Posts Tagged ‘Amerindians’

Mexico’s 19th Century Anti-Racist Constitution

June 8, 2023

One of the books I’ve been particularly enjoying at the moment is Linda Colley’s The Gun, The Ship and the Pen. Subtitled Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World, the book argues that the increased costs of warfare due to the distances involved and that it now involved fighting on both land and sea forced governments around the world to issue constitutions conceding some rights to their citizens in return for their continued support for these military ventures. Some of these constitutions were by people, hailed as heroes of superhuman genius in their time but now forgotten, whose proposed governmental systems were far more radically democratic than those of the American Revolutionaries.

The book begins with the Corsican nationalist, Pasquale Paoli. a junior officer who had served in the armies of various Italian states while at the same time seeking to educate himself at Naples University, in the 1750s Paoli led a revolt against the Genoese, then Corsica’s overlords. His proposed constitution, written on his used letters due to an acute paper shortage on this poor and backward island, set up a tricameral parliament, with one chamber devoted to running the economy. He was made head of state and the country’s armed forces for life. In return for these powers, his constitution granted the vote to every adult male. Sadly, this experiment in democracy did not last. The Genoese, I think, invaded and re-established their rule, followed by a later invasion by the French that annexed the island.

One of the most strikingly progressive of the proposed constitutions was that of the Mexican warlord, Colonel Agustin de Iturbide. Iturbide hoped to established an autonomous, but possibly still royalist, Mexico. In his constitution of February 1821, the 12th clause established that Europeans, Africans and Indians were to have equal political and social rights, regardless of persons. Copies of this constitution were printed and sent all over the world. One reached Ireland, where the liberal Roman Catholic Connaught Journal, drew a parallel between the oppressed conditions of Blacks and Amerindians across the Atlantic, and the disenfranchised and depressed condition of most of the Roman Catholic Irish peasantry. Its editor therefore enthused about it, declaring that a similar clause and constitution was needed for the Emerald Isle.

Also in the early 19th century, the celebrated Indian reformer, Raja Rammohan Roy, who married a Bristol girl and is now buried in a splendid sepulchre in the city’s Arnos Vale Cemetery, believed that the early Indian states also possessed written constitutions granting their peoples civil rights. He was so influential that contemporary editions of Blackstone’s History of the Laws of England state that the Indians had their own counterparts to the Anglo-Saxon witangemot. The witan was the council of nobles and churchmen which advised the king, the Anglo-Saxon counterpart of the feudal grand conseil in France. But 19th century liberals saw it as a form of parliament.

This is a fascinating book revealing constitutional experiments across the world. Some of the most interesting are by people most of us have never heard of, and I hope to give it a full review later.

Call From An Indigenous Brazilian To Help Save the Amazon

April 19, 2023

I got this message from the internet petitioning group, Avaaz. It’s from Sonia Guajajara, an Amazonian warrior and the first ever Minister of Indigenous People in Brazil.

‘Dear friends from Avaaz,

I am Sonia Guajajara, a warrior of the Guajajara people of the Brazilian Amazon, and the first-ever Minister of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil.

Today Indigenous leaders from around the world are at the United Nations to deliver an urgent call to save the Amazon and commit to zero deforestation. We need your help to make this louder!!

Here is part of what I said

“Human greed is pushing the Amazon towards a dangerous point of no return. We live in an economic system where everything that is in nature can be privatized or purchased. This unrestrained exploitation of the common goods of nature does not generate wealth, but wears down and impoverishes the planet. It is time to fight for the good of humanity and for a new story. A story where indigenous peoples lead… because we know the way.”

I invite you to watch my full speech below. Hear my words as a call to action — don’t just support us, fight with us. If you resonate with this message, please urgently share my call with everyone you know and be part of the movement to save the Amazon. 





For the past few years, you and the rest of the Avaaz community have been key allies of Indigenous peoples, from the Amazon to the Congo basin, and around the world. And together, I have every hope that we will achieve a future where our rights will be respected, and our planet will be safe.

With hope and determination, and love for the planet,

Sonia Guajajara, Minister of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, together with the Avaaz team’

I’m more than happy to pass this message on, as the Amazon is under threat from loggers and ranchers, and its people are in danger of being dispossessed. This was graphically shown in one of the Beeb’s travel documentaries a few years ago, where the presenter went to live with one of the Amerindian peoples. They were very suspicious and it was quite a tense atmosphere because of the threat to indigenous land. There were public meetings being staged and the mood was very angry. I am not remotely surprised, as these peoples have been terribly harmed by colonial encroachment. I read somewhere that at one point the Brazilian farmers were shooting them for sport. The current demands for decolonisation going through western society and academia is disastrously flawed, but it is based on a memory of real injustices, even if these get mixed up with myths and false history.

Historical Archaeology, the Congo Museum and Shamanism and the Purge of Offensive Exhibits at the Wellcome Collection

February 26, 2023

Having looked at the Art Newspaper’s report on the withdrawal of the ‘Medicine Man’ gallery at the Wellcome Museum and its replacement with shamanistic performances by Grace Ndiritu, along with her biography on Wikipedia, I think I now understand what’s happened there. One of the names that leapt out at me reading the Art Newspaper article was Dan Hicks. He was one of the lecturers in the Archaeology and Anthropology Department at Bristol University when I was there. This is going back over a decade, and when I saw him, he was young and hip. I think his speciality is Historical Archaeology, and from what I remember he has co-edited a series of papers about it. Over here, Historical Archaeology is merely that branch of archaeology concerned with monuments and artefacts from historical times, rather than prehistory. Over the Pond, however, it is very definitely ideologically loaded, and concerns itself with colonialism, the oppression of the indigenous peoples, slavery and the emergence of capitalism. And this focus can be very clear in the work of some lecturers and academics. It’s not all like this – some of the historical archaeological research is less left-wing. While doing my Ph.D., one of the papers I consulted was about the building of 18th century Annapolis and how it conformed to 18th century ideas about architecture and society. For example, the buildings were deliberately constructed with large windows so that outsiders could look in. This came from the view that business should be conducted as far as possible in public view, so that public scrutiny would make sure that everything was correct, orderly and legal. Hicks’ doctoral student studied the archaeology of Long Kesh, the Maze Prison, in Ulster. She gave a seminar one lunchtime about her research, and she was very, very good. She presented an excellent case for its preservation and exhibition from a non-sectarian perspective as somewhere that was vital to the heritage of the people of Northern Ireland.

Archaeology has also expanded its scope in recent decades. When most of us think of archaeology, I’m pretty sure it’s of prehistory and ancient civilisations like Egypt, Greece and Rome. But it can also be much more recent, taking in not just the Middle Ages but also recent history up to the Second World War and beyond. One of the lads I knew was studying World War II tank defences around Bristol and Somerset. There was even a pillbox study group, which catalogued and documented the various WWII pillboxes left along the country’s coasts and beaches to protect us from invasion. There has, like Ndiritu at the Wellcome Museum, also been artistic events performed or staged around pieces of archaeology. In one of these in America an historic barn or house was allowed to decay, with photographs taken and finally displayed showing its gradual destruction. When I was there, the archaeology department had been part of a similar project concerning the various objects at Severn Beach, a holiday resort near Bristol. From what I dimly recall, this photographed and decorated such historic monuments as the public benches and decaying boats. This was too ‘arty’ in the pejorative sense for some of the people at the seminar on it I attended. They saw themselves very definitely as scientists. It was too arty for me, and I see myself much more as coming from the arts rather than the sciences.

There was, at the time, a general movement towards drawing different disciplines together, and especially the arts and sciences. Interdisciplinary subjects were in vogue, and there was much talk about overcoming C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’ arts and science, in which people from one side of the cultural divide had no knowledge or interest in the other. One such artistic project based in science I read about in New Scientist featured genetically modified organisms. One of these was a cactus, whose DNA had been tinkered with so that instead of prickles, it grew hair. Ndiritu’s performances at the Wellcome Collection come from archaeology and anthropology, rather than genetic engineering, but they are part of the same project of mixing science and art.

Her Wikipedia entries also mentions work at the AfricaMuseum in Belgium. Way back when I was at the Empire and Commonwealth Museum I got material from Belgium about some of their museums looking at their countries imperial history. One of these was a series of artistic projects and performances in the country’s museum about the Belgian Congo. As I’m sure readers are well aware, King Leopold’s personal rule in the Congo is one of the bloodiest holocausts in African history. About 8 million people are supposed to have been murdered by his Force Publique in order to produce rubber for export. I’ve been told that the country tried to forget about it all, until the first years of the 21st century when these events were staged at the museum as part of the confrontation with this infamous period in Belgian history.

There have also been other archaeological and anthropological events and displays in which indigenous peoples have performed their religious rituals. A few years ago, if I recall correctly, there was one where Amerindian shamans performed their people’s rites. When the exhibit is of those peoples, then it is only fair to include the people themselves. I think this is what was going on in the Wellcome Museum with Ndiritu and her shamanism. It looks like it’s an attempt by indigenous African culture to claim a proper place in the exhibit as a counterpoint to western rationalism.

This does not mean, however, that it should be free from criticism or that such criticism is right-wing. The decolonisation movement does indeed have as its goal the decentring of western science and historiography. It goes far beyond the usual explanation about including overlooked non-western and indigenous perspectives. The ‘Science Must Fall’ movement really existed. And some of the critical of modern postcolonial theory are left-wing feminists. Asian feminists, for example, have complained that they are given no support by western postmodern feminists in their struggle against their cultures’ own restrictions on women, because postcolonialism is only interested in such problems if they are caused by the West. This is described by Bricmont and Sokal in their 90’s attack on Postmodernism, Intellectual Impostures. And Sokal is, or was, very much a man of the left. He was a physicist who gave up his career to teach maths in Nicaragua under the left-wing Sandinista regime.

I also wonder how this all fits with Edward Said’s critique of western views of the east, Orientalism. His book was a polemic arguing that the west since ancient Greece had regarded the east as the Other, and produced images to justify its conquest and domination. Western travellers and explorers had therefore presented it as backward, irrational and feminine and somehow unchanging. But Nditiru’s performances are based on the non-scientific irrational and traditional, which are now presented as positive. This is indeed a challenge to the view of magic in indigenous cultures that I remember from my childhood. I can remember watching a BBC documentary about African shamanism when I was in my early teens, in which the voiceover concluded that while western science had succeeded in discovering so much about the world and made so many advances, while magic had reached an end and could produce no such advances. The great British scientist and broadcaster, Jacob Bronowski, said something similar in his TV series and book, The Ascent of Man. He looked at the traditional culture of one of Iran’s nomadic people, and considered that it similarly locked them in a stifling, unchanging world. Bronowski was no man of the right. He was a member of the Fabian Society at a time when that actually meant something, before it was taken over by the Blairites.

I am also very much aware of the crisis that has affected many indigenous society with the collapse of their world of meaning through contact with western modernity and the legacy of colonialism and imperialism. But there are also dangers in idealising indigenous societies. I mentioned in my previous article that in Nigeria, priests from one of the country’s pagan religions had been involved in the acquisition of slaves, and that a South African anthropologist had attempted to defend muti human sacrifice at a convention in this country, as well as witchcraft and witch hunting in Africa. Those aspects of indigenous religion and spirituality shouldn’t be ignored. I am not saying they should be stressed to restore the old image of Africa as a backward continent needing western civilisation, but not all the continent’s ills should be ascribed to western rationalism either. Hence it should be perfectly legitimate to question this latest policy by the Wellcome Museum, regardless of whether one is politically right or left.

Wellcome Museum Purges Display on History of Medicine to Include African Shaman – A Piece of Cultural Relativism That Will Also Damage Blacks

February 24, 2023

This comes from a piece our favourite YouTube historian, Simon Webb, put up on History Debunked a few days ago. He was attacking the new policy towards the museum that has come in with its new director, a woman whose degree is in the arts. Before, according to Webb, the museum was excellent, covering the history of western medicine in rigorous detail and including displays of operating theatres. Much of this, however, has been junked because the new director has deemed it ableist, racist and colonialist. The gallery to its founder, Wellcome himself, has also gone because he did not hold the current, mandatory beliefs. In their stead a gallery has erected containing two photographs showing the horrors of colonial experimentation on Black Africans along with one Mrs Eruditu, a self-professed African shaman, who conducts healing ceremonies and will counsel visitors to the gallery traumatised by the pictures. Webb calls her a witchdoctor, and describes her as completely mad, as she believes inanimate objects also possess consciousness. She doesn’t like the British Museum and the Egyptology displays, because the exhibits there have told her that they want to be underground. Nor does she approve of the display of a Native American totem pole in the Musee Nationale in France, as this has told her psychically that it wants to be out in the open air. Webb states, quite correctly, that western medicine has produced amazing advances in combating disease and extending the human life span. This new policy is a direct attack on that.

I think Webb, if he’s right about the Museum’s new policy, and he seems to be, has an excellent point here. He views it, no doubt, as another attack on western culture in the name of anti-racism, anti-imperialism and post-colonialism. He is, unfortunately, also very likely right about this. There have been pieces on YouTube by other right-wingers attacking the current policies of the Museums Association, which are all about this. I’ve got a feeling that Manchester Museum has also fallen to these new policies, and that they are also reviewing their collections as a result. But this policy is also harming Black and particularly Black African advancement in ways which the founders of the ‘Science Must Fall’ movement, which is ultimately at the heart of this, probably don’t understand.

The ‘Science Must Fall’ movement was a South African campaign to decentre western science because it rejected indigenous knowledges about the world rooted in myth and legend. There was a video on YouTube of a student debate in one of the South African universities, in which a Black female student urged her White comrades to decolonise their minds and accept that tribal rainmakers could indeed make it rain. People are welcome to whatever mystical or religious beliefs they choose, providing these don’t break the law. But they are separate. Back in the 90s, the late Stephen Jay Gould, a biologist and palaeontologist, attempted to end the war between science and religious by stating that there were No Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). Science dealt with fact, and religion with issues of meaning and values. Of course, militant atheists of the Dawkins type disagreed and thought that it was a capitulation to unreason. Gould’s wrong in that religion and science do overlap, but as a general point I think it’s fair. Science and religion, as a general rule, are separate.

I am also sure that the new director is right, and that Blacks were experimented on by surgeons and doctors in the past. It certainly happened in America, where one of the great surgeons of the 19th century experiment on Black women without anaesthetic. I read somewhere that H.G. Wells was partly inspired to write The Island of Dr. Moreau by accounts of a German doctor experimenting on Black Africans. But you have to be very careful in making such judgements. A while ago I provoked an angry reply in a piece I had written for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. I was talking about the history of medicine in the context of space exploration. One of the books I had consulted for the piece described one particular pioneering doctor of tropical medicine as a quack for his theories and treatment of diseases. Unfortunately for me, one of the other senior members of the Society knew him, and wrote to me stating that he was a dedicated, humane man of science. The problem was that he was facing completely new diseases unknown in the west and which nobody knew how to treat. This is a good point, and I wrote to the aggrieved gentleman apologising for the inadvertent smear and issued a correction to the Journal. I wonder if some of the other pioneering doctors and surgeons, whose work has similarly fallen into disfavour, were like the man I mentioned – a sincere medical man, working in the unknown.

Underlying the attempts to decentre western science are two related attitudes. One is the fact that many displaced, colonised peoples have been harmed by the destruction of their own, indigenous world view. This has left them without meaning, resulting in alcoholism and drug addiction in many indigenous communities like the Amerindians in the Americas and Aboriginal Australians. The other is the belief in the Noble Savage, in which indigenous communities like them are somehow better, and more noble than moral than White, western society. The attempts to decentre western science and include indigenous myth and religion are attempts to restore dignity to these colonised peoples.

But African paganism also has its dark side. The priests of one of the cults in Nigeria were actively involved in the slave trade, to the point where the Nigerian equivalent of the saying that someone has been sold down the river literally translates as they ‘have been stolen by the Oracle’. There is also a widespread belief in witches and witch hunting all across the continent. Many of the accused, as in the pre-modern west are women, and some of the trials are just as deadly. In one Nigerian ritual, the accused woman is given the Calabar Bean, a poisonous vegetable. If she doesn’t vomit it out quickly, she’ll die, and so be judged a witch. There have also been professional witch hunters of the same stripe as the infamous Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, of Civil War England. Way back in the 19th century one of the Zulu kings went on a witch-hunting campaign. Witchsmellers, the indigenous Zulu witch hunters, were engaged and duly pointed the finger at a number of suspects, who were duly executed. A European official talked to the king, and said this all looked very dubious, and wondered if the witchsmellers were right in their accusations. The king laughed, said he wondered too, and had all one hundred of them executed as frauds.

And then there’s muti, which is really sinister. This is the sacrifice of humans, often young children, for their body parts, which are sold to the sorcerer’s clients to bring them good luck. I put up a piece I found on one of the YouTube channels about the amazing efforts of a Black British woman against it in Uganda. But it also appeared in Britain back in the early part of this century. The cops dragged the spine of a murdered boy, Adam, wrapped in various pieces of coloured cloth out of the Thames. The cloth’s colours were those of the muti cult, and it looked like child, probably 12 years old, had been sacrificed. And some African anthropologists have defended such murders. A little while ago one of them presented such a paper at an anthropological conference in Manchester. They claimed that these sacrifices were morally acceptable because Africans had a collective morality that saw that the sacrifice of an individual could benefit the community. Bear in mind that we are talking about the murder of children, whose body parts, including their genitals, are considered most effective if they have been hacked off while the victim was still alive. I believe that the anthropologist presenting the paper was asked to leave.

Indigenous African religion has also been the tool of White supremacist governments to keep Black Africans firmly in their very subordinate place. A few decades ago, a Zulu shaman, Credo Mutwa, had a book published in this country, in which he explained his mystical beliefs and practises. From what I’ve read, it was a mixture of native Zulu lore and western occultism, aimed at the New Age crowd. It was reviewed by the sceptical UFO magazine, Magonia, who were very scathing. Mutwa, they claimed, had been a stooge of the Apartheid South African government during their retribalisation campaign. This stressed the indigenous, separate identities of the various South African tribes, who by then had become a Black proletariat. The intention was to keep the Black population divided so they were too weak to successfully challenge the Apartheid government.

Magonia have also several times stated that these books extolling the joys of indigenous life without western science and technology are all aimed at westerners, who have no intention of living like their ancestors did. I think it’s a fair point. The satirist Alan Coren expressed similar sentiments, set in a European context, in one of his pieces for Punch back in the 1970s. It’s about a very middle class, academic couple, who take over a French village and undo centuries of civilisation in order to return to them to what they see as the inhabitants’ natural, pre-Christian, pre-scientific state. But they themselves have no intention of rejecting scientific modernity. The piece ends with one of them stating he intends to write a paper on it. I think the same mindset is at work here.

As for Eruditu’s beliefs about the British museum and its exhibits, this is just animism, pure and simple, the belief that every rock and object has a soul. But I’ve heard very different things about the unhappy state of some of the exhibits. I’ve got a strong interest in psychical research, and a few weeks ago went to an online meeting about ghosts and hauntings in the British Museum. The Egyptology section has something of a cult as some of the visitors there are worshippers, who leave offerings. One spiritualist visitor, a medium, is supposed to have said that the mummies like being on display, as they feel they have a role to teach, but are frustrated at not being able to communicate with the living. This, of course, is completely the opposite of what Eruditu has said, and you can take or leave either or both depending on your attitude to mysticism. I many people are unhappy about the dead being excavated and put on display in museums, and don’t need a mystic to tell them this. But Egypt is certainly one of the great, founding civilisations of humanity, and Egyptology has massively extended our knowledge of the human past and this civilisation’s undeniable achievements and contribution.

Back to Africa. Way back in the 1980s I read an article by a Black African historian, a Muslim, who had presented his own series on the continent’s history on the Beeb. He lamented the fact that the west’s scientific and technological knowledge, inherited from ancient Greece and Rome, was not being transmitted to Africa. He’s right. After all, India and China have made massive strides in development this century because they have embraced science and technology. Sun Yat-Sen, the Chinese revolutionary who founded the Kuomintang, said at the beginning of his movement that ‘We say hello to Mr Science and Mr Democracy’. Sadly, democracy in China got left behind, but science has been taken up with a vengeance so that the country is now a centre of serious technological innovation in space and robotics. And it was helped in this by the early translators of western scientific texts, who referred to it not as western science, but as ‘the new science’. Something similar may well be needed in Africa.

This attempt to decentre and stigmatise western science and medicine has the potential to seriously harm Black advancement. I do think that there is a genuine potential for science and technology in Africa that is currently untapped and stifled. And Webb complained a few months or perhaps a year ago about a piece in New Scientist, in which a Black, female scientist called for more Blacks in lab coats. This movement, which sees Blacks and other indigenous peoples as non-scientific, runs counter to that. It reminds me of some of the scathing criticisms of non-western cultures by the early orientalists, who felt that these peoples would not be capable of assimilating western culture.

And I dare say the promoters of this movement would accuse me of racism, but I am afraid that there are real dangers of encouraging the dark side of African religion and spirituality through an uncritical acceptance of such shamanism.

If Webb is right, then the new director has not only ruined a once great museum, but she’s part of a larger movement that poses a threat to the whole tradition of the Enlightenment, a movement that genuinely endangers scientific advancement for some of the world’s peoples, who most need it.

Museums for the Maroons and Arawak Peoples in Jamaica

February 23, 2023

A few weeks ago I found a notebook I had when I was working at the former Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, now sadly defunct. I’d made notes in it of anything relevant to what I was doing at the time, cataloguing the Museum’s documents relating to slavery or otherwise seemed relevant.

At the time Jamaica was promoting the Maroons, the free Black communities who had fought and won their freedom from British slavery, as a tourist attraction. There were five Maroon towns, one of which was Accompong. According to a travel book on the Caribbean nation I read at the time, there was a Maroon tour to Accompong which ended up in another towns founded by the free slaves, Maroon Town. On the 6th of January each year, the Accompong Maroon Festival celebrated the victory of the Maroon leader Cudjoe over the British. This took place at the Kindah area and the Peace Cave. There was also a Maroon Tourist Attraction Company, whose headquarters are, or were located 32 Church Street, Montego Bay. This is the company that organised the tours to Accompong.

The museum displaying the history and culture of the Arawak, who with the Caribs were Jamaica’s two indigenous peoples, and who also inhabited many of the other islands of the Caribbean before the European invasion and genocide, is the White Marl Arawak Museum in White Marl, St. Catherine, Spanish Town. This is run by Institute of Jamaica and includes a reconstructed Arawak village behind the museum proper.

Not all of the unfree population of the Caribbean were Black slaves. The Caribbean was also settled using indentured servants, who could be and often were as badly treated as the slaves and often joined them in revolt. There is a Historical Mini-Museum to Jamaica’s indentured German labourers in Seaford Town, also in Montego Bay, as well as a Jamaican German Society. I also believe one of the Caribbean islands also has a gallery or little museum devoted to the Polish settlers. They were freedom fighters, who joined Napoleon’s troops in his invasion Russia in order to liberate their country from Russian rule. Following the Corsican general’s defeat, they fled to the Caribbean. Because of their role in fighting against slavery in the French Revolutionary armies, I recall that they were the only Whites legally permitted to settle in the independent, Black republic of Haiti.

I don’t know if this information will help anybody, but these are important and fascinating parts of Jamaican and Caribbean history.

There were also a couple of books specifically about the Maroons. These were

Angorsah, E. Kofi (ed), Maroon Heritage: Archaeological, Ethnographic and Historical Perspectives (Kingston: Canoe Press/ University of the West Indies: 1994).

The anthropologist Katherine Duchamps also wrote an account of her Journey to Accompong in 1946.

There was also a History of the Maroons published by R.C. Dallas in London as far back as 1863. I don’t know if it’s been republished, but it might be that somebody at university with an interest in the subject could get a copy on academic loan.

Graham Hancock – A Crank, Possibly, But Definitely No Racist

December 9, 2022

My discipline, archaeology, has been massively going after Graham Hancock this week. Hancock’s ah, um,, ‘maverick thinker’, I suppose you’d say, who’s been presenting a series on Netflix arguing that thousands of years ago there was a highly advanced civilisation that perished in a cataclysm, but passed on its secrets to other ancient civilisations around the world. This has understandably annoyed archaeologists and a number have put up videos, some of them lengthy and quite detailed, disproving him. Hancock’s been promoting this idea for some time now. Going back two decades and more, he had a series on Channel 4 with the title ‘Water World’ or something like it, also arguing that there was a global advanced civilisation, whose monuments have been covered up by a flood, as recorded in the Bible and other ancient religions. Now I’m sure that Hancock is wrong, and the criticisms of his dodgy history and archaeology are right. But I take exception to one of the other accusations levelled at him, which is that he is racist.

This accusation is partly based on his false ascription of the achievements of indigenous cultures around the world to this putative prehistoric civilisation. It denies those people the credit for their achievements. But the accusation is also that it’s similar to the ideas of some bonkers White supremacist groups, who are using Hancock’s ideas to promote themselves. One archaeologist posted a video saying that Hancock should have disavowed the use of his ideas by these fascists. It also criticised him for being friends with Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson. There are fair criticisms to be made of both of these men. Peterson’s an arch-conservative and anti-feminist, but hardly a Nazi. Rogan was pushing anti-vax nonsense and is an advocate for some mind-expanding drugs. A few years ago people were accusing him of being a ‘gateway to the Alt-Right’. Possibly, but he also talks to people from the left, who are otherwise denied a platform by the lamestream media. Journalists like Abbie Martin, who talked about Israeli propaganda against the Palestinians and how she found, when she visited the beleaguered Arab nation, that the reality was nothing like the picture painted by the Israeli state. He’s also talked to biologists and journalists exposing the lies of the trans ideology. This is not Alt-Right, no matter what groups like Mermaids, Stonewall, Antifa and the rest say. The people criticising the gender ideology tend to be radical feminists, many from the socialist left. Part of their opposition against it is that it reduces masculinity and femininity to traditional, stereotypical sex roles. One of the feminist vloggers interviewed one of the leading activists against the trans ideology, who was furious that people like her were being presented as right-wing. Another feminist activist criticised Matt Walsh for misrepresenting feminists as uniformly in favour of trans ideology, and then criticising them for it. Rogan gives a voice to people outside the mainstream. Sometimes it’s rubbish, and sometimes it’s immensely valuable. He has also interviewed a number of Black celebs, so again, not a Nazi.

The White supremacist ideas being referred to seem to me to be the Traditionalist ideology of Giulio Evola. Evola was an Italian Fascist and occultist, who was a major ideological influence on the scumbuckets behind the Bologna railway bombing in the 1970s. A fascist group bombed the station, killing and maiming over a hundred people. Evola believed that there was a strongly hierarchical, ‘Aryan’ civilisation in Hyperborea in the arctic, which was responsible for all the subsequent cultural achievements of the civilisations around the world. This is twaddle. But Hancock’s ideas are also similar to those of others, which don’t come from people in the fascist fringe. A couple of years ago I picked up an old book, Colony Earth, which had been published in the 1970s. This claimed that Earth may have been an extraterrestrial colony, whose advanced civilisation was destroyed in a nuclear war. The pyramids may have been fall-out shelters, as were the megalithic tumuli in Britain. It’s an interesting read, but certainly wrong. I think Charles Berlitz, who started the Bermuda Triangle myth, also believed in this, supporting it in one of his books with artefacts from Aztec tombs that look like aircraft. Berlitz is someone else, who I’m fairly certain has absolutely no connection to fascism whatsoever.

And I don’t believe Hancock is either.

When he was travelling the world on his Channel 4 series he was accompanied by his wife, who is Sri Lankan. Now, White supremacists do not, as a rule, marry dark-skinned people from outside Europe. If they do, they’re angrily denounced as ‘race traitors’. In one edition of this earlier series, Hancock reported on the mysterious ruins of ancient city found off the coast of the Bay of Bengal. He was shown talking respectfully to an Indian gent, who told him how such findings tie in with Hindu ideas of the antiquity of civilisation and ancient Indian legends of flooded cities. Again, this isn’t quite behaviour you’d expect from a genuine White supremacist. He also travelled to South and Central America, where he proposed the old theory that the Mayans, Aztecs and other ancient Amerindian civilisations must have learned how to build their pyramids from someone else. I think this was once again ancient Egypt. But who brought that knowledge to the New World? Black Africans. He pointed to an Olmec bas relief of a warrior’s head, and declared its features to be ‘proudly African’. If this is racism, then its Afrocentrism rather than White supremacy. As for the ancient race behind these monuments, Hancock doesn’t say what colour they are. In this, he breaks with some of his predecessors, who say they must have been White because the legends of numerous Amerindian peoples state that vital parts of their culture were brought to them by White gods. Hancock is therefore less racialised in what he says than his predecessors.

I disagree profoundly with Hancock’s ideas, but he has a right to say them like everyone else. And if it piques people interest in these ancient cultures so that they want to find out what they were really like, that’s all to the good. But I do think it’s profoundly wrong to accuse him of racism. That just further cheapens the word and weakens it as a weapon against the real thing.

Video on Archaeology’s Challenge to Enlightenment Accounts of Origins of States and Inequality

December 8, 2022

This is a fascinating video I found on Novara Media’s channel the other day. In it, host Aaron Bastani talks to archaeologist David Wengrow about the origins of the state and the development of social inequality. Wengrow argues that the evidence from archaeology challenges assumptions that prehistoric and preliterate peoples were incapable of rationally deciding for themselves what kind of societies they wished to live in. He gives examples from prehistoric Europe and North and South America to show that ancient and indigenous peoples not only did decide on the kind of societies they wanted, but were perfectly capable of reversing trends in their societies towards authoritarianism. One of the examples of this, which I found truly jaw-dropping, was one of the city states the conquistador Hernan Cortes made alliance with against the Aztecs. Unlike the Aztec empire, that state city was a democratic republic. He also talks about the influence on Enlightenment critiques of western society of a Huron Indian chief in Canada, who was an intelligent conversationalist able to hold his own in conversations about the nature of society to such an extent that French, British and Dutch colonial authorities invited him to dinner to talk this matter over.

Wengrow starts off by stating that modern political theory about the origins of society, as taught in politics courses, is completely divorced from archaeological accounts. The theory is based on the speculations of foundational Enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes and Rousseau, who admitted that they were speculating. But these accounts are now taught as fact. Archaeological research, however, is overturning previous ideas about the origins of urban society. For example, it was believed that agriculture and urbanisation were linked and appeared together as part of the Neolithic Revolution. But this is not the case. Excavations of the ancient city of Catalhuyuk in Turkey show that while it was an urban centre, although Wengrow hesitates to call it a city, show that its people were still hunter-gatherers, living by foraging rather than agriculture. And the same is true of the settlement at Amesbury at the time Stonehenge was being built. The people then had given up agriculture, although they retained animal husbandry. It appears they had tried growing crops and then rejected it in favour of foraging.

He then goes on to talk about the Huron Amerindian chief. He inspired a colonist from New France, who had been expelled from the colony, to write a book based on the chief and his dinner conversation when the colonist was penniless in Amsterdam. This became a massive Enlightenment bestseller, and inspired other books by Voltaire and others in which Chinese, Tahitians and other outsiders criticise European society. Wengrow states that the Indian societies surprise western Europeans because they were much less hierarchical than they were, and contact with these societies and the indigenous critics of western civilisation did influence European political philosophy. We easily accept that Europe took over many material products from these nations, but are much less ready to accept the idea that they influenced our ideas, even though the Enlightenment philosophers said that they had.

He also talks about Cahokia, a great pyramid and city state in the Mississippi valley in America. This appears to be another example of a society, in which people rebelled or simply walked away from authority and hierarchy. It was also another indigenous monument that was ascribed to everyone else but the native peoples when it was first discovered, and is now disrespected by having a road driven through it. When it was constructed, the local society seems to have been hierarchical. At the top of the mound is a structure from which all of the city could be viewed. But sometime after its heyday it was abandoned. The traditional reasons are that the climate changed, but Wengrow finds that unconvincing. What seems to have happened instead is that people simply got tired of living in such a society and walked away.

Tenochtitlan, one of the great cities in ancient Mexico, is another example of a strongly hierarchical society that underwent profound social change and became more democratic. Wengrow states that it’s a massive state, and they owe a debt to the French scholar who produced detailed maps of it. When it first emerged, it was hierarchical but then the nature of society changed. People started living in high-quality, single-floor homes. These were so good they were originally thought to be palaces, but now it appears they were villas occupied by ordinary citizens. At some point, the people of Tenochtitlan decided that they wanted a more equal society, to the extent that some scholars believe that there was a revolution.

Then there is the case of the democratic city state Cortes encountered. This really was democratic, as there are accounts of the debates in its assembly. This astonished the conquistadors, as there was very little like it in Europe at the time, except some of the Florentine republics. This all challenges the notion that once society develops to a certain extent and becomes complex, inequality also emerges and is very difficult to challenge or remove. These cases show that indigenous peoples could and did. He also argues that the same may have been true of slavery. The only successful slave revolt that we know of is Toussant L’Ouverture in Haiti. But Wengrow suggests there could have been thousands of other successful slave revolts in prehistory of which we are unaware. Slavery came about, he argues, from the expense of laying out offerings for the dead. In order to leave food and drink for the dead, the bereaved had to have access to the foods themselves and so they became indebted and dependent on the people who owned those resources.

He also talks about the problems in describing some of these urban centres as cities. There are huge sites in the Ukraine, but archaeologists are hesitant about calling them cities with some preferring other terms such as ‘mega-sites’ because they aren’t centralised.

Bastani asks him at one point about the problem of pseudo-archaeology. I think this came up because Graham Hancock is currently fronting a series on Netflix claiming that way back in prehistory there was an advanced society, but that it was destroyed in a global cataclysm. Wengrow states that quite often pseudo-archaeology is based on old and discarded idea, such as Atlantis. The people involved tend not to be anyone who’s ever been on an archaeological dig, and view archaeologists as spending their lives trying to hide some momentous secret from everyone. But it can act as an entry for some people to archaeology, and he doesn’t really like the sneering attitude of some archaeologists towards it.

Wengrow himself is an interesting character. He didn’t want to be an archaeologist originally, but came to it from acting. He also worked in the BBC Arabic service. He decided at one point he wanted to get a degree, applied to the best university he could, Oxford, and sent reams of applications to its various colleges. They turned him down. Then he was told that he should apply for a place on a course that was just being set up. One of the colleges was just setting up an archaeology course, so he did. When it came to the interview, he told the interviewer that he had always wanted to be an archaeologist. At which point she held up all the previous letters he’d written. But they admitted him, and he has now had a career teaching and excavating in places like Egypt.

He states that sometimes the pseudoarchaeology about a period or culture misses the point about what’s really interesting about it. He talks about the idea that the Sphinx was constructed before the pyramids, and admits that it’s actually a reasonable question. But if you go back to the predynastic period a thousand years before the pyramids were built, you come to the burial sites of one of Egypt’s first kings. This is fascinating, although you wouldn’t know it from the dry way it has been discussed in conferences and museums like the Petrie Museum. Excellent though these are, they talk about highly specialised subjects like pot typography which is excruciatingly dull if you want to know the wider picture. The early king’s tomb is composed of room after room of the bodies of the people and occasionally the animals that were slaughtered to accompany the king into the afterlife.

The interview is based on a book Wengrow wrote with a colleague, The Dawn of Everything. Sadly, after spending a decade writing it, the co-author died just a few weeks after its completion. The book has been widely praised, and has even inspired artistic pieces. He talks about a French woman, who composed a piece of music based on it. He regrets he was unable to attend its performance thanks to jet lag coming back from somewhere, but later met the lady when she came to Britain.

I know a little about some of what he’s talking about to have no doubt that he’s absolutely right. One of the seminars in the archaeology department at Bristol, which I attended, was about how cities like Catalhuyuk were established before the appearance of agriculture. One of the huge Neolithic sites in the Ukraine is discussed in the La Rousse Encyclopedia of Archaeology. The great mound of Cahokia is also discussed in a book I bought years ago on North American Indian archaeology. I wasn’t aware that the people of Stonehenge had given up growing crops, nor of the democratic city states in South America and Mexico. This is fascinating stuff.

He’s right about archaeology contradicting the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers about the origins of society, though I’m not sure how much of a problem this is. The philosophers he discusses – Hobbes and Rousseau – were Social Contract theorists. Social Contract theory is the idea that the state and society were set up when men came together to select an authority under whom they would live, so that their lives and property would be protected. Thus the first kings. These princes are the representatives of the people, and so from the 17th century onwards the idea developed that sovereignty lay with the people, who could revoke the power they had delegated to the prince. This was the view of John Locke. However, subsequent philosophers showed that this was just conjecture, and that it could have happened like that as the people at the time were using concepts that only subsequently developed after the foundation of states and kingdoms. I thought Social Contract theory was dead, and he closest it had to a modern advocate was John Rawls in his Theory of Justice. Rawls argued that if people were just disembodied entities wishing to chose the kind of society in which they would care to live, they would choose one that had the maximum freedom and justice for everyone, as that would also include them. Away from centrist politics, the anarchists have been keenly interested in anthropology and those indigenous societies where there is no central authority.

I’m not sure how well some of this would go down with Sargon of Akkad and the Lotus Eaters. They’ve developed an interest in archaeology, recently posting a video discussing Homo Erectus, along with the Norman Conquest and ancient Rome. But Sargon is a huge fan of John Locke and describes himself as a classical liberal. I don’t know whether archaeology’s findings about the origin of early states would contradict his ideas or not.

Why Did British Public Opinion Turn Against the Empire?

August 10, 2022

The British empire and its history is once again the topic of intense controversy with claims that its responsible for racism, the continuing poverty and lack of development of Commonwealth nations and calls for the decolonisation of British museums and the educational curriculum. On the internet news page just this morning is a report that Tom Daley has claimed that homophobia is a legacy of the British empire. He has a point, as when the British government was reforming the Jamaican legal code in the late 19th century, one of the clauses they inserted criminalised homosexuality.,

In fact this is just the latest wave of controversy and debate over the empire and its legacy. There were similar debates in the ’90s and in the early years of this century. And the right regularly laments popular hostility to British imperialism. For right-wing commenters like Niall Ferguson and the Black American Conservative economist Thomas Sowell, British imperialism also had positive benefits in spreading democracy, property rights, properly administered law and modern technology and industrial organisation around the world. These are fair points, and it must be said that neither of these two writers ignore the fact that terrible atrocities were committed under British imperialism either. Sowell states that the enforced labour imposed on indigenous Africans was bitterly resented and that casualties among African porters could be extremely high.

But I got the impression that at the level of the Heil, there’s a nostalgia for the empire as something deeply integral to British identity and that hostility or indifference to it counts as a serious lack of patriotism.

But what did turn popular British opinion against the empire, after generations when official attitudes, education and the popular media held it up as something of which Britons should be immensely proud, as extolled in music hall songs, holidays like Empire Day and books like The Baby Patriot’s ABC, looked through a few years ago by one of the Dimblebys on a history programme a few years ago.

T.O. Lloyd in his academic history book, Empire to Welfare State, connects it to a general feeling of self hatred in the early 1970s, directed not just against the empire, but also against businessmen and politicians:

”Further to the left, opinion was even less tolerant; when Heath in 1973 referred to some exploits of adroit businessmen in avoiding tax as ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism’, the phase was taken up and repeated as though he had intended it to apply to the whole of capitalism, which was certainly not what he meant.

‘Perhaps it was surprising that his remark attracted so much attention, for it was not a period in which politicians received much respect. Allowing for the demands of caricature, a good deal of the public mood was caught by the cartoons of Gerald Scarfe, who drew in a style of brilliant distortion which made it impossible to speak well of anyone. The hatred of all men holding authority that was to be seen in his work enabled him to hold up a mirror to his times, and the current of self hatred that ran so close to the surface also matched an important part of his readers’ feelings. Politicians were blamed for not bringing peace, prosperity, and happiness, even though they probably had at this time less power – because of the weakness of the British economy and the relative decline in Britain’s international position – to bring peace and prosperity than they had had earlier in the century; blaming them for this did no good, and made people happier only in the shortest of short runs.

‘A civil was in Nigeria illustrated a good many features of British life, including a hostility to the British Empire which might have made sense while the struggle for colonial freedom was going on but, after decolonization had taken place so quickly and so amicably, felt rather as though people needed something to hate.’ (pp. 420-1).

The Conservative academic historian, Jeremy Black, laments that the positive aspects of British imperialism has been lost in his book The British Empire: A History and a Debate (Farnham: Ashgate 2015):

‘Thus, the multi-faceted nature of the British imperial past and its impact has been largely lost. This was a multi-faceted nature that contributed to the pluralistic character of the empire. Instead, a politics of rejection ensures that the imperial past serves for themes and images as part of an empowerment through real, remembered, or, sometimes, constructed grievance. This approach provides not only the recovery of terrible episodes, but also ready reflexes of anger and newsworthy copy, as with the harsh treatment of rebels, rebel sympathisers , and innocent bystanders in the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, an issue that took on new energy as demands for compensation were fuelled by revelations of harsh British policy from 2011’. (p. 235).

He also states that there’s a feeling in Britain that the empire, and now the Commonwealth, are largely irrelevant:

‘Similarly, there has been a significant change in tone and content in the discussion of the imperial past in Britain. A sense of irrelevance was captured in the Al Stewart song ‘On the Border’ (1976).

‘On my wall the colours of the map are running

From Africa the winds they talk of changes of coming

In the islands where I grew up

Noting seems the same

It’s just the patterns that remain

An empty shell.’

For most of the public, the Commonwealth has followed the empire into irrelevance. the patriotic glow that accompanied and followed the Falklands War in 1982, a war fought to regain a part of the empire inhabited by settlers of British descent, was essentially nationalistic, not imperial. This glow was not matched for the most recent, and very different, conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. These have led to a marked disinclination for further expeditionary warfare’. (pp. 421-2).

In fact the whole of the last chapter of Black’s book is about changing attitudes to the empire and the imperial past, which Black feels has been distorted. The British empire is seen through the lens of atrocities, although its rule was less harsh than the Germans or Italians. In India the view is coloured by the Amritsar massacre and ignores the long periods of peace imposed by British rule in India. He also notes that the cultural and international dominance of America has also affected British ideas of exceptionalism, distinctiveness and pride, and that interest in America has superseded interest in the other countries of the former empire.

Attitudes to the empire have also changed as Britain has become more multicultural., and states that ‘increasingly multicultural Britain sees myriad tensions and alliance in which place, ethnicity, religion, class and other factors both class and coexist. This is not an easy background for a positive depiction of the imperial past’ (p. 239). He also mentions the Parekh Report of the Commission on the Future Multi-Ethnic Britain, which ‘pressed for a sense of heritage adapted to the views of recent immigrants. This aspect of the report’ he writes, ‘very much attracted comment. At times, the consequences were somewhat fanciful and there was disproportionate emphasis both on a multi-ethnic legacy and on a positive account of it’. (p. 239). Hence the concern to rename monuments and streets connected with the imperial past, as well as making museums and other parts of the heritage sector more accessible to Black and Asians visitors and representative of their experience.

I wonder how far this lack of interest in the Commonwealth goes, at least in the immediate present following the Commonwealth games. There’s talk on the Beeb and elsewhere that it has inspired a new interest and optimism about it. And my guess is that much of popular hostility to the empire probably comes from the sympathy from parts of the British public for the various independence movements and horror at the brutality with which the government attempted to suppress some of them,, like the Mau Mau in Kenya. But it also seems to me that a powerful influence has also been the psychological link between its dissolution and general British decline, and its replacement in British popular consciousness by America. And Black and Asian immigration has also played a role. I’ve a very strong impression that some anti-imperial sentiment comes from the battles against real racism in the 1970s and 1980s. One of the Fascist organisations that founded the National Front in the 1960s was the League of Empire Loyalists.

This popular critique on British imperialism was a part of the ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ strip in 2000AD. This was about a future in which Earth had become the centre of a brutally racist, genocidal galactic empire ruled by a quasi-religious order, the Terminators. They, and their leader, Torquemada, were based on the writer’s own experience as a pupil of an abusive teacher at a Roman Catholic school. The Terminators wore armour, and the title of their leader, grand master, recalls the crusading orders like the Knights Templars in the Middle Ages. One of the stories mentions a book, published by the Terminators to justify their cleansing of the galaxy’s aliens, Our Empire Story. Which is the title of a real book that glamorised the British empire. Elsewhere the strip described Torquemada as ‘the supreme Fascist’ and there were explicit comparisons and links between him, Hitler, extreme right-wing Tory politicos like Enoch Powell, and US generals responsible for the atrocities against the Amerindians. It’s a good question whether strips like ‘Nemesis’ shape public opinion or simply follow it. I think they may well do a bit of both.

But it seems to me that, rather than being a recent phenomenon, a popular hostility to the British empire has been around since the 1970s and that recent, radical attacks on imperial history and its legacy are in many cases simply an extension of this, rather than anything completely new.

Thomas Sowell on Black Africans Blaming Imperialism for Post-Independence Failure

July 31, 2022

Thomas Sowell is a Black American conservative intellectual, and fierce critic of affirmative action, which he argues is actively harmful to Black improvement and uplift. I’ve been reading his Conquests and Cultures: An International History (New York: Basic Books), his examination of the effects of imperialism on both the conquerors and conquered peoples, concentrating on four groups of peoples: the British, Black Africans, the Slavs and western hemisphere Indians. In his chapter on Africans, he states very clearly that the western imperial powers committed atrocities, including the imposition of forced labour. This was widely resented and also caused innumerable deaths. The mortality for rate for porters on one route in colonial Tanzania, for example, was 20-25 per cent. However, he also describes the political, social and economic chaos that swept many African nations after they gained independence with coups, ethnic violence and economic collapse. Africans compensated for the disappointment of their political hopes by blaming the former imperial masters and the US. He writes

‘African governments by the dozens were toppled by military coups in the post-independence era. The swift disappearance of newly attained democracy, as brutal dictatorships took over, led to the cynical phrase: “one man, one vote – one time.” The elaborately fragmented peoples of Africa turned upon one another, sometimes with massive bloodbaths. Approximately 30,000 Ibos were slaughtered by Moslem mobs in Nigeria, 200,000 Hutus were slaughtered by the Tutsis in Burundi, and Idi Amin’s regime slaughtered 300,000 people in Uganda. A continent once virtually self-sufficient in food, Africa became a massive importer of food as its own production faltered and in some places declined absolutely, in the face of rising population. It was not uncommon for national output as a whole to decline absolutely for years in various African nations. In Equatorial Guinea, for example, the growth rate was negative for the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, averaging nearly minus 4 per cent per annum for the 1980s and minus 9 per cent for the 1970s. In Burundi the annual “growth” rate of national output was minus 6 per cent in 1994 and minus 18 per cent in 1995, while in Rwanda it ranged from minus 3.2. per cent in 1992 to minus 50 per cent in 1994.

After the soaring rhetoric and optimistic expectations at the beginning of independence were followed by bitter disappointment and painful retrogressions that reached into virtually every aspect of African life, the immediate political response was not so much a re-evaluation of the assumptions and policies which had led to such disastrous results, but instead a widespread blaming of the departed imperialism, or racial minorities such as the Indians, or even the United States, which has had relatively little role in African history, for good or ill.’ (p. 120).

The British Conservative historian Jeremy Black says much the same in his The British Empire: A History and a Debate (Farnham: Ashgate 2015), where he discusses the way contemporary commonwealth politicians have used the history of British colonialism to divert domestic attention away from the failures of their own regimes.

The same attitude is held by some elements of the recent anti-racist movements. Post-Colonial Theorists, for example, will not criticise indigenous colonised societies, but will only attack western nations for the horrors of imperialism. At a Zoom event a few years ago held as part of the Arise festival of left-wing ideas, ‘Why Socialists Should Oppose Imperialism’, Barbara Barnaby, the head of Black Lives Matter UK, demanded that Britain allow in immigrants from the former colonies ‘because you oppressed us under colonialism’. But colonialism was at least fifty years ago in the cases of many of these countries. Western meddling and international capitalism has contributed greatly to many of these nations’ misery, but it cannot be considered the sole cause. These countries had the opportunity of creating better societies and economies for themselves during independence. By and large, they didn’t, at least, not in the immediate post-independence period. Since then it has been African oppressing and exploiting other Africans. The argument that Britain should take in more African immigrants because of imperial oppression is invalid, and is a piece of deliberate anti-White racism by Barnaby and those like her.

There are other, better arguments for allowing entry to Black asylum seekers – common humanity, the moral imperative of giving sanctuary to those genuinely persecuted or oppressed, and common historical ties through the empire and commonwealth.

But not a vengeful attitude of entitlement by Black militants unable to come to terms with the oppression of Blacks by their fellow Blacks.