Civilizing the barbarian

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Nov 11 06:59:43 MST 2000

Nicholas P. Canny, "The Ideology of English Colonization: From Ireland to
America", William and Mary Quarterly, Oct. 73:

We must bear in mind that of the group of adventurers who flocked to
Ireland many were widely travelled and some well read. There is evidence
that a few of the West Countrymen had fought on the Continent, even against
the Turks in Hungary, while others had visited the New World. All were
interested in travel and adventure, and through their exploits and reading
of travel literature, such as the English translation of Johann Boemus --
they had familiarized themselves with the habits of peoples who were
considered barbarians by European standards. It was natural that they
should now strive to assimilate the Irish into their general conception of
civilization. One early example of this was Sidney’s comparing the Ulster
chieftain Shane O’Neill with Huns, Vandals, Goths, and Turks. Sidney was
well versed in travel literature, and it is significant that the translator
Thomas Hacket, in dedicating one of his works to Sidney, associated
Sidney’s task in Ireland with that of the Spaniards in the New World when
he praised "such as have invented good lawes and statutes for the brideling
of the barbarous and wicked, and for the maintayning and defending of the
just." What is significant is that many of the colonizers came to Ireland
with a preconception of what a barbaric society was like, and they found
features in Gaelic life to fit this model. The ultimate hallmark of
barbarism was the practice of cannibalism.

While the Irish were seldom accused of cannibalism, Sidney referred to
Shane O’Neill as "that canyball," and Sir John Davies, some fifty years
later, asserted that those living under Gaelic rule "were little better
than Cannibals who do hunt one another." In addition, the English took the
Irish practice of transhumance as proof that the Irish were nomads, hence
barbarians. In the travel literature that was read by sixteenth-century
Englishmen nomadic people were considered to be at the opposite pole of
civilization from themselves. Boemus, for example, found the Scythians and
their offshoot, the Tartarians, to be the most barbarous people in the
world because they "neither possessed any grounds, nor had any seats or
houses to dwell in, but wandered through wilderness and desert places
driving their flockes and heardes of beasts before them." This view became
entrenched in the English mind and was repeated in the introduction of
almost every sixteenth-century pamphlet dealing with travel and
exploration. This explains why the practice of transhumance so readily
caught the Englishman’s attention in Ireland.

The events of 1565-1576 in Ireland have a significance in the general
history of colonization that transcends English and Irish history. The
involvement in Irish colonization of men who afterwards ventured to the New
World suggests that their years in Ireland were years of apprenticeship.
Quinn has established that the use of a propaganda campaign to muster
support for a colony and the application of the joint-stock principle to
colonization were both novel techniques which were employed none too
successfully in Ireland, but without which the English could hardly have
pursued successful colonization in the New World. An even more significant
break with the past was the change in attitude toward the native Irish, and
this too was to have consequences in the history of American colonization.

It has been noted how Sidney and his adherents fitted the native Irish into
their mental world picture. Certain traits of the Gaelic way of life,
notably the practice of transhumance, were accepted as evidence that the
Irish were barbarians, and the English thus satisfied themselves that they
were dealing with a culturally inferior people who had to be subdued by
extralegal methods. Many of the English colonizers were at first unsure of
themselves and looked to Roman practice for further justification for their
actions. The Roman example seems to have been abandoned as unnecessary by
the colonizers who ventured to North America, but not so the concept of
cultural evolution that had been sharpened as a result of their Irish
experience. Writers such as Thomas Hariot, who had Irish as well as
American experience, frequently compared the habits of the Gaelic Irish
with those of the Indians. Contemporary observers like Theodore De Bry
claimed to see a resemblance between the ancient Britons and the Indians
drawn by the artist John White, thus implying that they considered the
Indians, like the Irish, to be at the same primitive level of development
as the ancient Britons had been. It appears therefore that the Irish
experience confirmed and reinforced the English notion of barbarism and
that those, such as Gilbert, Raleigh, and Frobisher, who had experience in
both spheres had little difficulty in applying that notion to the
indigenous population of the New World.

Louis Proyect
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