05 April 2012

Almost Three Thousand Years of Self-Justifying Colonial Clichés

The other day's piece on the Parthenon Sculptures, and some reactions it's provoked, have reminded me of an article I read many years ago, whilst doing my master's degree.

We are hard-working, civilised, and responsible, but they are lazy, savage, irresponsible idiots...
Entitled 'Eaters of flesh, drinkers of milk: the ancient Mediterranean ideology of the pastoral nomad' and by one Brent Shaw, it argued that the Cyclops episode in the Odyssey should be understood as an ethnographic text, establishing a dichotomy in European thought that distinguished between barbaric pastoralists and civilized farmers.

It was hardly insignificant that the Odyssey was composed or at any rate came into being during the great age of Greek colonisation; the Cyclops episode is loaded with the rhetoric used by colonisers when seeking to justify why they would be far better stewards of lands than the savages who live there now, squandering their resources.

Here, for instance, is the key passage in the Cyclops episode in Odyssey IX:
'And we came to the land of the Cyclopes, a fierce, lawless people who never lift a hand to plant or plough but just leave everything up to the immortal gods. All the crops they require spring up unsown and untilled, wheat and barley and vines with generous clusters that swell with the rain from heaven to yield wine. The Cyclopes have no assemblies for the making of laws, nor any established legal codes, but live in hollow caverns in the mountain heights, where each man is lawgiver to his own children and women, and nobody has the slightest interest in what his neighbours decide.'
The binary contrast being set up here is pretty obvious: the Cyclops are lazy and lawless, caring neither for the bountiful land in which they live or for any society beyond their own front doors. Greeks, on the other hand, are by implication industrious and law-embracing, the kind of people who would be responsible stewards of their gifts and who would care for their neighbours. If you ever want an idealisation of what the Greeks thought of themselves as a lawful people, have a glance at Pericles' funeral oration, as penned by Thucydides perhaps three hundred years after the Odyssey was written :
'Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition.
The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty.
But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.
We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it.
Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.'
Note especially that penultimate observation that those who concentrate solely on private matters rather than serving society in general are regarded not so much as unambitious as useless. The Greeks had a word for such people: Idiots.

The Cyclopes, then, would have been regarded by the ancient Greeks as lazy, selfish, lawless idiots, unworthy stewards of the land they inherited.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch...
Let's leap forward two thousand or so years from the Odyssey, taking us to the thirteenth century or thereabouts, when the Saga of Erik the Red was written, describing the Norse discovery of America, the most fertile part of which they referred to as Vinland, the land of wine.
'Karlsefni and his people sailed to the mouth of the river, and called the land Hop. There they found fields of wild wheat wherever there were low grounds; and the vine in all places were there was rough rising ground. Every rivulet there was full of fish. They made holes where the land and water joined and where the tide went highest; and when it ebbed they found halibut in the holes. There was great plenty of wild animals of every form in the wood. They were there half a month, amusing themselves, and not becoming aware of anything. Their cattle they had with them. And early one morning, as they looked around, they beheld nine canoes made of hides, and snout-like staves were being brandished from the boats, and they made a noise like flails, and twisted round in the direction of the sun's motion.

Then Karlsefni said, "What will this betoken?" Snorri answered him, "It may be that it is a token of peace; let us take a white shield and go to meet them." And so they did. Then did they in the canoes row forwards, and showed surprise at them, and came to land. They were short men, ill-looking, with their hair in disorderly fashion on their heads; they were large-eyed, and had broad cheeks. And they stayed there awhile in astonishment. Afterwards they rowed away to the south, off the headland.'
Suffice to say that the Scraelings, for so the native Americans will be called, don't come out of this well; they're described as mere ignorant savages, easily duped, quick to fight, and incapable of taking advantage of the paradise in which they dwell. And what a paradise! Wild animals and fish in abundance, wheat springing up from the soil unsown and untilled, and grape-bearing vines growing everywhere without even needing a hint of human effort. These Scraelings live in a land as bountiful as the land of the Cyclopes, and are as incapable or as disinclined to take care of their land, to use it as it should be used; why, of course the Vikings should settle there. Sure wouldn't they use it better? Wouldn't they prove far more responsible stewards of these wonderful gifts from heaven?

And there's the little matter of home...
A hundred or so years earlier, the Anglo-Normans and Cambro-Normans who'd begun settling Ireland had played the same game. Here, for example, are some passages from Distinction III Chapter X of Gerald of Wales' History and Topography of Ireland:
'As if to prove that what [nature] is able to form, she does not cease to shape also, she gives growth and proportions to these people, until they arrive at perfect vigour, tall and handsome in person, and with agreeable and ruddy countenances. But although they are richly endowed with the gifts of nature, their want of civilisation, shown both in their dress and mental culture makes them a barbarous people. For they wear but little woollen, and nearly all they use is black, that being the colour of the sheep in all this country. Their clothes are also made after a barbarous fashion...

The Irish are a rude people, subsisting on the produce of their cattle only, and living themselves like beasts - a people that has not yet departed from the primitive habits of pastoral life. In the common course of things, mankind progresses from the forest to the field, from the field to the town and to the social conditions of citizens; but this nation, holding agricultural labour in contempt, and little coveting the wealth of towns, as well as being exceedingly averse to civil institutions - lead the same life their fathers did in the woods and open pastures, neither willing to abandon their old habits or learn anything new. They, therefore, only make patches of tillage; their pastures are short of herbage; cultivation is very rare and there is scarcely any land sown. This want of tilled fields arises from the neglect of those who should cultivate them; for theirs are large tracts which are naturally fertile and productive. The whole habits of the people are contrary to agricultural pursuits, so that the rich glebe is barren for want of husbandmen, the fields demanding labour which is not forthcoming.

Very few sorts of fruit-trees are found in this country, a defect arising not from the nature of the soil, but from want of industry of planting them; for the lazy husbandman does not take the trouble to plant the foreign sorts which would grow very well here. Two of them are fruit-bearing trees, the chestnut and the beech; the other two, the arulus (or alarus - unsure of variety) and the box, though they bear no fruit, are serviceable for making cups and handles. Yews, with their bitter sap, are more frequently to be found in this country than in any other I have visited, but you will see them principally in old cemeteries and sacred places, where they were planted in ancient times by the hands of holy men to give them what ornament and beauty they could. The forests of Ireland also abound with fir-trees, producing frankincense and incense.
There are also veins of various kinds of metals ramifying in the bowels of the earth, which, from the same idle habits, are not worked and turned to account. Even gold, which the people require in large quantities and still covet in a way that speaks their Spanish origin, is brought here by the merchants who traverse the ocean for the purposes of commerce. They neither employ themselves in the manufacture of flax or wool or in any kind of trade or mechanical art; but abandoning themselves to idleness, and immersed, in sloth, their greatest delight is to be exempt from toil, their richest possession, the enjoyment of liberty.'
It's getting kind of familiar now, isn't it? The Irish are handsome, vigorous, and agreeable -- well, so far so accurate -- but are chronically lazy, and with no drive whatsoever to husband their country's marvellous resources in a responsible way. Okay, that bit might be true too, but I think we can accept that just because Gerald was right doesn't mean he wasn't also engaging in a frenzy of self-serving rhetoric.

Gerald goes on at great length here and elsewhere about the fertility of Ireland's soil, the multitude of fish and birds and animals to be caught, and the crops that grow as though unbidden, and is utterly scathing about the Irish disinclination to do anything that might impinge on their liberty and the time that is their own. Rude pastoralists, they didn't engage in agriculture let alone build towns -- most of Ireland's towns were Viking settlements.

In short, from the point of view of the twelfth-century interlopers, the Irish were savages who didn't deserve the marvellous land they'd inherited from their ancestors. Of course the Normans of England and Wales would be far more worthy stewards of such a beautiful and bountiful country. Of course. Why it was their duty to look after it as God would have wanted. The Irish couldn't be trusted. They were squandering God's gifts.

And it goes on...
You'll find exactly the same kind of rhetoric used by the Europeans who drove the natives on north and south America from their land time and time again from the sixteenth century on, and most egregiously by those engaged in the Scramble for Africa in the nineteenth century. It's the same line, whether used of Irish, Incas, Indians, or Africans: they're brutes who are wasting what they've got, so it's our obligation to go there and use those resources properly.

Yesterday one commenter observed of the Parthenon Sculptures that the main initial complaints about the Ottoman sale of things they did not own came from people who had treated the Acropolis as a quarry, and that Christian Athenians had damaged the Acropolis long before the Turks had come, while another said:
'To be perfectly blunt, if Greece can't even be bothered to preserve the Altar of the Twelve Gods, why on earth should we give them more antiquities to damage, destroy or otherwise fail to steward properly?

Rightful ownership is all well and good, but if the rightful owner is incapable or unwilling to adequately look after the property... '
Sound familiar?

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