Monday, November 5, 2007

A Short History of Plunder

Blogging, as I do, mostly without any fixed agenda, often leads me to unexpected subjects and insights, usually forecast by a certain tingly buzz of recognition and the sense that "vectors are converging here." What seems to have emerged for my scrutiny currently is the topic of plunder, stories of which have curiously festooned my week. So I checked out the Thesaurus before writing this, which offered up, among others, the following related items:

vb. liquidate, wipe off the map, steal, pilfer, ransack, strip, plunder, ravage, ruin, wantonly destroy, exterminate.

Pick any one of these, or lump all of them together; what you will find inevitably is a human propensity that has been lurking around and unfolding exponentially across the globe ever since, well, well before the cows came home. Obviously we are all aware, these days, of the wanton destruction of nature: whole species wiped off the map, mountain tops stripped for their coal, forests plundered for their timber, rivers ransacked for their fish. More recently, our current government has ravaged an entire country to gain long-term access to its oil. But this week I was quick to note a peculiar conjunction of parallel themes from the past, revealing something about human nature across centuries of civilization that makes it seem as if one of our chief talents has always been for ravaging, ransacking, looting, and plundering--in short, helping ourselves to what does not belong to us.

This week I saw an eye-opening movie about the rape, not of nature, but of culture. It is called "The Rape of Europa," a documentary about the Nazi's obsession with art (made by Richard Berge, Nicole Newnham, and Bonni Cohen), with actual footage filmed during WWII. Everyone knows about the Holocaust, and Hitler's cold-blooded extermination of six million Jews, for reasons the rest of us mere mortals will never understand. But I, for one, did not know that when Hitler's army marched into France and occupied it, one of the first things they did was to empty the Louvre of all of its treasures in a massive ransack. They STOLE all the art, removed it from the walls, and took it out of the country. Some works were destroyed for being "degenerate," and the rest was forwarded by rail and truck to secret underground bunkers in Germany. Similar ransacks were performed by the Nazis on other major museums and private collections in Europe. The plan, had it worked out, was to construct the biggest museum in the world in the German town of Kirk, ultimately to be billed as "Hitler's Legacy."

"Should I recount all the lawless and brutal acts of white men upon the Coast you should think that those who visited it had lost the usual attributes of humanity, and such indeed seems to be the fact." I read this sentence the next morning, in a book called "The Golden Spruce," by John Vaillant. The comment was made by a veteran fur trader of the 18th century from Massachusetts, William Sturgis, who was relating his experiences in the sea otter trade which flourished for about a century along the Pacific Coast of North America.

The Queen Charlotte Islands, off the coast of Newfoundland, were first visited by Captain Cook in 1778, when he stepped ashore to find logs in order to repair his two damaged ships. There he discovered the extremely soft pelts of the sea otter, worn by the native inhabitants, the Haida Indians.

In 1785 the first trading mission arrived, looking for massive timbers and plentiful sea otters and friendly natives, having read Cook's account of his third and final voyage, published the year before. The demand for sea otter pelts, more desirable even than ermine or mink, led to boom times for all, a sort of "rapacious festival of unrestrained capitalism," with huge profits of 1,800 percent on a par with gold, oil, or drugs. There was profiteering on both sides. The Haida pursued this poor creature to the brink of extinction, so eager were they to get their hands on the traders' technical marvels, which included firearms, along with other things like chisels, nails, copper pots, scissors, mirrors, blankets, and rum .

"The first expeditions," wrote Sturgis, who had lost a brother to the Haida,"were entrusted to...men of desperate fortunes, lawless and reckless...[who] indulged every brutal propensity without the slightest restraint...[and] would have shot an Indian for his garment of sea otter skins with as little compunction as he would have killed the animal from whom the skins were originally taken." What began as an orchestrated protocol of dining and gift-giving soon degenerated into armed encounters, often ending in extremes of slaughter between the Indians and the very same traders who had sold them their weapons. The sea otters, meanwhile, became extinct. "This helped to set the tone for every extractive industry that has come after," according to the author, Vaillant.

Make no mistake, we are a predatory species. Our preemptive president is but one example in a long, insatiable history of hemorrhage and plunder--no better and no worse, perhaps, than any of the others. Since there is no way to ransack, ravage, and steal, and do it gracefully, and since it has been happening across the ages, we may just have to accustom ourselves to the eeriness of it all.

"It's no use getting the moral jitters," says Virgil, the tip of whose large alligator tail is switching electrically. "Sometimes life is just a bitter bargain. Your little history may be terminally unpleasant, but which do you think is more likely to change its spots: a giddy, swaggering, saw-toothed capitalism, a turbaned ayatollah, or a pouncing leopard?"

1 comment:

haida said...

dear writer- your researcher has made some error-
recheck the location of teh Queen Charlotte Islands
and James Cook did not visit the archipelago
nor were the english the first europeans to visit us