Lately I’ve been reading Thinking in Indian: A John Mohawk Reader edited by Jose Barreiro. I’d started it a while back and then picked it up again this past weekend. The book is a collection of Mohawk’s essays over 30 years and is fascinating not only for the depth and breadth of his thought on Native and indigenous issues, but for the historical knowledge as well. One example is the story he tells of the Guanches in the essay, “Indian Nations, the United States, and Citizenship”:
Indigenous peoples is really a term we were forced to invent to distinguish the peoples that occupy a landmass at the time of the European invasion from other peoples, some of whom do not exist at the beginning of that invasion.
The first modern indigenous peoples were the Guanches of the Canary Islands… When the Spanish (with some French assistance) first landed on the Canary Islands in 1402, there was a population of about eighty thousand Guanches. The wars to conquer them lasted until 1496, when their final stronghold fell…
The history of the peoples of the indigenous peoples of the Canary Islands is a very neat package. It has a beginning, a middle, and, for all practical purposes, an end. The Portuguese discovered an uninhabited island they named Madeira because it was covered with forest. They colonized it with some volunteer settlers. Within a short time, they cleared the island by burning it to the ground and a few years later were raising enough sugarcane to become the number one exporter of refined sugar in the world. Money flowed to the Portuguese crown and a very profitable investment called colonization had been born. Before long, it became clear that to make this investment truly profitable there needed to be a source of cheap labor. The cheapest labor at the time was slave labor, and that’s where the Guanches came into the picture.
The Guanches were attacked because they possessed islands that were thought to be potentially profitable possessions and because they were a source of slave labor. The attack on the Guanches was pure theft and slavery. No one, not even the Spanish, bothered to explain it in terms of advancing Christianity or bringing the benefits of civilization to the benighted. In that regard, the history of the Canary Islands is as refreshingly blunt as is the fact that their conquest and annihilation was brutal.