Category Archives: civilization

Genocide Repudiated


The Indian Residential Schools established by the Canadian government under the provisions of the Indian Act were instruments it used, often through its church partners,  to ensure dominance over indigenous people. Even if the Popes had disavowed the Doctrine of Discovery, the basis of these notions were also the foundation of that doctrine, which I have called vile.

Here is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’)  said in its report to the Canada in 2015,

“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.””


Since that report was delivered many critics have said the TRC was too gentle with Canada. They suggested the word “cultural” should be dropped from that destruction. They say, Canada was guilty of genocide. Pope Francis on his recent visit to Canada said he thought it “genocide.” The subsequent report of the 2019 Inquiry into Missing and Murdered  Women and Girls, said the actions reported on in that report amount to “genocide.” There was no qualification. It may be that the reticence of the TRC was a consequence of it not being authorized to accuse people of crimes, and genocide is a crime.

The TRC said this about genocide:

“Physical genocide is the mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction of the group’s reproductive capacity. Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.”



And then the TRC added, “In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.” If Canada did all 3 things necessary to be classified as genocide, then the TRC is saying, Canada committed genocide in its dealings with its Indian Residential Schools. According to the TRS, and was amply justified by the evidence revealed in its report,


As if that was not enough the TRC also said this,

“Canada denied the right to participate fully in Canadian political, economic, and social life to those Aboriginal people who refused to abandon their Aboriginal identity. Canada outlawed Aboriginal spiritual practices, jailed Aboriginal spiritual leaders, and confiscated sacred objects. And, Canada separated children from their parents, sending them to residential schools. This was done not to educate them, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity.   In justifying the government’s residential school policy, Canada’s First prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, told the House of Commons in 1883:

When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”


But as if that was not enough the TRC added,

“These measures were part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will.”


Who can possibly deny that taking children away from their parents for such a vile policy is not genocide? I think the conclusion is clear and unassailable.

In my opinion these genocidal policies are incompatible with the statements made by Pope Francis in Canada. He spoke plainly and clearly. This was a most welcome message from a Pope.


Doctrine of Discovery: As Vile as Vile can Be

People have been asking me what I think about the recent apologies of Pope Francis. Some were complaining it did not cover everything he ought to have covered. Others told me they hate apologies. I have been resisting a reply as I consider an answer.  I know this is not like me. I usually allow whatever inane thought has entered my head to plop out ungraced. This time I wanted to do better. I am glad I waited because on his second last day in Canada, Pope Francis made a momentous statement, which in my opinion dwarfs all else. He got to the root of the problem and he apologized for that and said we must do better. Frankly, it was a shocking statement that many have not taken note of. He has effectively ended, in words at least, more than 500 years of an important plank of white supremacy and hate that has been a stain on western civilization that urgently required redress.


First, about the apology I don’t claim the right to tell indigenous people what form of apology they should accept or what wording is good enough. That is for them to decide.  I think however I can comment on what Pope Francis has done to remove a deep dark stain on so-called western civilization for the benefit of beneficiaries of that civilization like me. Pope Francis made some astounding remarks about the foundational notion of white male supremacy and its corollary doctrine of discovery. Few have commented about that.

I have often said that Pope Francis is my Pope. I have never been taken seriously in comments because I not a member of any organized religion and certainly not the Catholic Church. So I have no claim to ownership of the Pope.  Part of the reason I have been opposed to organized religion is that it has been used for so long to buttress the thinking that produced the Doctrine of Discovery. That doctrine is based on an underlying philosophy of white male supremacy, which is the real original sin.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a doctrine as vile as vile can be and it was produced in the name of religion by Catholic Popes starting in the 15th century. In those days statements by the Pope were important. They were almost like laws. To many they were laws because  all of Europe was Catholic. But on July 28, 2022, in Canada, the current Pope poked a hole in it so deeply that it is bound to sink. This was a truly historic moment. I applaud the Pope.

To begin with, we should note that the doctrine of discovery (or discovery doctrine) is a concept of public international law that was produced by the Roman Catholic Church and adopted by the European monarchs in order to justify and legitimize the colonization and evangelization of lands outside of Europe. These lands were often ludicrously described as “uncivilized” or “savage.”  The inherent dehumanization of non-Europeans in the eyes of Europeans was used to legitimize the theft of foreign lands by Europeans by giving a thin veneer of legality and religion to that organized theft.

This doctrine was used from the mid-fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century to permit European countries to seize land that was inhabited by indigenous people around the world and in particular in the recently contacted western hemisphere.

The idea of the doctrine was that any land not occupied by Christians could be seized by Christians for their own uses. This idea was the basis of colonization. It really was doctrine invented by Popes and European monarchs to try to justify (weakly) their invading, of the western continent, and raping and pillaging its inhabitants  in the name of the Catholic Church and European monarchs. it really was a doctrine that authorized exploitation.

The doctrine was often promulgated by written statements made by Pope that were called Papal Bulls. A papal bull is a type of public decree, such as  letters patent, or charter issued by a pope of the Catholic Church. It got the name from the lead seal the Popes used to make their statements look official.  Most of now think of them as bullshit, but actually for centuries those decrees were very important and had serious consequences attached to them because of the prestige of the Popes.

The doctrine emerged during the Age of Exploration. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued what was called, most appropriately, a Papal Bull, Dum Diversas that authorized Portugal to conquer non-Christian lands seize the inhabitants as slaves and consign them to perpetual servitude. Is it possible to imagine a viler doctrine that this? In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued another Papal Bull that permitted Spain to claim the lands visited by Christopher Columbus on behalf of his patron Spain. In 1494 the two competing Christian nations concluded the Treaty of Tordesillas that divided the western “New World” between the two of them. As if they had the right to do that. It showed the extreme arrogance of Christian Europeans that gave them the confidence that they could own and control the world while ignoring the wishes of people that already lived there.

France and England, for a while at least, also used the Doctrine of Discovery to justify their dubious claims in the New World even though they refused to recognize the Spanish-Portuguese hegemony. Francis I of France said he wanted to see the “testament of Adam” that divided the world between Spain and Portugal. When Christian nations quarrelled over disputed western territories, they sometimes asked the Pope to arbitrate the disputes. Inhabitants of course, being savages, had no say in what was decided. Their lives did not matter.

After the English Reformation when England no longer recognized the supremacy of the Papal Bulls, it retained the Doctrine of Discovery to sanction its own bloody deeds. It was just that after that the English monarchs had the supreme authority, rather than the Pope but it did not cede jurisdiction to local people. The effect on indigenous people was the same.

In 1537 Pope Paul III issued a Bull Sublimis Deus that forbade the enslavement of the indigenous people of the Americas that he called the “Indians of the West and the South.” The Pope stated that “Indians” are fully rational human beings who have the rights to freedom and private property even if they are not Christians. That was a radical idea. It was so radical that European monarchs often ignored it.

The Doctrine of Discovery continues to this day to be referred to in American and Canadian judicial decisions and it continues to influence American treatment of indigenous people. The doctrine was expounded upon by judges of the U.S. Supreme Court in a series of cases most notably Johnson v. M’Intosh in 1823. In that case, demonstrating the poverty of American common law, the Supreme Court Justice John Marshall had large real estate holdings that would have been adversely affected if the case were decided in favor of one of the litigants, Johnson, so rather than recusing himself, Justice Marshall wrote the decision of the unanimous court in a manner that protected his personal interests. The court ruled that the ownership of land came into existence by virtue of discovery of the land which in that case was discovered by Great Britain and then lawfully transferred to the United States, again without consent by the indigenous inhabitants.

The Doctrine of Discovery has been roundly criticized as socially unjust, racist, and in violation of basic human rights. In 2012, the UN called for a mechanism to investigate land claims. Speakers at the UN conference noted how the doctrine had been used repeatedly over centuries to allow for the transfer of land from indigenous people to colonizing authorities or dominating nations without consent of the indigenous.

Numerous religious bodies have condemned the doctrine, including the Episcopal Church in 2009, the Unitarian Universality Association in 2012, the United Church in 2013, the Christian Reformed Church in 2016, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) also in 2016 and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In November 2016, a group of 524 clergy publicly burned copies of Inter caetera, a specific Papal Bull that underpinned the doctrine as part of the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline protests near Standing Rock  Indian Reservation.

The Canadian bishops have called on the Catholic Church to issue a new Doctrine of Discovery and stated that they “reject and resist the ideas associated with the Doctrine of Discovery in the strongest possible way.”

Finally, in July of 2022, without mentioning the doctrine specifically, Pope Francis during his penitential pilgrimage to Canada  made some profound comments that seriously undermine the legitimacy of the doctrine. It really was a historical moment. I will get to that in my next blog post.

The Classics: Wisdom Speaking

Cornel West wrote an article in the Washington Post in response to Howard University and other universities getting rid of their Classics Department.  Walter Isaacson interviewed him on Amanpour and Company about that. said that he believes it is important to preserve and read the classics. He  emphasized that, it important to read the classics:

I am convinced we are living in a moment of spiritual decay and moral decrepitude in the American empire. We have to come up with countervailing forces and countervailing weight against the rule of money, rule of mediocrity, rule of military might, rule of narrow conformity, and rule of indifference and callousness. The best classics of any civilization, of any empire, of any culture have to do with trying to convince ourselves to get involved in a quest for truth, and beauty, and goodness, and then for some of us like myself, a Christian, the holy.


That is what the classics can help us to do. That is part of West’s religious quest in the modern age. West believes there has been a deep moral decline in the west and a deep intellectual narrowness has crept in, and that the classics can help us to resist this trend. He says, the reason it does that is

“The classics force us to come to terms with the most terrifying question we can ever raise which is what does it mean to be human? The unexamined life is not a life of a human according to Plato in his Apology in line 38a. “Human” comes from the Latin humando which means burial, we are disappearing creatures. We are vanishing organisms on the way to bodily extinction. Therefore, the question becomes, ‘who will we be in the meantime?’ What kind of virtue can we enact? What kind of vision will we pursue? What kind of values will we try to embody? And once you raise that question what it means to be human, then you begin to see on the one hand like Shakespeare and Dante have taught us, like Toni Morrison, and John Coltrane have taught us, it’s dark in our history! Most of our history is the history of domination and oppression. The history of hatred. The history of contempt. It is the history of fear driven cruelty. What is the best of our history? Counterweights against that. And that is everywhere you look. Every civilization. Every continent. Every race. Every religion. Every gender. Every sexual orientation. And once you come to terms with that, then the question becomes how do you become equipped? What kind of spiritual and moral armour do you have that allows you to think critically? That allows you to open yourself to others. That allows you to act courageously.”


Now if that is not a spiritual quest, I do not know what is. That is what I have been seekiing on my quest. I think I have found it. West used Frederick Douglas as an example of a man who did that. He discovered  truths from foreign languages as well as anyone can do. He was already a freedom fighter, but the classics of other countries helped him to find the truth, beauty, and the good. According to West, “He teased out an eloquence. And what is eloquence? “Eloquence is wisdom speaking,” say Cicero and Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (often referred to as Quintilian) a rhetorician and educator.


According to West, the essence of wisdom speaking is having the courage to know how to die by questioning your presuppositions. Every time you let a presupposition go that is a form of death because it allows you to be reborn. It allows you to grow. It allows you to develop. It allows you to mature.

As West said,

“We live in an empire my brother that has grown powerful and rich but has not grown up. F.O Mathieson used to say, “America would in some way be distinctive because it could move from perceived innocence to corruption without a mediating state of maturity.” The nation believes it is innocent. How can you be authorizers of devastation of indigenous people and African slaves and then view yourselves as innocent? James Baldwin said that innocence is the crime before you commit the crime. We need to grow up. This is not Peter Pan. This is not Disneyland. We gotta be mature. It is possible for any human being to be innocent, naïve, to be mature and separate childishness from child-likeness. Child-likeness is a sign of maturity. Childishness? You need to grow up.”

The classics taught West how to find truth, beauty, moral goodness and the holy. That is the spiritual quest in the modern age.

The Final Dark Truth


In his novel Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad tried to show us what he thought was a dark truth. It is not just a truth about European society, he showed it was a truth about all of us. You and I too.

Bu how can a person face this horrifying darkness?  Marlow has some advice. Clearly pious phrases are not the answer. Nor noble truths.

“Let the fool gape and shudder—the man knows, and can look without a wink. But he must at least be as much of man as these on the shore. He must meet that truth with his own true self—with his own inborn strength. Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags,–rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief.”


You need deep inner strength to face such horror. It takes strength of character and courage. It reminds me of the person Leslie Fiedler, an American literary critic described in his bookLove and Death in the American Novel—the person who had the courage to go the end of the dark cave with a torch to see the tragic.  Fiedler like Conrad, realized that “The final horrors, as the modern society has come to realize, are neither gods nor demons, but intimate aspects of our own minds,” Fiedler said in his book.  We are the final horror! What an awful truth to face.

Fiedler saw this as the final consequence of the age of reason. I disagree. I think it is the final consequence of the abandonment of reason. Racism, white privilege and exploitation on an insane scale,  were the result of reason being forsaken in favour monstrous desires. The age of reason Fielder said, dissolved in sentimentalism, “in a debauch of tearfulness; sensibility, seduction, and suicide.”  Fiedler noted how the French philosopher Diderot wrote about Richardson the author of that classic novel, Clarissa: “It is he who carries the torch to the back of the cave… He blows upon the glorious phantom who presents himself at the entrance to the cave; and the hideous Moor whom he was masking reveals himself.”  Surely, “the hideous Moor” is a striking symbol of the demonic in ourselves, which the Enlightenment inadvertently discovered in its quest for light.”  Not that dissimilar from Kurtz who found that demon in his pursuit of noble ideals in the deepest jungle of Africa. We have created that image of the hideous Moor.  He is not real except in our own minds.

 The racial component here is not accidental either. The hideous Moor is, of course, black. He is at the heart of darkness. It is the black Moor that we fear the most and will do anything to stamp out. But that Moor is Us! He is the product of our original sin!

Kurtz found that demon when he looked at those shrunken shriveled heads on poles.  Heads that showed shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of teeth grinning horribly and “continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber.”  Those heads “only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts.”

From that came the understanding only at the last that “the wilderness had found him out early and had taken him on a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it whispered to him things which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude—and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating.”

As I said earlier, the horrors perpetrated by Kurtz in the jungle were never described by Marlow. That was because he did not know what they were. He just knew that they would be even worse than the heads on spikes. Marlow had the feeling that

“such details would be more intolerable than those heads drying on the stakes under Mr. Kurtz’s window.  After all, that was only a savage sight, while I seemed at one bound to have been transported into some lightless region of subtle horrors, where pure, uncomplicated savagery was a positive relief.”


The heart of darkness within the human mind was much, much worse. That was what Marlow could not bear.  He could not carry the torch into the back of the cave and confront that horror, as Kurtz had done. He did not want to know. He did not want to know the truth about himself. Do we want to know truth either?


Philanthropic and Missionary Enterprises


In the novel Heart of Darkness, Marlow had no regard for the philanthropic or missionary enterprise.  The marauders used such concepts as camouflageto fool their prey and even themselves. They used such words to convince themselves that they were doing good—God’s work. Kurtz first, and Marlow second, saw through that hideous lie. They thought of themselves as exploring the world in search of Eldorado—the city of gold. Yet according to Marlow, they were “reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage.”  They were worthy of no respect—only shame.  All they really wanted to do was loot, pillage no matter what the cost.  “To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.


Then astonishingly the natives treated these rapacious burglars like gods. Imagine that!  The whites no doubt could hardly believe what they saw. Marlow compared that to how “sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse.” That is exactly it.  It is entirely unreal—fantastical. Horribly fantastic. Marlow described the scene this way,


The earth seemed unearthly.  We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.  It was unearthly, and the men were,–No, they were not inhuman.  Well you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one.  They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours  the thought of remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes it was ugly; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in which you—you remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.


Marlowe also calls it the “edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy.”    Again, he is vague and circumspect, but all the more chilling and terrifying for that. It is an incomprehensible horror. And the real horror is that this is the result of our humanity. It is not inhuman; it is human incarnate. No matter how frightful that seems. This is the heart of darkness. Our own dark centre.


Exterminate all the Brutes

Kurtz, the central disturbing character in Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness, was a product of Europe.  He was the child of Europe, believing naturally, without thinking about it, that Europeans were naturally superior to and could help the native savages achieve civilization. All the Africans had to do was assimilate to the superior Europeans. Europeans of course, are famous for this point of view though it is shared by many peoples.

Kurtz had been given the task by his company of preparing a manual to help new Europeans learn about the job of “helping” the native inferiors.  As Marlow, the narrator of the novel,  said, “the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had entrusted him with the making of a report, for its future guidance.” He wrote it.  “He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might of a deity,’ and so on, and so on.  ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded.’  The reader, like Marlow got the idea reading this pamphlet of “an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence.”  It made Marlow tingle with enthusiasm.  No doubt it had the same desired effect on new recruits.  Marlow noted “that this was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words.”


Marlow explains though that this report was started “before his—let us say nerves–, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites which …were offered up to him.   After all Kurtz, as Marlow said, “had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honour.” Those rites are merely hinted at. Conrad never explains exactly what happened, we just know that Kurtz was treated like a god, and withered black human  heads were attached to the end of spikes on poles in the dark jungle. How that happened we are left to imagine, and our imagination is no doubt more effective than any bald statements would be.  Good novels can do that.  As a result, at the end of that report Kurtz abandoned  his noble ideals, and his noble words.

As Marlow said,

“…at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightening in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes.’”

In Kurtz’s case, that was the inevitable result of all those noble ideals. Just as it was the inevitable result of all the pious talk of civilizing the natives. It was all a lie—a cunning, false rapacious lie!  That was the end of the noble philanthropic enterprise of European colonialism.  That was the end of noble lies everywhere. That was the heart of darkness we all carry within us and which we have to guard against. Or we too will end up exterminating the brutes!

This has significance far beyond European colonization. It is a chastening for all enterprises with excessive hubris. We would do well to be modest. Humility always becomes us. Over confidence not so much.

Kurtz is us. We are no different. That is the most terrifying part of his story.

Genocide of Indigenous People of the Western Hemisphere by European Powers


The European countries and later the United States were guilty of enormous sins when they waged wars on indigenous peoples around the world. Will they ever be brought to justice for those crimes?  It is highly unlikely. At least so long as they continue to be powerful. Nothing cleanses sins more effectively than power. The genocide against indigenous peoples has been the largest and most profound in the history of the world. Yet it is rarely acknowledged as genocide. It is unlikely to be acknowledged as such so long as those countries and their successors wield power.

Western powers like Britain, France, Holland, Spain, and the United States don’t want their abysmal records of the mistreatment of indigenous peoples around the world to come back to haunt them.

Andrew Woolford, an acknowledged expert on genocide, and the author of Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America makes a powerful argument that the treatment of indigenous peoples in North America by European invaders was genocide.  Adam Muller makes the same assertion in his  book on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Really it is difficult to come to any other conclusion.

If I am right that this was genocide, what is the significance of that? What is the significance of it going unacknowledged by the successors to the perpetration of the genocide? What kind of a civilization can be built on such a foundation? I think these are interesting questions.



The Spaniards who came to the New World to bring salvation and extract gold were not Sunday School Teachers. Historian Alvin M. Josephy Jr. painted a clear picture of these “missionaries”:

“As the pre-Columbian world disappeared, the fires of Eurocentrism burned on, now attempting to erase the history, cultures, and achievements of that world from memory. In the Yucatán, the Spaniards burned or destroyed almost every Mayan book in their efforts to convert those Indians to Christianity. In the flames, posterity lost, until recently, the ability to read Maya’s radiant pre-Columbian civilization.

In New England, after the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay had come to view the powerful Pequot Indians as “children of Satan,” they tried with fire and sword to blot out every sign that these Indians ever existed. Making holy war on them in 1637, they massacred Pequots by the hundreds parceling out the relatively few survivors among other tribes with the vain hope that even the name Pequot would vanish. Across both continents, only a small number Europeans thought it worthwhile to pass on to future generations records of the “curious” societies they were destroying.”

Of course these attitudes were passed on to their successors the European settlers, such as Canadians and Americans.  As a consequence these attitudes formed the basis–the fundamental basis–of Canada and the United States. Not a great foundation for noble societies.

Civilized People and Savages


Europe was not as civilized as we have been taught. Not all Europeans were blinded by a sense of superiority, but many were. There are always sharper minds.  Take Montaigne for example. In this book On Cannibals, he described what happened when Europeans kidnapped 3 Tupinamba natives from Brazil and brought them to “civilized” Europe so that they could see what “savages” were like. They were brought to France so that the boy-king Charles IX could see them in 1562 and this is what Montaigne said:

“The King talked with them for some time; they were shown our way of living, our magnificence, and the sights of a fine city. [I] asked them what they thought about all this, and what they had found most remarkable. [They said] they had noticed among us some men gorged to the full with things of every sort while their other halves were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty.  They found it strange that these poverty stricken halves should suffer such injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throat or set fire to their houses.”

The “savages” of Tupinamba knew the truth about European civilization. They saw it was a corrupt shell. Actually, it reminds me a lot of what seems to be happening in the world now (both east and west) with its incredible widening inequality where Jeff Bezos earns $1million dollars every 50 minutes while his employees earning minimum wages are not allowed to take bathroom breaks. Some of them have to wear adult diapers to work on the job. In our own society we also have to ask who are the savages? As Ronald Wright said, “The Tupinamba saw through Europe’s alien splendor to the flaws of society. The answer to their question, as they perhaps knew only too well, was that the poor of Europe were cutting throats and burning houses in America.”

What is the greatest Culture of all Time?

What is the greatest human culture ever created? Most westerners would likely say European civilization. What would you say?

Wade Davis, Canada’s preeminent anthropologist believes that the greatest contribution to  culture  was produced in Polynesia.   I was shocked when I heard that. Davis has studied many societies. I had never thought of Polynesia with that much respect. I was wrong. I am not saying Davis was right. It really doesn’t matter; they all have great achievements. What does matter is that we respect them all.

To my surprise Davis, in a talk on CBC Radio, called Polynesia “the greatest culture sphere ever to be brought into being by the human imagination.” When he talked about the ethnospherehe described it this way in his glorious book, The Wayfarers:

“Together the myriad of cultures makes up an intellectual and spiritual web of life that envelopes the planet and is every bit as important to the well being of the planet as the biological web of life that we know as the biosphere. You might think of this social web of life as an ethnosphere.”

I learned a lot from Davis’s radio talks as well as from his book The Wayfarers.    Polynesia, he said,  consists of “tens of thousands of islands flung like jewels upon the southern sea.” Davis learned a lot from the Polynesian voyaging society that set out on a voyage on the vast Pacific Ocean in a sacred canoe known as a hokule’a.   This vessel has been used to circumnavigate the world. This was a catamaran modeled on the drawings of Joseph Banks who had drawn sketches of these canoes based on his voyages with Cook in the 18th  century.  Even today these Polynesians sailors can name 350 stars in the southern sky.

As Davis said, “They can sense the presence of distant atoll islands beyond the visible horizon simply by watching the reverberation of waves across the hull of the canoe knowing full well that every island group in the Pacific has its own unique refractive pattern that can be read with the same perspicacity with which a forensic scientist would read a finger print. These are sailors who in the hull in the darkness can sense 5 different sea swells moving through the canoe at any one point in time, distinguishing those caused by local weather disturbances and from the deep currents that pulsate across the ocean and can be followed with the same ease with which a terrestrial explorer would follow a river to the sea. Indeed if you took all of the genius that allowed us to put a man on the moon and applied it to an understanding of the ocean what you would get is Polynesia.”

What right to we have to feel superior to such a culture?  As Davis said,

“The most astonishing thing about this tradition is that it is based on dead reckoning. And dead reckoning means that you only know where you are by remembering precisely how you got there. And what this implied was that in a tradition that lacked the written word every shift of the wind, every change of course, every sign of the star, the sun, the moon, and the ocean itself embraced over the course of a multi-week voyage had to be remembered and calibrated in the mind of the wayfinder.”

The practitioners of this art based their advice on where they had come from, not from where they were going. Societies that did not have this skill resorted to hugging the shores of continents, until the British solved the problem of longitude with the invention of the chronometer in the 18th century.

Yet 10 centuries before Christ an ancient civilization called Lapita on the shores of Caledonia and New Guinea, the ancestors of the Polynesians set sail into the rising son. In a thousand years they reached Tonga and Samoa and Fiji but then mysteriously stopped for 10 centuries before resuming their quest.  They travelled a further 4,000 km. across the Pacific Ocean until they reached the Marquesas. Eventually they discovered many of the islands in the South Pacific.

During this time they lost their written word, but the Wayfinder who could be a man or a woman, and who sat Monk-like at the stern of the vessel for a journey of several weeks had to remember every shift of the wind, every sign of the moon, every sign of the stars, every sign of the sun, plus a plethora of other indicators of location and weather. If the knowledge of the chronology was broken the journey could easily end in disaster.

According to the Polynesian myths the vessel does not move. Rather the imagination of the Wayfinder pulls the island out of the sea towards the vessel. To reach Rap Nui the vessel had to travel 9,000 km. (6,000 mi.) across the doldrums, tacking in the wind for about 3500 km. to reach an island less than 25 km. across. This was less than 1º on the compass but of course they had no compass. But they sure had traditional skills and knowledge, knowledge that westerners did not appreciate.

These techniques were used to colonize the greatest thing on the planet—the Pacific Ocean. As Davis pointed out, “Five centuries before Columbus, the Polynesians had over the course of only 80 generations settled virtually every island group in the Pacific , establishing a single sphere of cultural life encompassing some 25 million square kilometers of the earth’s surface.” That is surely one of the greatest achievements of Homo sapiens, 500 years before Columbus “discovered” the western hemisphere! And they did this all without a compass or any physical instruments of navigation. Of course this amazing achievement was never recognized by the Europeans who assumed no one was better than them at navigation.

Davis asked a profound question:

“How can you not be bedazzled by the achievements of humanity when you discover what actually lies beneath the veneer of culture throughout the world. You know, Polynesian navigators who can sense the presence of distant atolls of islands beyond the horizon simply by watching the reverberation of waves across the hull of a vessel. Whenever I go somewhere I try to think of a phrase that kind of distils everything and when I did work with the hokule’a and the Polynesian voyaging society the phrase that came to mind was that if you took all of the genius that allowed us to put a man on the moon and applied it to the understanding of the ocean what you would get is Polynesia.”

The real point of all this is not to brag about one society. The real point to avoid unnecessary  feelings of superiority. There is nothing more ignorant than feelings of superiority. There is nothing more wise than humility.