Pre-script (is that a thing people do?): this blog post was mostly inspired by Indolence of the Filipino People by Jose Rizal, the polymath’s polymath. It’s a long read but he makes many of the same points I did, and reading that again inspired Jire significantly. The rest of the inspiration came from all those classes I took about Spanish and Portuguese colonialism in the Americas (where I wondered if I’d ever use that stuff again), as well as readings in one of my anthropology courses. For instance, an even longer read by Albert Memmi. Here’s one way I’m trying to use it.
I will only post one spoiler here for Kaschar’s Quarter, and I wonder how much of a spoiler it really is because the chapter in question has been up for a while, but here goes. In Chapter Seven (The Bathala, or Unworthiness), Matthieu is shipwrecked on an island that he believes to be inhabited by perfect people. This isn’t necessarily true but it doesn’t stop other Corastians from trying to recreate his voyage later. In a very Christopher Colombus-esque scenario, an Arcinan explorer named Ergenio Talfane “discovers” what he thinks are the islands from Matthieu’s story. He’s wrong, but that doesn’t really matter in the end, because even more follow him to the new land he totally found even though there were people already living there. A lot of people. People with their own diverse languages, governments, economies, religions, and cultural practices that developed without any aid or influence from Corastia.
This is where things take a turn. The islands which Talfane stumbled upon were north of a large continent the Arcinans would later call Achogo. Once there, they did what colonizing nations do: began a series of systematic changes to the society they found there in order to make money.
Jire’s world is a result of these changes, in much the same way that the world around us has many places which are the results of the changes wrought on them by various colonial powers over the centuries (millennia, really, since this isn’t something Western Europe just invented one day). Here’s how that process usually goes (see: Mexico, Brazil, Peru, and the Philippines but really just about anywhere else you can think of).
New place is “discovered”, which isn’t necessarily thought to mean that the colonizers are the first humans there (though it sometimes is) but rather that the place in question was previously unknown to the maps of the time. The new place is then described by contrast to the old place, often through a utopian lens that emphasizes the new place’s economic value because there wouldn’t be any point making a trip like that again if there was nothing to gain from doing so. Voyages return home, carrying goods (and sometimes people) from the new place and pitch the idea of even more voyages, this time with more ships and crewmembers.
The colonizers encounter resistance from the locals, which is totally understandable, and is then put down with military force. Mutilations, massacres, and divide-and-conquer tactics (to prevent local groups from joining forces against the colonizers) are often a centerpiece of this strategy, continuing into a prolonged colonial government. This new government is often built by using the enemies of a large regional power against it, placing the colonizers in a position where they can monopolize military force.
Now that the colonizers have an army behind them, they can begin making increasingly drastic changes to local lifeways. This could include religion but more often then not comes down to economics, specifically economic plans that benefit the colonizers. One way to do this is to concentrate native laborers into land grants and plantations, all bent on mass production of cash-crops. As before, the threat of revolt is always present, so the military and/or broad rights for landowners are used to keep laborers in line.
The first thing that happens when you do this is that people die. A lot. And not just individuals die, but societies and families begin to break down when the individuals of which they are composed become commoditized by the dominant economic system. Effects of this process can last for generations or even centuries, harming the ability of colonized peoples to recover from exploitation. These effects, wherein the colonized are rendered inhuman and the colonizers are given artificial superiority, ultimately dehumanize both groups.
Once the transition to large-scale mono-cropping of non-subsistence foods begins, the next thing to happen is that even more people will die. Soils which were once replenished by cyclical farming techniques begin to degrade within a few growing seasons. Delicate trade balances that kept food surpluses flowing between different regions and polities begin to break down, as the crops which once provided one community or another an advantageous economic relationship with another have been replaced with crops that only benefit the colonizers. As this process continues and systems of surplus exchange collapse, famine sets in. Concentration of once-widespread labor into plantations, towns and cities hastens the rate of collapse, diverting more and more wealth away from the natives and toward the colonizers. This isn’t to say that the native economies weren’t also based on their own system of economic stratification but that more often than not, one unfair system replaces another.
One result of this is that incentives to produce trade goods or even staples are eliminated when those who produce them feel that to do so would only be to their own detriment. Local industries collapse; farmers are distracted from their fields; substance abuse and gambling become increasing problems. All of this can be turned back on the colonized as proof of their backward ways, which can only be remedied by emulating the more industrious and successful colonizers. This emulation can take the form of language, fashion, religion, etc, but only to the degree which the colonized are allowed by the colonizers to participate. Participation in the new society naturally favors local elites, but they are not seen by colonizers as societal equals.
These local elites will want their due, because the advantages they once held are now threatened by foreigners who they outnumber. Countering this requires a two-fold reshaping of how elite status is conceived. First, the colonizers’ victory must be seen as evidence of cultural or biological superiority. Second, the colonizers’ continued dominance must be assured by any means necessary. Divide-and-conquer strategies return again, crushing attempts by the colonized to assert forms of societal solidarity, whether along economic, religious, ethnic, or national lines. The colonizers’ strategies work for a while, maybe even centuries, but revolts occur constantly. Native populations continue to fall, and not only because of death but because of interbreeding and the inevitable attempts by the colonizers to support their dominance by surrounding themselves with ethnic boundaries.
As the colonized society continues to transform, not only from the outside but from the inside as well, precolonial life begins to take on new meanings for both colonized and colonizer. The time before colonization gives rise to myths, some relying on the early utopian depictions of the colonized while others paint a more cynical picture of barbarism becoming civilization. Old traditions that were once suppressed are now markers of an emerging national consciousness that may not necessarily have existed before colonization, but now threatens the colonial order by promising to unify groups once divided along boundaries which the colonizers’ efforts toward cultural homogeneity have since smoothed over. National sentiment moves downward from colonials (who are likely but not always elites of mixed heritage, who assert themselves as citizens of a nation distinct from both colonizers and colonized) and takes hold among the peasants, farmers, and laborers who occupy the lowest but largest rung of colonial society.
In producing this new society, the colonial order has sown the seeds of their own undoing.
This isn’t something I’ve seen in fantasy before, but I’ve seen it all the time in history. Is that because I don’t read much fantasy? Most likely, yeah, but I’d still appreciate more of this kind of thinking being applied to a genre where continent-spanning empires, wars of mutually assured destruction, imposed monolingualism, and other hallmarks of colonialism are so commonplace. If you know of some fantasy books that do this, please let me know. Either way, I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing until what I’m doing is done.