November 26, 2009

Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1620

I can feel confident that everyone reading this has one thing in common: internet access. That means that everyone reading this also has at least access to a computer. This means that everyone reading this possesses at least sufficient affluence to be able to access this blog in the electronic medium which is the sole manner of its publication. That means that if you are reading this, you are not destitute and you likely possess sufficient material wealth to not be hungry.

So on this day of thanksgiving (in the United States at least, although Readers from beyond the U.S. are of course welcome here) take a moment to consider what things were like back in the day. The pilgrims landed on what is today Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in the late summer of 1620. Nearly 400 years ago, this was (to them) wilderness territory, overgrown with a forbidding forest and little available foodstuffs. The legend goes that they made friends with the Indians and shared a multicultural feast.

If such a thing ever actually happened, we have no real record of it. What we have are records that the Puritans who came to America to seek religious and functional political liberty planted some quick-growing vegetables like cabbage, cucumbers, and carrots, learned how to hunt local game like deer and quail, and fished. The first Thanskgiving, if such a thing occurred, was really the first harvest of quick-growing winter vegetables, whatever forage could be found, and if they were lucky, the Puritans found some venison and smoked cod (which were then plentiful in the waters off New England; sadly, cod have been overfished and are now tightly controlled so they do not go extinct in the face of voracious humans who find them delicious).

The local Indian population might not yet have figured out why so many of their children and elders were getting sick. But the cause was the trades for seemingly high quality blankets and clothing they had made with the recent European arrivals. They could not have had a clue that all of those blankets were infiltrated with the variola major virus, which would cause them to all contract smallpox. Their European trading partners were all either smallpox survivors or had become environmentally inoculated to the virus because of its pervasive presence throughout urban Western Europe.

Whether the Puritans traded the blankets to the Indians knowing that they were engaged in what today would be called biological warfare or not is questionable, but it doesn't matter. The arrival of the Europeans was, by all accounts, an existential disaster for the people who were already here. For my part, I choose to believe that most of the European settlers didn't really know that they were trading death to the people with whom they dealt, because of course they didn't know about germs or how disease spread; they unconsciously cloaked their ignorance in religion and concluded that God must have somehow disapproved of these people -- perhaps because having heard the word of the Lord from their new neighbors, they chose to keep to their old ways.

We can't help the tragedy that struck those people. At the same time, as you sit in relative affluence and (I hope) health, give a thought the European colonists too. I will suggest to you that for the most part, these were good people, who had sincere beliefs and a desire to do good. They also had been driven from both their homeland and their temporary place of exile in the Netherlands by a desire to live their lives in a way that they thought was better than what they could get in the ancien regime. They were willing to brave a very hazardous and long crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, possible starvation, the daunting task of building homes out of the wilderness, and being away from friends and family, to pursue the dream of liberty. And in doing this, they brought their way of life with them, a way of life which remains fundamental to our society. They were brave, hardworking, and good people, and while we may criticize some things about them now, we do so from the comfort of our computer screens and from within the affluent, comfortable society that they built in much more difficult circumstances than we can even imagine. They deserve our honor and respect today, because in a very real way, what we have to be thankful for is the product of their labor and investment in the future.

4 comments:

zzi said...

I didn't have Howard Zinn's" A People's History of the United States." in high school so I'm not as negative towards America as students who did.

Also I don't think the pilgrims possessed no real understanding of germ theory… until Louis Pasteur.

Transplanted Lawyer said...

Please read my post again. I agree with you that the Pilgrems were quite likely ignorant of what they were doing by giving those blankets to the native peoples, and that the Pilgrims were for the most part good people doing a brave and extraordinary thing in colonizing what is today Massachusetts.

zzi said...

P.S. "My Wife" looks fat in that dress, yet on occasions she looks perfectly lovely.

Transplanted Lawyer said...

I really don't understand that second comment at all although it seems to be critical in tone.

While I appreciate the readership, you have a habit of making these sorts of elliptical remarks without actually coming out and actually saying what you really mean, particularly when it seems that you disagree with me. I find this to be annoying but usually I let it go. Today, though, I briefly considered deleting this second comment because it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the subject matter of the post of the exchange of comments on the post.

But I reconsidered. Perhaps you're trying to get at something useful, and perhaps I'm not subtle enough to understand what it is. So instead of deleting what looks like a non sequitur, I will ask you to please clarify your comment, and to use simple, direct language when you do it.