Cultures Don’t Only Change by Force – and Why Wouldn’t They?
In the first part of this series, I discussed the falsity of the pervasive narrative of “stolen land” and “genocide” that bedevils the West. As I argued, despite the lamentable fact that a great many indigenous people died – by warfare, unlawful killings and, most often and unavoidably, by disease – the claim of “genocide” is false, because intent is a necessary condition of genocide.
But what of the cultures of indigenous peoples? Were they not destroyed or irrevocably altered?
Well, yes and no. Despite the simplistic narratives favoured by some, the truth of history is almost always that it was, as they say, “complicated”. In many instances, the cultures of the native peoples were deliberately and forcibly altered – but in just as many, the old ways were purposefully discarded by the indigenes themselves.
Some time ago, I watched a documentary on the indigenous people of the Central Asian steppes. These nomadic horse herders were gradually discarding their old ways: families were preparing to give up the yurts and move to cities. The narrator intoned all this with doleful solemnity, but the people themselves were clear: they wanted to give their kids a better life. Bill Bryson interviews African people who willingly leave their supposedly idyllic village life and move to the slums of the cities. Why? So their kids can go to school and university and better themselves.
The vast majority of Aboriginal Australians today live in towns and cities. The minority of Aboriginal people in remote communities still hunt their traditional food sources, but they do so using very modern methods. Dugong are speared from a motorised dinghy. Kangaroo are hunted with 4WDs and shotguns. When the British arrived in Tasmania, Aborigines eagerly traded goods for introduced hunting dogs (dingos were unknown in Tasmania).
In the Americas, similar adaptation took place, from horses to rifles. Powhatan, the first Native American chief to encounter English colonisers, was immediately interested in their houses, which he considered obviously superior to indigenous housing.
And why wouldn’t they? Indigenous people are just as smart and adaptable as any others. Presented with tools and practises which clearly make life easier and better, people tend to adopt them – indigenous peoples no less than any others. If that means that cultural practises are adopted or discarded in pursuit of a better life, why is that a bad thing?
Europeans, after all, adopted many technologies and practises from other cultures when it suited them. Were the Chinese cultural imperialists who ruined native European culture, just because Europeans eagerly adopted pasta, paper money and gunpowder?
The traffic was hardly one-way, either. English settlers in the Americas gratefully adopted native crops, for instance.
Other cultural practices were probably best discarded. For instance, paleopathology and historical accounts both bear witness that Aboriginal Australia was often a very violent place for women especially. When the Tasmanians traded for dogs and other European technologies, women were often the chattel traded (which reflects well on neither native nor settler, frankly). Even today, in some Aboriginal communities, cultural practises such as “promise wives” – forced marriages between barely adolescent girls and much older men – persist, often enforced by violence. Increasing numbers of Aboriginal women are demanding that such cultural practices be discarded. It’s hard to disagree with them.
Mesoamerican cultures were often appallingly bloodthirsty slave societies. Thousands of victims were regularly tortured and murdered in the most horrific ways imaginable as sacrifices to the gods of peoples such as the Aztecs. Would anyone seriously argue that such a culture should have been left untouched and sacrosanct?
To be sure, missionaries sometimes converted native peoples by force – although those who loudly attack the West and Christianity are notably silent on Islam’s shocking (and ongoing) record of brutal forced conversion and “dhimmitude” – but often voluntarily. Pocahontas is merely perhaps the most famous Native American to voluntarily convert to Christianity. The history of missionary activity in Australia is as mixed as anywhere, yet, even today, 73% of Aboriginal Australians are self-identified Christians. Clearly no one is forcing them to do so.
Once again, this mirrors in many respects the history of Europeans themselves. The native cultures of Britain and Europe were sometimes forcibly suppressed by the Romans: the Druidic practise of human sacrifice, for instance, appalled the Romans. Where indigenous religions were more or less tolerated, the Romans nonetheless forcibly imposed their state religion. Where the natives (such as the Jews) outright rejected Roman religion, they were brutally brought to heel.
In turn, as Christianity came to dominate Europe, its indigenous peoples abandoned their old ways, for as varied reasons as indigenes later colonised by Europeans. Force, political expediency, genuine zeal, all played their part in converting the Franks, Teutons, Slavs, Norse, and so on.
To deny that indigenous people, Europeans or those colonised by Europeans, might choose to abandon or adapt their indigenous practises is to deny them agency as human beings. Too often, those implacably opposed to such adaptation seem to be activists with colossal chips on their shoulders and lucrative sinecures at stake.
The only real difference between the colonisation of Europe and the colonisation by Europe is one of proximity. We witness the pain of colonisation because it is a vivid historical record only now receding from living memory. We don’t experience the Roman colonisation of Europe as viscerally because it has been relegated to the mists of the past. The effects of the colonisation of Britain by the Normans 1,000 years ago are still present in British society today, every bit as much as the effects of the colonisation of New Zealand. Descendents of the Normans dominate the British elite. Everything about Anglo-Saxon culture – culture, language, land ownership, – was irrevocably altered. There was genocide, too: the Harrying of the North killed or displaced 75% of the native population.
The Islamic conquest of India was as bloody, brutal and greedy as anything perpetrated by Europeans.
Yet anyone seriously demanding “reparations” for this brutal colonisation today would be laughed at.
Why? Why would we not judge the Romans, the Normans, or the Muslims by the lofty standards of today?
That will form the discussion of the third and final in this series.