It happened today - April 15, 2016

Today is the anniversary of the Pocotaligo massacre 301 years ago, on April 15 of 1715. It wasn’t much of a massacre as these things go, though as I’ve observed in other contexts, it would seem like a lot if you were among the four men horribly killed. But it’s a revealing start to yet another war between English colonists and aboriginals in North America.

As I’ve also said before, I have a good deal of sympathy for the original human inhabitants of the Americas as European settlement spread inexorably, powered by baffling technological and cultural dynamism and by diseases developed over thousands of years of agriculture and dense urban living to which aboriginals had no resistance. It is not surprising that at a certain point they took up arms, in terribly one-sided struggles. But it’s also not a get out of jail free card morally speaking.

In this case, the government of South Carolina knew trouble was brewing among the Ochese Creek and sent a six-man delegation to the Yamasee town of Pocotaligo to seek help arranging a summit with the Creek to discuss issues. The delegates spoke to the Yamasee on the evening of the 14th and promised to try to deal with their grievances. That night their hosts murdered them in their sleep.

OK, not exactly in their sleep. After debating war versus peace they put on their war paint, woke them up and killed them, except two who escaped to raise the alarm, one of whom witnessed the ritual torture death of a colleague while hiding in a swamp.

The resulting war, really a series of scattered engagements between various tribes and the militia and armed private citizens of South Carolina, dragged on for a couple of years and saw hundreds of Europeans killed, as many as 7% of the European settlers, as well as a great many aboriginals. But the survival of the colony was pretty much assured when in January 1716 the Cherokee turned on their traditional Creek foes and allied themselves with the South Carolina government.

Several lessons result from this episode. First, the Indians were by no means united against the white man. They did not see these conflicts as a clash of civilizations so much as more of the tribal warfare to which they were long accustomed, with its generally inconclusive clashes, shifting alliances and, yes, treachery. The notion that before Europeans came the Americas were some kind of Eden filled with pacifist feminists to whom untruth was unknown does not survive even cursory acquaintance with the historical record. And the practice of ambushing sleeping diplomats and torturing prisoners was legitimately repellent to Europeans.

To repeat, I sympathize with indigenous peoples seeking their way of life suddenly overwhelmed. But they were not nicer to one another than Europeans were to them, nor more trustworthy, nor wiser. And had the power imbalance been reversed, their conduct in a conquered Europe would have been no more attractive and possibly a great deal less so.

We are all human, for better or worse. And we owe it to ourselves to be honest about our conduct, without prejudice based on race, creed or national origin. And if we are, we can see that the Pocotaligo massacre was a wretched piece of ill-conceived treachery not by whites against aboriginals, but the reverse. And it was not an isolated case.

Such things did happen. It’s no good denying it, or excusing it because it didn’t work very well.