Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Empire Building in the South Seas

I've been reading "Narrative of the Voyages Round the World by Captain James Cook," because, um, I don't know, it was a free Kindle book?  And I'm teaching the long 19th century this semester, the textbook of which includes, early on, a painting by the on-board painter for one of Cook's early trips.

I am finding the absolute arrogance of Cook and the British (and the narrator) simply *breathtaking*.  The casual racism and sexism I was expecting.  Offensive,  but I knew what I'd be getting into.  What's really taking my breath away is the casual environmental colonization/invasion of the South Seas islands by these guys who really seem to think they're doing the natives a favor.  How?  By introducing non-native species of plants and animals.  Sometimes they do it by gift, but occasionally they just sneak into the woods, plant a garden full of turnips and carrots and stuff, and sneak away.  Or they'll drop off a pair of goats on a non-inhabited section of an island.  Or, ye gods, this one island?  They gave 'em rabbits.  RABBITS.  On an island.  I remember hearing that Australia still has a feral rabbit problem, they keep eating all the grass and crowding out native grass-eaters.  Thanks, Captain Cook! 

My favorite (as in, the most egregious example) is this one: a chief took a fancy to the cats on board.  So they left him twenty cats.  On an island.  Full of tropical birds without any feline predators for centuries, eons, or possibly ever. What?  They were HELPING!  Really!  I mean, these poor savages, they had never eaten chicken in their lives, or mutton, or turnips.  Oh, the humanity.  Such noblesse,  Such consideration.  "Here, have some invasive European species for your lovely little island eco-system."

Oh, and have I mentioned the syphilis?  Yeah, it's not alluded to explicitly but it's clear enough that he's talking about "accidentally" "introducing" syphilis to various island communities.

I can hear it now: "Oh, Britannia, thank you!  Thank you for the rabbits, and turnips, and the syphilis!"

Naturally, as I approach the end of the book (Spoiler Alert!) I am cheering on the natives of one of the Hawaiian islands as they take out the sorry SOB.   Unfortunately, the damage was done.  The mischief managed.  All in the name of science, exploration, and in the belief that Europeans were a vastly, unquestionably superior race. 

I have a whole other rant about the discourse regarding cannibalism in said account, but that's for another day. 

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

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So the station controller sent another train to pick up the activists, and with a heavy heart, had another engine come to tow away the little engine that couldn't, so zee could be scrapped and turned into something useful.

Jezebella said...

Uh, what? Belabored long-winded metaphor?