Opinion: "Colonization" is Too Nice a Word

Remington Write

Let the ants keep the colonies

Padrão dos Descobrimentos — All those heroes immortalized in LisbonPhoto byTammy Remington

“Algeria was French, right?”

My partner and I were listening to some completely awesome Algerian music when that question came up (you’re welcome).

I tossed the answer off without a pause or a thought.

“Yeah, Algeria was a French colony”

Let’s rewind and reconsider that off-the-cuff answer, shall we?

Beginning in 1830, France began laying the groundwork for what became the occupation of Algeria first by the military and then by a series of administrators and their wives, all their buddies, the wives of their buddies, and several generations of little French kids who grew up thinking that Algeria was theirs.

France may have been a bit late to the game of Colonizing (I'm looking at you, Portugal and Spain), but they took to it like naturals. It was as if they had an innate talent for theft and occupation. Kind of like most of the rest of humanity, when you pause to consider it.

However, what the heck was up with Europe in the second half of the second millennium anyway?

A professor of Roman history back at Cleveland State University theorized that after centuries of first pushing back against the Romans and then the Moors who themselves set up shop in someone else’s country (Spain, for those who didn’t see El Cid), the ferocious warriors of the Iberian peninsula found themselves without anyone to fight.

They had weapons. They had ships. They had built up generations of ambition and hatred and determination.

The Primatial Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo, Spain in all its gloryPhoto byTammy Remington

They looked around and the way seemed clear: West to the fabled Spice Islands and heroic adventures and gold. What they found over there were people they determined weren’t Christian and so it naturally followed that everything of theirs could be stolen and everything about them could be violated.

Yes, indeed, that cathedral in Toledo, Spain is breathtaking as well it should be considering all that gold.

“Since 1595, it has been customary to carry the monstrance in the procession of the Corpus Christi, on a float made for this purpose with an adjustable leveling which is mechanically activated. The monstrance comprises 5,600 different pieces held together by 12,500 bolts and decorated with 260 figurines. Eighteen kilograms of 18-karat gold and 183 kilograms of pure silver were used in its fabrication; it is said to contain the first gold brought by Columbus from the New World.”

(They say that like it’s a good thing)

While history now shows that the Vikings were over here in the — ahem — New World well in advance of the Spanish and Portuguese, it appears that they didn’t stick.

The Spanish, the Portuguese, and then the English? They stuck.

History books say colonize. I say stole, invaded, murdered, and subjugated. The men of these European countries as well as many from France, Belgium, and the Netherlands basically behaved as if the rest of the world was theirs for the taking.

And they took. Spoiler alert: They still do.

They called these lands they took colonies. They called themselves colonial powers.

Somewhere along the line, however, that word Colonial got rehabilitated. There it is, carved into rustic wooden signage in front of charming inns and restaurants. Take the kids and enjoy a weekend reliving the early days of this country at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia (hey, you can visit a couple Civil War battlefields to round out the experience).

It gets better. Want whitewashing at its most literal? Go online and order yourself a little something special from Colonial Soap Works (“Just like nature intended”). Get your clothes clean with Colonial Chemical’s line of laundry detergent. Don’t like washing dishes in the sink since there doesn’t seem to be a Colonial brand of dish soap in your local supermarket? Not to worry because Colonial Appliance has a wide range of dishwashers to suit any budget or kitchen.

Is it some bizarro form of Stockholm Syndrome when former colonies such as New Zealand consider bacon to be “colonial”?

Language matters. When I blithely note that Algeria was once a French colony, I’m gliding right past the true nature of what France has done in that part of the world. If France today didn’t need access to the airspace over Algeria, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune wouldn’t get the time of day from Emmanuel Macron, the current President of France who still manages to denigrate the former French possession while trying to play nice to get what France wants.

Invasions, occupations, or forcibly taking another country’s territory are nothing new. Those “discoverers” celebrated in that impressive bit of sculpture facing the Atlantic Ocean in Lisbon weren’t doing anything radically new in human history. But let’s not kid ourselves. They weren’t heroes either. Very few of the men in those long-ago galleons were interested in exploration solely for the sake of discovering cool new things. They were after gold and spices and fame and fortune. Oh, and slaves. Let’s not forget that.

So now, let’s replay that conversation that started this whole train of thought.

“Algeria was French, right?”

“The French decided it was and invaded a sovereign nation in order to plunder the raw materials it wanted.”

We need a stronger, more accurate word for the crimes against humanity that have been simply considered “colonial history” for far too long. Colonies are for ants and restaurateurs. Maybe the bucks being extracted from tourists in Colonial Williamsburg could be redirected to developing the infrastructure and economies of all those countries wracked with corruption and poverty after being invaded by “colonial powers”. Maybe we who live in the — ahem — developed world could stop wringing our hands about all those nasty illegal immigrants and start holding our military responsible for continuing to behave as if the world is ours for the taking.

Maybe pigs could fly.

In the meantime, let’s come up with a word or phrase that doesn’t elicit nostalgia for bygone glories. Those “glories” were the result of millions of destroyed lives.

State Sponsored Terrorism comes to mind. Discuss.

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Covert dilettante with an omnivorous capacity for wonder. Writing because I can't not write. Always watching for the hidden patterns and connections. I don't know I cannot fly..........and so I do.

New York City, NY

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