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Dark history of distinctions

The myth of Magna Carta lies at the whole origin of our perception of who we are as an English-speaking people, freedom-loving people who’ve lived with a degree of liberty and under a rule of law for 800 years. It’s a load of tripe, of course. But it’s a very useful myth.

—Nicholas Vincent, professor of medieval history, University of East Anglia, and author of Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction.1

It was early in the 15th century or so that European explorers began seafaring journeys to other lands. Some were looking for new trade routes, some were on the quest for bountiful discoveries, and others were seeking to fulfill curiosities. Whatever the impetus, they invariably found people who were physically and culturally different from themselves.

“In most cases, the first encounter with a hitherto unknown society was but a fleeting kaleidoscope of curiosity, sometimes horrified fascination, and often romantic excitement,” writes Brian M. Fagan in his book The Clash of Cultures.2 For better and for worse—usually for worse—the explorers fitted what they saw into the pigeonholes of their own culture. When Marco Polo saw rhinoceros during his voyage to China, for example, he was sure he had found the mythical unicorn at last. Never mind that other than their single horns, the rotund rhinos looked nothing like the depictions of unicorns.3

When explorers and natives came into contact for the first time, it was always a moment of apprehension for both sides. To the natives, who were invariably darker skinned, the white complexion of Europeans looked like apparitions. And to the explorers, the natives were even more exotic, perhaps not fully human. So, explorers approached natives with caution. The most pressing needs were how to

Dark history of distinctions 79 communicate and especially express good intentions. They relied on hand gestures, friendly facial expressions, and the offer of gifts. Sometimes these worked; other times they were misunderstood, provoking hostile reactions.

In the latter case, the explorers often resorted to a lethal response not available to the natives: guns. It was the first phase of the “clash of cultures.” Fagan characterizes it as “the progressive confrontation between an expanding, sophisticated civilization with radically alien beliefs and dozens of societies that lived in careful balance with the natural resources of their environment.’4

Whether the initial encounter was amicable or hostile, the native peoples were invariably deemed primitive, with Europe being the yardstick of civilization. The unfamiliar languages were typically likened to animal grunts, and some of the peoples were deemed to be close to the same level of evolution.

This was especially the case with the Tasmanians of Australia. They were deemed the most primitive people on earth, a link between animals and humans. The Tasmanians’ rebuff of attempts to re-acculturate them was interpreted as evidence of their animalistic status. The Khoikhoi of the southern tip of Africa did not fare much better. They too “became the epitome of savagery in European minds.”5 It was a characterization that was to extend to all of sub-Saharan Africans.

These early encounters and interpretations, in effect, established the dichotomy of primitive and civilized. Actually, it was more than a dichotomy. European philosophers—led by Joseph-Arthur Comte de Gobineau of France and Thomas Carlyle of Scotland—furiously competed to establish a hierarchy of the races. By the mid-19th century, Gobineau’s three-rung hierarchy had gained wide acceptance. Anglo-Saxon Europeans (the white race) were superior to all others, followed at some distance by Asians (the yellow race), then Negroes (the black race) at a much distant bottom rung. “Superior to the black and the yellow, the white race is characterized by energetic intelligence, perseverance, physical strength, an instinct for order, and a pronounced taste for liberty....,” wrote cultural critic and academic David Spurr in summarizing Gobineau’s theory.6

There were some divergences and nuances, however, in explorers’ views of the natives they met. For example, while some explorers labeled Native Americans barbaric and brutal, others noted admirable attributes. To this latter group, American Indians—as they were erroneously identified—were “noble savages” or “savage beauties.” They were primitive people who nonetheless manifested noble qualities such as valor, honor, kindness, piety, and beauty.

They were complimented also for living in harmony with nature, unaffected by modern technologies. This may well be patronizing “in the sense that a group of ten-year-old children might set up an innocent and happy society among themselves.”7

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