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Colonialism in Steampunk and Fiction

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen,

This is a blog I hoped I never have to write, but here we are. As I am preparing a video about a character in which colonial history is of great significance. But before I start work on that, I want to share some of my observations on the overall treatment of colonial subjects in Fiction, especially in the fantastical genres.

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We have some amazing new art for the Special edition of the issue that we'll offer in both softcover and hardcover, like this overview for a lore page on the Nimrod Mk III.

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Nimrod Mk III

My interest in colonial history comes from the fact that, as some of the folk who read Bound for the Styx might have guessed, my family has ties to Indonesia. So, I grew up in an environment that was a bit different from most Dutch families. But you only start to realize how different it is when you get older. And one of those reasons is people with a colonial past don’t like talking about it. I assumed this was a Dutch Indian thing because most of them stayed in the Japanese Prison Camps, like my family. But no, I heard similair tales of children of colonials in other countries.

It isn’t helped by the fact that, in the current year, having a discussion about colonialism is nearly impossible, as this subject is most often regarded through the lens of who's to blame.

Despite all the bluster about the colonial past, actual curiosity about the historical events and the developments leading up to them is sorely lacking, and writers are no exception.

In this video, I want to address a few misapprehensions that audiences and would-be writers alike have about the past and some things any author might want to consider before... Well, let's just get into it.

For my first observation, I was thinking of making some snappy remarks that their knowledge is based on activists' slogans and TikTok videos. But the real problem is an utter lack of education on the topic. A wiser man has said you can't blame people for ignorance. However, as I stated at the start, it's obvious to me that most have not even taken a superficial glance at the subject of colonization. And this is a widespread problem that proliferates throughout all of society. How widespread, you ask?

In May 2023, the Skeptical Research Centre released a report on titled... "Are 'White People' Morally Deviant?"

Don't you just love the Internet? Anyway, the link is in the description.

According to their report, they interviewed 3014 people about the following topic.

“Given these strong opinions, in this report, we ask: what does the public really think about the (apparent) immorality of white people.”

They asked the participant to give their opinion on the following statement. "Prior to the arrival of the European settlers, Native American/ Indigenous tribes lived in peace and harmony.”

Even at a superficial glance, this is obviously a false statement… At least to me. But-

Among participating graduates and people with professional Degrees, 1 in 2 Agreed with the statement. Considering the state of American higher education, I can’t say I’m surprised. But what did surprise me was that the same goes for moderate and strongly Conservative participants.

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Did I really have to bring up the current day, you ask? Unfortunately, I do because writers who proposed story ideas to me view the whole of colonial history through this lens.

For example.

viewer comment

The Netherlands was once settled by Celtic and Germanic tribes. They were subjugated by the Romans, who, 500 years later, were subjugated by the Visigoths. Then we had the Franks, the Frisians, and the Saxons, who, in turn became the first people to be called the Dutch and the Flemish. Those identities were formed over generations and countless wars.

For that reason, states built forts and cities with walls. Weapons had to be developed to take these settlements. But until modern artillery, a city could take years to conquer with state-of-the-art technology. This led to a stalemate in Europe between rival kingdoms. In order to grow, they had to innovate and find ways to gather gold and other resources from other parts of the world. This motivated them to leave their European confines.

In other continents, we see similar developments. However, their geography forced these cultures in other directions. The Mongols lived nomadic lives on the arid steppes as herders. The Chinese were locked in by the sea on one side. Deserts and mountains on the others. Their dependence on rice farming and irrigation forced them to adopt an autocratic system that they have to this day. In South America and Egypt, the lack of farmable land helped shape similar styles of authoritarian government in order to ensure their food supplies. These economic and political differences determined how the would-be colonial powers interacted with these cultures.

Current-day fiction authors who propose their ideas on my channel and Discord seem to be oblivious to the complexities of such interactions. Although they want to write stories about colonial history, they seem to have little to no interest in the topic. They stick to what they know. And what they know comes from pop culture. This leads to, shall we say, rather condescending claims about non-European cultures of the past, for example.

viewer comment

This is just a sample of similar statements I've received. The idea that 'The colonized' never used Western technology or had developed technologies themselves... I mean, where to even begin with this one?

In the current year, when we say colony, we usually mean overseas territories, particularly European-held territories in Africa, America, and Asia. Of course, this perspective suffers from a severe case of contemporitis or Presentism. Humans everywhere around the globe have been colonizing territories since they were still monkeys.

The difference is the worst they had to contend with were predators. But as humanity flourished and spread, tribes started to infringe on each other's territory, which probably led to the first armed conflicts. As a matter of fact, one Ice Age celebrity, Otzi, might have been killed during just one such event. The most ancient battlefield discovered thus far is in the Tollense Valley of North Germany. In 1996, the first mass grave was discovered, and since then, the remains of an estimated 4,000 people have been located. We don't know the reason, but it's believed to have taken place in the 13th century BC, an era known as the Dark Age.

You might have heard of the mysterious Sea Peoples who, 3300 years ago, threatened every major empire in the Mediterranean, including Egypt.

For those not familiar, this era must have been cataclysmic because nearly every empire in Mesopotamia was destroyed by a group only known as the Sea Peoples. We have hypotheses about some of these groups because Ramses II had made depictions of them on his famous victory stele. But these people, and those in the Tollense Valley, were likely driven from their lands and looked for new lands to colonize. At least, that is the assumption. We don't know.

The point is, that we have evidence of violent invasions from millennia ago. Some colonization was peaceful, like merchants building outposts along trade routes in the Mediterranean or farmers cultivating fertile areas. The Dutch made their own land out of swamps before recorded history, and the Maya built settlements on the lakes and used irrigation to turn rugged terrain into fertile fields.

Jumping ahead to the 15th century, some crazy Italian realized he could sail across the pond, and soon after, the Spanish and Portuguese started a bloody conquest of South America. Then, they used the enslaved population to mine resources and work on plantations to grow food.

A century later, the English thought they could repeat that strategy and set off to start the settlement of Roanoke.. That failed miserably because... Well, the North American tribes were mostly nomads, and the population was sparse. So, no slaves for plantations. No plantations, no food. And no colony. So, the North American settlers had to start smaller and often traded with the native tribes... At first.

However, let's go back to the Spanish conquest. Did you know Cortez had 508 soldiers and 16 cannons at his command when he set sail for Yucatán? As the story is often told insulates, that’s all it took? But no. He made local allies, particularly the Tlaxcaltecs and Tetzcocans. From a present-day perspective, why would these kingdoms help the Spanish invaders?

Yeah, about that peace and harmony thing. Due to a lack of knowledge of the past and our modern frame of reference, we project our present society on history. Thus, past Kingdoms are treated as modern countries instead of a complex tapestry. of local political, ethnic, and cultural entities that happened to unite under a supreme ruler. The sphere of influence shrunk and grew.

But from a modern perspective, instead of the 17th-century Indian subcontinent being a tapestry of cultures, tribes, etc., India gets treated as if it were a homogenous country that happens to have some minorities like Sikhs and Muslims because that is how we perceive our own society.

Now, it's the world's biggest democracy. However, unlike European countries, India is not a nation-state. The 550 representatives in parliament have to represent 2,000 ethnic groups speaking variations of four diffrent languages.

Similar differences existed in the Yucatan. They live in the same area, so they must be the same people. But no. The South American Empires were doing a whole lot of colonizing before the Europeans landed, and many civilizations were destroyed in bloody wars. Suffice to say, the locals had no issues with destroying the Aztec Empire, as they were at the time seen as the big bullies of Meso-America.

In Asia, the colonization started more peacefully. Trade with the Orient predated the Roman Empire. But land travel, like across the famous silk routes, was slow and dangerous. So, Europeans looked for sea routes. Eventually, they settled in the Horn of Africa. Along the West African Coast, the Portuguese traded slaves with kingdoms like Bacongo, Ashanti, and Benin.

In South Asia, the British and Dutch setup outposts to trade with the local population.

Now, there is a big difference between what happened in Africa and Asia. In Africa, kings waged war with other tribes to enslave them and sell them to Europeans and Arabs. The Europeans then used these slaves on plantations to make money. Now, you'd think the African rulers would do something similar. But no. Instead of copying what the Westerners did, all they wanted from the Europeans was gold and firearms so they could wage war and sell more slaves for more profit. This was so lucrative the elite didn’t think change was necessary.

This wasn't because, in Africa, it wasn't possible to build plantations. This is exactly what black American colonists did in Liberia in the 19th century. During the wars with local tribes, they used prisoners as slaves on their own plantations in Mississippi in Africa. That's the full name of the province.

But the local Kingdoms, like Bacongo, wouldn't even adopt the wheel despite having streets in their cities. After all, their products could walk themselves.

In Asia, European merchants sold firearms, which the local rulers then used to fight each other. Eventually, local maharajas would hire Western mercenaries, cannoneers in particular, to fight in their wars.

The British Empire, in the meantime, collected taxes on these imports and exports. But then they decided to cut out the middlemen and go into business for themselves. Thus, in 1600, the British East India Company was created. A state-owned enterprise led by bureaucrats. But without oversight from the Crown, they could do as they pleased without knowing what they were doing. Thus, they ended up running a rather disastrous administration of the Bengal because of overzealous military campaigns without an apparent end goal.

At first, they did business with the local Empires. However, their European enemies were here as well. Together with Dutch allies, the Company conquered Spanish and Portuguese strongholds, thus expanding its properties. But then the Dutch and English became enemies, and these conflicts got the local maharajas involved. What followed was a complex shifting of alliances between European and Indian powers.

And not all acquisitions were violent. In 1668, The Company signed a lease for Bombay. Under their control, the city grew exponentially and soon became a target for both the Colonial and local rivals. In 1690, the English stronghold of Bombay was conquered by the Mughal Empire. It would change hands various times before the British reclaimed it in 1775. But despite all the wars and violence, Bombay flourished into a bustling city that stands to this day.

Suffice it to say that the methods of colonization can also vary widely. In America, they built communities from scratch and farmed previously unused lands. In Asia, they traded with local rulers who wished to use European weapons in their own wars. But in Africa. African rulers, with some exceptions, made that much money on the slave trade, like Bahomi and Bacongo, barely developed their economies. As a result, these kingdoms became stagnant, relying purely on capturing and selling slaves.

But then disaster struck... The British Empire... Became abolitionist. And I don't mean they put up some signs. They got the British Navy involved. In 1807, Britannia made slavery, in all its forms, illegal.

Many moons ago, when I was a student, I remember asking my professor why the slave trade ended. He gave a meandering answer that it was an indirect result of the American Civil War.

But, no. It was the British and their African allies who engaged in a long crusade. Over a period of 50 years, the British West Africa Squadron liberated 150,000 prisoners from Slaver Traders bound for the United States, Jamaica, and Brazil.

With all this talk about the history of slavery, why does nobody learn about this?

Before I answer that, I hope that, if anything, you now understand the complexity of colonial history and that its legacy deserves more than fictional novels intended to satisfy the biases of current-day audiences. But there was something else that bothered me. Why do Westerners embrace these narratives so eagerly?

First of all, this perspective gives us a clear perpetrator and victim. We know who to blame and, well, whose a victim…

You might say, what is wrong with that? As a matter of fact, there is a lot wrong with it.

Pondering the question of why people are so attracted to this narrative, by some strange coincidence, I found this book in my collection. A Dutch textbook from the 1970s called "The Great Revolutions." Browsing the index and some of the pages, something stood out to me. The chapters make mention of wars, technologies, and oppression. The colonial territories are only mentioned in the context of conquest and revolt. The War against slavery, however, isn't even mentioned in the footnotes, unlike the American Civil War, which covers an entire chapter. Then it dawned on me. Apart from revolts against their oppressors, these native peoples are not to be shown to have agency. This book, and many like it, depict non-Western people as passive civilizations who don't have any agency of their own. Their empires and conflicts barely get any mention. The Empire they built, their achievements, conflicts with, and victories over the European powers are not worth a mention. And yet, the Sepoy rebellion of 1857, instigated by the ban of Widow Burning and increasing taxes, has a segment.

(Not being allowed to throw your mother-in-law into an open fire was a step too far).

But rulers like Tipu Sultan, the Mysore Tiger, who allied with Napoleon in a war against the British, have no mention. Because God forbid, the Indian nations are depicted as anything but victims.

I grew up with a comic, "From Zero to Present." It's a 5-part comic series about Dutch History, which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to get into Dutch History. Unfortunately, I could only find Dutch versions. Its creators did an excellent job portraying our national history to a young audience that's both funny and pretty accurate. But it is also guilty of portraying history from this narrative. But I don't want to be too hard on them. But there is this image of an African chief or king selling slaves to Dutch traders. In the pile at his feet, it shows a bag of beads, guns, and a chest with mirrors. The Merchant says,

"Great. Now make war on other tribes and turn them into slaves."

This image summarizes my problem with how colonial history is perceived. Let's start with the environment. The Africans are shown to live in mud huts despite the coastal Kingdom having built cities with palaces, streets, and gardens. The earth walls of Benin are considered to have been one of the biggest man-made structures in the world.

Instead of gold, they accept beads and mirrors as payment as if they are children in adult bodies who don't understand basic economics. Despite all the talk of racism on the Internet, the idea of native Africans being primitive and naive fools who were easily subjected by the powerful and technologically advanced Europeans is widespread.

But most offensive of all is the King taking orders from a white man as if the idea of war for profit was an alien concept to them. Not to mention the logistics these kingdoms created for the trade in human beings.

I can't imagine a better visualization of the idea that the African Kingdoms were run by children seduced with trinkets.

According to this lens, Western cultures are the driving force behind anything in the world. That would explain titles such as "Are 'White People' Morally Deviant?" because, from this perspective, only the morality of white people matters. Ask Google who were the biggest slave traders, and all you see are European nations that participated in the Atlantic Slave Trade.

This might seem trivial, but in the current year, many people believe that it was only white people during the 17th to 19th century who traded in slaves. Let me ask you. Where do they get those ideas from?

It's a dubious sleight of hand in which the Slave Traders of Africa, including the caliphates, are purged of all responsibility. But also their accomplishments. India, Indonesia, and Africa are treated as a single country and not an extensive tapestry of tribes, cultures, and political entities. And worst of all, modern conflicts are treated as little more than post-colonial fallout. And not the result of failed government like Bacongo or the ancient tribal vendettas that predated the Europeans' arrival.