A passionately written history of four episodes in European imperialism by environmentalist and journalist Cocker (Loneliness and Time, 1993).
Colonial explorations in Asia, America, and Africa made the Europeans conscious of their own prosperity and raised questions in their minds about the capacity of other races and civilizations to advance as far as they had. European judgments of their overseas subjects were conditioned by their own insecurities about stepping forward, of course: the conquistadores, for example, believed that their advanced technologies, weapons, and Christianity justified the extermination of the Aztecs, whose taste for human sacrifice haunted the Spaniards’ aspirations for religious glory and martial honor. After the genocidal Black War, and as the violent appropriation of hunting and gathering lands continued to obliterate the culture and the lives of the aboriginal Tasmanians, English colonists complacently wondered if the native inhabitants’ depression and listlessness were signs that God had appointed them to displace the natives. And even after they had ruthlessly corralled every Apache onto reservations, white Americans thought that the widespread alcoholism among the tribes was a symbol of racial decline. While Cocker attacks the idea of progress as a justification for conquest—arguing that even the present age is no exception to the patterns of the past 500 years—he insists that we must make progress toward a more fuller understanding of European crimes if we are to make native peoples’ history a part of our own. Whether they want their history to be a part of our story is a question that Cocker does not entertain. Nor does he hesitate to recommend as a cure the very concept that, by his own admission, led to the disease: progress. After all, the Europeans whom Cocker studies had no trouble adopting the idea of progress as a solution to the problems wrought by their bloody conquests.
Perhaps Cocker’s fervent and entertaining prose should warn us about how readily we accept progress as an answer to war, conquest, and genocide.