Saturday, December 18, 2004

Guns, germs and steel

Often when I'm sitting on our terrace here, looking out into the Atlantic, I wonder what it must have been like on October 12, 1492, when the Lucayan people of the Bahamas saw what must have seemed like winged gods come sailing over the horizon.

Nothing in their experience could have prepared them for what they saw, and perhaps never before or since in history have two so different cultures clashed.

The Europeans had sailing ships, steel blades, gunpowder, germs and militant religion. The peaceable, gentle Lucayans lived a Club Med sort of life, with shell beads, pointed sticks, and no metal (except perhaps a few imported gold trinkets).

At the time of first European contact, there were perhaps 50,000 to 80,000 people living in the Bahamas , about the same density as today, excluding the urban centers of Nassau and Freeport. The people were the only useful resource of these scruffy, carbonate islands. They were rounded up by the Spaniards to work as slaves in the gold mines of Hispaniola and the pearl fisheries of Venezuela, where they died of malnutrition, harsh treatment, or European diseases.

Within twenty-five years, not a single Lucayan remained alive and the islands were deserted.