The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, November 24, 2002

The West and the rest
Rumina Sethi

The Colonizer’s Model of the World
J. M. Blaut. The Guilford Press, New York. Pages 246. £16.99

The Colonizer’s Model of the WorldCENTURIES ago, a ‘reality’ was constructed: that there was a centre and thus a periphery. The Centre was propped up by its innovativeness, advancement, adulthood and scientific temper whereas its other, by default, acquired connotations of imitativeness, sluggishness, childhood and sorcery. The Centre led and the Periphery lagged. Unfortunately, this view has endured. Needless to say, the West is the centre to the rest of the world because the belief systems it engendered during the Enlightenment phase created permanent divisions between the West and the rest. Such are the concerns of Blaut in The Colonizer’s Model of the World.

After a long time, one has discovered a book blessedly free of ambiguities and jargon. Blaut yokes together conquest and exploitation, maps and ideological cartography, school children’s syllabi and world views, all within the methodology of bonding political geography and history and comes out with devastating evidence of a humbug Western civilisation. Without reservations, I recommend this book to undergraduates and lofty researchers alike, not discounting general readers and teachers of history.


Blaut makes an early statement: ‘The belief that finally peters down to us is that the West has some unique historical advantage, some special quality which gives it permanent superiority over the others’. Such a view was built up and aided by an industry of unselfconscious writing and representation, some sympathetic, some vitriolic. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe teaches Friday to call him Master and in one stroke, polarises the world into civilised and primitive. Crusoe’s imaginings of the savagery of the inhabitants of the place he finds himself shipwrecked have continued to date in the cinematic representation of Tom Hanks in The Castaway or much earlier in The Blue Lagoon and many other films one may not care to remember. It is amazing how shipwreck (or airplane disasters in modern times) remained a favourite theme in European texts which helpfully allowed the European to be an adventurer/discoverer venturing into the unknown. More seriously, Marx’s (in)famous papers on British rule in India discovers colonialism to be the ‘unconscious tool of history in bringing about . . . revolution.’ Said’s Culture and Imperialism has gives us a veritable list of novels, opera, and other cultural artifacts which define the pattern of relationships between the Western world and its overseas territories. Connecting Conrad and Jane Austen with this enterprise, Said holds them culpable of depicting native peoples as ‘marginally visible’ and ‘people without History’.

Blaut points out that the enterprise of creating public opinion, consciously or not, begins early. In school, one is taught about inventions and discoveries, all of which are linked to the West. The best books are written in the West which we must read; we follow western atlases and our view of the sizes of countries depends upon these; we may now give credit for many of history’s marvels to the East, but all the systems of the world — Democracy, Bureaucracy, Capitalism, Modern State, Industry, Stock Markets, the concept of Freedom — naturally come from the West. This gives us a model of a ‘two-sector world’, one with an Inside and an Outside.

This trajectory of ideas is called ‘the diffusionist world model’ by Blaut. Such a thinking was based on several ‘myths’ or claims: that all non-European regions were empty of people which allowed Europeans to settle down without displacing anybody; that people of the new world were nomadic and mobile and had no concept of private property enabling the Europeans to own and occupy property with equanimity; and that these people were also intellectually bereft and decadent allowing the Europeans to partake in the mission civilisatrice. ‘The only way in which the non-European world can progress and change for the better is by the diffusion of ideas from Europe or by the spread of Europeans themselves who become bearers of these new and innovative ideas’, writes Blaut explaining that the selective rise of Europe took place owing to precisely such justifications. Europe happily compensates itself by taking away plantation products, minerals, labour and so on, realising all the while that nothing can really make up for the gift of civilisation. In other words, colonialism legitimises itself by perpetuating the belief that it gives more than it receives.

Not so long ago, I was reading Paul Johnson’s statement about the end of slavery —that ‘great turning point in the story of humanity’ —and the historic role that the British played in its abolition. I was amazed that in the spirit of flaunting British honour and integrity, Johnson completely glosses over the British imperative in beginning slavery, one which they can hardly be ‘proud’ of. Johnson also shows how Africa faces a ‘future of poverty and tyranny’ owing to British withdrawal. Independence came to Africa at least one generation too soon, he wails. But what of Singapore, we might ask, which was ‘entirely created’ by the British and which has done well for itself? It is to counter such reactionary ideology which still prevails that Blaut’s book must be read. The age of empire may be by no means over!