Saturday, April 11, 2009

Contrasts in history: The example of Prostestant colonialism

History’s biggest insights lie in understanding contrasts. Why did things turn out a certain way in one part of the world and so differently elsewhere? Answers to such questions can be revealing. After Columbus’ journey to the Americas, Europeans sailed to all inhabited continents. The results have been very different: in most of Africa and Asia, they left eventually, leaving the natives to figure out their post-colonial trajectories; in Mexico and South America, they mixed with the natives, giving rise to the mestizo; and in North America and Australia, they almost entirely displaced the existing indigenous population. Understanding these differences and their associated circumstances explains to a large extent why the world is the way it is today. This was also the subject of Jared Diamond’s superb Guns, Germs and Steel.

Recently, while reading Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles (earlier posts here and here), I found a fascinating comparative study that builds on the same idea though on a smaller scale. Dowden’s analysis has to do with Protestant groups that colonized peoples in different parts of the world. He first compares the Afrikaners of South Africa (who were Protestants), and the Ulster Protestants of Ireland:
“While working in Northern Ireland in the late 1970s, I had begun to notice the strong parallels with South Africa. The most striking parallel was between the Afrikaners and the Ulster Protestants. Both had arrived as colonists during periods of religious persecution in seventeenth century Europe. Both embraced orange as their color, derived from the House of Orange, the Dutch monarchy who had stood out against the Hapsburg Catholics. The hero of the Irish Protestants was William III, the Dutch king who finally defeated the Catholic James II and established Protestant British rule in Ireland. The Afrikaners were Dutch Protestants fleeing Catholic persecution in the Netherlands...

The Ulster and South African varieties of Protestant fundamentalism had a lot in common. Theirs was a whole world view, an attitude to the meaning of life, self and land. Both believed that they were God’s chosen people, rewarded for their faithfulness by the gift of the land they now occupied. The fact they had won the land by conquest reinforced in their minds the idea that God was on their side. They also believed in the puritan values of hard work, thrift and honesty. When I heard an Afrikaner clergyman talk of black Africans as lazy, dirty and unpunctual, I could have been listening to some of the militant followers of Ian Paisley, the Ulster Protestant political clergyman, talking about Catholics.
Now throw into the mix yet another Protestant group, which would go on to build one of the most successful and powerful nations in the world, and things become even more interesting:
A third group of migrating Dutch and English Protestants left their homes at the same time as the Afrikaners first settled in South Africa. They sailed west rather than south and helped found the most liberal state known to humankind, the United States of America. They too were informed by the puritan ethic and the gratifying feeling that God had rewarded them with land of their own. But although they were liberal towards each other, the new Americans overwhelmed – and virtually exterminated – the native population. If today’s white South Africans are colonists, so are the non-indigenous populations of North and South America, Australia and New Zealand. The only difference is in the numbers of surviving native peoples. In the United States, descendents of the original inhabitants represent 1.5 percent of the population, in Canada it is 2 percent, in Brazil less than 0.4 percent. Aboriginals make up 2.4 percent of Australians. The Maori make up 14.6 percent of New Zealand’s population, though only 4.3 percent use Maori as their first language. In South Africa, the indigenous people are 75 per cent of the population. I once heard an Afrikaner quip to an American diplomat trying to foist non-racial constitution on South Africa, ‘At least we left our natives alive.’
There is truth to that assertion (though it's a ridiculous and completely unacceptable excuse for Afrikaner colonialism and apartheid). Whatever the ignominies black South Africans have had to go through, and whatever their troubles in post-apartheid South Africa, they at least have a chance to define their own destiny now. As do other formerly colonized peoples of Africa and Asia. I do not mean to trivialize the problems such nations face. But when an entire continent is silenced through a combination of devastating disease outbreaks (inadvertent) and relentless land-grabbing and conquest – as happened in North America and Australia – there is little a people can do. So, while the Indians of India may rejoice their country’s increasing presence on the global stage, the Indians of North America can only look back and ponder at what might have been.

It is the most tragic thing that can happen to a people: suffering a demographic decline that robs them of their chance in history.

2 comments:

Khalil Sawant said...

The worst case has been of Tasmania
The Europeans arrived in Tasmania in 1801-02
By 1864, the last ab-original Tasmanian was dead

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