The Colonization Game

After the 21st time I saw “land back” spray painted on buildings and toppled monuments in Portland, I mused on this popular notion of rethinking colonization. There are folks who are now decolonizing almost everything. Decolonize mathematics. Decolonize science. I have spent much of my life studying history both on my own and in various university settings. Of course, I understand the human catastrophes that can occur when one culture with advanced technology meets another who may be sociologically and spiritually sophisticated but haven’t turned the corner to develop contemporary technology. (News flash: Tech wins.) Look at the number of science fiction stories based on advanced aliens showing up on earth to herd and eat the backward humans with a fine chianti. But, as I studied the current advocates of critical theory views of colonization, it occurred to me that there are gaping holes in their premise. As is often case: time and context. So, let’s try something different, an idea that I, a retired dude in the wind with no need to please an employer, can do with abandon. Let’s build the Colonization Game. I will base this on what I think I know. I am not citing sources… okay.

In the dusty past of my undergraduate years, the sociology department did a two-day exercise called: Simulated Society. Scattered around an academic building, we gave teams the basics of an imagined world. They then had to grow their society and interact with the other societies (folks in other rooms) in increasingly stressful circumstances. The controller of the scenarios was a skinny, bearded, acid infused, speed freak, Dead Head, senior who was wound way too tight. He, of course, anointed himself “God.” (BTW he never completed his senior project after a psychotic break while staying awake for 5 days on speed. But I think that makes the “God” name even more apt.) Still, he probably ended up making a pile of dough and is currently ensconced in a luxurious condo on a golf course in Florida.

Baring the chaos of speed and acid, what if we were to design a college class where the students divided into competing groups of colonizers from about the 14th to 18th centuries? Then we put them in imaginary sail boats and have them set off for Africa and the Americas. Much of the term would have to be spent setting the historical context of both the existing cultures of the target lands and the full range of historical characteristics of the soon to be colonizers. The game would require the students to make all choices based solely on the moral, ethical, economic, political, scientific and religious knowledge of the empires they represent. Monarchies of various flavors were universal. The guiding question is: If colonization is de facto evil, then students, given the historical context, what would you do differently? No cheating. No 21st century knowledge allowed. When you stepped ashore, what would you do?

I have concluded that the most important missing part of the current critique of colonization is religion. Pick a tribe. Islam, Christianity, even animistic belief systems, religion is both an essential motivating factor and provides the basis on which colonists would judge the (shall we call them natives?). Native, as in native to a place and time. Religions, in part, exist to define the other. Heathens or infidels, anyone who was not associated with the dominant religion was, by definition, inferior. A native could only hope to attain any status by submission and conversion. Their existing religious beliefs? Meaningless. That’s the context. Much is made in the 21st century that natives, either as individuals or communities, were not seen as human. Yes! Students, your only choice in the Colonialization Game is to see every native person you meet as inferior, if not evil, as they do not understand monotheism. Much colonial brutality begins in religion.

It is easy to forget that all life in those historical periods was short and brutal. Even in their countries of origin, other believers were subject to institutional dehumanization. It was common to punish humans in the most grotesque ways. Boiling alive, skinning alive, impalement, slow death by dismemberment. In the old-world, life was cheap, and the degradation of humans was a happy public spectacle. Even before they set foot on the boats, the intrepid explorers were a scary bunch. However, based our understanding of native cultures so where the peoples on other continents. Human sacrifice was a common activity. As was conquest and slavery. The game would teach students to let go of the native paradise myth. Alas, humans were human everywhere.

What of disease? Both in the old and new worlds, no one understood how disease worked. Cures comprised incantations, herbs, and bleeding out the evil. Often in the discussion of colonization, a key point is the genocide of the natives. But we now understand that the death of native civilizations was first, and foremost, an accident of biology followed by conscious destruction. Native Americans were already dying in plagues before the first Europeans set foot on the now eastern American coast. Northern east coast tribes were exposed to fatal diseases that worked down from current day Canada. Disease essentially eliminated the Caribbean natives. But this was always going to be the case… right? At some point, immune cultures were going to travel and meet immunocompromised people. Plague was always coming. It was just a matter of when. The natives had a good run, 10,000+ years, but their immune systems were a ticking death clock. Students, how do you as a colonizer deal with disease and the sudden disappearance of the native population? Remember, wars back home in your Europe are expensive and your charter, your sworn holy duty, is to ship back anything of value that will keep your monarch afloat in the many European wars. Given your job, your religion, and the disappearing labor pools, what do you do?

Well, slavery, of course. Students let’s consider that at this moment on the planet there are about 40 million slaves and indentured servants. Our collective ability to look away from that data is remarkable and consistent. It’s a practice virtually eliminated in the former colonial powers. Now the centers are in Northern Africa, the Middle East, Indian sub-continent, and Asia. Slavery was, and is, a labor multiplier. Conquest always had as a benefit, free labor. Water-powered mills were function specific. Before the invention of the steam engine, there was no way to concentrate labor except slaves in concert with draft animals. (Disclaimer: Slavery always bad.)

In the Americas, slavery was common. Our Pacific Northwest tribes had slaves along the Willamette. They disfigured the slave bodies so there would be no confusion as to the person’s status. The Native Americans who were marched east on the Trail of Tears took their black slaves with them. Only recently have those descendants in Oklahoma resolved legal claims to the wealth that tribal leaders tried to take away from them. Besides working any diseased survivors to death, the economic imperative of the colonizers was to replace that labor, thus the slave trade with Africa. The slave trade was well established in Africa before colonization. In fact, Europeans quickly learned that the most effective way to collect humans was to use the existing human trafficking system. So, imaginary Conquistadors and Virginia settlers, with the tools and morals of the time, what do you do about slavery? Was there any chance that a higher, or different morality, could have affected such well-established economic practices?

Few intellectual exercises are more flaccid than applying 21st century morals and ethics to the past. To be sure, one can draw winding and direct lines from the processes of colonization to the current world. Exploring the discrete outcomes is a useful endeavor. However, painting the world with the banner of all colonialization bad is not a useful path. It’s a meat cleaver when a scalpel needed. And, if one insists on applying the label of colonization then I think there is an obligation to broaden the lens and recognize the commonality of the practice. Humans have always expanded geographically and politically. There is nothing unique about the European experience. Spend some time looking at empires, the Romans, the Greeks, the Ottomans, the Visigoths, the Egyptians, the Carthaginians, Imperial China, and you will discover patterns in the application of power that are not unique to any culture or time. Colonization is an inevitable and natural human social process.

I believe the Colonization Game would challenge students in 2 ways. First, it would force them to reckon with progress. Cultural encounters are often defined by technical advantages. The power of the Roman army was its ability to build roads and military tactics based on the short sword and shield. Arguably, their invention of concrete was a pillar of their empire. It is most useful to examine the juncture of technology and cultural clashes beyond implying those who possess the advanced technology are morally bankrupt.

The second challenge would be for students to grapple with colonialization as a natural human process. Yes, I am going there. As I have played the game with myself; I have discovered that in context what happened was always going to happen. I can’t account for individual cruelties. If anyone has an idea how to do that, then let me know because there is genocide and organized rape happening today in northern Africa. We saw the same in the break-up of Yugoslavia in Europe just miles from the great European capitols of the world. And that was an event with direct connections to the Muslim colonization of parts of Eastern Europe. To dehumanize the Bosnian Muslims, the Serbs called them “Turks.” All colonization echoes.

Waving the flag of “colonialization” in our current context is rarely helpful. I think it feels good for some. It’s a rhetorical tactic with some effect. The problem is that it also seems that making colonialization the enabling narrative is another way to stay stuck. We have gained much in western Enlightenment. Most importantly, empowering the individual over the tribe. We need better enriching and layering of all historical narratives. We need more history, not less.

The process of cultural expansion is often brutal and murderous. Try this thought experiment. If the Aztecs, at the height of their civilization, had discovered metal forging, shipbuilding, the chemistry of gunpowder, and used their considerable understanding of the heavens to fill those ships and sail to Europe, would we have had the colonization in reverse? If they could have been expansionist, why would the outcome have been any different?

            It turns out that the Colonization Game is about empathy. What? To truly understand history, one needs to empathize with both the conquered and the conqueror. Embrace their collective ignorance, the limits of their times. That’s a tough one, but humans are resoundingly confusing. We should overlay more complexity on geopolitics. I think the Colonization Game would help us better understand that complexity by forcing students to spend some time in the boots and boats of the explorers.

As usual, I welcome dissenting views.

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