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Anti Conquest: Civilization’s Would Be Savior Essay

3280 words - 13 pages

Anti-Conquest: Civilization’s would-be Savior

Starting with the publication of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, Europe thought of itself as a supremely rational people who could ultimately conquer the world around them with nothing more than the vaulting powers of their own reason. Indeed, this attitude would dominate European thought for centuries. Working under this ethos, Europe built up a massive colonial empire and realized the dream that was global hegemony. In many tangible ways, the road to this massive global empire was paved by European science in the form of the naturalist movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most early expeditions to foreign continents were conducted in the hopes of exhaustively classifying local flora and fauna, though the purely scientific nature of these trips is often called into question. Regardless of their initial motivation however, these naturalists fanned out across the globe, their trusty European reason in hand and a confident air of rational superiority about them. Each scientist would, once his journeys were complete, send back to Europe his semi-factual, semi-adventurous musings. Over time the greater majority of these works built up to become the genre of ‘travel writing.’ A modern scholar may well be inclined to look back on these works as evidence of the racism and egocentrism that defined the European consciousness at this period in history, as the works themselves evidenced a strong belief in the prevailing stereotypes of the time. Focusing specifically on European imperialism, Mary Louise Pratt notes how the psychological effects of travel writing on the European populace contributed to the later acceptance of imperial policies. While accurate in her analysis of the effects of travel writing, Pratt fails to address the cause of this genre’s popularity and the implication this has on how we ought view the aggressive attitudes of the time. Using Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle and selections from Pratt’s own Imperial Eyes, I will here address how the art of travel writing, essentially a type of sociological propaganda, is more accurately viewed as a subconscious reflex used by European naturalists when they came to realize the true power of Nature in relation to their Civilization. While this feeling would receive literal realization in more modern writers, Conrad and Golding come to mind, the recognition that European civilization would ultimately be unable to withstand the primal power of the wilderness has haunted Europe since it first glimpsed the heart of darkness, and it is this fear that drove Europe, if not to its domination of the world, at least to its cavalier and often brutal attitude towards those it saw as Nature’s emissaries.

In Imperial Eyes, Pratt correctly argues that the rise of European imperialism can be attributed, if not directly linked, to the attitudes implied by the subtle trends and patterns that can be seen in the...

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