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Hans Vogel discusses how the academic discipline of history has been influenced by political agendas, with a particular focus on the manipulation of historical figures and population statistics in Latin America.

A long time ago, the academic discipline of history was hijacked for political purposes. In most countries, history has traditionally been at the service of the prevailing political regime. The times when history could function in relative independence are few and far between. Moreover, more recently, the position of history as a subject in education has been reduced drastically to make room for climate religion and gender lunacy.

Nevertheless, there are still many thousands who study history at college or university. There as well, the curriculum has been dominated by political correctness, woke-ism and forced collective self-humiliation. Students are taught to feel guilty about injustices perpetrated in the past by previous generations against the darker-skinned inhabitants of Third-World nations. Of course, the more time spent on ideology, false sentiment and non-issues, the less time will be available for what truly matters in the study of history.

… it is absolutely impossible to say how many people lived in the New World around 1500, a mere five centuries ago.

History is always hungry for facts and it is precisely these facts that are difficult to establish with the required confidence. To dig up and verify facts one needs also to do archival research, but what to do when the data one would need are not there nor anywhere else? This happens only too often.

The further one goes back in time, the more unreliable the data. Take, for instance, population figures. For most European countries, there are more or less verifiable and reliable population figures from at least the mid-19th century, in some cases even earlier. The further back one goes, the more fragmentary the data. For regions outside Europe, the situation is roughly comparable.

Many big questions have to remain unanswered forever. For instance, it is absolutely impossible to say how many people lived in the New World around 1500, a mere five centuries ago. All we know is that around that time a number of European navigators, explorers and adventurers set foot in the Americas, Christopher Columbus being the first of these in 1492. When he arrived in the Caribbean, we do not know how many natives were living there or in the rest of the New World.

The question of how big the native population was when the Europeans arrived became a subject of serious academic speculation when foreign academics began to study Latin America in an organized, structural way. In the 1920s, German geographer Karl Sapper (1866-1945) and American archaeologist Herbert Spinden (1879-1967) concurred that the total population of the Americas must have been somewhere between 40 and 50 million. In the 1930s, American cultural anthropologist Alfred Kroeber (1876-1960) estimated there were only 8.4 million inhabitants in all of the Americas, of whom 7.5 million were in what is today Spanish America. In 1964, historian Woodrow Borah (1912-1999) stated that the population of the Americas in 1492 may have been “upwards of 100 million.” Then in 1966, American professor Henry Dobyns (1925-2009) estimated the total population of the Americas at 112.5 million, of whom 100.3 million were in Spanish America. I have always been intrigued by the confidence with which this anthropologist gave such precise figures, with decimals. How is it all possible to achieve such precision? In the 1980s, Dutch agricultural historian Bernard Slicher van Bath (1910-2004) seemed to vindicate the earliest estimates by Sapper and Spinden, when he suggested the total population of Latin America would have been about 35 million.

This is all that we “know” about the population of the Americas around 1500. In other words, we have no clue whatsoever, all of it is no more than guesswork, though based on things like estimates of agricultural productivity per acre. We don’t know how many people lived in Brazil when the Portuguese navigator Pedro Alvares Cabral arrived there in 1500, how many there were in Mexico when Hernán Cortés landed there in 1519, or in Peru when Francisco Pizarro invaded it in 1533.

The earliest more or less tangible population figures we have for Latin America date from around 1575, as presented in the studies by Spanish court historian Juan López de Velasco (1530-1598). At that time, the population of all the Spanish colonies numbered almost nine million, with a majority of native Americans, then still called “Indians.” There were also about 160,000 Spaniards (born in Spain and the Americas).

… the fact that these figures are just inventions does not prevent people from drawing all sorts of wild conclusions and making idiotic statements.

Thus, the demographic decline in the Americas is greater or smaller, depending on which figures of the “pre-Columbian” population one chooses to lend credence to. When in 1992 the fifth centennial of Columbus’ first voyage was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic as the “discovery of America,” some ill-informed, sensationalist people, apparently with some guilt complex, suggested that men like Columbus, Cortes and Pizarro were the “worst criminals” in world history, because they were responsible for the death of almost one hundred million people. Hence it was said they were worse than Hitler, Stalin and Mao.

Hardly any historian focusing on Latin American history tried to correct that kind of preposterous reasoning, which was not based on facts but on fairy tales. Those who did were publicly condemned. How dared they challenge those inflated figures! With their attitude they were ridiculing the suffering of millions and insulting their memory!

Obviously the entire controversy is based on imaginary figures. However, the fact that these figures are just inventions does not prevent people from drawing all sorts of wild conclusions and making idiotic statements.

The fact is that we have absolutely no evidence whatsoever as to the size of the pre-Columbian population of the Americas, and therefore no comparison can be made with population figures of other places and other times.

The willful exaggeration of the horrors of especially the Spanish conquerors in the Americas can also be regarded as yet another installment of the “Black Legend” that has been around for ages. This is essentially a narrative manipulated by the historical enemies of Spain such as England and the Netherlands.

The history of Paraguay provides another controversy involving inflated population figures and massive deaths. With an economy that had been thriving under its first three rulers after the country became independent in 1814, Paraguay became the envy of its neighbors. Heavily relying on English financial support, Brazil and Argentina began to regard Paraguay as a threat to their own interests. In 1864, together with Uruguay, they provoked Paraguay into a war that destroyed its economy and killed thousands of Paraguayans. For many years, it was generally accepted knowledge that the Paraguayan population, estimated at 1.3 million in 1864, had been reduced dramatically. According to a census carried out in 1873 under the auspices of the victor nations, its population in 1873 was only 221,000.

In 1976, John Hoyt Williams (1940-2003), the first modern historian to carry out serious research on the issue, concluded that the Paraguayan population in 1864 could never have been 1.3 million, but was at most somewhere between 375,000 and 575,000. This for the simple reason that the population in 1846 could by no means have exceeded 240,000.

In 1988, on the basis of sound evidence and impeccable logic, US historian Vera Blinn Reber convincingly demonstrated that the Paraguayan population in 1864 could never have numbered 1.3 million. Most likely it stood at about 300,000. Her article caused waves of horrified indignation among Latin-Americanist historians all over the world.

A rather silly response in the form of a highly emotional article was published in 1990. It was written by historians Thomas Whigham (*1955) from the US and Barbara Potthast (*1956) from Germany. Propelled by notions of political correctness, adhering to all the fashionable ideas in the field, this duo vindicated the traditional figure of a Paraguayan population of 1.3 million in 1864. In 1999, having realized their erroneous overreaction, the duo was sensible enough to seek safety by aligning themselves with the research of John Hoyt Williams, stating that the population of Paraguay at the outbreak of the war was between 420,000 and 450,000.

Another debate on historical figures has been taking place in Argentina. In 1976, after having received the green light from the US, the Argentinian armed forces staged a coup d’état and deposed Juan Domingo Perón’s third wife, Isabel, who had succeeded her husband after his death in 1975. Led by army general Jorge Rafael Videla, a military junta composed of the commanders of the army, navy and air force and supplemented by civilians assumed power. The junta continued the vicious campaign against the urban guerrilla that had been smoldering since the late 1960s. In 1974, under President Perón, this guerrilla erupted in Buenos Aires and other major cities, eliciting a response from the armed forces that in two years caused the deaths of at least one thousand insurrectionists. After the military coup, the anti-guerrilla campaign was continued with full vigor, and in a few years the insurrection was defeated. In the process, the fate of thousands of opponents of the regime had become unclear and it was said these had disappeared.

The love for and fascination with high numbers of deaths and casualties that so many people seem to have is hard to explain. It is clearly a fascination with what might be called “pornography of violence.”

After the return to democracy, Argentinian president Raul Alfonsín appointed the famous writer Ernesto Sabato (1911-2011) head of CONADEP, the national research commission into the fate of disappeared persons. The commission’s official report called Nunca más (Never Again), established that about eight thousand Argentinians had disappeared during the Junta government.

To many this came as a shock, because according to several estimates, at least about 30,000 people had disappeared. Despite the official investigation, which was quite thorough, the number of victims it established is regarded as “too conservative.” For all true blue democrats, the most disconcerting element in the report was the fact that at least one thousand people were “disappeared” under the auspices of a democratically elected government, run by national hero Perón and his wife.

Today, almost half a century after the events, the number of 30,000 is officially regarded as the real number of disappeared persons, sweeping the CONADEP’s conclusions off the table.

The love for and fascination with high numbers of deaths and casualties that so many people seem to have is hard to explain. It is clearly a fascination with what might be called “pornography of violence.” Why do so may relish past sufferings? Why do they always like to inflate the numbers of the dead? Might they feel any moral elevation when they express sympathy for past sufferings by other people? Why are they angry when others don’t agree with their beliefs?

Since logical arguments, hard evidence and sound historical research are apparently unable to change their minds, it would seem the fascination with past sufferings has all the makings of a religion.


Benjamin Keen and Keith Hayes, A History of Latin America (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000); Hans Vogel, Geschiedenis van Latijns-Amerika (Utrecht: Spectrum, 2002).

John Hoyt Williams, “Observations on the Paraguayan Census of 1846”, Hispanic American Historical Review 56:3 (1976), pp. 424–437.

Vera Blinn Reber, “The Demographics of Paraguay: A Reinterpretation of the Great War, 1864-1870”, Hispanic American Historical Review 68:2 (1988), pp. 289–319.

Thomas L. Whigham and Barbara Potthast, “Some Strong Reservations: a Critique of Vera Blinn Reber’s ‘The Demographics of Paraguay: A Reinterpretation of the Great War, 1864-1870’”, Hispanic American Historical Review 70:4 (1990), pp. 667-675.

Thomas L. Whigham and Barbara Potthast, “The Paraguayan Rosetta Stone: New Insights into the Demographics of the Paraguayan War, 1864-1870”, Latin American Research Review 34:1 (1999), pp. 174–186.

CONADEP: Nunca Mas, the Report of the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared, London: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986.


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Hans Vogel

Hans Vogel spent his youth in Indonesia and the Netherlands, studied at Leiden University and received a doctorate in history from the University of Florida. After teaching Latin American and military history at Leiden University, he taught European and world history in Buenos Aires (UADE and ESEADE universities). He is the author of a standard history of Latin America and numerous monographs and articles on military, European and Argentinian history. Over the years, he has served as an advisor to several governments and state agencies, and as a lecturer on Latin American politics for the Netherlands Institute of International Affairs, while he has also been active in journalism for Dutch and Russian outlets. Since 2002, he has been living abroad (mainly Argentina, Belgium and Italy).

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11 months ago

The hundred million number always seemed like a huge joke. To their credit, Latin Americans don’t seem to care much. They generally love Europeans and white Americans. They would rather have us living in their countries than anyone else.

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