to find indigenous people already furnished with the best gun technology Europe could produce and keen to acquire more. Except under the rarest circumstances, no one state authority had the ability to choke Indians off from guns, powder and shot. There were just too many rival imperial powers and colonies in North America, their governments were weak, and the trade ran through a labyrinth of unofficial channels such as itinerant fur traders, Native middlemen and smugglers.
Indians often wielded better weapons than Euro-Americans, including their armed forces. Europeans and, later, white Americans, controlled the manufacturing of firearms technology, but their leaders exercised little authority over its distribution in Indian country.
Macro-historical analyses such as Diamond’s cannot fully account for this history. It was a product of on-the-ground politics, of individuals and groups, including indigenous people, making decisions. Their actions created a world awash in guns and, with it, waves of terrible gun violence.
Attributing too much explanatory power to European technological superiority has obscured this critical story. So too has the stubborn presumption that Native people valued firearms less for their capacity to kill than for their ‘psychological effect’, which is to say, for the terror induced by their pyrotechnics.
Without question, Indians were generally awestruck when they first experienced the firing of a gun. But it took little time for them to grow accustomed to the sound and flash, and to learn the practical applications of this tool. They traded for firearms in large quantities and used them in warfare and hunting because they recognised that guns were superior to the bow and arrow, especially for setting ambushes, besieging fortified settlements and hunting deer.
Native tribes competed furiously to control emerging gun markets. They knew that firearms were the new key to military and political dominance, and if they did not seize the opportunity, their enemies would. As a result, indigenous arms races erupted across North America. The deep consequences of these arms races for intertribal politics, Indian-colonial relations, imperial rivalries and the fur trade made them among the most formative influences in North American history between the early 17th and late 19th centuries.
Indians’ military need for guns rarely translated into subservience to a particular European colony
If Indians competed with each other to engross the colonial arms trade, so too did colonial interests vie for Indian favour through the sale and gifting of munitions. The Indian trade was a basic source of colonial wealth and an essential part of the colonies’ recruitment of Indian military allies. What Indians wanted most in exchange for their friendship was guns, powder and shot. It is testimony to the Indians’ influence that colonial states complied with this demand to the point that the Iroquois, the Creeks and other prominent groups often received most of their arms and gunsmithing free of charge.
Indian commercial leverage is also evident in the black markets for weapons that emerged whenever colonial authorities tried to institute bans on the arms trade. Indian-colonial interdependence meant that Indians’ military need for guns rarely translated into subservience to a particular European colony or empire.