The Nature of Empires and the Empires of Nature

Indigenous Peoples and the Great Lakes Environment
Wilfrid Laurier University Press
  • 1. Auflage
  • |
  • erschienen am 28. September 2013
  • |
  • 288 Seiten
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978-1-55458-422-2 (ISBN)
Drawing on themes from John MacKenzie's Empires of Nature and the Nature of Empires (1997), this book explores, from Indigenous or Indigenous-influenced perspectives, the power of nature and the attempts by empires (United States, Canada, and Britain) to control it. It also examines contemporary threats to First Nations communities from ongoing political, environmental, and social issues, and the efforts to confront and eliminate these threats to peoples and the environment. It becomes apparent that empire, despite its manifestations of power, cannot control or discipline humans and nature. Essays suggest new ways of looking at the Great Lakes watershed and the peoples and empires contained within it.
  • Englisch
  • 2,42 MB
978-1-55458-422-2 (9781554584222)
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A Meditation on Environmental History

John MacKenzie

David McNab, the organizer of the conference on which this collection was based, was a Ph.D. student of mine at Lancaster University more than thirty years ago. He worked on the very important British colonial bureaucrat Herman Merivale, a fascinating man whose ideas and viewpoints mark him out as representative of a particular intellectual tradition in the early nineteenth century, generally very different from the views that prevailed later in that century. The flavour of the man is encapsulated in the fact that he considered miscegenation a good thing, even if he saw this in a patronizing way, as a means by which Westerners could assimilate what he would have called "savage races." Later in the century, miscegenation became abhorrent to those who thought in terms of the full-blown racism of the time and insisted on, for us, obnoxious notions of racial purity. Even less attractively, Merivale was opposed to reserves for indigenous peoples, yet his reasons were good. He was not an admirer of the United States and he felt that reserves, as there, simply led to the further cupidity of white people. He argued that reserves would always inevitably contract and were not, therefore, an effective means of protection. Perhaps the Canadian experience has indicated that, at least in one respect, his scepticism was justified. McNab cut his historical teeth on some of these issues before working so assiduously, humanely, and effectively in the realm of First Nations land rights and claims in Canada. When I read his book Circles of Time,1 I become aware of the all the work that he did in this field, the many communities that he had contact with, and the enormous respect that he developed for First Nations peoples, as I am sure they did for him.

What follows is something of a personal account of my relationship with environmental history. I literally stumbled into this important field at a time when it was a relatively new discipline. The story offers a good indication of how historical research can proceed as much by accident as by design. In the mid-1980s, two sports historians wrote to me out of the blue, inquiring if I would contribute to a book they were intending to edit with the title "Sport in Africa." I very nearly refused. I considered it to be a very interesting subject, but not one on which I would have anything useful to say without changing the direction of my research more fundamentally than I was inclined to do. Almost at the moment when I was poised to decline, however, I had a thought. In many books of African exploration and the memoirs of colonial officials and others, I had encountered seemingly endless accounts of hunting African animals. These were passages that I had generally skipped, finding them not very congenial. Other Africanists subsequently told me that they had always done the same. I thought I would return to these and perhaps "give it a go." I would define sport not as team games, but in order to reinvoke the uses of that word in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: for the British, sport always meant shooting.

I was soon enthralled. Whereas it is obvious that hunting has always been central to white expansion and interaction with indigenous peoples in Canada, I realized that this had not been the case in Africa. The myopia of historians had led them to think about the geography, the politics, the diplomacy, and the warfare inherent in the conquest and partition of the so-called Dark Continent, but the great and strikingly characteristic African fauna had tended to be overlooked. Even ivory had been dealt with very much as a commodity and not in terms of the means by which it was extracted. I wrote the article for the Sport in Africa collection,2 and was now enthused enough to write a full-length book.3 Africa, it seemed to me, had been conquered on the back of its animals. Ivory had been a vital subsidy for missionaries, explorers, and early administrators. Much more than this, animals had provided a crucial protein supplement: whites shot animals in order to feed their porters, their soldiers, their workers, and others. Even the labourers on railway construction had been fed on the products of the gun. As a result, white hunters greatly reduced the animal resources of the new colonies through a dramatic process of asset-stripping. They denied Africans access to the hunt, always a vital component of the African diet, a prohibition that whites eventually backed up with legislation in which they disguised a whites-only right to hunting as a means of conserving a rapidly scarce resource. Such legislation ultimately led to the creation of game reserves and national parks, and all of this was again characterized by the denial of the age-old hunting practices of Africans. As a further twist, these practices were dubbed cruel, unacceptable to modern susceptibilities. Africans, with their long history of finding means of accommodation with often-dangerous animals, defending their crops, supplementing their diet, and utilizing economically valuable products, were now turned into poachers by the intrusion of legal concepts imported from Europe, where class and supposed ownership had long been the key conditioning factor in people's access to the animal resource. Now, in Africa, class was transformed into race.4

When you are a pioneer in a field, as seems to have been the case for me, you tread in ways that you would fear to do at a later and more sophisticated time. My ambition was boundless, so I examined hunting in East, Central, and Southern Africa, and, since I was interested in comparative imperial perspectives, I even turned to India. There was a similar, if not entirely parallel, story there. There were other connections too. British army officers in India, and some wealthy compatriots, liked nothing better than planning an African hunting trip as a vacation. Now the point about this lengthy preamble is that when I published a book and several articles in this area,5 I was naïve enough to fail to realize that I had turned myself into an environmental historian. The distribution of animal species, their relationships with humans, and their fortunes within a multi-use environment were clearly a crucial aspect of the history of the environment, an aspect that also had a very real global dimension. The human interaction with animals, in peoples' mythologies, oral literatures, spiritual responses to their environment, and taboos, as well as in their economic and dietary well-being, was and is a global phenomenon, exhibiting many continental parallels and also disjunctions.6

In reality, this new concern with the human/animal relationship merely re-created an interest from my own past. A period of living in Zimbabwe in the early 1970s had already provided me with a fascination with hunting and gathering peoples, notably the so-called Bushmen, sometimes called the San (although that is also a problematic designation). In particular, the Bushmen interacted with and meditated upon their environment through their cave paintings, great artistic achievements that also sparked thoughts about transcontinental parallels. Outside Harare in Zimbabwe, I saw one of the most moving of all Bushmen paintings. It depicts a man chopping down a tree, probably several centuries ago. Now, Bushmen did not chop down trees: they hid behind them while hunting; they gathered their fruits and nuts; they respected them as a source of food and as a spiritual presence in their landscape. For these reasons, trees often appeared in their paintings. So who is this man who is performing this sacrilege? He is a Bantu-speaking African. He is depicted in the painting with a different and heavier physique than the Bushmen. He is an agriculturalist. He is a user of iron, for chopping down trees without iron is difficult. He has arrived to transform the landscape, to rearrange it for a new economic order. His arrival heralded many changes for the Bushmen. They would now become marginal people. They would be partially genetically assimilated by the iron-users, but they would also retreat into less favourable lands, ultimately surviving until modern times. Many now live in Botswana, where they are still under threat. They pursue their traditional lifestyle on poor land, which is now suspected of bearing mineral riches. The government of Botswana is seeking to settle them so that the developers can move in or alternatively to ensure that game reserves are free of people. The Bushmen are seen as standing in the way of progress.

If this all sounds familiar, that is because it is representative of a story that has been repeated many times throughout the globe. Whether it is the Bushmen, or the so-called tribals of the Indian forests, or the Australian Aborigines, or the Gypsies of Europe (whom the Nazis attempted to exterminate), or the travelling people in Britain, sometimes known in Scotland as the tinkers, people who move about are alien to, and unsettling for, the modern state. People should be settled and pinned down. The Bushmen, whose lifestyle was incompatible with iron-age Bantu speakers and with whites in southern Africa (after all, hunters never co-exist comfortably with pastoralists), were themselves hunted down and pushed to the fringes as their numbers declined. Later I read the enthralling book by Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, in which that distinguished anthropologist wrote of hunting and gathering peoples as representing the first affluent societies.7 Again this is a global story, familiar in...

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