WILLIAMSTOWN

Not to say that all the original inhabitants of the New World lived in an Eden where everyone got along. Most Indians were relatively peaceful, yet they occasionally warred, took slaves, tortured and looked out for their own at the expense of others. Nevertheless it was the Europeans who brought them weapons of mass destruction.

Christopher Columbus first encountered the native people of the West Indies on October 12, 1492. He liked them: "They are artless and generous with what they have, to such a degree as no one would believe but him who had seen it. Of anything they have, if it be asked for, they never say no, but do rather invite the person to accept it, and show as much lovingness as though they would give their hearts."

So, Columbus scooped up six to take back to Spain, where the captives were paraded in the streets of Barcelona and Seville. Noting their gentle disposition, on Columbus' second voyage he took on board a group of natives to be sold as slaves.

On May 4, 1493, Alexander VI issued in a papal bull that decreed that Columbus' patrons, Ferdinand and Isabella, owned the New World. By 1514 Spanish conquerors, based on the bull, enforced what was known as the Requirement, which said that the natives must immediately accept the Catholic faith or become slaves -- and the Spaniards were hardly scrupulous in even conveying the terms of the choice.

In July of 1609 explorer Samuel de Champlain and six French soldiers, seeking to further the interests of New France, joined a war party of Algonkin, Montagnais and Hurons for a foray from what was to become Canada into what was to become New York. At the north end of Lake Champlain, they ran into a massed contingent of Mohawks. French fire broke the Mohawk formation and killed several chiefs -- thus introducing the Indians to guns. Soon Indians of all persuasions, with weapons supplied by Europeans, were firing on their enemies.

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In September of the same year, Henry Hudson sailed through the Verrazano Strait, encountering the Wappinger who were not friendly, having had previous encounters with explorers and fishermen who attempted to cheat or capture them. Hudson continued up the Hudson River until he ran into Mahicans just south of Albany. Having had scant contact with Europeans, they were friendly and eager to trade. Half Moon officer Robert Juet called them "loving people."

Nevertheless Hudson attempted to liquor them up, partly to establish camaraderie and partly to see if he could get them drunk enough that he could make off with them.

Thus three different explorers, no doubt fine fellows in many ways, representing three different nations, introduced Christianity, guns and liquor to the natives of the New World, with disastrous results for them. Less obvious but even more lethal, the Europeans, from fishermen on, brought diseases to which the native people had no immunity. And finally Europeans bribed and cajoled those they found already here to get involved in Europe's competition, as Spanish, French, Dutch and English sought to dominate the New World -- which just happened to belong to Indians.

The Admiral of the Ocean Sea and all of us who came originally from across the sea, have a lot to ponder on Columbus Day. At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist,
Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.