Book of the Week: Conquest: How Societies Overwhelm Others

Alex Danchev on the brutish heart of empire

March 27, 2008

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, first published in 1902, is surely one of the most suggestive tales of the terrible 20th century. It appears to have suggested something to David Day, who begins his book with an epigraph from it: "The conquest of the earth ... is not a pretty thing when you look into it much." This seems simple enough (apart from a minor misquotation). True to form, however, when you look into the ellipsis, and the framing, it turns out that Conrad, or his narrator Marlow, has something more interesting to say. Marlow is reflecting on empires and explorers - the Romans, the Elizabethans - and what drove them.

"But these chaps were not much account, really," Marlow muses. "They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force - nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a grand scale, and men going at it blind - as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea - something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to ... ".

Here is the text for Conquest. Day proposes a new term of art - not simply to colonise but to supplant - and a new concept, "supplanting societies". To supplant, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "to dispossess and take the place of (another), esp. by treacherous or dishonourable means". That fits the case exactly. For Day, supplantation is a ubiquitous feature of the modern world, an endless cycle whereby one people or society displaces another, only to be displaced in its turn, in a process that is often agonising, sometimes violent, rarely unproblematic.

For the convinced supplanter - those with an unselfish belief in the idea, or in need of a rationale - Day offers a basic three-stage model: legal claim (de jure); "effective proprietorship" or occupation (de facto); and "moral proprietorship" or legitimation (de sancio?). Interestingly, he argues that the third is crucial, not simply for presentational purposes, but for social cohesion: that elusive mix of communal fortitude and historical closure to which every supplanter society aspires. If it remains in question, the entire project is jeopardised. "While the population of the Occupied Territories has increased to more than a quarter of a million people," he notes, "recent polls have revealed that an increasing number of Jewish Israelis are planning to leave Israel altogether. They are leaving in droves to escape the continuing unrest and the relative lack of economic opportunities, and perhaps also to escape the incomplete sense of moral proprietorship that they have over this land to which most of them have only recently come."

Conquest's originality rests chiefly on the notion of supplantation, but model-making does not detain us long. Most of the book is devoted to cases, or modes of operation. Ten compact chapters offer a potted historical how-to for supplanting societies over the past two millennia, from "Supplanting the savages" to "Peopling the land". The territorial and temporal reach is impressive, but the treatment is summary. Global history at a gallop is a tricky proposition, for writer and reader alike. Day has tried to enliven this account, but his prose is best described as efficient, and occasional flights of fancy can be laboured. "Each day, thousands of tourists trudge up the stone steps and through the many rooms of the Doge's Palace on St Mark's Square in Venice, gawping open-mouthed at the richly decorated interiors and its impressive collection of ancient weaponry."

Conquest leaves no time for gawping, open-mouthed or otherwise. The pace is unvaried, and can be wearing; and may encourage a tendency to lump what might better be split, as for example the civilising missions of Adolf Hitler and Richard Hakluyt. The latter, hot for colonising America, assured Sir Walter Raleigh that there was "no greater glory ... than to conquer the barbarian, to recall the savage and the pagan to civility".

In the matter of Hitler, the author is keen to consider him as just another supplanter rather than a special case. It is a mistake to think that the Holocaust was historically unique; indeed, he says, "the genocidal imperative" is instinct in the supplantation project. "Even a cursory examination of the history of the past millennia reveals that supplanting societies are driven by a 'genocidal imperative', believing that only with the disappearance of the prior owners will they secure their claim on lands they intend to occupy for themselves."

Is this too cursory, or too sweeping a judgment? Has Day imbibed too much of Conrad's ivory hunter Kurtz? In keeping with Conrad's voracious irony, Kurtz was entrusted to make a report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, "for its future guidance". The peroration was magnificent, as Marlow recalls: "There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: 'Exterminate all the brutes!'"

THE AUTHOR

Growing up on the edge of the desert in Western Queensland, worldwide travel was not something David Day aspired to.

But a chance to study at Cambridge was, in his words, "too good to pass up", and it saw the start of an academic career that has seen him go to Ireland, Britain and Japan as well as extensive travels around his native Australia. It was this globetrotting that inspired him to begin writing Conquest, a 20-year labour of love that began with an interest in displaced Aboriginal tribes in Australia.

However, he has not always taken things so slowly, publishing his first book before completing his PhD at Cambridge.

He says, "Everywhere I've visited I've thought, 'I could live here.'" The only drawback is flying; he admits that he used to vomit during flights from sheer fear. However, a 36-hour England to Australia flight offered an unexpected cure. "It stopped ten times on the way. After that, other flights seemed easier."

Conquest: How Societies Overwhelm Others

By David Day
Oxford University Press
304pp
£14.99
ISBN 9780199239344
Published March 2008

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