Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/100

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page needs to be proofread.

Was the extraordinary longevity of the Brazilian and Virginian tribes, who retained manly vigour at the age of 120 years, connected with their practice of painting the skin? What was the cause of a similar phenomenon in Peru? Was it true, as some alleged, that the fearful "morbus gallicus," then for the first time raging in Europe, and supposed, though erroneously, to have been imported from America, had its origin in the loathsome practice of cannibalism? What was the effect on American man of maize, as his staple diet? In America, where flint was scarce, fire was universally kindled by the wooden drill. The American Prometheus, then, in Bacon's words, "had no intelligence with the European," and the arts of life must have originated independently in the New World;—an inference somewhat boldly made from a single pair of facts, but which accorded, though Bacon knew it not, with the traditions of Mexico and Peru, and is amply confirmed, in our own well-informed age, by everything known as to the general progress of the American aborigines. By an effort of judgment for which the materials scarcely existed, and which had certainly never been made before his time, Bacon mentally arrayed against each other the polished nations of Europe and the barbarous or savage ones of America, and asked himself the reason of the contrast. Was it to be sought in the soil, in the sky, in the physical constitution of man? These suggestions he answered negatively; the difference, he concluded, lay solely in the fact that the American peoples, for some as yet unknown reason, had made less progress in the arts of life. We know the reason to be Nature's parsimony in furnishing the western continent with animals capable of labour and amenable to domestication.

Here another question presented itself to this prince among thinkers. Was the project of planting the civilisation of Europe among the American savages—a project widely entertained in Western Europe—a feasible one? Bacon answered this also in the negative. Nor is it doubtful that, having regard to the contemporary idea of "planting," Bacon was right. The idea of teaching the Indians "to live virtuously, and know of men the manner, and also to know God their Maker," was not yet obsolete; and the Spaniards, according to their lights, were vigorously prosecuting the task in Mexico and elsewhere. It has been reserved for a later age, in most respects more advanced, to acquiesce in a system of colonisation which dispossesses the aboriginal owners of the soil, and deals with them as with vermin to be hunted down, or stamped out, or deported to holes and corners of the land, to dwindle and die out under the effect of poverty, chagrin, and vices introduced by their civilised conquerors. From the Discovery to the time when European nations adopted a commercial policy and a commercial morality—from Colombo to Penn—those of the natives who submitted to European rule were regarded as men to be civilised and christianised, and ultimately to be blended in one race with their