Book review: First contact/The cult of progress by David Olusoga

image.jpegThis is a very sad book, and, if you are someone who sees ‘progress’ as emotional and moral development (including social justice), then you will be either very disappointed to see that we have made none or you will have your belief that we have made none confirmed.

We still have slavery in different forms, we still ‘trade’ women, we still exploit children, we still starve the poor, resistance is still crushed by steel and we still destroy the environment and put animals in chains in the name of capital.

I think that in general people often forget that ‘progress’ is relative and that in our global system, underlining oppression, discrimination, exploitation and injustice which has driven and justified ‘progress’ for some has not been addressed. Why is this important? Because the book clearly shows that the few have benefitted from the oppression, death and destruction of the many (including animals and large parts of our environment). And, they apparently will continue to do so.

IMG_5328The book is well-written. The author weaves interesting historical nuggets (such as the shared artistic development around the world) while highlighting large-scale patterns of exploitative and violent behaviour (e.g. killing millions of indigenous Americans). How does that weigh up? I get it that at the time the documentarians included artists – it was a while before we got photography. But, who were the artists? What did they choose to paint? How did they depict their subject matter? Who did they misrepresent? The author does address these issues and demonstrates that many artists used their work to call for social justice, while others used their status to promote the perception of superiority of some over others.

The first part of the book describes first contact. So for example, Portuguese first contact with Africa – the shock of seeing the exceptional artwork and abilities and after being welcomed, the Portuguese traders went away, formulated a plan and came back to eradicate populations and loot countries. They also burned down cities and libraries so it was easy to say that they had tripped upon an uneducated civilisation. With this wealth they were able to establish themselves at the pinnacle of Portuguese society.

IMG_5325That’s pretty much the pattern for the rest of the European conquering nations – the Dutch, the Spanish, the British and so forth. All using some kind of tool to justify (apparently) their theft, destruction and violence – religion and theories about racial inferiority top the list. I’m not entirely convinced. I think the drive to get rich was applauded and fought for, and an easy and fast way to do it is to take from others and use unpaid labour. Also, how many people would have the emotional/psychological/intellectual capacity to cause so much destruction? What do you think? 1 in 25? 1 in 5?

I’m not saying that the countries that were invaded were  benevolent  – there were hierarchical structures and discrimination, but many of these countries had been trading and collaborating with each other for a very long time, relationships were managed to increase sustainability and build – why did it take key European figures to convince others to loot, burn and enslave on such a large, immense scale? Competition? Greed? Did they have a different perception of time? The destruction spiralled and spiralled. Millions of people were used up and cast aside for the sole purpose of propping up empires, building elaborate structures in celebration of excess and increasing the scale of wealth at the top while many in Europe’s own countries continued to live in poverty.


There are accounts of people often missed in traditional history books. African, Indian, Central American, Japanese and Chinese leaders among others, who tried to stem the tide, who stepped forward and stood their ground. Most were imprisoned, exiled, enslaved or put to death. It’s important though to know that not everyone gave in to the ‘progress’ as defined by European theorists, traders and their allies. That people did try to protect the environment, to defend their cultures and defend their way of life.

Other things I found out in the book:

  • India in the 1780s, perhaps 50% of European men in India had maintained relations with Indian women resulting in children. This gave way to racial hierarchy and in the first years of the nineteenth century lines were drawn.  The ‘N’ word was used against Indians by the British and appeared in diaries/accounts of people stationed in India at the time.
  • Edward Markham who visited New Zealand in the 1830s concluded that a preordained process of displacement and extermination was playing out across the world. 
  • African art inspired some of the works of Picasso.
  • Dutch East India Company – established in 1602 and the first multinational corporation. The Dutch effectively invented the modern stock exchange.
  • No one seems to know exactly why the Dutch were more successful in Japan than any other European nation. Apparently historians continue to research this.
  • You can see most of the last remaining evidence of achievements, skills and artistry of ancient civilisations/empires/peoples pre-destruction in the British Museum.

Overall, having read the book, my perception is that the examples/stories suggest that the underlying drive seems to be to take. Not to just see and let be and let grow and enjoy and share. It is to possess, to own, to damage, exploit and then cast aside or destroy when it is no longer perceived as useful.



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