Colonisation – a lazy stereotype?

(Image from Terence Malick’s The New World, courtesy of New Line Cinema)

A crew of pirates are driven by a storm, they know not whither; at length a boy discovers land from the topmast; they go on shore to rob and plunder; they see a harmless people, are entertained with kindness; they give the country a new name; they take formal possession of it for the king; they set up a rotten plank or a stone for a memorial; they murder two or three dozen of the natives, bring away a couple more by force for a sample, return home, and get their pardon. Here commences a new dominion, acquired with a title by divine right. Ships are sent . . . the natives driven out or destroyed; their princes tortured to discover their gold; a free licence given to all acts of inhumanity and lust; the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: and this execrable crew of butchers employed in so pious an expedition is a modern colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people.

That represented the not so benign view held by Jonathan Swift, the dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, of the fairly brutal way in which mankind spread its wings across the globe. We now call it conquest and colonisation.

Perhaps it was not all quite as barefaced or stark as that but there is no doubt but that the experience of colonisation could be a pretty brutal one. Its legacy is undoubtedly full of the worst excesses our race has on its very blotted record – colonial or otherwise. 

But are we really making too much of it? Or rather, are we mistaking the wood for the trees and in our pursuit of villains are we missing the real evil in our midst? In our excessive preoccupation with this dimension of mankind’s fulfilment of the mandate to multiply and cultivate the earth – whether we identify as post-colonial victims or guilt-ridden colonists – are we failing to deal with the real evils at the root of the miseries we engender?

The great text which for generations now has been seen as the final word on colonisation is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But even here we should perhaps ask ourselves if we have not read it superficially, proceeding to indite colonisation when in fact we should be inditing something much deeper and closer to home – something in our own hearts. Is the great darkness lurking therein the real source of the evils we load on the scapegoat we call colonisation.

“The horror, the horror,” the words which Colonel Kurtz muttered as he died in physical and moral anguish was a kind of act of contrition. But it was personal, not a confession made on behalf of the King of the Belgians. Raging about, and resenting, what we call colonisation may be no more than an excuse for not doing what we should be doing about our personal surrender to our own evil impulses. It is these which collectively turn the colonialism which we rage against, into something evil.

John Darwin, the great historian of empire – a near synonym for colonialism – writes in his Unfinished Empire, of the complex thing that this phenomenon is.

Few subjects in history evoke stronger opinions than the making of empire. Indeed, some historians of empire still feel obliged to proclaim their moral revulsion against it, in case writing about empire might be thought to endorse it. This, and other conceits he writes about reveal, he says, something interesting: that for all the ink spilt on their deeds and misdeeds, empires remain rather mysterious, realms of myth and misconception.

This, he continues, is partly the result of thinking in monoliths. ‘Empire’ is a grand word. But behind its facade (in every place and time) stood a mass of individuals, a network of lobbies, a mountain of hopes: for careers, fortunes, religious salvation or just physical safety. Empires were not made by faceless committees making grand calculations, nor by the ‘irresistible’ pressures of economics or ideology. They had to be made by men (and women) whose actions were shaped by motives and morals no less confused and demanding than those that govern us now. This was certainly true of the British overseas empire. Far from being the mere handiwork of kings and conquistadors, it was largely a private-enterprise empire: the creation of merchants, investors, migrants and missionaries, among many others. 

The reality is that colonialism and empire-growth do not, like other political phenomena with the suffix ‘ism’ attached which we might rage against, derive from an ideology. Such are Communism, Marxism, fascism, republicanism and nationalism. This particular force of nature has existed ever since the day – or night – on which Adam and Eve were sent packing from their garden. It is a force which has accompanied their descendants ever since, as they made their way across the face of this planet. They had to wander and their wandering was colonisation. But the evil deeds which accompanied that wandering were not in the wandering. They were in the minds and hearts of the wanderers, – manifested in greed, envy, avarice, cruelty and more, generated by the loss they suffered through their own foolish surrender to their passions.

Had they and their descendants traversed the world, mingling with each other as they increased and multiplied, in a spirit moved by virtue – justice, charity, generosity – rather than by vice, then this mingling which we now call colonisation would have been a very benign thing. It sometimes was. It more often, much more often, was not.

Darwin notes that the underlying assumption, on which almost all else hangs, is that empires are abnormal, a monstrous intrusion in a usually empire-free world. No error could be more basic. Empire — as the assertion of mastery (by influence or rule) by one ethnic group, or its rulers, over a number of others — has been the political rule of the road over much of the world and over most of world history: the default mode of state organization. He suggests that empires cannot be seen as the inveterate enemies of cultural and material advance among those they ruled over. He also notes that historians of pre—modern or non-European empires – suggesting that post-colonial trauma and anti-colonial rage are Western phenomena – show few qualms in conceding that, whatever their shortfall in political freedom, they were often culturally creative and materially beneficial.  One of the more subtle explorations of the colonial experience which the art of cinema has offered us in recent years was Terence Malick’s treatment of the Pocahontas story in The New World.

This blind-spot, Darwin also thinks, can lead to a history in stereotypes; to a cut-and-dried narrative in which the interests of rulers and ruled are posed as stark opposites, without the ambiguity and uncertainty which define most human behaviour. It denies to the actors whose thoughts and deeds we trace more than the barest autonomy, since they are trapped in a thought-world that determines their motives and rules their behaviour. It treats the subjects of empire as passive victims of fate, without freedom of action or the cultural space in which to preserve or enhance their own rituals, belief-systems or customary practices. 

We return to Joseph Conrad, by way of Abdulrazak Gurnah who has just won the Nobel Prize for literature, and whose novel Paradise has been read as a re-mapping of Conrad’s 19th century journey to the “heart of darkness”. Paradise is a tale narrated by 12-year-old boy, Yusuf, who lovingly describes gardens and assorted notions of paradise and their corruption as he is pawned between masters and travels to different parts of the interior from the coast. Yusuf concludes that the brutality of German occupiers of that time in East Africa was preferable to the ruthless exploitation by the Arabs. Differences count.

The depth and the extent of the miseries we perpetrate on each other originate in the hearts and minds of the human agents who make history. They only exist in the systems we devise only in so far as they are brought into them by us. The lesson we fail to learn when we blame systems for our misdeeds is that we must change before our systems can change. 

Today we are dealing with a new wave of mass movement of people on the planet, people fighting for survival with the only option at their disposal – migration. This is a new colonisation. In the nineteenth century Darwin gives figures for the mass movements of that era – again of people fighting for their lives.

The first great outflow from Europe to underpopulated parts of the planet was after 1815 at the end of more than twenty years of world war. In 1832, for the first time, Darwin recounts, the number who left in one year exceeded 100,000. In the 1840s and 1850s the terrible calamity of famine in Ireland drove up the figure to astonishing heights: 1.7 million people left between 1841 and I850; a further 1.6 million between 1853 and 1860; and just under 2 million between 1861 and 1870. In each of the years 1853 and 1854, more than 1per cent of the population departed. In the 1850s and 1860s, migrants from Ireland were still the largest body of leavers: after 1870, the English took over. The total fell back a little in the late 1870s, but from 1880 until the end of the century, it usually exceeded 200,000 a year and never fell below 140,000. Then in a huge burst up to 1914, more than 3 million people left the British Isles, just under 400,000 in I913 alone. 

The moral and ethical response every single human being had to make then and has to make today, if involved in any way in this phenomenon, is what will make it good or bad. This is what should enrage us – or sustain our hope in humanity. Stopping people fleeing from a burning building is not an option. Human ingenuity, political skills and decision-making – again with moral implications – were not fit for purpose to save the lives of all those Irish who died in the Great Famine. That same moral failure caused millions more to have to take flight to save their lives. That was one side of the ethical coin. The other side was the question of the response of the immigrants who landed on foreign shores to the indigenous peoples they found there.

Indulging in rage against a facile “ism” solves nothing for humanity. Unless we return again to a vision of ourselves which places responsibility for our actions firmly on our own shoulders, to forming consciences adequate for the task of living with each other as we should, we will continue to inflict misery wherever we go to solve our problems and on whomsoever comes to us looking for help.

We may never reach the Utopian standard of just governance so bitingly satirised by Swift in the passage of Gulliver’s Travels which follows that with which we began. But a community populated by persons who try to be personally true to the moral principles of the Christian faith, will find themselves in a world less in need of such biting satire.

But this description, I confess, does by no means affect the British nation, who may be an example to the whole world for their wisdom, care, and justice in planting colonies; their liberal endowments for the advancement of religion and learning; their choice of devout and able pastors to propagate Christianity; their caution in stocking their provinces with people of sober lives and conversations from this the mother kingdom; their strict regard to the distribution of justice, in supplying the civil administration through all their colonies with officers of the greatest abilities, utter strangers to corruption; and, to crown all, by sending the most vigilant and virtuous governors, who have no other views than the happiness of the people over whom they preside, and the honour of the king their master.

Days of Heaven, Reviews from Hell

I found myself getting very annoyed the other day – with something written almost 30 years ago. I had just watched – for the fifth or sixth time – Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven and felt as rewarded as on the first occasion I watched it. Indeed, even more so because, as is the case with really good films, books or plays, the depth becomes more perceptible with the closer examination multiple encounters offer.I then did a little internet trawl to check out if many felt the same way about it. In doing so I cam across the September 14, 1978, review by HAROLD C. SCHONBERG in the New York Times.  How wide of the mark can you be? I thought as I read it.  I also thought how terrible an experience it must have been for Malick on reading it. Had it anything to do with his failure to make another film until he made The Thin Red Line in the 1990s? In those 20 years, of course, it became clear to many that those like Schonberg who consigned Days of Heaven to the rubbish heap had completely missed the point. Malick today stands out as one of the truly great poets of cinema – along with Andrei Tarkovsky, Ermano Olmi and, perhaps, Terence Davies.This was Schonberg’s judgement:“Some years ago Terrence Malick produced, wrote, and directed
Badlands, a film that created a certain stir. Now comes Days of Heaven… it obviously has cost a lot of money; it is full of elegant and striking photography; and it is an intolerably artsy, artificial film.
“At the beginning, it is as though this is going to be a film about European immigrants in the early days of President Wilson’s presidency. Then it switches to the Texas Panhandle, where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope still play. Migrant workers, fleeing the big cities, help reap the wheat harvest of a young, wealthy farmer. There are all kinds of special effects, including a plague of locusts and a prairie fire. There is a romance, in which the girlfriend of a young worker, who poses as his sister, marries the farmer. What results is jealousy and murder.“But Days of Heaven never really makes up its mind what it wants to be. Back of what basically is a conventional plot is all kinds of fancy, self-conscious cineaste techniques. The film proceeds in short takes: people seldom say more than two or three connected sentences. It might be described as the mosaic school of filmmaking as the camera and the action hop around, concentrating on a bit here, a bit there.”What can one say about all that? Essentially it is a hopeless case of a person reading a film totally on the surface and failing to grasp any of the suggestions, the nuances, the allusions which go to create its deep layers of meaning and observation of human existential experience and what lies beyond it. It is like someone coming to The Waste Land and complaining that it is all over the place, does not quite know what it wants to be – funny, pathetic, apocalyptic or whatever. So be it. A man sees what he wants to see – or is able to see – and disregards the rest, because he has no choice. But what a pity that an authoritative paper like the New York Times should allow a review like this to be inflicted on an artist of such sensibility as Malick.On a first viewing Days of Heaven presents a visual feast. The cinematography and direction are flawless in their marrying a vision of nature, human tragedy, social description and an historical epoch. The economy of expression – which Schonberg mocks as “the mosaic school” – was superb. Take for example the very short scene where Woodrow Wilson’s campaign train passes through the Texas Panhandle and the migrant workers line up to see it as it passes. One can imagine Schonberg and his ilk asking, “What was all that about?” While you can’t say they should know, at the same time you know what they miss because they don’t know. This is the cinema of allusion and if we are unable to connect with such allusion we are the poorer for it.