Civilizing Missions

A mildly rambling meditation on improvement, empires, history, and fiction . . .

“Bringing enlightenment to the heathen,” is my father’s tongue-in-cheek description of teaching. It also describes the stated goal of some empires, both historical and fictional. Back in the “good old days” when might made right and expansion of imperial power just happened because the emperor wanted it, conquest needed no justification. I suspect the conquering generals explained it to the survivors as “our gods are stronger than your gods,” or ” then you shouldn’t have looked funny at the messenger we sent,” or some other explanation, but no one felt the need to record for posterity why expanding their area of control and dominion was necessary or beneficial (the Comanche certainly didn’t.) I think it was the English (later British) and Spanish who started the trend. And it continues into science fiction.

What was the purpose of Spanish expansion in the New World? To save souls and send home gold, according to the Spanish Crown. Some have questioned the order or priorities, but the Spanish government was serious about seeing its duty as that of bringing salvation and culture to the heathen. They were, after all, the defenders of the faith in Europe and the Lord had given them both a blessing and burden. How that civilizing mission played out on the ground is a different story, although the Crown did, at various points, try to rein in the administrators and estancia holders.

The British in turn took over India from the East India Company, after losing the colonies in North America (OK, the southern colonies in North America. No offense, Canadian readers). They also needed the Cape of Good Hope, and wrested it from the Dutch (who made no bones about civilizing the natives, who in turn made no bones about fighting to stay just as they were, thank you.) The British took over governance of their various colonial holdings to improve the management, ensure trade, and eventually, if possible (although not probable) to uplift the natives into the realm of civilized peoples. They succeeded in giving India a common legal code and language, abolished the practice of burning widows, and appear to have done their best to leave the place better than it was when they found it (by British definitions of better).

Empires appeal to writers of fiction. “Empire” serves as a shorthand for a type of government and economic system that controls a large area (possibly multiple star systems or even galaxies), has a single authority figure, and probably practices some form of semi-feudalism or aristocracy. Examples include the Empire in Star Wars, Weber’s Empire of Man, the CoDominium, the declining empire in Anderson’s Ensign Flandry novels, the Empire in the Dune novels, and that in the Warhammer game world. There are others in smaller series, including the Azdhag Empire with its five planets (and the protectorate in the DeShan’s System). I’d argue that one planet does not an empire make, but not everyone agrees.

What’s interesting is how many of these fictional empires include the idea of “uplift” and “improving the natives.” Now, some have no aliens to deal with, because humans are the only thing out there, or worlds with sapient alien species have been placed on a do-not-call list. I suspect part of it is because the empire most English-language writers are most familiar with is the British Empire, followed by the Chinese, both bodies that exported their culture to varying degrees as a way of improving the people they conquered. There are also theocratic empires, notably in the Warhammer worlds. Azimov’s Empire fit the improving tradition as well.

Since I shifted away from reading most of the literary science-fiction and products from the major publishers (with a few exceptions), I’m not certain if the pattern holds in the current, more socially-activist novels.

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