Victor Kiernan and the lords of human kind

Print edition : May 15, 2015

The "Ark of Return", a memorial to honour the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, after it was unveiled at the U.N. headquarters in New York on March 25. Photo: EDUARDO MUNOZ/REUTERS

Victor Kiernan. Photo: By Special Arrangement

WHEN Victor Kiernan wrote his masterly depiction of European attitudes to other cultures in the Imperial Age, it was much more than an encyclopaedic historical treatise. It was an eloquent reminder of the habits of thought that can be developed both to encourage and to justify the many acts of injustice and brutality that tend to accompany colonial encounters and other forms of forcible Western penetration.

The book was first published in 1969, but it has recently been brought out in a new edition with a perceptive foreword by John Trumpbour and a charming tribute by Kiernan’s longstanding friend Eric Hobsbawm ( The Lords of Human Kind: European Attitudes to Other Cultures in the Imperial Age, Zed Books, London, 2015). And it shows beyond any doubt how insightful this work remains nearly half a century later, and how relevant it still is for understanding cross-cultural and cross-border economic encounters today. Kiernan wore his extraordinary erudition lightly, and so the book is magisterial but never heavy. It is peppered with sly wit and smooth irony, with sometimes-gory details provided in apparently casual fashion but subtly linked to his always perspicacious analysis. Little gems of humour and insight lie studded across his analysis, which covers a vast realm: a historical period of more than two centuries and a geographical sweep of the entire planet. The book covers the various European rulers’ attitudes to India, colonies in Asia such as Malaya and Indonesia, China, the Islamic world, Africa, the South Seas, and Latin America.

The basic insight is expressed succinctly: “At the zenith of its physical power in the world, Europe was at the nadir of its moral capacity to lead it, or even to reform itself” (page 30). There are other related points. The sheer violence and aggression of the expansions was justified in terms of white European supremacy on various moral, religious, organisational and other counts, which tended to be accepted through their constant repetition. But the brutalising nature of the colonial encounters tended to rebound on these countries themselves, culminating in the internal wars and the emergence of very dark political forces within Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

The drive to colonial expansion in various countries of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries was typically justified by appeals to the forces of economic progress and to the “civilising” burden of what they defined as the more developed societies. “Westerners impregnated with their new ethos of change, progress, energy, invested Commerce with the same divine right that monarchy formerly claimed, and were irresistibly tempted to resort to force. They could feel that by doing so they were doing right.... To knock down decrepit regimes was to liberate peoples from the crushing burden of their past” (pages 23-24).

Kiernan is deft in bringing out differences across the various colonial rulers, which emanated from their own political economies and social histories, and how these played out in their colonial encounters. Some of these differences resonate today. So, for example, there was a time when the French “hugged the idea of civilising colonial peoples so completely that they would be ‘assimilated’ to European standards. This was an idea that marked them off from both the British and the Dutch. Britain was prepared to give some of its subjects Western knowledge, Holland to give some of them Western husbands: France proposed in addition to give them Western souls, to translate them into Frenchmen” (page 97). But the “ideal of assimilation soon wilted under contact with the realities of colonial profit-making” (page 98). In practice, the French, like the Dutch and the British, were “irresistibly pushed into alliance with the old parasitic ruling classes” (page 99). Dutch rule, in turn, was seen as “a peculiarly remorseless, undeviating, phlegmatic exploitation. Free from all romantic illusion, this oldest of bourgeois countries reckoned silkworms, pepper plants, peasants, all as items in a balance sheet” (page 91).

In general, political control was justified on the grounds that the conditions in the controlled societies were so dreadful that the Europeans necessarily came in as saviours. Homelands were always depicted as being in frightful conditions of misrule or chaos (Malaya) or prone to appalling social practices (India and China). Debt-slavery was highlighted and emphasised to generate shock among the British public, “little as the reality might differ from indentured labour on a British plantation” (page 86).

The fact that the natives did not always respond with gratitude at this deliverance was a frequent source of annoyance and irritation. “The haughtiest conqueror has moods of regret that he is not loved, and Burma was hugged as a consolation for India” (page 82). But that too proved to be but a fleeting compensation. Kiernan describes the bewilderment of an officer who finds to his dismay people did not after all seem to have been so unhappy under their old regime, “and gave no evidence of rejoicing at our coming” (page 83).

The book brings out how “outsourcing” is not really a discovery of contemporary capitalism, but was practised with alacrity by the governments of colonial powers from at least the 18th century onwards. Kiernan notes that it suited European governments to leave the “pacification” of wild areas to unofficial agencies so that they themselves could “disclaim responsibility for any incidental blemishes” (page 90). When public misgivings did arise in England about the doings of various of these private players, for example, the British North Borneo Company, they had the likes of Gladstone to defend them. “It was a specialty of his to make dirty linen look like it had been washed in public” (page 91).

And this tendency continued even in the later period of European empires. “Despite the lamentable record of the old English and Dutch East India Companies in the treatment of native peoples, ‘development’ (in the late 19th century) was again being entrusted very largely to chartered companies of private speculators” (page 234).

Violence against natives

The forcible induction of China into what European powers were wont to term the “comity of nations” through the Opium Wars (page 153) was just one example of the many ways in which European self-interest generated both economic and political forces of control. Kiernan points to one Osborn, writing on China in the 19th century, who saw clearly enough that “the West had become dependent economically on the world and therefore must make the world dependent politically on it” (pages 158-9). In a prescient passage, it was noted that “China might turn into a menace in two ways, economically and militarily. If modern industry were forced on the Chinese, it was said, these toiling myriads would flood the world with their products. It was a hair-raising prospect, and one writer confessed to feeling grateful that ‘after all, the denouement is unlikely to crop up in our time’” (page 177).

In the meantime, the cruelty and violence with which the native populations were treated could be justified in various ways. In China, for example, foreigners were tempted to console themselves with the thought that “in this race, schooled by aeons of suffering, physical sensation was mercifully blunted; that Chinese were more or less impervious to pain, as well as inscrutable” (page 169). Similarly, views were expressed for Africans, and in Haiti, where H.H. Prichard argued that “negroes have far duller nerves and are less susceptible to pain than Europeans” (page 208). This justified not just outright killing and torture but also the slave trade. “That black people had only second-rate souls, and that they were better off as slaves, even in Turkey, than in their own land, was a conviction that faded very slowly from the European mind” (page 211). Resilience in turn could become a weapon to be used against the native. “It was widely suggested that Africans only understood force and positively enjoyed being ruled with a rod of iron” (page 244). Kiernan argues that “it was the endurance of the African, where other enslaved races sank under the white man’s burdens, that made him so profitable; while his weakness in collective organisation in his own land made him an easy prey. It warped his masters, Arab or Turk, Spaniard or Englishman, as much as it degraded him: it conditioned western Europe to think of all ‘native’ peoples as destined bondsmen” (page 205).

The degradation of other peoples was even greater when they were openly manipulated and conned, with their subjugation being seen as evidence of their inherently inferior nature. “With the scramble for territory went the humbug of ‘treaties’, scraps of paper that chiefs were cajoled or bullied into signing, and with them signing away lands that did not belong to them” (page 235), and yet such figures were then despised and seen as figures of fun by the very Europeans that had instigated them to do it.

The European “settlers” in different colonies reflected extreme positions that such attitudes could take. “That undeveloped races could not adapt themselves to ‘civilisation’ and were bound to die out had come to be taken for granted by many pioneers. From believing this to expediting their departure to another world was no great step” (page 276). In Australia, as in other continents, “the argument was heard that natives had no souls, so that killing them was nothing like murder. Like any killing, it could come to be viewed as sport.” Late in the 19th century, a man in Queensland showed a visitor “a particular bend in the river where he had once, as a jest, driven a black family, man, woman and children, into the water among a shoal of crocodiles” (page 279).

Once again, this was a form of outsourcing by Europe to its settler population abroad, that delivered economic benefits without causing any headaches of moral or ethical concerns about the conditions faced by native peoples.

In the case of New Zealand, for example, the conditions of the Maori and their exploitation at the hands of British settlers were simply ignored. England reserved no right and recognised no duty to protect the native population, and was free to collect its dividends or eat its frozen mutton without looking too closely into how they were produced. Tacit agreement was spreading in Europe with the doctrine of men on the spot that primitive races were bound to be displaced, even to die out, very much as a large crop of annual accidents in mines or mills at home was accepted. “Progress has to be paid for, preferably by someone else” (pages 279-280).

What Kiernan does bring out is that such barbarity to others ultimately rebounded on Europe, in the form of a greater tendency to violence and lack of humanism that then expressed itself in various forms. In Russia, for example, “the habit of quelling barbarians in Asia reinforced feudal instincts at home, and the ferocity of the Whites in the civil war after 1917, whose infection spread to the Bolsheviks, must have owed something to it” (page 105). Similarly, he notes that the same devastation that Africans or invaders had inflicted on Africa would fall on Europe (page 247). In Latin America, Europe made “its first serious acquaintance with dictatorship, little guessing how this exotic growth was to transplant itself onto its own soil” with the emergence of Hitler and Mussolini.

“Those to whom evil is done/do evil in return,” goes W.H. Auden’s famous poem. Kiernan’s piercing insight, still a very contemporary one, is that evil, however covered up and sanctified, comes home in often unexpected ways.

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