Avatar half-tells a story we would all prefer to forget
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 11th January 2010
Avatar, James Cameron’s blockbusting 3-D film, is both profoundly silly and profound. It’s profound because, like most films about aliens, it is a metaphor for contact between different human cultures. But in this case the metaphor is conscious and precise: this is the story of European engagement with the native peoples of the Americas. It’s profoundly silly because engineering a happy ending demands a plot so stupid and predictable that it rips the heart out of the film. The fate of the native Americans is much closer to the story told in another new film, The Road, in which a remnant population flees in terror as it is hunted to extinction.
But this is a story no one wants to hear, because of the challenge it presents to the way we choose to see ourselves. Europe was massively enriched by the genocides in the Americas; the American nations were founded on them. This is a history we cannot accept.
In his book American Holocaust, the US scholar David Stannard documents the greatest acts of genocide the world has ever experienced(1). In 1492, some 100m native peoples lived in the Americas. By the end of the 19th Century almost all of them had been exterminated. Many died as a result of disease. But the mass extinction was also engineered.
When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they described a world which could scarcely have been more different from their own. Europe was ravaged by war, oppression, slavery, fanaticism, disease and starvation. The populations they encountered were healthy, well-nourished and mostly (with exceptions like the Aztecs and Incas) peacable, democratic and egalitarian. Throughout the Americas the earliest explorers, including Columbus, remarked on the natives’ extraordinary hospitality. The conquistadores marvelled at the amazing roads, canals, buildings and art they found, which in some cases outstripped anything they had seen at home. None of this stopped them from destroying everything and everyone they encountered.