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Conquest: How Societies Overwhelm Others by…

Conquest: How Societies Overwhelm Others

by David Day

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The Laws of Conquest

The history of humanity has always been one of people on the move, usually entering territories that were already occupied by others. This process is still ongoing in places like Australia, Indonesia, and Botswana. Unlike classical colonialism that had less to do with supplanting the existing population, it has grown even more profoundly influential on the original occupants.

According to this book the history of most societies can best be understood when they are seen as part of a never-ending struggle to make particular territories their own.

Whatever their geographic situation, societies have to guard against a weakening of their internal strength and viability, while also guarding against the territorial ambitions of their neighbours. It is only when such challenges arise that societies discover if the links they have developed to the land can be sustained or whether they will be conquered or perhaps have to look for new lands to occupy.

This process goes through three phases. First a de jure claim to the land, e.g. by raising a flag. It is followed by making the claim effective by de facto proprietorship over the territory by exploring its reaches, naming its (geographic) features, fortifying its borders, etc. Most important is peopling the invaded lands. The indigenous people must be absorbed, expelled, annihilated, or otherwise forced to acknowledge that they have been subjected. New stories and songs must be invented to invest the invaders with a deep sense of belonging to the land. This process is never-ending. The last and most elusive step is a claim of moral proprietorship of the land. It is a claim must even outweigh the claim of the previous inhabitants. Supplanting societies will commonly justify their invasion as bringing a higher order of civilisation, economic organisation or religion to hitherto more savage lands.

Columbus rose the Spanish flag and claimed every island after rowing on shore and establishing that his claim was not contradicted. Fearing the Portuguese and the Turks more than the natives he erected "a very large cross" in every harbour and on every suitable promontory. Columbus used notaries when staking his claims. Russia sent scientific expeditions to Siberia after a first batch of Cossacks, basically to a land already known. The Dutch rose their flag on Tasmania, and nailed boards to Mauritius (also in Spanish) and on the Atlantic coast of North America, although it impressed neither the English nor the Swedes. James Cook was happy discovering that New Zealand consisted of two island as it eased his claim for England vis-a-vis Tasman's a century earlier.

Maps were important proof of having been their first and good maps and descriptions were a first proof of obtaining the land. In the case of the Scramble of Africa, claiming your place on the map did not even require surveying it. Ethnic majorities could sustain the claim of a whole area. The claiming maps of India and Indonesia would later be used by the newly de-colonised states, often to the detriment of local minorities. Naming a place is another aspect of a strengthened your claim. Matthew Flinders named a continent Australia to incorporate the "old"names of New Holland and New South Wales, particularly when the French started surveying and naming. Even in those days good names like Virginia and New England also had marketing value to attract settlers and investors.

Castles play both a defensive and a signalling rule in the defense of newly conquered lands. Natural borders like mountain ranges work, artificial ones (think the wall developed by the Israelis and the Great Wall of China do not).

The assessment of the local inhabitants can be changed to meet new realities. Tasmanian aboriginals were first considered "noble savages", but when the British had decided to occupy the island that image was turned into "savages". Disposession is mostly driven by greed, but it is usually necessary to dress up thje dispossion in more respectable garb. Supplanters often juxtaposed their own rational city culture against the people populating forests and mountains. On a different scale that included the nazi-propaganda for the attacks on Poland and Russia.

Conquest can get animistic. At the end of the war Churchil urinated first on the Siegfried line fortifications and later in the River Rhine. Blood sacrifices create historical references that are used to create an identity as much in Australia (Gallipoli) as in Israel (Masada) or Serbia (1389 battle of Kosovo).

Constantinople was invested with Christian holy objects to make it a place worth fighting for and with the protective powers of those objects. When Mehmet II overcame these powers, he deliberately invested the place with his own Muslim objects of the prophet Muhamed. Still, when in the 17th century the British ambassador wanted to ship home some Christian objects, the people of Istanbul protested.

In the West monuments and ethnographic museums drew on the past grandeur of conquered empires. This was later changed into a mission civilitrice.

The process described in this book would be called signaling by evolutionary biologists. The human animal needs justification for his aggression towards others. The book concentrates on European and New World examples, but it could also be applied elsewhere, according to the author. He proofs that by using a few examples from Japan. I find this restriction somewhat pitiful, given the specific character of Western expansion (in the name of institutions like "king and fatherland", see When Asia was the World) and the importance of formal legal structures used in the European conquest. Equally, the book fails to describe why certain conquests are more successful than others. How come the Europeans could enforce their religion on South America and much of Africa and not on the Middle East and the Far East? What are the parameters for true cultural conquest, where occupied take over the culture of the conquerors? Maybe the author can answer such questions in another book. ( )
1 vote mercure | Apr 25, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0195340116, Hardcover)

In this bold, sweeping book, David Day surveys the ways in which one nation or society has supplanted another, and then sought to justify its occupation - for example, the English in Australia and North America, the Normans in England, the Spanish in Mexico, the Japanese in Korea, the Chinese in Tibet. Human history has been marked by territorial aggression and expanion, an endless cycle of ownership claims by dominant cultures over territory occupied by peoples unable to resist their advance. Day outlines the strategies, violent and subtle, such dominant cultures have used to stake and bolster their claims - by redrawing maps, rewriting history, recourse to legal argument, creative renaming, use of foundation stories, tilling of the soil, colonization and of course outright subjugation and even genocide. In the end the claims they make reveal their own sense of identity and self-justifying place in the world. This will be an important book, an accessible and captivating macro-narrative about empire, expansion, and dispossession.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:45 -0400)

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"The history of the world has been the history of peoples on the move, as they occupy new lands and establish their claims over them. Almost invariably, this has meant the violent dispossession of the previous inhabitants. David Day tells the story of how this happened - the ways in which invaders have triumphed and justified conquest which, as he shows, is a bloody and often prolonged process that can last centuries."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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