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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Wealth of the Indies

When I was a teenager in the 1940's and making an end run around the limits put by Jim Crow on my getting a high school education, by going to school in Washington D.C. though I lived in Maryland, I spent a lot of time while waiting for a streetcar in front of Union Station looking up at that building's handsome white marble facade.   There was a lot of stuff up there to see, though, because I had no idea that years later I might want to mention it on the Internet, I only remember one feature there clearly.   It was an inscription that contained the very meaty words, "To gain the wealth of the Indies, one must take the wealth of the Indies with him."

In her book on the American Revolution, "The First Salute," Barbara Tuchman tells us of how, as soon as a small fleet of Spanish boats admiraled by an Italian named Columbus stumbled across the islands of the Caribbean, a bunch of inveterate Greedy Gusses from Spain and other European lands spent the centuries afterward racing around and claiming as many of those tropical islands as they could, to the point where a good guard had to be left on whatever was claimed, because if one didn't, as soon as the hurricane season was over, boats, especially those of the English and the French, would happen by and if they saw they could get away with it, the occupants would run up on the beach, plant their flag, claim it for King, Queen, and Country. truck over some slaves from Africa, and start growing there the great cash crop of the times, sugar.  (Ganja must've been a later invention.)  Some of those islands changed hands many times, as a result.

During the American Revolution,  in which the French allied themselves with the Americans, much to the disgust of the British, the English and the French held a truce, in which they divvied up a lot of territory that they had claimed in the New World.   The French gave the British the last rights that they saw themselves as having in Canada, in exchange for the ownership of a bunch of the Caribbean islands.

Tuchman tells us that the British public was outraged.  What!   Their negotiators had given away a chunk of the West Indies, and for what?    A big stretch of cold empty tundra up in Godforsaken Canada, and all to help protect those damnable, impertinent American colonies?   Unspeakable!

To us this might sound instead like a very cagey deal on the part of the English.  I know it does to me.  Though I've never been to the West Indies, I know good and well that there is nothing in the Caribbean that even approaches the splendor of any part of the Canadian Rockies, where I have been.

So what was the appeal of the West Indies to the British of the 1700's?   It certainly wasn't what it is now.   They weren't thinking of going there to dance, sing, swim, fish, drink, swyve, sunbathe, ogle, cavort, get drunk, sunbathe, gorge, imbibe, scubadive, get wasted, and all the other good stuff that the Indies are best known for today.  Even the famously straight-laced Victorian Age hadn't gotten here yet.  Instead they called the Indies the "Sugar Islands," because it was such a great place to make money hand over fist presiding over sugarcane, especially if you had slaves to do all the hard, dirty work. 

Isn't it interesting, the arrogance of colonialism.  Every schoolboy of my age who ever looked at maps or the globe can remember marveling at how of the Earth was colored largely pink, the map color of the numerous British "possessions" of that time, just before the Second World War.   And having noted how small the British Isles themselves were in comparison, I kept wondering how that could be.   I knew it couldn't last and that that game would be shown up for what it was soon enough.   The people in all those huge lands couldn't possibly be all that much that out of it, I thought.

This is why my favorite beginning of a computer game is the one in "Giants."   It shows two Brits riding in a high-speed plane over unexplored territory on some distant planet.  When about to parachute down, one, a man named Paz, gets his hand caught in the exit door and has to call loudly for help.   Finally the pilot hears and pushes a button.   Paz goes into a long unscheduled free fall toward the land below.   Miraculously he's not hurt but he is totally enraged, and he shakes his fist up at the disappearing plane while screaming at the top of his voice, "YOU BLOODY BASTARD!"

  But then his typical English aplomb asserts itself, and Paz grabs a small Union Jack from his backpack and triumphantly thrusts its staff into the sand.   But while he is looking around to see just what he has claimed for Queen and Country, a big pterodactyl-type bird swoops by, snatches up the flag in its beak, and happily flies away with it.

This always puts me in a good mood for playing that game.


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