I am currently studying environmental history with a student. The book, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (by Alfred W. Crosby) is an eye-opening examination of the growth of European imperialism from the standpoint of botany, epidemiology, agriculture, animal husbandry and also includes a fascinating study of climate and sailing.
The book requires readers to rethink how they understand and imagine the meeting of cultures. All too often we’ve been led to believe that one civilization colonizes another because it has superior technology, belief systems and a more sophisticated cosmology. Crosby challenges all of that. He also challenges the idea that European colonization of the globe was an inevitable result of the sophistication of European cultures.
But one of the most interesting questions his book raises is how the Europeans themselves were suited to new and alien environments and how well they did or did not adapt their thinking, mores and habits. In this age of globalization and global tourism where a person can go to the tropics, stay in an air conditioned villa, eat imported cuisine and traverse the landscape in familiar vehicles, it is all-too-easy to forget that even in the most easily settled of European colonies (e.g. Canada, Australia) colonists were often ill-suited to their circumstances and held to belief systems and aesthetic values which not only did not serve them but often led to a violent relationship with the land itself.
One of the finest examples of this in literature and film is the novel and movie “Picnic at Hanging Rock” about a turn-of-last-century picnic gone horribly wrong in the state of South Australia. The tension between the daughters and matrons of British culture and the ancient, un-English landscape of the Australian continent is palpable in Joan Lindsay’s novel and in Peter Weir’s cinematic adaptation. What stands out for me is the difference between the children of the wealthy, whose parents made money in international business, and those labourers who appear to be the descendants of the original English colonists. The question of adaptation, acclimation and acculturation cuts across the matter of social class:
–Jeremy Nathan Marks