Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE PEOPLING OF AMERICA. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters)
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THE PEOPLING OF AMERICA. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XIX.
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THE PEOPLING OF AMERICA.
The discovery of America, that object of so much avarice and ambition, has likewise become the object of philosophy. A prodigious number of writers have endeavored to prove that the Americans are a colony of the ancient world. Some modest metaphysicians have alleged that the same power which made the grass to grow on the plains of America might likewise stock the country with inhabitants; but this naked and simple system has not been regarded.
When first the great Columbus gave it as his opinion that there might possibly be such a new world, it was boldly asserted that it was absolutely impossible; and Columbus was taken for a visionary. When he had actually made the discovery it was pretended that this new world was known long before.
Some have alleged that one Martin Beheim, a native of Nuremberg, set sail from the coasts of Flanders about the year 1460 to go in quest of this unknown world; and that he reached the Straits of Magellan, of which he left charts. But as Martin Beheim did not people America, and as it was absolutely necessary that one of Noah’s great–grandsons should take this trouble, they have ransacked the records of antiquity to see if they could find anything that had the least resemblance to a long voyage, and which they could apply to the discovery of this fourth part of the globe. Accordingly they have sent the ships of Solomon to Mexico, and have made them bring thence the gold of Ophir, though he was obliged to borrow it from King Hiram. They have even found America in Plato. They have given the honor of its discovery to the Carthaginians, and have quoted on this subject a book of Aristotle’s, which he never wrote.
Hornius pretends to find some analogy between the language of the Hebrews and that of the Caribbees. Father Laffiteau, the Jesuit, has not failed to improve such a curious hint. The Mexicans, in the violence of their grief, tear their garments; some Asiatics do the same; therefore they are the ancestors of the Mexicans. We may add, with as much reason, that the people of Languedoc are fond of dancing, the Hurons likewise dance on their days of rejoicing, and, therefore, the Languedocians are descended from the Hurons, or the Hurons from the Languedocians.
The authors of a terrible “Universal History” pretend that all the Americans are a colony of the Tartars. They assure us that this is the opinion most generally received among the learned; but do not inform us whether it be among the learned that think for themselves. According to them, some descendant of Noah had nothing more at heart than to go and fix his quarters in the delicious country of Kamchatka, to the north of Siberia. His children, having nothing to do, went to visit Canada, either by equipping a fleet for the purpose, or by walking on the ice by way of recreation, along some neck of land, which from that time to the present has never been again discovered. They then began to beget children in Canada, and in a very short time that beautiful country, being no longer able to maintain the prodigious number of inhabitants, they went to people Mexico, Peru, and Chili; and their great–granddaughters were brought to bed of giants near the Straits of Magellan.
As lions are to be found in some of the hotter climates of America, these authors suppose that the Christopher Columbus of Kamchatka carried over some lions to Canada for their diversion.
But the Kamchatkians were not the only people that furnished the new world with inhabitants; they were charitably assisted by the Tartars of Mantchou; by the Huns, the Chinese, and the Japanese.
The Tartars of Mantchou are incontestably the ancestors of the Peruvians; for Mangoo–Capac was the first inca of Peru. Mango resembles Manco, Manco Mancu, Mancu Mantchu, and hence, by a small addition, we have Mantchou. Nothing can be better demonstrated.
As to the Huns, they built in Hungary a town that was called Cunadi. Now, by changing cu into ca, we have Canadi, from which Canada evidently derives its name.
A plant resembling the ginseng of the Chinese grows in Canada, therefore the Chinese carried it thither, even before they were masters of that part of Chinese Tartary where their ginseng is produced; and besides, the Chinese are such great sailors that they formerly sent fleets to America without preserving the least correspondence with their colonies.
With regard to the Japanese, as they lie nearest to America, from which they are distant only about twelve hundred leagues, they must certainly have been there in former times; but they afterward neglected that voyage.
Such are the learned tracts that are boldly ushered into the world in the present age. What answer can we give to these systems, and to so many others of the like nature? None.
If it was an effect of philosophy that discovered America, it certainly is not one to be every day asking how it happened that men were found on this continent, and how they had been transported thither? If we are not surprised to find that there are flies in America, it is very stupid to express our wonder that there should be men there also.
The savage who thinks himself a production of the climate in which he lives, the same as his original and manioc root, is not more ignorant than ourselves in this point, and reasons better. In fact, as the negro of Africa has not his original from us whites, why should the red, olive, or ash–colored people of America come from our countries? And, besides, which was the primitive or mother country of all the others?
Were the flowers, fruits, trees, and animals, with which nature covers the face of the earth, planted by her at first only in one spot, in order that they might be spread over the rest of the world? Where must that spot have been which first produced all the grass, and all the oats, and dispersed them afterward through all other parts of the globe? How were the moss and the firs of Norway conveyed to the countries of the southern pole? You cannot suppose any one country which is not almost wholly destitute of some of the productions of another. We must suppose, then, that originally it had everything, and that now it has nothing. Every climate has its different productions, and the most fruitful is extremely poor in comparison with all the others put together. The great Master of Nature has peopled with variety the whole globe. The firs of Norway certainly are not the parents of the clove trees of the Molucca Islands; as little are they indebted for their origin to the firs of any other country. We may as well suppose the grass growing in Archangel to be produced by that on the banks of the Ganges. It would never come into our heads to suppose that the caterpillars and snails of one part of the world were produced in another part; why then should we be surprised that America produces some species of animals and some race of men resembling ours?
Not only America, but Africa and Asia also, produce and contain vegetables and animals resembling those in Europe; and each of those continents do likewise produce many kinds that have not the least resemblance to those of the old world.
The lands in Mexico, Peru, and Canada never bear wheat, which is a part of our food, nor grapes, which make our common drink; nor olives, which is so useful a fruit to us; nor indeed the greatest part of our other fruits. All our beasts of burden, such as horses, camels, asses, and oxen, were creatures wholly unknown in that part of the world; they had, indeed, a kind of oxen and sheep, but altogether different from ours. The sheep of Peru were larger and stronger than those of Europe, and were made use of to carry loads; their oxen were a breed somewhat between our camel and buffalo. There is a species of hogs in Mexico which have their navels at their backs, instead of their bellies, as in all other quadrupeds. There are neither dogs nor cats in this country; there are lions here, indeed, and in Peru, but very small, and almost without hair, and what is most extraordinary, the lion of these climates is a cowardly creature.
You may, if you please, reduce all mankind to one single species, because they have the same organs of life, sense, and motion; but this species is evidently divided into several others, whether we consider it in a physical or moral light.
As to the first of these, the Esquimaux, a race of people inhabiting the sixtieth degree of north latitude, are said to resemble the Laplanders in figure and stature. The neighboring people have faces covered with hair. The Iroquois, the Hurons, and all the people of that tract, as far as Florida, are olive colored, and without the least appearance of hair on any part of the body except their heads. Captain Rogers, who sailed along the coast of California, discovered a species of negroes unknown in America. On the Isthmus of Panama there is a race of people called Dariens, who greatly resemble the Albinos of Africa. They are at most four feet high; they are white, and are the only native people of all America who are of a white color; they have red eyes bordered with eyelashes in the form of a semi–circle. They never stir out of their holes but in the night time, not being able to see in daylight, and are to the rest of mankind what owls are to the feathered race. The natives of Mexico and Peru are of a copper color, those of Brazil of a deeper red, and the people of Chili are more ash colored; the size of the Patagonians, or inhabitants of the Straits of Magellan, has been greatly exaggerated; the truth seems to be that they are by far the tallest people of any in the known world.
Among all these nations, so greatly differing from us and from one another, there has never yet been found a race of men living without society, wandering as chance might direct, like the brutes, or like them coupling promiscuously, or quitting their females to go in quest of food by themselves; such a state seems incompatible with human nature, which, by the instinct of species, affects society as it does liberty. Hence we find that the shutting up of a prisoner in a prison, where he is debarred any commerce with the rest of mankind, is one of the many punishments invented by tyrants for the torture of their fellow–creatures; and is a punishment which would appear less supportable to a savage than to a civilized man.
From the Straits of Magellan to Hudson’s Bay there are a number of families gathered under one chief and living in huts which compose villages; but we have no instance in those parts of any wandering people abandoning their habitations, according to the seasons, like the Arabians, Bedouins, and Tartars. The reason seems to be that these people, not having any beasts of burden, could not so easily transport their cabins. We everywhere meet with certain fixed idioms by which the most savage nations are enabled to express the few ideas they are masters of; this is another instinct peculiar to mankind, to denote their wants by certain articulate sounds. Names must necessarily have arisen from the number of different languages, more or less copious, according to the greater or lesser degree of understanding in those who made use of them. Nay, the language of the Mexicans was more regular than that of the Iroquois, as ours is more copious and absolute than that of the Samoyeds.
Of all the people of America, only one nation had a religion, which seems, at first sight, not to be repugnant to reason; these are the Peruvians, who, like the ancient Persians and Sabeans, adored the sun as a planet that dispensed its benefits to all creation; but, excepting the large and well–peopled nations in America, all the others were plunged in a state of the most barbarous stupidity. Their religious assemblies had no mark of a regular worship, and their belief was without form. It is certain that the Brazilians, the inhabitants of the Caribbean and Molucca islands, and the people of Guiana, and the northern countries, had no clearer notion of a Supreme Being than the Kaffirs of Africa. A knowledge of this kind requires a reason that has been cultivated, which their reasons were not. Nature alone may inspire with a confused idea of something supremely powerful and terrible, the savage who sees a thunderbolt fall, or beholds a mighty river break its bounds; but this is only a faint beginning of the knowledge of God, creator of the universe; a knowledge which was absolutely wanting to all the inhabitants of the vast continent of America.
The other Americans, who had formed to themselves a religion, had made an abominable one. The Mexicans were not the only people who sacrificed human victims to a certain evil deity of their own invention. It has been said that the Peruvians were wont to disgrace their worship of the sun by similar bloody offerings. And there seems to be some kind of conformity between the ancient people of our hemisphere and the more civilized of the other, in regard to this barbarous religion.
We are assured by Herrera that the Mexicans feasted on the flesh of the human victims that they offered in sacrifice. The greater part of the first travellers and missionaries all agree that the people of the Brazils and the Caribbean Islands, as also the Iroquois and Hurons, and some other of those nations, ate the prisoners whom they took in their wars; and that they did not look upon this as a custom peculiar to themselves, but as the general practice of all nations. So many authors, both ancient and modern, have made mention of cannibals, or man–eaters, that it is difficult to deny that there are such. In 1725, I saw four savages at Fontainebleau, who had been brought from the Mississippi; among them was a woman of an ash–colored complexion, like that of her companions. I asked her, by the interpreter who was with them, whether she had at any time eaten human flesh; to which she answered, “yes,” in the same indifferent manner as if it had been a common question. This barbarity, which so much shocks our nature, is, however, far less cruel than murder; real barbarity consists in taking away the life of any one, and not in disputing the dead carcass with the crows or the worms. A people who lived altogether by hunting, as did the Brazilians and Canadians, and the inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands, might sometimes, on failure of their usual food, be driven to this shocking recourse to supply the calls of nature. Hunger and vengeance might have accustomed them to this food; and when we see in the most civilized ages the people of Paris devouring the mangled remains of Marshal d’Ancre, and those of the Hague eating the heart of the grand pensionary, De Witt, we need not wonder that a deed of horror that was only temporary with us, has become a lasting custom among savages.
The most ancient writings extant confirm to us, that men may have been driven to this excess by hunger. Moses himself threatens the Hebrews in five verses of Deuteronomy, that they should eat their own children, if they transgressed the law; and the prophet Ezekiel promises the same people, in the name of God, that if they fight valiantly against the king of Persia, the Lord will give them to eat of the flesh of the horse and of the horseman. Marco Polo, or Mark Paul, says that in his time, in one part of Tartary, the magicians or priests—which were the same—had the privilege of eating the flesh of criminals condemned to death. This strikes one with horror; but the picture of human kind will be found too frequently to produce this effect.
How has it happened that people who were always separated from each other by their countries have yet been united in this horrible custom? Can we suppose it to be not altogether repugnant to human nature? It is certain that this practice is very rare; but it is as certain that it does really exist.
There is another vice altogether different from this, and seemingly more contrary to the end of nature, in which, nevertheless, the Greeks prided themselves, which the Romans allowed, and which has continued to prevail among the most civilized nations, and is much more common in the warm and temperate climates of Europe and of Asia, than in the frozen regions of the North. There have been instances in America of the same effect of the caprices of human nature. The natives of Brazil practised this unnatural custom in common; it was unknown to the Canadians. But how happens it that a passion which overturns all the laws of propagation of the human species, should, in both parts of the world, have taken possession of the very organs of propagation themselves?
Another observation, no less important, is that the central parts of Africa have been found to be tolerably well peopled, and the two extremities towards the poles very thinly inhabited; in general, the new world does not appear to contain the number of people it should do. There must certainly be some natural causes for this.
In the first place, then, the cold is as excessive and piercing in America, in the same degree of latitude as Paris and Vienna, as in our continent at the polar circle.
In the second place, the rivers in America are for the most part ten times as large as ours, and as these frequently overflow, they must have occasioned a great dearth, and in consequence, mortality in those immense tracts. The mountains, by being much higher, are not so habitable as ours. The violent and lasting poisons with which the whole soil of America is covered, renders the slightest wound of an arrow dipped in their juice instantaneously mortal. And, lastly, the stupidity of the human species in a part of this hemisphere may have greatly contributed to depopulate the country. It is a general remark that the human understanding is not nearly so perfect in the New as in the Old World. Man is a very feeble animal, and, when in a state of infancy, very liable to perish for want of due care; and it cannot be supposed that when the inhabitants on the banks of the Rhone, the Elbe, and the Vistula were wont to plunge their new–born infants into those rivers, that the German and Sarmatian mothers reared as many children as they do now; especially when those countries were covered with vast woods, which made the climate more inclement and unwholesome than it has been of late times. Numberless colonies of Americans were in want of proper food. They could not furnish their infants with good milk; nor could they provide for them afterwards, either wholesome food, or a sufficiency of it. We find several of the carnivorous kind of animals greatly reduced in number, for want of subsistence; and it is a matter of surprise that we meet with more men in America than monkeys.