Genocides, you Never Heard of

Sadly, genocide is as old as human civilization. Historical records and archaeological evidence show genocides in every era of human history.

There were genocides in all the Great Civilizations of Human History. Every culture and empire in human history has genocide in its history.

To elaborate, a genocide is the systematic murder of an entire group, class, race, or tribe of people. For example, the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews, or the Soviet attempt to exterminate Russia’s middle classes.

Predictably, there are many genocides most people are unaware of. The Ancient Greeks and Romans, in particular, committed many genocides.

Some Genocides you never heard of include:

The Athenian Genocide of Melos

History books portray Athens as the cradle of Western Civilization. They claim Athens was the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, and Europe. It was also the center of the militaristic Athenian Empire.

The Athenians; however, committed some terrible atrocities. For example, Athenian troops destroyed the city of Melos, killed all of Melos’ male citizens, and sold the Melian women and children into slavery in 461 BCE.

Melos was neutral in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, yet the Athenians destroyed it. The Athenians probably destroyed Melos because its people were originally Spartan colonists. To elaborate, Melos was close to Athens, so Athenian leaders regarded it as a security risk.

In addition, the Athenian leaders wanted to show the governments of other Greek City states the price of not siding with Athens. However, history shows the genocide backfired. Sparta won the Peloponnesian War, possibly because other Greek states allied with its forces against Athens.

 The Herero and Namaqua Genocides

Forty years before the Holocaust, German colonial troops committed two genocides in Africa.

Historians estimate German colonial forces killed around 70,000 Africans in the early 1900s. The victims were 40,000 to 50,000 Herero people and around 10,000 Namaqua.

In detail, the first genocide was a response to a Herero revolt against German conquerors in Namibia in 1904. The Imperial German government sent Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha to crush the revolt. Trotha’s forces; the Schutztruppe chased tens of thousands of Herero into the brush and killed them.

Trotha ordered his troops to kill any Herero they found, including women, children, and the elderly. To their credit, the German government countermanded Trotha’s orders. Unfortunately, Trotha went onto imprison the Herero in concentration camps where 47% to 74% of the prisoners died.

When another group of Nambians, the Nama revolted, Trotha employed similar tactics. German troops shot any Nama suspected of being a rebel. Trotha’s forces imprisoned many Nama in concentration camps where many of them died.

Thus, the Germans had experience with genocide while Adolph Hitler was still in middle school.

The California Genocide

The worst of all the crimes against North America’s indigenous people occurred in California.

Historians estimate American settlers killed 80% of California’s native population between 1848 and 1869. Historians estimate Americans murdered between 9,000 and 16,000 natives. Thousands more died of starvation and disease after settlers drove them off their land.

Therefore, California was the location of the worst slaughter of indigenous people in North American history. Why were the atrocities in California so horrendous?

There are several reasons the California genocide was so bad. First, California’s indigenous people were primitive hunter gatherers who were incapable of defending themselves against armed settlers.

Unlike the Sioux, the Apache, or the great peoples of the East, the California natives were not sophisticated warriors. The California natives had no modern weapons, military organization, or experience fighting settlers. The settlers had rifles and sixshooters; the natives had spears, and bows and arrows.

Moreover, many of the early California settlers were veterans of the Mexican-American War and other conflicts who had military training and experience. The natives had never seen a true war and did not know how to respond to the invasion.

Second, the settlement of California was fast and enormous and because of the Gold Rush. Historians estimate around 300,000 people from all over the world poured into California in a few short years. A flood of humanity overwhelmed the natives.

Third, many of the restraints civilization imposes on people were not present in California. For example, there were few women, and almost no religion among the settlers. Instead, it was a mostly male society driven by greed. Additionally,  many of the Forty Niners were not law-abiding citizens. For example, British convicts from Australia and New York gang members.

Fourth, early California was lawless and ungoverned. The federal government, in particular, washed its hands of California, by quickly making the territory into a state. However, the state lacked law enforcement, and the military presence was minimal.

Fifth, the US military was tiny and stretched thin before 1860. After 1860, the army was busy with the Civil War and Reconstruction and had few troops to send to California to protect natives. Consequently, undisciplined militias of greedy civilians fought California’s Indian Wars.  

Those militias were more apt to kill natives rather than herd them onto reservations. Finally, authorities lacked the resources to protect the natives, if they had wanted to.  

Sixth, gold gave settlers a powerful incentive to dispossess natives of land. Many of the settlers were poor and desperate and willing to go to any lengths to seize rich diggings. Likewise, many settlers came only to get rich quick and go home. Thus, they were willing to commit crimes that would be unthinkable back home.

Gold also gave settlers a motive to kill natives. If natives were alive, their land could become a reservation prospectors and miners could not file claims on. However, there was no reason to create reservations for dead natives.

Seventh, politics played a horrible role in the genocide. Native Californians did not vote, but settlers did. Hence, politicians had no incentive to protect natives and every incentive to kill or dispossess indigenous people.

The California Genocide is the darkest chapter of America’s westward expansion. We erased it from our history, unlike the wars against the Plains people or the Apaches.

All three genocides are frightening because people from the most advanced civilizations of their ages committed them. Athens was the cradle of civilization, while Germany was the most scientifically advanced nation on Earth in the early 20th century. Additionally, America was the most advanced country politically in the mid-19th century.

Genocide, therefore, is a disease of civilization. To explain, genocides only occur when societies have the weapons and organization to commit them. The California Genocide occurred because settlers had advanced weapons technology, for instance.

The Lesson from history is that we must always be on guard against the impulse to genocide. History shows any group of people in any era can commit genocide.