for every man who died in battle, eighty-eight died of disease -- 7/2/19

Today's selection -- from The Club by Leo Damrosch. In the 1700s and 1800s, European nations, especially England, assumed that they should acquire colonies. Nevertheless, there were many within these countries who dissented, and decried the horrors of the wars that they necessitated:

"It had long been taken as obvious that a nation should acquire as many colonies as possible, and populate them with emigrants from home. In the Dictionary [lexicographer Samuel] Johnson defines 'to colonize' as 'to plant with inhabitants; to settle with new planters, to plant with colonies,' and the word 'colony' means 'a body of people drawn from the mother country to inhabit some distant place.' ...

"Johnson's definition of 'colony' in the Dictionary reflected general usage, not his personal view. In one of his earliest publications, the 1744 Lift of Savage, he denounced 'the enormous wickedness of making war upon barbarous na­tions because they cannot resist, and of invading countries because they are fruitful.' That would be his consistent position throughout his life. In an Idler essay in 1759 -- the same year as Voltaire's scathing attack on colonialism in Candide -- he imagined the comments of an Indian chief watching an English army marching past: 'Those invaders ranged over the continent slaughtering in their rage those that resisted, and those that submitted in their mirth. Of those that remained, some were buried in caverns, and condemned to dig metals for their masters; some were employed in tilling the ground, of which foreign ty­rants devour the produce; and when the sword and the mines have destroyed the natives, they supply their place by human beings of another colour, brought from some distant country to perish here under toil and torture.'

"Also in 1759, Johnson wrote an introduction for a multivolume account of voyages that he edited, The World Displayed. The introduction begins as a historical survey, and then erupts with moral indignation while describing Portuguese explorers who gunned down a crowd of peaceful Africans (Johnson doesn't specify where).

" 'The Portuguese could fear nothing from them,' Johnson declares, 'and had therefore no adequate provocation; nor is there any reason to believe but that they murdered the Negroes in wanton merriment, perhaps only to try how many a volley would destroy, or what would be the consternation of those that should escape.' This is followed by a grim overview of the conse­quences of colonization (the word 'colonialism' wouldn't be coined for an­other century). 'The Europeans have scarcely visited any coast but to gratify avarice and extend corruption; to arrogate dominion without right, and practice cruelty without incentive.'

"This was a not uncommon attitude among intellectuals at the time. Adam Smith, in milder and more temperate prose, said much the same thing in The Wealth of Nations: 'Folly and injustice seem to have been the principles which presided over and directed the first project of establishing those colonies; the folly of hunting after gold and silver mines, and the injustice of coveting the possession of a country whose harmless natives, far from having ever in­jured the people of Europe, had received the first adventurers with every mark of kindness and hospitality. '

"In addition to the injustice wreaked on native peoples, Johnson was shocked by the wars that were fought to acquire colonies and hold on to them. One of his most powerful pieces of writing is a 1771 pamphlet entitled Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland's Islands.

A crisis had flared up between Britain and Spain over that small archi­pelago, three hundred miles off the coast of Argentina. In the end war was averted (as it was not in 1982 when history repeated itself), and Johnson ar­gued convincingly that there was no possible benefit to Britain in defending a barren territory that could produce nothing of value. Beyond that, he de­scribed with indignation what warfare is really like. His account deserves to be read at length:

It is wonderful with what coolness and indifference the greater part of mankind see war commenced. Those that hear of it at a distance, or read of it in books, but have never presented its evils to their minds, consider it as little more than a splendid game, a proclamation, an army, a battle, and a triumph. Some, indeed, must perish in the most success­ful field, but they die upon the bed of honour, 'resign their lives amidst the joys of conquest, and, filled with England's glory, smile in death.'

The life of a modern soldier is ill represented by heroic fiction. War has means of destruction more formidable than the cannon and the sword. Of the thousands and ten thousands that perished in our late contests with France and Spain, a very small part ever felt the stroke of an enemy; the rest languished in tents and ships, amidst damps and putrefaction; pale, torpid, spiritless, and helpless; gasping and groan­ing, unpitied among men made obdurate by long continuance of hopeless misery; and were at last whelmed in pits, or heaved into the ocean, without notice and without remembrance. By incommodious encampments and unwholesome stations, where courage is useless and enterprise impracticable, fleets are silently dispeopled, and armies sluggishly melted away.

"That was no exaggeration. In an era when there was no effective defense against infectious disease, the toll among soldiers could be staggering. In the Seven Years War, for every man who died in battle, an incredible total of eighty-eight died of disease. And Johnson's outrage is all the more impressive since he had no personal experience of war. It was his keen moral imagination that 'presented its evils to his mind.'"



Leo Damrosch


The Club


Yale University Press


Copyright 2019 by Leo Damrosch


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