Saturday, October 25, 2014

Fetishizing Incompetence And Ignorance

These days, I'm making my way through Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus. I'm listening to it rather than reading it and it's one of those books that I wish I could memorize. It's chock-full of wonderful anecdotes, analysis and captures the drama of Columbus' life.

I try not to read history books written after 1960. It's an arbitrary date, but it represents the transition from history books as history to social justice advocacy essays. Admiral of the Ocean Sea was written in the late 1930s and early 1940s by a fellow who sailed Columbus' route. He knows from whence he speaks and he works very hard to be as historically accurate as possible. In contrast, my daughter's high school history textbooks were practically free of information and instead focused on social justice narratives.

As I listen to this and after listening to others such as The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Stanley's accounts of his travels in Africa, it struck me how very weird it is to have come up with the Europeans-as-oppressors narrative. The Africans were enslaving each other and fighting wars of conquest, the Aztecs were committing acts of sadism on an industrial scale and the German tribes were warlike and vicious. What differentiated them from their conquerors was their ignorance and incompetence. The worst you can say of the Europeans is that they were just better at behaving according to the standards of the time.

If the Africans, Aztecs and Germans had been as studious and industrious as the Europeans and Romans, they certainly would have been perpetrating precisely the crimes against humanity that we all love to blame on the Europeans. In fact, they probably would have been much, much worse.

I would argue that the assessments of the natives made at the time by the conquerors themselves were more accurate than the misty-eyed romantic ideals of them we embrace today. As Dennis Green might say, the Aztecs / Africans / Germans were who we thought they were and we've let them off the hook.

Update: Make no mistake, the author does not pull any punches about the behavior of the Spaniards and the Portuguese, but he doesn't turn the natives into the noble primitives, either.


Ilíon said...

Which Europeans conquered "the Germans"?

K T Cat said...

The Romans.

K T Cat said...

I threw that in there because The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire treated the German barbarians in a matter-of-fact way.

Ilíon said...

The Romans conquerered "the Germans"? Tell that to Augustus Romulus.

K T Cat said...

Oh, for heaven's sake, the Gauls then. One little mistake!


In any case, if you make it to the banks of the Rhine, you're in part of Germany right there.

Ilíon said...

Today; 2000 years ago, Germania was on the other side of the Rhine.