Friday, June 5, 2009

College For Free 3: Colonization Part 1

During my junior year of college I took a class called "Non-western World Sociology" and it seemed to me that the basic goal of the class was to make me feel guilty about being white.
And that's not completely unfair, because as it turns out white people are basically responsible for all the most terrible things in the world. It's true, and I can prove it.

The most important thing to understand when it comes to colonization is that white people, primarily the "western" nations of Europe, were not always all that important in the global scheme of things. There's a pretty good reason that basic "world" history in U.S. elementary schools goes something like this: Egypt, Greece, Rome, and then we skip about 1500 years to the Revolutionary War. The reason is that during the omitted periods, if white people weren't doing nothing, they were doing some pretty heinous stuff that's hard to explain to elementary school students.
This obviously excludes Shakespeare. It does not, however, exclude Christopher Columbus.

Europe wasn't doing much of anything up until the 1500s. In the meantime, Africa, the Middle East (or Ottoman Empire) and China were all involved heavily in trade and they were all doing pretty well. Africa had indoor plumbing while Europeans were throwing buckets of their own excrement out into the streets and jump-starting the Black Plague. The Middle-East was the world's center of commerce and they were inventing all sorts of neat stuff, like banks and accountants and checks. And then there's China, and obviously they were doing well because China is doing well like 99% of the time throughout the history of the world.
Anyways, Europe was basically excluded from this prosperous club because they had nothing to offer. I actually heard that when travelers from the Middle-East came to Europe they returned with tales of horror and filth that no one in their home countries could believe. Likewise, when Europeans traveled to the Middle-East, they returned with stories of palaces and wealth and cleanliness that no one in their home countries could believe.
So, since Europe wasn't doing so hot in the world as they knew it, they figured it was time to go find some more world. They set sail and discovered a place they could claim for their own, even though it had already been settled for millions of years and had been rediscovered multiple times by multiple countries.
"Whatever," Europe said, "it's ours."
I think one of the most interesting things about European expansion to the Americas is that 90% of all Native Americans died within 50 years of European contact from disease alone. Because Native Americans were living in a less densely populated, more healthy and sensible way overall, their immunities didn't stand a chance against the rampant disease the Europeans brought with them. So, it seems that centuries of soaking in their own filth actually turned out to be an advantage to the Europeans. Go figure.
Another very interesting thing to note is that this is point at which racism is invented. Oh yeah, that's right. While there has been persecution and wars and discrimination in the past, historically we don't see people thinking in really racist terms until the European colonization of the Americas. Never before in history had people been deemed "less human" because of the color of their skin. The reason for this is something called clinal variation, which quickly summarized means that if you were to travel from Spain to Japan by foot, you would see a gradual change in the people as you went, so that by the time you reached Eastern Asia and saw how different people looked, you would still fully understand that they were people because you got there just a little bit at a time. This is not the case for Europe's arrival in America, where a long ocean journey eliminated slow changes over time.
To me, this all seems like the dumbest, worst smelling kid in school getting picked on too much in his own grade so he starts bullying the first-graders. (Native Americans are only equated with first-graders here because they don't have guns.)
So, with 90% of the population wiped out and something like the remaining 9% soon to perish, the Europeans had no trouble ransacking the entirety of the Americas. They got a lot of good stuff out of it, not the least of which was slave labor, but mostly they got gold, and with it they were able to build up their home countries back in Europe and begin the awful, awful process of colonization.

At this point, I really think it's important to keep in mind that all the atrocities that Europe committed against the world from the 1500s on were made possible through the wealth of gold they accumulated in the Americas, and that gold is only created in the last ten minutes of a 10 million year old star's life. I can't really put my finger on the significance of this, but I do think that it's too strange to be ignored.

Next week: Colonization Part 2, How White People Ruined the World

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