Saturday, May 14, 2016

Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels on Colonialism

My general commentary on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is here.


In this post, I wanted to share a few of my thoughts on a particular passage that comes toward the end of the narrative. In the final chapter of this work, Gulliver is summing up his adventures and commenting upon European society through the lens of his experience. His commentary is scathing. Having visited all sorts of diverse lands and peoples, the narrator ponders what the effects of European invasion would be on these places. His general thoughts on are part of these musings,

“they go on shore to rob and plunder, they see a harmless people, are entertained with kindness; they give the country a new name; they take formal possession of it for their king; they set up a rotten plank, or a stone, for a memorial; they murder two or three dozen of the natives, bring away a couple more, by force, for a sample; return home, and get their pardon.   Here commences a new dominion acquired with a title by divine right.   Ships are sent with the first opportunity; the natives driven out or destroyed; their princes tortured to discover their gold; a free license given to all acts of inhumanity and lust, the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: and this execrable crew of butchers, employed in so  pious an expedition, is a modern colony, sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people!” 

One thing that it is important to remember is that this was written in 1726.

These thoughts are remarkably ahead of their time. Two centuries of European domination and oppression of native peoples lay ahead. One of the aspects that is striking about this quote is the number of components that a modern critique of the colonial system it contains. One example is the reference to stealing what belongs to the indigenous people. European hypocrisy is so well illustrated with irony with the image of  a rotten plank, or a stone, for a memorial.” The destruction of native life and culture is mentioned. The condemnation of torture and murder for greed is also surprising in light of the time that this was written. The reference to “the earth reeking with the blood” sounds so ahead of its time as well.

The line “and this execrable crew of butchers, employed in so pious an expedition, is a modern colony, sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people!” is biting irony that has a very modern feel. Here, Swift anticipates centuries of lies and hypocrisy that the colonial system was built upon.  

Such empathy for non-Europeans is surprising for the time. It does, however, fit in with the earlier narrative of this work. Throughout this book, Gulliver encounters strange people after strange people. Though the societies that he visits are filled with flaws, the narrator comes to see that they all contain certain aspects of European civilization. Many of the individuals that he encounters turn out to be honorable or decent. Furthermore, Gulliver is often judged unfairly by others for his differences.

Often, eighteenth century writers, such as Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, are credited with being the first real critics of colonialism. The above quote shows that Swift was doing so much earlier.

Some attribute Shakespeare’s Tempest as a critique of Colonialism. Others disagree with this assessment. Even if this is the case, it is a far cry from this direct attack launched by Swift.

Such overtly anticolonial sentiment was unexpected in a book of this era. It shows what a perceptive and innovative thinker Swift was. He was aware of the world around him in a way that we usually only attribute to much later intellects.  Such innovation and creativity is but one reason that Gulliver’s Travels deserves its reputation as an essential work of literature.

19 comments:

The Bookworm said...

Great commentary. Swift and his book do sound definitely ahead of its time... "the natives driven out or destroyed". It seems Swift did have empathy for indigenous peoples.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida

It is so striking that for so many, such empathy did not develop until over a hundred years after Swift wrote these words.

Jonathan said...

This is a very interesting post Brian; especially following your other one on Gulliver's Travels. I don't remember this passage but it's very powerful. It's fascinating when we come across someone's views from a different period that seems at odds with what we might expect from them. I've read GT a couple of times but never goto on with any of Swift's other books or essays.

R.T. (Tim) Davis said...

Good points! The colonization impulses were alive and well throughout Europe since the mid-16th century; witness the activities of Spain, Portugal, Holland, England, and France. The motives for the impulses are complicated, but the pursuits of riches rather than acquisitions of territories were notable. My reading of history reminds me that Swift was not alone in his suspicions about colonization and empire-building, but people who ran governments and financial empires had little time for people like Swift and his like-minded fellows. It is staggering to realize that so many military, political, and economic conflicts in the 15th through 20th centuries had their roots in colonization and empire-building.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jonathan - I also have have only read this book from Swift.

I agree that discovering views like this is so interesting. It can make us reassess the origin of certain ideas.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi R.T. - Colonization had such a big impact on history. Indeed this impact reverberates into are surrent times.


You raise a great point about the powerful people of the world not paying much attention to thinkers like Swift.

Tracy Terry said...

Loving the cover of this edition.

First read when I was a girl when as far as I can remember I just saw it as a great story. Its only as I read it as an adult that I began to get an insight into the complexities of the story. But then isn't that nearly always the case?

Great commentary Brian, I had thought of re-reading The Wind In The Willows as part of a book challenge I'm participating in but may well change it to re-reading this.

James said...

What an excellent analysis of Swift's novel. This is a fascinating example of some of his best and most prescient writing.

Suko said...

Excellent commentary, Brian Joseph! The writing and thought do seem to be ahead of its time.

I've been away but am back and trying to catch up! Have a great week.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy.

That is a great cover.

When I reread things that I read while young I get so much more out of them now.

I you read this now I would love to know what your up to date thoughts on it.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James.


Prescient indeed. He anticipated hundreds of years of criticism on colonialism.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko. Welcome back.

It is so interesting finding something like this so far ahead of its time.

Sharon Henning said...

Hi Brian! Your review makes me love Swift all the more. What a fiery and passionate man he must have been.

It is all too true that European colonialism often took a cruel form by exploiting primitive tribes and enslaving them.

However, it is important not to oversimplify the matter. Native tribes throughout the world were quite adept at committing inhumane practices against each other before Europeans ever set foot on their continents. Throughout India, Africa and the Americas there was constant inter-tribal warfare, in many cases far more gruesome than anything the Europeans practiced. (To my knowledge Europeans didn't make a practice of eating their enemies.)

But it is also true that at the same time caring people, such as Christian missionaries traveled to these uncharted territories and were responsible for stopping a lot of the barbaric practices that many native people were committing against each other. A few examples would be foot binding in China and widow burning in India.

Nevertheless, it is a sad fact that mankind is capable of committing atrocious acts against each other in their lust for dominance and power. Such is the human condition.

Thanks for a thought-provoking review!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Indeed the cultures that Europeans encountered were also violent and brutal. Usually more violent then the Europeans. There is also a tendency in some quarters to romanticize non European cultures as being peaceful and egalitarian, They almost never were. Steven Pinker has written extensively about this in both The Blank Slate and Our Better Angels.

Almost all invasions also bring some benefits also. Some cultures have better practices then others so the conquerers better practices make reduce violence.

In my opinion those facts cannot justify colonization. In my opinion an act that is wrong and based on violence is still morally untenable.

Maria Behar said...

Excellent review as always, Brian! I greatly enjoyed reading it!

Yes, indeed, Swift was way ahead of his time. Of course, Columbus 'discovered' the New World in 1492, and history records the barbaric deeds of his sailors, as well as those of later Europeans such as Pizarro and Ponce de Leon. However, no other European writer before Swift had condemned these so-called 'explorers'.

In the case of Cuba, the Spanish almost decimated the indigenous population. According to some research I've done, there are a few survivors in some parts of the country. The original natives were the Taino, Ciboney, Carib, and the Guanahatabeyes. Most of these tribes were peaceful, except for the Caribs, who were warlike.

The story of an Indian named Hatuey is especially sad. He was a Taino, and fought against the Spanish. They eventually captured him, burning him at the stake in 1512, in the town of Yara. ("Yara" means "place" in the Taino language.) Hatuey is considered Cuba's first national hero. There is a monument to his memory in Yara. Also, a famous malt beverage is named after him. This beverage is still being manufactured, too, right here in Miami.

Here's the Wikipedia article on Hatuey:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hatuey

From time to time, I have met fellow Cubans -- in my ESOL classes -- who have indigenous features, but they have been few and far between. Most of my students are either white, black, or a mixture of the two. I think I might be mixed-heritage myself. Every time I look in the mirror, I wonder if some of my ancestors might have been black and Oriental. There were Chinese people who emigrated to Cuba, although I have met very few. But I think most of us Cubans are mixed to some degree, although the majority have Spanish ancestors, as well.

It's a sad and unfortunate fact that Europeans, who have given the world such beauty in art, literature, and music, have also been responsible for causing suffering to huge groups of indigenous people, not to mention capturing Africans and bringing them to the New World as slaves. And I think it's very shameful that Swift was alone in his condemnation at the time.

Thanks for your thought-provoking analysis!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Thanks you for such a meaningful comment.

Indeed the effects of colonization were monstrous in some places. The story of Taino exemplifies that. In addition my understanding is that in some of the West Indian Islands, total genocide occurred. The populations were worked and starved to death in less then a decade after conquest. What the inhabitants went through is unimaginable.

As you point out European history, like the history of most cultures is filled with this horrifying violence and inhumanity, along with so many positive things. It is indeed ironic.

thecuecard said...

The story seems way ahead of its time to me in its critique of colonialism. Which makes me wonder a bit about Swift's background. What was it about his life that he raised these issues? A reaction to what he saw around him ... ?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I only know a little bit about Swift's life. He was an critic of British Colonialism in Ireland. Though this was a different form of colonialism, it undoubtedly had an influence on him.

HKatz said...

I'd like to revisit Gulliver's Travels... thanks for highlighting this part. Reminds me also of Bartolomé de las Casas, the Dominican friar who came to document the cruelty against the native population in the West Indies and argued that they're fully human.