How Bad History Feeds Far-Right Fantasies
Justifying colonialism’s atrocities plays a toxic role in politics today.
The medieval world was an era of immense and global change, when monk-spies stole silkworms from China to bring the finest fabric of the age back to Constantinople, when the Malian king Mansa Musa went on the hajj with so much gold he collapsed the Mediterranean economy, and when arguably the greatest sports hero in history, Lord Eight Deer Jaguar Claw, used his skill in a ritual ballgame to build a kingdom in Central America. A field of history that was once limited to Europe with the odd excursion into the Middle East is now increasingly globalized, and increasingly critical of its own narrow origins.
Like all branches of history, medieval studies has become a battleground between not only academic factions but also political ones. The rise of the so-called alt-right, the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, and horrific mass murders like the Christchurch mosque shooting have all involved neo-medieval invocations of a white supremacist past. Within medieval studies, attempts to point out white supremacist framings have led to conflict between academic factions. Most of the traditionalist academics, however, argue for the neutrality of the medieval era in contemporary politics, rather than explicitly advancing it as a tool for pushing ideological aims.
That’s what makes it so startling to see outdated ideas in medieval history churned over in the defense of white innocence. Jeff Fynn-Paul published a piece titled “The myth of the ‘stolen country’” in the Spectator on Sept. 26. Fynn-Paul’s central argument is that Europeans are blameless for the death of innumerable Native Americans in the occupation of the New World, and that Americans and Canadians as a result must stop acknowledging land as being Indigenous and cease apologizing for the Euro-American settler colonial past. This is the ongoing project of “white innocence,” the denial of racism and colonial violence that becomes in itself racism and colonial violence, described so aptly by James Baldwin in his 1962 “Letter to My Nephew” as “the chorus of the innocents screaming, ‘No, this is not true. How bitter you are,’” as the oppression continues. This is the “All Lives Matter” of right-wing academia—look at these atrocities that happened elsewhere, why won’t you discuss them instead? Fynn-Paul claims, remarkably and falsely, “In fact, the European track record shows them to be almost shockingly un-genocidal, given their clear technological advantages over the rest of the world for a period of several centuries.”
Fynn-Paul writes that, “it is inevitable that a large proportion of New World inhabitants would have died within the first few decades after first contact” due to the spread of new diseases. He discusses this as an inevitable and unintentional side effect, and one that not only wiped out the Indigenous people but also means Europeans are blameless for the result. This is a well-known theory, often dubbed “virgin soil,” originally designed to argue that the population of the New World was significantly larger than previously suspected. Indeed, the latest scientific estimate is somewhere around 60 million inhabitants in the New World at that time—less than the 70-90 million inhabitants of Europe and less dense, but not a small number. This became, unfortunately, the basis for excusing Europeans from any wrongdoing in popular literature and politics. And if Jeff Fynn-Paul were a random commentator, this would be perhaps understandable. But he is basing his article on his status as a medieval historian, so there is an expectation of research—and the idea of blameless conquest, of the accidental side effects of “virgin soil epidemics,” has been repeatedly debunked in both academic literature and in popular texts, such as Andrés Reséndez’s 2017 Bancroft Prize-winning book The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement. As the historian Paul Kelton wrote in 2015, “the ‘virgin soil’ thesis was not crafted as an apology for the colonizers, and it still has some utility in explaining how history has unfolded. It has, however, unfortunately hidden colonialism’s violence under a cloak of biological determinism.” As a historian, Fynn-Paul can and should be expected to do better—years-old scholarly and public history work has certainly moved past this, and even basic research would have shown this.
Fynn-Paul pushes other blatant inaccuracies and falsehoods about the pre-Columbian Americas, writing:
In North America, most Natives were primitive farmers. This means that (with some exceptions) they had no permanent settlements: they farmed in an area for a few decades until the soil got tired, before moving on to greener pastures where the hunting was better and the lands more fertile.
This is again a failure of basic research. The notion of “primitive farmers” collapses with minimal investigation—the extensive agriculture of Cahokia, for example, supported a core city bigger than London or Paris at its medieval height—and carries into the colonial period, when Native agriculture in the Ohio Valley has been shown to be more prosperous than its colonial neighbors, and when the Pilgrims, among others, were only saved by the able farming and teaching of Natives. On an even more basic level, popular history works have completely overturned the notions of “primitive farmers,” a lack of urbanization or complex civilization, or a lack of land ownership. The year Fynn-Paul completed his Ph.D., 2005, was marked by the publication of Charles Mann’s bestselling 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, three years after Mann’s groundbreaking Atlantic article. And idea of a complete lack of long-term land ownership is patently absurd—the Haida people have lived on the same archipelago for at least 10,500 years.
Perhaps most egregiously for a historian, Fynn-Paul fails to interrogate his sources or use even basic historical methodology. The two immediate instances are his depiction of Columbus and the Spanish as benevolent explorers and his account of Mataoka and the Powhatan relationship with the English. Fynn-Paul’s apologetics for Columbus ignore even the explorer’s reputation among the Spanish—he was arrested, taken to Spain in chains for a trial for tyranny, and, though pardoned by Queen Isabella, forbidden to return to Hispaniola—or his activities like capturing Native women as sex slaves for his men. His contemporary Bartolomé de las Casas certainly did not think Columbus and the Spanish blameless for atrocities against Native Americans.
With his account of Mataoka—commonly called Pocahontas—Fynn-Paul uncritically chooses to simply accept John Smith’s account in his 1624 book The generall historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles, despite the fact that he did not mention anything about Pocahontas in his earlier work, True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as Hath Hapned in Virginia Since the First Planting of that Colony, published in 1608. Smith’s honesty was questioned even at the time, including in George Percy’s 1625 A Trewe Relacyon, written specifically to counter John Smith’s account of the founding of the colony. Taking such a blatantly self-congratulatory and exonerating account at face value is something we teach students to identify and avoid at the survey level.
History is about interpretation, and those interpretations can vary greatly—but all have to be built on solid foundations. Fynn-Paul’s foundation is ideology, and the results are both offensive and laughable. If it were just the one article, placed in the Spectator and roundly mocked, we might ignore it—but it joins Cameron Hilditch’s similar caricature of a piece in the National Review, the violently anti-Indigenous and ahistorical “The 1519 Project” in the Federalist, and Bruce Gilley’s revoked article “The Case for Colonialism” and now-withdrawn book series “Problems of Anti-Colonialism” for Lexington Books.
The Trump administration has chosen to interfere in the teaching of history to promote “patriotic education,” specifically to “defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character”—an explicitly white-innocence approach—and in both the United Kingdom and the Netherlands pro-colonial nostalgia is on the rise. In this climate, fighting back bad history that attempts to wash the blood from settler-colonial hands is not merely an academic pursuit but a moral imperative.