Why The Native Americans Were Doomed To Begin With

The mass migration to and settlement of the Americas, also known as the colonization of the Americas, was one of the most consequential events in human history. Beginning in the late 15th century, European powers like Spain, Portugal, France, and England established colonies across North and South America, displacing indigenous civilizations and fundamentally altering the development of two entire continents. Were the Native Americans doomed from the beginning?

Let’s assume history took a different course – what if instead of Europeans, the so-called ‘New World’ had been colonized by other potential powers like the Ottomans first or the Japanese later? Should their fate have differed? The answer is likely no, but a very complex ‘no.’

The Ottoman Empire at its height | Source: PILOT GUIDES

It is worth noting that the Ottomans’ blockade of the land route to India led Europeans to “discover” an alternate route across the Atlantic, finding America instead.

Contact with any colonial power would have brought hardship. Still, there are reasons to believe disease exposure and exploitation of resources may still have severely impacted Native American populations regardless of the colonizers’ identity. 

At the same time, different approaches to governance, religion, and cultural exchange could have led to alternative power dynamics and relationships between colonizers and indigenous peoples over the long run.

Disease Exposure

Source: Colorado Encyclopedia

One of the primary factors in the massive depopulation of Native Americans after 1492 was exposure to ‘Old World’ diseases like smallpox, measles, and influenza, to which they had no natural immunity. An estimated 80-90% of indigenous populations perished in the decades after first contact due to epidemics[source].

Even if colonizers had been Ottoman or Japanese instead of European, widespread disease transfer still would have occurred through direct or indirect contact between colonizers, traders, and Native Americans.

The Ottomans maintained extensive trade networks stretching from Asia to Africa and Europe by the 15th century, providing ample opportunities for disease transmission from Afro-Eurasia. Deadly pathogens would likely have made their way to colonial outposts and indigenous communities through trade goods, explorers, or slaves, regardless of the colonizers’ ethnicity or religion. Same with the Japanese in the late 19th century. 

While attitudes and policies towards indigenous groups may have differed between potential colonizers, the microbiological consequences of global contact and trade would have been just as severe. High mortality rates from disease exposure could have still depopulated a significant portion of North and Mesoamerica early in the colonial period.

Also Read: How Big of a Failure Is “Make in India”?

Exploitation of Resources

Another similarity between potential European, Japanese, or Ottoman colonizers would have been the urge to exploit New World resources like land, minerals, forests, and agricultural goods for economic gain. All major powers of the 15th-19th centuries were driven by mercantilist ambitions and the increasingly capitalistic world system of the era to extract wealth from their colonial possessions.

Native Americans likely would have still lost control of vast territories to make way for plantations, mines, and settlements established by any colonizing power.

Source: Reddit

For example, the Japanese had a long history of resource extraction from their colonial holdings in Taiwan and Korea dating back to the 16th century. Under the shogunate, heavy taxes were levied on indigenous communities in the form of rice and other goods. In Ottoman territories, peasants of any background paid tribute to the state and landlords in the form of agricultural surplus. The Ottomans also exploited timber resources in the Balkans, shipping large quantities of wood to major cities.

It is reasonable to assume colonists from Japan or the Ottoman Empire would have similarly laid claim to resource-rich Native American lands for profit. Commercial exploitation of resources could have still severely disrupted indigenous lifeways and economies. For instance, the fur trade established by the French had far-reaching consequences for many Native American communities as it stimulated demand for pelts. A Japanese or Ottoman fur trade may have impacted indigenous groups in similar ways.

Alternative Governance and Relations

While disease and economic impacts may have followed similar trajectories, governance structures and long-term cultural interactions between colonizers and Native Americans could have played out quite differently depending on the colonizing power. The Ottomans had established a centralized, bureaucratic state controlling extensive territories by the 15th century. Similarly, the Japanese had established a high-end, industrial state by the late 19th century. Their approaches to governance and relations with subject peoples varied in some notable ways from European models.

For example, the Ottoman Empire was a multi-ethnic, religiously pluralistic society where Christians and Jews were afforded protected status. They tended to indirectly rule conquered lands through local leaders who collected taxes rather than imposing direct colonial administration. This could have led to more autonomy and cultural preservation for Native American groups over the long run compared to assimilationist European policies. 

Meanwhile, the Japanese shogunate established a rigid caste system but also promoted cultural exchange and some integration between ruling elites and subject communities. Over generations, alternative power structures and hybridized indigenous-colonial identities may have emerged.

Of course, it is impossible to say for certain how relations might have played out, as any colonial regime also brings the potential for exploitation, oppression, and conflict over time. But different approaches to governance, trade partnerships, religious proselytization, and intermarriage found elsewhere in Asian and Ottoman colonial systems offer a lens for contemplating what could have been different trajectories under alternative colonizers.

Were the Native Americans Doomed from the Start?

While disease exposure and economic impacts from resource extraction would likely have still severely disrupted Native American societies in the aftermath of colonization, the specific identities and policies of colonizing powers from Asia or the Middle East may have led to divergent long-term outcomes in governance structures, cultural interactions, and indigenous-colonial relations compared to the histories that unfolded under European colonization. 

However, it is safe to say that the Native Americans were doomed to suffer mass depopulation due to factors like disease and the very nature of colonization.


Counterfactual scenarios can provide a thought experiment for contemplating the contingency of history and considering how alternative pathways may have still challenged indigenous peoples while changing power dynamics in meaningful ways. 


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