Tag Archives: colonialism

Superstition, colonialism and prehistory

My experience as a white person living in Europe, is of prehistoric peoples being depicted as ignorant and superstitious. It’s there in pop culture, and it intersects with a similar treatment of the global majority. It’s a kind of infantilising, treating adult people from other cultures as though they have the same relationship with reality as a typical white toddler.

One of the things this misrepresentation does, is to enforce the idea that white colonial cultures are superior. I think it actually starts from the assumption of that superiority and then interprets what everyone else is doing in light of the idea that those cultures are inferior. There’s nothing evidence-based here. I’m going to talk about prehistory because it’s less loaded and, being pallid myself, I feel it’s more appropriate for me to speak about. I do think that how we imagine prehistory is profoundly related to modern colonialism and racism.

Pop culture representations of prehistoric people tend to focus on their being ignorant and superstitious. An obvious example is the way people in Clan of the Cave Bear don’t know where babies come from. There’s a tendency to imagine ancient people attributing everything around them to gods and spirits while having no idea of how anything works.

Interestingly we don’t make the same assumptions about animals, historical or contemporary. Whether their behaviour is attributed to instinct, experience, training or conditioning, we treat animal behaviour in the wild as being fairly logical and as making sense as a response to the environment. But overall we like to imagine our wild human ancestors as not being rational in the way that all other mammals are. We portray them as children, for the greater part. It also does a disservice to our own children, who, given half a chance will do their best to figure out how the world around them works and how best to interact with it. Children tend to be quiet scientific in their figuring out and will engage rationally with their experiences unless adults actively teach them not to.

To survive in the wilds as a human, you need a lot of skills. You need to be able to source things, make things, gather things and maybe hunt for food as well. You have to understand the weather, the seasons, the resources and threats around you. This calls for people who are highly skilled and knowledgeable and who interact with what’s around them in informed and logical ways.

The irrationality and childishness are in fact projections from the minds of contemporary adults. We believe some pretty irrational things these days – not just the gods we’ve invented, but market forces, countries, trickle down economics, the divine right of kings, capitalism… none of these things make a lot of sense when you consider the evidence for how they function. We accept childish tyrants who do little of value but who have inherited wealth and power and a belief they should lead us. We’re not a culture that invests much in evidence or reason most of the time.

Our ancestors must have known how to communicate and cooperate with each other far more effectively than we do. Useful skills would have been essential. Knowing how to suck up to power isn’t worth much when you live marginally. I think a lot of the time what we project onto prehistory says a lot more about us as people than it does about the past. 


Death and Empire

I hold a number of opinions about the Queen. Firstly I am simply glad for her that death came quickly and she didn’t spend months, or years suffering. For anyone who is grieving the loss of a person they cared about, my every sympathy.

But it’s complicated, and we do need to talk about the issues, too. For a lot of people, Queen Elizabeth was a symbol of a whole lot of things that made them feel comfortable and patriotic. Those people are mostly white. For a lot of people around the world, Queen Elizabeth was the face of oppression and she came to the throne when the British Empire was still very much a thing. She was the embodiment of colonialism, and the living reminder of atrocities committed in the name of the British Empire. Anyone feeling relief, or rage in response to this death is entitled to that feeling. You can’t really separate the role of the Crown in world history from the specific person most recently wearing it. That’s not how crowns and empires work.

People who suffered because of England’s desire for an empire are still being impacted by that – we’re not so many years from being obliged to let countries rule themselves again and the impacts on cultures, economies, identities and environments remain. If you can’t see how that works, I can recommend finding out about the jewels in the crown jewels as an illustrative place to start.

Here in the UK, we’ve been seriously hurting for years. Many people lost loved ones to covid. Many people lost jobs, security and mental health to the mismanagement of covid. That’s all getting worse thanks to Brexit and ongoing terrible political decisions. Most of us are scared and hurting. But there’s been no way to express that collectively, and there are plenty of trolls, on and offline, waiting to smack you about if they don’t like how you’re feeling. By dying, the Queen has given people a focal point for grief, and it’s likely the responses in the coming weeks will be informed by the sheer backlog of grief people in the UK need to process. 

Perhaps we could manage to recognise the grief of other people whose history with the Queen involves more overt forms of oppression and conquest. Perhaps we could find it in our hearts to be glad that one old lady died at home with some dignity, and to wish that kind of dignified death for everyone. Do we owe her more love and concern than any other elderly person? 

Could we perhaps stop telling each other that some people have special entitlement based on the accident of their birth? Could we instead share out that grief and love a bit more evenly, grieving the many elderly people who died of covid and government cruelty in recent years? Could we be kinder to each other in our grief? And might we possibly be willing to hear that ‘great’ Britain really hasn’t been even slightly great for a lot of people.Could we perhaps decide that life is worthy of respect, not just the lives of a select few.

And a reminder that no one owes their oppressor respect. No, the Queen didn’t go out into the world and dirty her hands directly causing misery, but a lot of other people have done so in her name and you can’t be a figurehead for something while trying to claim that you have no hand in what you’re a figurehead for or how that thing has operated in the past. You can’t sit on wealth that comes from violence, slavery and colonialism and be beyond criticism.


Peeling off a label

I don’t really identify with gender. However, the practical reality is that I have a female-appearing body and because of that I am subject to the sexism and hazards women face. I have identified with feminism, but I’m increasingly unsure about what the word now means, or whether I want to be part of it.

I definitely do not want to be part of the white feminism that talks over the global majority or treats them as victims to be saved. I don’t want to be part of the way white feminism can be complicit in racism, and in perpetuating racial stereotypes. 

I do not want to be part of the cis-feminism that is so quick to shout ‘erasure’ if there’s a person with a cervix in the room or a parent who gave birth. I’m sick of the actual erasure of non-binary folk and trans folk and how that impacts on their safety. Our safety. I’m sick of the idea that acknowledging trans and non-binary folk somehow undermines or harms the idea of womanhood or female identity. 

I do not want to be part of the biological essentialism that causes so much pain to women who don’t have all of the ‘woman parts’ – the women who were born with different bodies, the women who have lost body parts or functions to illness, accident and operations and who should not have their identity threatened by this. Not everyone who thinks of themselves as female bleeds, for many different reasons. I don’t want to be part of a feminism that throws women under a bus for not conforming enough to gender stereotypes.

I do want women to be safer. I want an end to gender based violence and to all other forms of gender inequality. I want equality of respect and dignity, I want equal chances of healthcare needs being met, I want an end to the pay gap. I want everyone to be safer, and to do that we have to deconstruct patriarchal and colonial structures and mindsets. I want to work with anyone who is pushing for that. I want an end to racism, and classism and ableism. They’re all interconnected.


What if we re-thought land ownership?

Land ownership is mostly about violence.  There are places around the world where land is held collectively by the people who live on it, but that’s not mostly what we get. Where land is bought and sold, it’s all about those with the most resources being entitled to control the bounty freely available from the Earth. This tends to have its roots in conquest. Land has gone from common ownership, to being under control of relatively few people. At some point, this will probably have involved war or aggressive colonialism.

There is no moral justification for letting a few people benefit from the violence in our shared history.  That your ancestor had a big sword and was willing to kill should not be a basis for deciding who now has control of land. All too often, we see vast areas of land exploited for the benefit of the few, with no eye to the good of most people, the needs of nature or the urgent need for decarbonisation.  In the UK, the grouse moor is the prime example of this – areas of land that are burned to provide habitat for grouse so that rich people can hunt them. Grouse moors are known to contribute to flooding elsewhere, they deprive regular people of land access, and for what?

Meanwhile in our urban environments, homes and areas of land are bought as investment and may be left empty because the people who own them are only thinking about their personal profits. We’re not obliged to allow this. Laws could be changed to prevent this kind of behaviour. We could have a much more equitable approach to land.

We could cap how much land a person can own. We could penalise people for misusing the land. We could redistribute land ownership more fairly, or bring more land into public ownership. We could require public green spaces as part of urban planning permission.

While we’re at it, we could challenge ideas around private ownership. With a small percentage of people owning far more than they can use while vast numbers of people have little or nothing, we could afford to rethink how we distribute resources. We could start rejecting the violence inherent in certain kinds of ownership. We could decide that exploiting masses of people so that a few people can have far more than they need, isn’t an acceptable way to carry on. We could re-write some of our narratives around entitlement and fairness and question whether ‘deserve’ really should mean being able to profit from someone else having taken land by force at some point in history.

We could question the whole idea of owning land.


Druidry and Rabbits

Rabbits are interestingly complicated from a Druid perspective. On one hand, they’re cute, fluffy mammals, and on the other, they could be the poster-creature for humans messing up.

We’ve been moving rabbits around the world for a long time. When exactly they came to the UK is uncertain – could have been the Romans, could have been the Normans. Certainly the Normans had to build warrens for them because apparently rabbits back then weren’t very tough at all! Old rabbit warrens in the landscape can easily be confused for other things. There’s an interesting pair near me that, in local legend, are supposedly mass graves for a smallpox hospital.

Rabbits in Australia have been an ecological disaster. They may be small and cute, but being in a landscape where they don’t belong has had a series impact on other species. Tree loss, soil erosion and loss of other plant species causes huge knock on effects.

Then we get myxomatosis – a virus that originated in South America and turns out to have hideous, crippling effects on rabbits, who die slow and painful deaths from it. I’ve heard a lot of stories about how it was deliberately brought into the UK to control rabbit populations – a horrible choice by any measure.

We move rabbits around so that we can eat them. We keep them as pets. We use the fur of Angora rabbits for clothing, but the treatment of those rabbits, is often appalling. The problems rabbits cause in the world stem from our human assumption that they are there for us to use in whatever way we see fit. When we colonise landscapes, our impact isn’t just about moving people in, and humans – especially white, European humans – have caused a lot of harm by deliberately and accidentally moving creatures to places where they do not belong.

Rabbits invite us to look at how we use power. They invite us to square up to a long history of ecological damage and arrogance. They are intimately tied up with colonial histories and the history of invasion. From a Druid perspective, they have much to tell us about what a lack of natural justice looks like, and what human hubris does in the world.