Hooray for Colonialism!

Or what happens when you look at a textbook from 1917.

I was forced to rapidly pack up and move my office today.  It was for good reasons (a promotion), but I thought I'd have a couple of weeks to leisurely move a box at a time.  According to the painters, however, I had to get out today.

In a rush of packing, I not only recycled a ton of paper (and thought of a nice post about going paperless!) but also came across some books I'd forgotten about.  One of these books was given to me by my father, who retrieved in from my grandparent's house when things were being sorted out after both grandparents had passed away.  It's my grandmother's geography textbook, printed in 1917 -- Maury's New Elements Geography, South Carolina Edition.

This book is fascinating, showing us what the average American student was taught about the rest of the world in the early 20th Century and showing what at least some of the world was like in the 1910's.

I know the scan is hard to read, but it features places like "Belgian Kongo", "British East Africa" and "Rhodesia."

Speaking of Africa: "most of the natives are savages.  Many of them used to be constantly fighting and making slaves of one another.  European nations are stopping this."  Umm. . .

Did you know that Damascus (which is near Africa) "is the oldest city in the world.  It looks beautiful at a distance."  Too bad it is actually "dirty and ruinous."

And there is the chapter on "Races of Men."  You know what's coming here.  I'll stay away from the really cringe-worthy stuff and go to the classifications of civilization, from lowest to highest:

1.  Savages
2.  Barbarous (they can at least grow crops!)
3.  "We will now visit some people who live very much better than the barbarous people.  They are the Chinese, who go to bed at about the time we arise."  They, by the way, are half civilized.
4.  Of course, we white people are enlightened.  Go us!

And, of course, "many Mohammedans are but half-civilized".  Hindus don't even rank as a full religion and are simply lumped in with all the other pagans.  Come to think of it, that's pretty cringe-worthy, too.

When I think about it as a gaming resource, it makes much of the stuff in it a little less scary.  The book is a perfect background for the haughty colonialist in your next 1920's pulp game.  The starched shirt British officer, dedicated to moving the native peoples of the Empire up the scale of civilization: "Dammit, Johnson!  If we could just gets these barbarous people out of their tents and into real buildings, we could at least get them half-civilized!  Make them quarry more stone.  And go ahead and smash their pagan idols while you're at it.  I am sure all that talk of a curse is just rubbish!"

And, of course, Cthulhu eats the enlightened and the barbarous alike. :)


  1. This is fascinating. I think sometimes we forget that the racist attitudes, or at the very least, ignorant attitudes of our forefathers were the norm rather than the exception since the world today is so much different. Great post!

  2. That would be Lewis H Morgan with the savagery and barbarism. I've considered playing an uppity or wryly amused barbarian sometime: suave, multicultural, totally hip to the dominant discourse, apt to drop in bits of Polari.
    Hindus don't even rank as a full religion and are simply lumped in with all the other pagans.
    ...there's an argument that Hinduism is actually the invention of British colonial officers who were determined to find "the Indian religion" and weren't willing to accept the idea that there were hundreds or thousands of semi-related, often contradictory traditions that they would never be able to know about adequately. What is Pagan, anyway, but non-Christian?

  3. As an archaeologist, I enjoy considering the old notions of "savage" and "barbarian", which today we called by other names, but often carry the same fundamental evolutionary (and sometimes teleological and racist) baggage. In my office I have a list of concepts that strike me every so often, and one was from a syllabus from V. Gordon Childe while at Cambridge in the 1930s (IIRC) that had as a lecture topic "The transition from savagery to barbarism". Nowadays we talk about the emergence of ranked societies or social hierarchies, chiefdoms, etc., but none of it has the same charm.

  4. So wrong and yet, at the same time, such an awesome game resource.

  5. Oh man, in my trawling through the public domain I find some vile stuff. One book on the Indians of North America talked about how they were childlike and that this was a good reason to teach kids about them.

    I was looking at a safari book today and the gorillas and lions killed for no good reason made me sad.

  6. @Richard -- thanks for the Morgan and Polari references. I hadn't encountered either.

    @Spawn -- it is a teleological misunderstanding of evolution that's the issue here.

    @telecanter -- not to mention the buffalo.


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