THE AMERICASA couple of centuries before Europeans began their great push into Asia and Africa, they had begun a great push to transform the New World. In the 16th and 17th and centuries, European powers carved up America for themselves.
Europeans brought with them their governmental systems, initially depending on governors ruling in the name of one European king or another, but eventually establishing local/national governments based on the ideas of Locke or Rousseau or (in some instances) figures like on Karl Marx.
Europeans brought with them their languages: English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese—and they often suppressed the native languages. Since language is the prime carrier of culture, the dominance of European languages meant the introduction of all sorts of European cultural characteristics as well, and the suppression of native languages meant the death of much native culture.
But, from the European point of view, native culture deserved to die. Natives were savages, fortunate to have the chance to learn something better. Europeans had a duty to teach them—and, especially, a duty to guide them into the true religion. Christianity, was, of course, born in the Middle East, but it was European varieties of Christianity that spread most in the New World--Roman Catholicism, and the various Protestant sects arising in the various European countries during the Reformation.
Europeans brought their technology, their agricultural methods, even their fashions to America. And, most of all, Europeans brought themselves: the great majority of today's New World inhabitants have at least some European ancestry. In many instances, native populations were almost entirely displaced.
The transformation of the Americas wasn’t easy, and most of you are familiar with the sacrifices and hardship pioneer types had to make and of the terribly risky nature of the whole business—a burden in many ways. But for native peoples, the burden of dealing with the newcomers was also extraordinarily difficult, often leaving a trail of tears. [Please see my Trail of Tears lecture]
In Africa, too, the White Man’s Burden proved often to be quite a burden for the native peoples.
Europeans had little contact with Sub-Saharan Africa little before 1600. But after 1600, contact between Europeans and Africans increased at a dramatic pace. Both Europeans and Africans were both eager for trade. Europe had much that Africans wanted. European manufactured goods were particularly attractive--especially European firearms. But what did Africans have to offer in exchange? Plenty!
Africans had gold to offer, ivory to offer, diamonds to offer--and something even more valuable than gold, ivory or diamonds! They had people to offer, people to sell as slaves.
Now the slave trade was not new in Africa. Africans had sold other Africans into slavery for centuries. And even more, Arabs had sold Africans into slavery for centuries. But increased trade with Europe meant a dramatic increase in the slave trade: ultimately, ten million people sold into slavery.
European contact also increased the instability of Africa, and the introduction of European-style weapons made the conflicts in Africa worse than they had been earlier. And as conflict increased, it become increasingly difficult for the Europeans to do business in Africa. So what did they do? In the late19th century, the obvious solution was simply to take over the continent themselves. Eventually (by around 1914), almost all of Africa had been taken over by one European power or another.
[If you want more detail, see the Wikipedia article on the Scramble for Africa.]
The desire to spread Christianity was part of their motive. One gets figures like David Livingston (1813-1873) who essentially gave his whole life to African exploration and does seem to have wanted to bring good things to Africans: Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization. Men like Livingston exposed the evils of the slave trade, and eventually did sway public opinion back in Europe enough to help bring that trade to an end.
But the push for material gain often overshadowed any altruistic impulse and sometimes led to horrible atrocities. Particularly bad, what happened in the Congo.
The Portuguese, British, and French all had some interest in acquiring the Congo, but at the Berlin Conference of 1884 (14 European Nations meeting at the invitation of Otto Von Bismarck to decide the future of Africa), King Leopold II of Belgium managed to emerge with direct control of what was called the Congo Free State.
Leopold’s goal was simply to make as much money as he possibly could by exploiting Congo’s rubber production capabilities. Dunlop’s invention of the pneumatic tire made rubber very valuable. But it was hard work to collect, and Leopold wanted a lot of it. He devised a system of forced labor to acquire as much rubber as possible. Each village had to supply its quota—and the penalty for not doing so was death. When villagers rebelled, Leopold sent in native mercenaries armed with European-style weapons. To prove they had done their job in punishing villages that failed to meet their quotas, the mercenaries had to bring back the severed hands of those they killed. This often meant whole baskets of hands brought back to Leopold’s officials.Disease, execution, starvation more than decimated the population. While exact numbers are impossible to know, a good guess would be that during the period of Leopold’s rule (1884-1908), half the population died—perhaps ten million people.
This is the Europeans at their worst, and many knew it. Joseph Conrad exposed these atrocities in his Heart of Darkness, and when other Europeans finally figured out what was going on, Leopold was compelled to cede the Congo to the Belgian government. But he’d made a billion dollars or so already—and certainly never had to account for any of his crimes: in this world at least. Vachel Lindsay may have it right though. Here’s a part of Lindsay’s “The Congo”:
to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
Burning in hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell.
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.
Australia, too, is an example of the European’s carrying their burden to the rest of the world. Here, we have a whole continent taken over as a colony of one European power, Britain. The British Captain Cook claimed the continent for Britain in 1780. Soon, the native population was reduced to a a small minority, and English-speakers (if you can call Aussie English, mate) dominate the continent.
[The Australian Culture and Recreation portal has some great Australia information, including stories on the colonization of Australia. See the Australian Stories Index. You might like, for instance some of the stories about convict women, women like Esther Abrahams who went from being a convict to the governor's wife!]
What's left? Antarctica? Land of penguins and ice? Here too the Europeans (well, Americans and New Zealanders too) seem to have felt a burden: we’ve just got to push forward no matter what obstacles are in the way. Possibly a burden for the penguins.
And then there's one more continent: the largest of all, Asia--and here too Europeans have had a sizeable impact. And, in many ways, it's surprising that they did have that impact. I'll give two examples, India and China.
The European impression that like Australia, Africa and the Americas were primitive places that needed to be “civilized” is perhaps not so surprising. India, however, is another matter. In the days prior to European involvement, India had developed an impressive, attractive, and exceedingly stable civilization of its own, a civilization that would seem unlikely to change.
And, for a long time, Europeans had very little contact with India and very little influence on India. But that began to change around 1600. About that time, contact with Europeans began to increase dramatically, and, once again, the primary reason was trade.
England, for instance, began to get involved in Indian affairs clear back in the time of Queen Elizabeth. She chartered the EAST INDIA COMPANY, making them the only British company with the right to trade in India.
This trade was quite lucrative: but there was a potential problem. India was somewhat unstable. There was a great potential for conflict between the ruling Moslem ruling minority and the majority Hindu population. Because of the frequent violence, the British government sent forces to protect the EIC trading outposts. In the Bengal region, the man in charge was Robert Clive. He had at his disposal 800 English soldier and 2,000 native mercenaries. Friction with the Bengal government eventually led to war. The Bengal army was probably 50,000 strong. Yet Clive and his forces won! This essentially left the British East India Co. in charge of the Bengal province. But this wasn't the end of it! Another British East India unit under Charles Napier took over in the Sind and Punjab--and soon all India was under the control--not of Great Britain--but of one British company, the East India Co.
Naturally enough, EIC officials used their position to make money, and there was considerable corruption. Clive (on trial) when asked about his excesses said that he was "astonished at his moderation". Napier admitted he and the others had been rascals, but he talked about "A very advantageous useful, humane, piece of rascality."
But this humane rascality aroused considerable opposition within India itself. There was a great rebellion in 1857 (the Sepoy rebellion). The Sepoys were Moslem mercenaries employed by the British, but, resentful of their treatment, they launched a rebellion: and more than a rebellion. The committed horrible attrocities against the wives and children of Europeans--perhaps a kind of terrorism here designed to make the British leave. It didn't work. The British came back, exacted their revenge (sometimes carelessly harming the innocent). Then the British government took control of India directly: Queen Victoria took a new title: empress of India.
Once in control, the British began making all sorts of changes in India. They felt they had a duty to do so. In fact, Europeans in general during this period felt what is sometimes called "The White Man's Burden," the responsibility of Europeans to spread their superior way of doing things to the rest of the world.
Kipling expressed the idea
of the "White Man's Burden" in his poem of that name.
[Note: it's hard to read the tone here. Kipling captures the idea well, but it's not clear to what extent he is expressing his own sentiments and to what extent he is critical.]
The White Man's Burden (Rudyard Kipling, 1899)
up the White
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
Take up the White Man's burden--
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another's profit,
And work another's gain.
Take up the White Man's burden--
The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.
Take up the White Man's burden--
No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper--
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go mark them with your living,
And mark them with your dead.
Take up the White Man's burden--
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard--
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:--
"Why brought he us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?"
Take up the White Man's burden--
Ye dare not stoop to less--
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you.
Take up the White Man's burden--
Have done with childish days--
The lightly proferred laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!
Today's students are so indoctrinated with multiculturalism and cultural relativism, that it is hard for us to understand people so convinced of their duty to impose their superior culture on others. But a glance at India shows why the British in India felt they had such a burden.
First of all, the British felt a responsibility to change the religious beliefs and practices of the people of India, to win them away from Hinduism. Now the Hindu tradition produced some impressive things, things I talk about extensively in my History 121 class. But what the British typically saw of the Hindu religion was only what seemed to them preposterous and often horrible superstitions.
Hindu polytheism, its belief in many gods, seemed a thing of the distant past, a superstition to be done away with. Customs like temple prostitution likewise seemed to cry out for change, as did the blood thirsty worship of the goddess Kali. Who in their right mind wouldn't want the "thugees" (a cult which waylaid, robbed, and murdered travelers) eliminated?
And then there's the Juggernaut. Wikipedia says this:
During the British colonial era, Christian missionaries promulgated a fallacy that Hindu devotees of Krishna were lunatic fanatics who threw themselves under the wheels of these chariots in order to attain salvation.
But was it really a fallacy? If not, yet another reason for change.
seeming to cry out for change:
India's rigid social structure, the caste system. Caste divides people
into four major casts and into various sub-castes. Caste
whole life: where you can live, what you can eat, what profession you
follow, what you can wear, and who you will marry. European
the time was moving toward greater and greater equality: a social
more rigid than anything Europe had ever known naturally seemed wrong.
The treatment of women and marriage customs in general were likewise exactly the opposite of what Europeans were coming to believe was idea.
Marriages in India were arranged by one's parents, often when was was very young. Arranged marriage? Not so good, said Europeans--something they had themselves left behind. Futher, while Europeans were moving toward greater equality for women, India proved a society where women were anything but equal. The Hindu Code of Manu says, "A husband must be constantly worshipped as a God by a faithful wife. Day and Night women must be kept in dependence by the males of their families."
Women in India are expected to be faithful to their husbands--even after husband is dead. In some cases, a widow simply goes into permanent mourning. In others, she is under pressure to become "sati," pure. When her husband's body is burned, a woman proves her fidelity by joining him on the funeral pyre--burned alive. And if she does not do so voluntarily, well, she will have brothers or uncles who will help her prove her purity. Both the practice of burning widows and the widow herself are called "sati."
Sati may have been (as many today claim) relatively rare, but it existed in India, and still goes on from time to time. Again, a reason for change.
Another feature of Indian society the British found objectionable was infanticide. Unwanted babies, particularly girl babies, were simply killed. In our own society, we regard killing of babies as the most horrible of crimes (or at least we did until 1973). But Indian society did not. Why? Largely because of belief in karma and reincarnation.
Hinduism teaches that this life not all there is--you come back in another form, according to your Karma. If you are good, you'll come back as something better--a member of the Kshatriya or Brahman castes perhaps. If you do evil you come back as something worse, perhaps as a woman or, if you're particularly bad, a history professor.
The result of this is that Hindus have a very different attitudes to all sorts of things than that which prevails in the West, and particularly a different attitude toward suffering: In the West, one feels an obligation to help those suffering. In India, one may not be so quick to help--because you know why they are suffering. No point in interfering with karma!
And that's probably why the British felt they had to step in. Poverty, disease, and suffering were so wide spread in India, and the Indian people themselves didn't seem to want to do anything about it.
Well, the British did make changes:
But despite the fact that much of what they did seemed good, the British were resented! India wanted independence--and some of those *most* trained in European ways were the most zealous for independence. Why? They were taught and accepted European ideas on the importance of nationalism and democracy. It's Important to note that leaders of modern India are almost always European in education and outlook (e.g., Gandhi who was an Oxford educated lawyer!).
India finally won its independence in 1947. But even in independence, European influence is still extensive. India today has a parliamentary govt. like Britain. The main languages of India? Hindi--and English! So even in this huge country, a place where one might think there would be little European influence, one can see the dominance, or at least the importance, of Europeans and European ideas.
And then there's China.
Like India, China had an ancient civilization, a civilization of which the Chinese could just be proud. For much of human history, China was one of the most, if not the most, advanced civilizations of the face of the earth. The Chinese invented silk, paper, printing, gunpowder, china--even spaghetti! One would hardly think that this very impressive civilization would change in a major way because of the Europeans--and, for a long time, there was very little European influence on China.
China did not have much incentive for trade with the Europeans--and, for a long time, the deliberately kept European influence out. The Chinese called the Europeans "ocean devils"--because they came over the ocean, and because they behaved like devils. Not surprisingly, the Chinese government allowed the Europeans access to a single Chinese port--Canton--trying to keep European influence to a minimum.
But these Ocean Devils were clever devils. They wanted to trade with China. They wanted access to Chinese tea, porcelain, silk, etc. But what could they offer in exchange? Well, they found something. Something the Chinese would want more of. And more of. And more of. They started importing Opium. The British East India Company in particularly began bringing large amounts of Opium into China.
The Chinese government, naturally enough, tried to stop them, seizing and destroying opium at Canton. The British decided to force the Chinese to allow the sale of Opium and went to war--the first Opium War (1839-1842). The British win (an indication once again of European strength), and force the Chines to cede to them the port of Hong Kong. They force them to allow opium imports--and to pay for the opium they had earlier seized and destroyed.
Worse, the Opium War made clear to other countries the weakness of China--and soon, they, too, were pushing the Chinese around. Eventually, they divided China up into "spheres of influence." Russia, Britain, France, German--and Japan--each had a sphere where they took control. Within each sphere, the Chinese ceded control of trade and some aspects of the judicial system. Court cases involving Europeans were in the jurisdiction of European courts, not Chinese courts. Further, the Chinese had to put up with things like being excluded from places within their own country! The old story was that one park had a sign: no dogs or Chinese. A good story, and one I told for years--but it's apparently wrong. There were restrictions. The park was reserved for foreigners and dogs weren't allowed, but it wasn't the one sentence thing we'd heard about for years equating the Chinese with dogs. Oh, well.
Here's Bruce Lee and the "No Dogs or Chinese" sign.
In China, as elsewhere, the Europeans felt that the "White Man's Burden" obligated them to help make changes--sometimes with good reason. The Manchu government was corrupt and often ineffective. Customs like child marriage, foot-binding, and the widespread practice of infanticide all seemed to call out for change. And the Europeans did make changes. Christian missionaries introduced their faith to China, while at the same time setting up schools, schools which exposed many of the Chinese to European ideas on all sorts of things. And European ideas did spread--not always in the fashion Europeans might have wished!
In 1851, for instance, a man named Hong Xiuquan (Hung in many texts), started what is called the Taiping rebellion. Hong embraced many of the missionaries’ ideas--and went beyond them in his enthusiasm. Hong believed that he was the "younger brother of Jesus," called by God to establish the Great Peace (Taiping)--the millennial kingdom. And Hong soon won hundreds of thousands of devoted followers. The Taipings were able to take control of much of China (1851-1864), and, in the areas they got control, they made all sorts of changes.
They eliminated foot-binding, witchcraft, and the use of alcohol, tobacco, and opium. They destroyed temples of the old gods. Women among the Taipings had higher status than elsewhere in China, often assuming positions of authority.
Eventually, the Taiping Rebellion was put down by the Manchus--with the help of the Europeans. But ultimately the rebellion cost perhaps 20 million lives--some experts say 50 million or even more! It's not easy to deal with radical change!
Some Chinese wanted to rid themselves of all European influence, and this led to the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. But China was only able to throw off European control by, in some ways, adopting European ideas and making them their own.
Typical is Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. Sun-Yat-Sen was a Christian convert who went on to receive western-style medical training. Eventually, using the slogan "Nationalism, Democracy, Livelihood" he created a movement strong enough to create for China a government based on European notions of what a government should be like--the Chinese Republic. After Sun Yet-Sen's death, leadership of the Republic fell to his also-westward-looking brother-in-low, Chiang Kai Shek.
Ultimately, however, it was not democratic ideas that dominated China, but a different set of European ideas, the ideas of the German writer Karl Marx. The leader of the Communist movement in China was Mao Tse-Tung. Mao managed to take over China in 1949, and he set about to remake the country along Marxist lines.
In 1959, Mao launched the "Great Leap Forward," an attempt to change the Chinese economy. This involved the construction of everything from roads to hydro-electric dams. It also involved the collectivization of agriculture. The result? Too much change, too quickly--and probably 25,000,000 dead.
Mao worked to transform China in other ways--not just the economy. From 1966-1969 he backed the "Cultural Revolution," a movement aimed at getting rid of the "four olds," old ideology, old thought, old habits, old customs. Millions of young people joined the Red Guard--and dedicated themselves to wanton destruction of anything even vaguely associated with old Chinese trations. More than 1,000,000 leaders (incuding especially teachers) were jailed, beaten, and (usually) killed.
Obviously, a tremendously costly transformation!
But, in the end, China emerged an extraordinarily powerful nation--no longer a nation that can be pushed around by others. In fact, it is very likely China that will be doing the pushing in very short order. In his "Werner von Braun" song, Tom Lehrer has the former Nazi singing, "’In German and English I know how to count down, and I'm learning Chinese,’ says Werner von Braun.” Well, some of us, perhaps might think about learning Chinese as well--for all sorts of different reasons. The Chinese are a very formidable player in world affairs, and they may become more formidable yet. The era of European dominance is probably over: but the next stage of human history is likely to be the story of how two European influenced societies (China and America) work things about between themselves--or how they don't work them out.