The long Twitter debate between Pseudoerasmus and Gabe Mathy was triggered by an essay in Jacobin by my friend and colleague Suresh Naidu. He wrote a piece about what North America would have been like had the native population avoided decimation from infectious disease.
As a piece of counterfactual history, the essay has problems. The first is that we really do not know the pre-contact population of North America. Using his assumption of 0.5% population growth thereafter, we get a range of 26 million to 234 million native Americans today. Needless to say, those are radically different scenarios. The second is that the presence of large-settled native populations would have changed the dynamics of later immigration; would as many Europeans have arrived if North America had 45 million people in it around 1800? Finally, it seems likely that a large native population would have derailed the development of the institutions that sustained rapid North American economic growth.
But as a polemic, the essay is quite successful. The latter two arguments unambiguously strengthen Suresh’s overall point, which is that there was nothing inherent in English culture that insured that its settler colonies would become rich and democratic places. The presence of an exploitable settled population would have permanently derailed the American experiment. Pseudoerasmus and Mathy were debating whether the English would have created an apartheid scenario (Mathy) or something more like Mexico (Pseudoerasmus). Neither seemed to doubt that the resulting society would be more oppressive and less democratic than what really emerged in the northern United States and Canada. Nor does Randy McDonald in his discussion of the piece.
The essay raises an interesting question, however. If larger native American populations would have prompted the creation of a more extractive and generally nastier North American state, potentially with multiple rounds of civil war, what would have happened if there had been no native Americans when the Europeans first arrived in 1492? What would have been different?
First and foremost, Spanish colonization changes completely. Without the great civilizations in the highlands of Mexico and Peru, the Spaniards take much longer to move inland. Without the Taíno in the Caribbean, it is entirely plausible (albeit unlikely) that the Spaniards give up on the whole enterprise. Still, somebody would eventually set up Caribbean and Brazilian plantations based on African slavery but Mexico and Peru will remain backwaters. Nobody settles in the Río de la Plata until the 19th century. (And I suspect that it will be British settlers who land there, claiming it from a moribund Spanish empire.) With no silver fleets there is no Sir Walter Raleigh and his tropical adventures. So no British Guyana, just a vague area where Venezuela meets Brazil. Ditto, there is no French empire in Canada. No fur trade, no New France.
Second, when the British finally do settle the eastern seaboard, later than in our world, their expansion is slower and messier. There are no American domesticated food crops. There are no native American agricultural techniques to learn. And with no seasonal burning by the native Americans, the forests are that much harder to clear. There is no native American medicine. No snowshoes. No toboggans. No longhouses. No canoes. And idiotic English hunters crashing around in bright colors and scaring off the game. In short, the colonists will have to invent a lot of wheels for themselves that in our world they got from the Native Americans and that is going to slow initial settlement by a lot, decades at the very least, possibly a century.
New York and Pennsylvania in particular will develop more slowly; without the profits from the Indian trade, it will be much harder to raise capital for settlement. North America will be even more skewed to the slave south.
Third, no independence until well after 1776. Once the eastern settlements are finally established, expansion is going to rocket westwards with no Indians, French, or Spanish to slow it down. Slaves will get sucked into the south even faster, but there will also be more escaped slaves lighting out to form colonies in the interior. Axtell postulates, plausibly but without a whole lot of solid evidence, that absent the Indian threat American society would be a lot less religious and lose its “garrison mentality.” In his words: “The jeremiads of New England would certainly have been less shrill in the absence of the Pequot War and King Philip’s War, when the hostile natives seemed to be ‘scourges’ sent by God to punish a sinful people. Without the military and psychological threat of Indians within and without New England’s borders, the colonial fear of limitless and unpredictable social behavior would have been reduced.”
With much more evidence, he also postulates that with no wars, there is no need for Britain to raise colonial revenues. Nor is there any reason for Britain to restrict westward expansion. That is probably enough to head off the Revolution. And if later revolts should occur, the colonists will have two huge problems. First, they will be more separated from any martial habits. No militias, no real combat experience, just a vasty totalitarian infrastructure of slave catchers. Second, they will have no Indian opponents from which to learn guerrilla tactics.
So by 1850 you have a British slave empire that sprawls over the entire continent, well into northern Mexico. (Who knows? Maybe it will British Americans heading south who discover the mines in Zacatecas and exploit them with slave labor.) The northern reaches will not have slavery, for the same reasons as in our world, but they may be less religious and less moralistic, more crassly commercial and more dominated by large landowners.
You have a Caribbean and a Brazil that do not look entirely unlike our own ... but which have less European settlement. (With no natives to conquer and no native women to marry, Iberian migration will be slowed.) You have growing slave populations around the Mexican lowlands, parts of Central America, and possibly parts of the Peruvian coast ... but I would venture not much in the latter. There is no Panama Real or Camino de Cruces across Panama; those routes, primitive as they were, were constructed by native American slaves captured from Nicaragua.
American silver was less important to sustaining Spanish imperialism in Europe than many realize, but there will be no Price Revolution or Columbian Exchange ... and that will change Europe in unpredictable ways.
But in America, well, things look ugly. If a Revolution does come, it looks likely to take the form of a Treasonous Slaveowner’s Rebellion against the Crown, but that assumes that a British government unexposed to the shock of the American Revolution will be as open to the movement of public opinion as our own. This British crown might not take any serious moves against the horror, and thus provoke no rebellion. The strain of New England moralism that produced abolitionism in our world might be weaker, or not there at all.