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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

On imperialism

“We took possession… in accordance with our customs, and we caught all the people,the imperialist conqueror proclaimed.Not one escaped. Some ran away from us, these we killed, and others we killedbut what of that? It was in accordance with our custom.

The people he referred to were the Moriori of the Chatham Islands, 500 miles east of New Zealand, who were enslaved and slaughtered wholesale by men arriving on ships with guns and other weapons. The Moriori were a peaceful people, resolving all their disputes with diplomacy and renouncing war. They found themselves quickly overwhelmed by the advanced and merciless foreigners.

But the invaders werent European. They were another indigenous Polynesian people, the Maori of New Zealand, who 800 years before had been one with the Moriori. Upon hearing of their pacifist neighbors, they set sail and arrived in November and December of 1835, taking whatever they wanted and annihilating the Morioris way of life.

So renowned physiologist and anthropologist Jared Diamond explains in his masterful work, Guns, Germs, and Steel. His is one of the most important books to ever read, in order to see the world and all its peoples with a far greater understanding. He reveals how some continents happened to have better crops and livestock, with more resistance to disease and better trade, which all facilitated the more rapid growth of population and development of technology.

The above account was a particularly illuminating example of the differences in power that farming and technology produced. It is a terrible tragedy whenever one group of people so ruthlessly victimizes another, but in this one, the aggressors are not the usual European villains we learn about in our progressive universities.

I was reminded of Diamonds book and its lessons when fired University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill came to UC Davis last fall. Despite falsely claiming to be a Native American, Churchill sells himself as an expert in Native American studies, and he especially dwells on the clash between the peoples of the Old World and the New. But he would never have the courage to tell the history that Diamond included in his book.

The Maoris conquest of the Moriori, among other accounts of wars between indigenous peoples in the New World and elsewhere, reveals that imperialism was not some uniquely European phenomenon. We constantly focus on the crimes of the conquistadors and Europe in general, but their indifference to the suffering of others was simply made more visible by the much greater technology gap between adversaries.

If the Native Americans had been given the environmental strengths that Europeans had, sailing across the ocean in a time long before the Geneva Conventions and a sense of international morality, there is no evidence that they would have treated their hypothetical European subjects any better than they were treated.

When perhaps the most infamous of the conquistadors, Francisco Pizarro, came upon the Incas of South America, they were already weakened by a bloody civil war for control of an empire. Who were they fighting then? Other Native Americans.

Diamonds central thesis is that non-Western peoples should not be looked down upon for being left behind based on geographical happenstance. He is correct. But the flipside to that coin is that Western peoples should not be especially condemned for the advantages with which they were blessed. Chance is chance.

When we study history in our classes and form our opinions on the interactions between peoples, especially those of Europe with the rest of the world from 1492 to the present, we should remember that Europe was in general imperialist, domineering and brutal. Yet they treated native peoples just like they treated each other, and just like native peoples interacted with other native peoples. The sad fact of human history is that morality on a national and international level is a very new concept.

But dont expect to hear such an admission from the Ward Churchills of the world. They are consumed by a hatred of all things European, applying their standards unequally, passing on a view of history that ignores so much of what really happened.


ROB OLSON has been meaning to write this column for a long time. If youve been meaning to e-mail him for a long time, do so at rwolson@ucdavis.edu.


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