Guns, Germs and Steel

Have you been watching Guns, Bombs and Steel on the ABC (Final episode was on Monday, I missed it). Episode one was, for me, fascinating and thought provoking.
The basic thesis of the series (of the book), which one could elucidate from not much more than the title, is that guns, germs and steel are responsible for the western world having a lot of stuff and the rest having not much.

Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel.

That’s a little misleading though, because what I got from the first episode was that the presence of high protein grains and domesticatable beasts of burden in the biota of a fairly small geographical area (the fertile crescent in the Middle East) were initially responsible for humanity’s evolution from hunter-gathering
to more ‘advanced’ forms of civilisation.

These led, eventually, to the introduction of new technologies (harnessing fire for smelting and such), ultimately leading to steel weapons and sea-going boats and all the other things that propelled the terrible age of European colonisation of the planet, a process that is arguably still in progress.

This premise is enjoyable because it debunks what may be a surviving paradigm in various rednecks of the woods; that European style western civilisation has dominated the globe of late because its people are more evolved and fitter to survive than those of any other race or geographical location. Sucks to you white supremacists on that score.

Episode two spent a lot of time looking at South America and the conquering of the Inca’s by a Spanish pirate fellow. Fascinating stuff also. Was it a coincidence that a bit later on Monday nights, ABC was showing Conquistadors, a more in depth analysis of the same gruesome series of events?

Both shows reveal how the Europeans’ mastery of horsemanship combined with sharp steel weaponry, plus, one might add, a complete lack of a sense of humanity combined with utter greed and ruthlessness, allowed a force of a couple of hundred men to overwhelm a nation with a standing (and equally bloodthirsty) army in the tens of thousands.

There were many strange and dark stories to be told in this history, and frankly the Inca’s don’t come out of it much better than the Spaniards, being, at times, their own worst enemies in conspiring against each other. Not forgetting also that the Incan nation was fairly savage in conquering and oppressing their own neighbours prior to the arrival of the Spanish.

The thing that’s really been bugging me about this story is that, were it not for the unwitting enlistment of a slew of nasty biological weapons by the Spanish, they wouldn’t have had a hope. Europeans had suffered the ravages of various epidemics over the ages and, surviving and re-proliferating as they did, their populace had a level of immunity to such as small pox. Not so the Incas, nor the Aborigines, nor, one supposes, just about any other indigenous civilisation who eventually were made contact with by exploring Europeans.

Let us suppose that the age of exploration had had a different goal than colonisation and exploitation of foreign lands. Suppose, for example, the Conquistadors were composed of botanists and anthropologists and humanitarians and the like, intent on discovering the new world with total respect for the indigenous inhabitants, helping where they could, sharing technology, spreading around a bit of the genetic material (grains and cows and horses etc.) that they were so blessed to have, but basically leaving them to their own devices.

Would they not, asks I, through an act as simple and apparently harmless as a sneeze or a shake of the hand, have spread nearly as much misery and destruction as otherwise? And with no understanding of the causes or treatment of these illnesses, they would have watched helplessly as the civilisations they had come to study collapsed around them.

Just a thought…

Needless to say, those who did survive this onslaught could have had a much better fate than the ensuing brutality, exploitation, and oppression that universally define the colonising experience.

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