Colonization: Battling Man, Battling Nature

Arminius says goodbye to Thusnelda. Johannes Gehrts (1884)

If it hadn’t been for his in-laws, Arminius could have lived to a ripe old age and ruled a united Germany.

Lately I have been trying to plan out the later books of my fantasy series, the Chronicles of Verraine. As with the prequel I discussed, I’d like to have a plan firmly in mind now so that when I as I write, I can do so with an eye toward setting up my next project. Me being me, I like to base plot elements on real events to give myself (and my readers!) a baseline of expectations, and hook more interest in history.

For example, I’ve based the climax of the first book, tentatively titled The Last Collared Mage, on the Battle of Teutoburg Forest — where Arminius handed Rome its greatest defeat and stopped the takeover of Germany cold.

Anyway, a few years back, I wrote a novel called Jia’s Cove. It was science fiction, inspired by Heinlein’s novels Farnham’s Freehold and The Tale of the Adopted Daughterthough it ended up more like an cross between Anne McCaffrey’s Talent series and the Pern books. I tabled it during the editing stage, because the framing story necessary to set it up well was the sort of science fiction I don’t enjoy writing. Now, though, the nature of the epic fantasy world I’m creating is such that I have a place for a homesteading tale.

Since I’m a big fan of using loglines to help me succinctly establish points of history for the world, I had to figure out the conflict at the core of that moment. I decided that Book 2 of the trilogy could focus on colonization — defending against colonization, inverting the usual tropes.

When her world is invaded by colonists from another realm, a young scholar must rediscover the buried secrets of battle magic and save her pacifist society from itself.

Book 3 would then follow-up with a pioneering attempt into uninhabited land, because I want to show the distinctions I see between what I’m calling colonization, and what I think of as pioneering. First, though, I need to articulate those distinctions, and the unique conflicts of each.

Battling Man: Colonization

We often think of settling new land and homesteading there as being sort of in a vacuum… but it’s been thousands of years since humanity has genuinely settled pristine land for the first time. The idea of pioneers and settlers brings to mind images of the colonization of America, Jamestown and the Wild West, or perhaps the settlement of Botany Bay in Australia. Both of these locations were already occupied by native peoples.

The Walking Treaty

I don’t blame the colonists for the diseases that they spread. But I think the number of broken treaties in American history is shameful.

First, I think we need to separate out imperialism from colonialism. They are certainly linked, and many sources use them interchangeably, but to my mind, they are not the same. The root word of colonialism is “colony.” A colony is, to my mind — India and the other British colonies notwithstanding — a group of people migrating to a place and taking it over, as opposed to adopting the local culture. “Imperialism” refers to rule by an emperor; it’s talking about adding to the dominion of a country, oftentimes without significantly changing the ethnic makeup of a locale.

imperial (adj): of or relating to an empire.

Perhaps the more important distinction for me, then, is that a “colony” can be sustained; both genders are represented, and it is a permanent settlement, not just an army of one racial group ruling natives from another racial group. In America and Australia, there were children, and settlements, people trying to live in new lands… not just large numbers of natives being wiped out and exploited.

Hernan Cortes engaged in imperialism, not colonialism. The Spanish conquistadors used mostly native populations to farm and mine, until the attempts to Christianize the natives led to missionaries objecting to the enslavement of the natives. Between that and the rampant disease affecting the native populations, the Spanish began importing slaves. The Roman Empire functioned very similarly to the way the Spanish controlled the Americas; the Spanish hacienda system actually evolved because of Rome. The Roman provinces, like Hispania, Germania, and Britannia, were controlled by Romans, and a small Roman population. The focus of the Roman efforts was on assimilating the provinces, not spreading its population.

Robert Clive's victory at the Battle of Plassey established the East India Company as a military as well as a commercial power.

Honestly, I’m impressed that the British managed to do both.

The Belgian Congo, on the other hand, was definitely colonized — though at first, the Belgian King was acting in his capacity as an individual citizen, albeit a rich one. Unlike most European colonies, the Congo was subject to direct rule. The large numbers of whites in the Congo were part of a very severely segregated system, but as with the Spaniards, these weren’t colonies so much as large groups of men with guns helping to rule it.

Battling Nature: Pioneering

Early human migration appears less often in our stories. Some of this is doubtless due to how long ago these migrations happened; Egypt was likely settled by humans at least 50,000 years ago. The earliest known human settlement in North America, at Bluefish Caves in Canada, was somewhere around 25,000 years ago — that’s ten to twenty times as long ago as the death of Jesus Christ. The earliest European settlement we can prove is from 30,000 years ago.

Yet there are some remote corners of the world that were settled relatively recently. New Zealand was settled around 1300; the Polynesian Tribes were still migrating as late as 1550, when they settled the Chatham Islands. Bermuda was settled by shipwrecked sailors in 1609, including John Rolfe, whose wife and child died there. He later went on to marry a Native American woman that Disney remembers as Pocahontas.

The Norse are the only popular example I can think of. During the Viking expansion they didn’t conquer Greenland, they just settled there. They engaged in trade with the locals for the next couple hundred years, and then the colony died out during the Little Ice Age. The Normans also expanded into Europe, particularly France and England.

Settlement Stories: Ethics

Somewhat to my surprise, my research on this topic for the last few weeks has shown me that not many people appear willing to state unequivocally that colonialism and imperialism is bad. It’s even surprisingly hard to find sources that will talk about the negative impacts weighed against the positive impacts. What the Western countries did during the Colonial period — an era that we are still seeing the repercussions of in the form of neo-colonialism — and what countries like China are doing now with regards to economic colonialism in Africa.

I think China had it right when they refused to let Westerners inside the borders.

I do find it ironic that the first “War on Drugs” was fought by the Chinese, who were trying to stop the British from peddling opium to the people during the height of the Empire.

An American, it’s hard to examine colonization dispassionately. Sometimes, I feel as though I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about imperialism; we talked about it a lot in school, even if it’s hard to find sources on the internet. It’s been happening in some form or another for centuries, and people far more articulate than I have been arguing about it for probably just as long. What else can I add to that incredible pile of discourse? The ethics of it are muddy, because I feel like a hypocrite decrying the tactics that gave rise to my corner of civilization, and haven’t worked out how I feel, other than what I’ve said previously about the foolishness of claiming that violence doesn’t solve anything.

What about you guys?


Eleanor teaches Ancient Civilizations and spends the bits of time left over writing stories that bring history -- and magic -- to life. She enjoys rock climbing, bullet journaling, & gardening focused on plants you can actually eat.

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5 Responses

  1. I enjoyed this post. These are difficult topics to discuss for a variety of reasons, but I think that studying them both for your writing and to use in your writing is awesome.

    I’m also American, and I totally understand how hard it is to view colonization from a distant standpoint. I think that will help you in your writing, though, because knowing how you view it will help you write characters who view it either your way, or another way, or completely dispassionately.

    • Eleanor says:

      Thanks, Heather! The biggest problem I had before I could even start to look at it “objectively” was just categorizing the distinctions between imperialism, colonization, migration, and settling. It’s amazing to me how muddy those waters are, but I imagine it’s difficult as difficult for real scholars to investigate as it was for me — though oddly enough I remember there being a lot more in my high school social studies curriculum than I could find on the internet.

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