One of my favourite books is The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. In it humanity encounters a civilization on another planet. The first to go are adventurers, scientists and surprisingly, the Jesuits. It is a complex book, but the theme that resonat...

First Contact

One of my favourite books is The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. In it humanity encounters a civilization on another planet. The first to go are adventurers, scientists and surprisingly, the Jesuits. It is a complex book, but the theme that resonates with me is the inevitability of this contact going wrong. I have been studying the history of the initial contacts between European and indigenous cultures in the 16th and 17th centuries. Social history tells us that everyday life for many in the west was difficult to say the least. They struggled with basic human issues like hygiene, nutrition, and dealing with frequent sudden death. Never mind attitudes of religious fanaticism, women’s rights and tribal loyalties we have to consider repugnant today. When these people came into contact with totally different cultures, they did not behave well at all. They were ignorant, racist and exploitative. Yet even those who were not introduced ideas and diseases that condemned the populations of the North American, South American, African and Indian continents to defeat, near disintegration of their societies and the long period of colonial control.

It is fatuous to claim that some aspects of these damaged cultures were anything but cruel. Slavery is not a western invention, nor was torture, war or grotesque religious murder. I just wonder how it could have gone differently, knowing what life was like in the west and how unprepared the cultures of the indigenous societies were to deal with the Europeans when they came. A tragedy for the native peoples in most cases, of course. (A lesson to the Japanese, who were forced late in to this game as well. They looked at how things went and the Meiji emperor and his advisors acted.) Even the well intentioned brought new religions, ideas about property, sexual practices, foods and drugs. Trade and contact went both ways but the westerners were better at war and hardier. The `winners` `were predetermined.

I guess I am uncomfortable with the moralizing that is sometimes done. Look at the life of the ordinary person in the west. His or her life was poor by any of our our standards. Even the rich would suffer every day indignities we might be overwhelmed by. And that came over in the ships of the explorers, along with the diseases that did most of the work destroying native societies. Add to this the impact of new ideas and technologies brought without malice that cannot be restrained. The expansion of the west changed the world. How could it have been otherwise.

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