History of Colonization 2 – Replying to Joe

3.  Cilice-Belted Intellectuals, Buffalo Jumps & the Fate of the World

I intended to write something else for the second unit of my History of Colonization project, but already I’m being detoured.  But it’s only a bit of a detour through terrain I already intended to cover.

You see, I like to talk about history not simply for its own sake, but because an understanding of the past helps us understand the present.  Or, to rephrase that, I talk about the past because it is relevant to today.

History is like memory.  Memories represent the past, but also make up who we are now; they shape the way we see the world and how we react to it.  History is the same.  If your memory is flawed or distorted-say, you don’t remember borrowing money from a friend-then you may act contrary to your own values, for instance, by not paying your friend back.  A faulty understanding of history has similar pitfalls.

Along the same lines, it might be convenient to forget a debt sometimes, or not bring it up other times.  Again, this happens with history.  Thank goodness, we have our friends to remind us of those things we almost forgot, to set us on the right path.

And historians.

Now what prompted my detour is a recent letter to the Georgia Straight, which I will quote in full:

Your profile of Ronald Wright, author of What Is America?, sent my blood pressure into the stratosphere [“America adrift in the past”, August 21-28].  I am so tired of guilt-ridden, cilice belted, self-flagellating white intellectuals savaging western culture and history without context.  The fact is, history was a bitch for everybody.  Europeans endured assaults by Huns, Moors, Mongols, Turks, et cetera, and the plague from Asia.  Science, not gold, made the Industrial Revolution possible, and industrialization’s greatest benefit was not gadgets but population control.  In Europe and North America, birthrates are below replacement levels.

Second, Natives were harder on themselves than the conquistadors.  Conflict, conquest, displacement, imperialism, slavery, torture, human sacrifice, et cetera, were rampant in pre-Columbian America.  Nor were Indians paragons of environmental sensitivity.  For example, hunting buffalo by driving entire herds over a cliff was incredibly cruel and wasteful.  It was also needless.  Poor eyesight made the buffalo easy to hunt with bows and arrows even on foot in the early days.  Once the Indians acquired the horse, the buffalo’s fate was sealed.

Pressing one’s advantage is not a European trait but a universal human trait.  Consequently, the world wouldn’t be a better place had the Industrial Revolution unfolded in Asia, Africa, or pre-Columbian America.  So get off my back.

Joe Bako/Vancouver.

The first thing I notice about the letter is its intensely racialized thinking.  For Ronald Wright to come down on the side of anything but a Eurocentric view of things makes him a “guilt-ridden, cilice belted, self-flagellating white” intellectual.  The writer considers it impossible that Wright might have an important point to make unless it upholds the primacy of the European way and European peoples.  He not only thinks that history should be written by the victors-and the victors alone-but also that the victor’s brand of history is the only one which has any chance of being true.  A victor with a conscience can only be mistaken.

Joe goes on to say that history was a bitch for everyone.  This is a fairly commonplace thought, and probably true.  But for some people not of European descent it’s still a bitch, and for a lot of people of European descent it isn’t, and it’s all because of the way history did, in fact, unfold.  The distinction is relevant.

Anyway, when somebody steals your car stereo, you don’t say, “Everybody gets their car radio stolen.”  You call up the police and tell them, “Catch that felon!”

And if you chance to be that felon, let me assure you that it wouldn’t help you to tell the judge, “Well, your honour, everybody was doing it, and I just got there first.”  The judge will only be interested in what you did when you got there, not whether you were first, not whether other people might have done it given the chance.

Did the Europeans invade the Americas, murder, steal, oppress and enslave?  Yes. Case closed!  If somebody else had done these things, then the problem would be with them.  But nobody else did.  Live with it, Joe.  In the real world, it’s what happens that matters, not what mighta coulda happened.  Even conservatives agree with that most of the time.

Joe says that Aboriginal Americans were their own worst enemies, and goes on to say how much worse they were to each other than Europeans were to them.  Kirkpatrick Sale, in his book The Conquest of Paradise, discusses the tactic of disparaging your enemies:  “It is always convenient to regard foreign populations as inferior, more convenient still to regard them as animalistic, or bestial, especially when you have decided to enslave or eliminate them.” (135)  It is also convenient when you want to get your forefathers off the hook for what they did.

Unfortunately, the idea that Aboriginal people were better off being invaded by the Europeans doesn’t accord with history.  For all the trouble the various original American societies made for each other, still they survived and prospered.  The indigenous population in the Americas was growing steadily up until the Spanish invasion, when it collapsed catastrophically.  Within 100 years of Cortes, the population of Mexico and its environs declined from about 25 million people to about 750 thousand.   This is like the entire population of Canada (30 million or so) being reduced to something less than the population of Edmonton, Alberta (about 1 million.)  No Aztec warlord was ever capable of that level of slaughter.  Of course, to be fair, the Spanish didn’t do it, either.  It was disease.  But multiple plagues were among the gifts that Europeans brought to the New World, and a portion of the colonial package.  And it’s in large part why Europe and its people prospered at the expense of the rest of the globe.

Joe also attacks Indigenous environmentalism.  You Natives didn’t have to drive herds over the cliff, he says.  You could have done it with bows and arrows, since bison have bad eyesight.  Well, he may be right, except nobody ever drove an entire herd over a cliff.  Herds were historically a million to ten million strong.

And Joe, here comes ten million tons of Mr. Magoo thundering your way.

Run and fetch your bow and arrow.

Facetiousness aside, first, Aboriginal people could be environmentalist without being environmental saints, just as Europeans could be Christian without being Christian saints.  Second, Wright doesn’t say, in the article being alluded to, that European culture was messing up the world because it originated with Europeans, or with non-environmentalists.  In fact what Wright is saying is that it is the circumstances of European expansion, the easy conquest of vast landscapes emptied by disease, the sudden access to Aboriginal crops permitting an explosive rise in population, the notion that there were always new places for Europe to conquer using their sudden wealth and power, which gave rise to the idea that such expansion was natural, right, and could continue forever.  Europeans have been spoiled by accidents of history into believing that unlimited growth could happen on a limited planet.  And being spoiled, Wright is saying, they are destroying the planet and encouraging others to do the same.

I don’t know whether Wright is correct about where the myth of unlimited growth originated, or why.  But the last time I looked it wasn’t Aboriginal people tumbling the planet over the cliff.

Finally, Joe states that the Industrial Revolution originated with science and not gold, begging the question addressed in the previous unit, why are Europeans so much more scientific than other people?  The correct answer is, they aren’t.  I refuse to accept racist answers for things, and anyway, as I pointed out, Europe didn’t start to overtake other parts of the Old World scientifically until the 17th century or later, long after the wealth started flowing from the Americas.  The answer, as Ronald Wright correctly surmises, is in the Americas.

But that’s a big question which deserves its own unit.  I will return to it.

One last word with Joe.  He said industrialization’s greatest benefit is population control.  But one individual Canadian or American consumes 40 times as much in their lifetime as a person born in India.  For population control to benefit the planet under those circumstances, people in North America would have to institute a particularly severe one child policy-one child for every twenty couples.

We’ll put Joe in charge of which of those twenty couples gets to have a child.

Or we could start listening to those loony Indians or those cilice-belted White intellectuals and all their talk about environmentalism.


Thomas Berger, A Long & Terrible Shadow, 1999, University of Washington Press. The figures concerning population collapse which I use above come from this book.  Population figures tend to vary from source to source, but all sources agree that the population collapse was catastrophic and unprecedented in world history.

Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, 1990, Alfred A. Knopf. Sale disagrees with Wright and argues that Europeans brought their anti-environmental culture with them to the Americas.  He is an excellent source on Christopher Columbus.


The sources around which I built this discussion come from the Georgia Straight, editions of August 21-28 and September 4-11.

And I`d like to thank Joe especially for volunteering to be my foil.


Cilice belt:  a garment or undergarment made of coarse cloth or animal hair worn for the purpose of religious or spiritual penance.

Racialized thinking:  The tendency to think in terms of us and them when dealing with people of other cultures or other distinct human communities.  The idea that race matters, and that racial loyalty matters.

~ by fathertheo on September 9, 2008.

One Response to “History of Colonization 2 – Replying to Joe”

  1. beautiful …keep posting

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