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What Might Make Christopher Hitchens Change his Mind About 1492?

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Have you ever read a book called Bury my Dick at Wounded Knee? No, I thought not. That's because it doesn't exist. The real title is Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, by US librarian, writer and historian Dee Brown, a deeply moving chronicle of the attacks on and displacement of American Indians by the US government in the 19th century.

Bury my Dick. . . is what British journalist Christopher Hitchens calls a 'mildly funny' riff on Brown's title, as revealed in his memoirs, Hitch-22. It's from an after-dinner word game he and his friends (Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie etc) liked to play: substitute 'dick' for 'heart' in any well-known book or song title and you can have all kinds of fun. The Dick of the Matter, Dick of Darkness, and so on.

Tasteless? Grossly disrespectful? For American Indians, Hitch-22 doesn't get much better. Hitchens even appears to claim that black Americans are the US's 'oldest' minority, thereby ignoring the millions of 'American Indians and Alaska Natives' registered by the US Census Bureau whose ancestors settled in North America thousands of years before the first Africans.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by any of this. After all, in an article in US magazine The Nation marking 500 years since Christopher Columbus splashed ashore the so-called 'New World', Hitchens called 1492 'a very good year' - that being the year that set in motion a colonising and genocidal process that killed millions of the Americas' indigenous inhabitants and which continues to this day.

Columbus's arrival is traditionally celebrated, or rather commemorated, this week on October 12. And up and down the Americas indigenous people are still fighting what he unwittingly started all those years ago: the theft of their land and resources on a vast scale, the exploitation of their labour, and the systematic destruction of their livelihoods, languages, cultures and religions.

Even today, Brazilian Indians are prohibited from owning their own land while their government opens it up to oil and gas companies, miners and dam-builders as if no one lived there. Even today in, say, Colombia, there are whole peoples on the verge of being wiped out: at least 34, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Survival International.

In broad terms, much of this happens like it did when the first Europeans arrived. Decisions are made in places far, far away from the people most affected by them, according to laws and customs different to their own and in languages different to their own too. And there is always this one, key assumption: that it's in their best interests, even if they don't realise that for themselves.

What might make Hitchens change his mind about 1492? Probably nothing, although he may be interested to know that even today there are still some Christian missionaries trying to locate and convert indigenous people who otherwise have no regular contact with outsiders and who could be decimated by such contact because of their lack of immunity to diseases.

I met one of those missionaries, a German evangelist, earlier this year in Peru. The no contactados (literally, the 'uncontacted' people) he had his eye on live in the north-east of the country, in the Amazon, near the border with Ecuador. 'I want to give them the chance to receive the Gospel,' he told me over dinner at his house, failing to mention he could easily kill half of them while he was at it.

No doubt Hitchens, fierce anti-religious polemicist that he is, would have told him to keep the Gospel to himself. On that at least, if not 1492, I agree with him.