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  • Writer's pictureBasak Gizem Yasadur

European Identity, The White Man's Burden

Updated: Jul 6, 2022

Identity is what makes us unique both individually and nationally. Finding out the distinctions between me (we) and you (they) has created a drastic change in the human experience. This is why the era between 1450 and 1600 is quite exciting to learn further. In those years, the Atlantic System, which we can also call the second wave of globalization, started. Basically, this attempt caused European countries to find out their identity more clearly.

Because understanding who you are begins when you find out who you are not.

The first question that comes to mind here may be why European countries did not have such an awareness of their identity before. Did they not interact adequately with other states? What made the Atlantic System different in terms of identity? We can only reach the answer by analyzing the conjuncture, needs, advantages, and techniques used in this period.

The Rising Power, Ottoman Empire

It was the most important Islamic and regional power of the period. The Ottoman Empire became a significant actor in the Western world with the conquest of Istanbul in 1453, at the very beginning of the specific period that we were focusing on. It used to dominate the Silk and Spice routes. In addition to the land routes, the Ottoman Empire was particularly strong around the Mediterranean and the sea trade there. Although it allowed other states to trade along these routes, it taxed them heavily. At the end of the day, Ottoman Empire used its geographical position very actively and made quite a profit.

Portugal, The Re-Creator of Prometheus Effect

Just as Prometheus' bestowal of fire (information) to humanity changed the human experience forever, the Portuguese found the West African Coast and the Cape of Good Hope had the same effect. In Greek mythology, after obtaining knowledge, the man was free to use it as he wished, for good or for bad. The same was true for the Portuguese who initiated the geographical discoveries and the Western Christendom states that followed.

It is understandable that Western states, which could not profit from trade, sought new routes as a result of the dominance of the Silk, Spice routes, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea by other states.

The Portuguese developed their navigational skills on their way to West Africa. They have found special techniques to sail in the oceans, invented caravels, and developed the technology of the compass and the astrolabe. Moreover, they have embedded their weapons in their ships, which makes them unstoppable.

After the discovery of West Africa, trade revived for the Portuguese like never before. There was now plantation slavery, and great works were being completed in a very short time by slaves. Moreover, Spain also came to West Africa to benefit from this wealth. This race forced the Portuguese to find new routes and this caused Ferdinand Magellan to become the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe.

As a well-known story, Columbus first thought that he had arrived in India, but a short time later, he realized it was a completely new land, which now we know as Dominica. The construction of the Atlantic System was completed with the discovered American continent. Henceforth, the race to have more resources amongst the Western Christendom would continue with speed and enthusiasm, almost as if it were going to be a Reconquista.

Well, so far we can see that the Western European world is in contact with different cultures, such as the Ottomans and Africans. But neither Africa, although the western region was newly discovered, nor the Ottoman or other Islamic states were not unknown to Europe.

So to say this familiarity did not cause the European fauna to define its own identity. Then what was the reason for Europe to transform its identity and structure from fauna to an image?

The White Man’s Burden

Before the discovery of the Americas, the two local powers in South America were the Aztecs and the Mayans. When it comes to North America, they did not create a significant effect as the people who lived there were mostly hunter-gatherers. From the first moment they met, Europeans were quick to understand the differences between them and these civilizations. Europeans considered the local Americans as naive savages. These local people led a simple lifestyle that the Europeans left behind centuries ago. Their beliefs were much more simple, mostly linked to nature. Besides, they were very easy to persuade, to deceive.

Due to this fact, the Aztecs and Mayans considered uncivilized and naive people by these explorers.

However, the view of Americans towards these explorers was completely different. The new people in their region were completely awe-inspiring to them. The weapons in the hands of the Europeans and the technologies they used were enough to have a shock and admiration effect on the natives. These new people who made promises to them were quite interesting.

This dream soon turned into a nightmare, a traumatic encounter for the locals. Viruses to which the explorers were immune but completely new to the local population, killed many people. Those lucky enough to survive these viruses were treated inhumanely by explorers.

The explorers, who thought that the local people were 'needy' and 'savior', were trying to bless the uncivilized people here with their magnificent European civilization and manners.

The horrifying amount of bullets used during this blessing remains a minor detail. Hernán Cortés has destroyed the Aztecs while Francisco Pizarro has destroyed the Mayans in a short time.

Every thesis exists with its own antithesis. Without black, there can be no white. Black defines what it is based on white, and white defines what it is not based on black.

European countries found their antithesis in America and defined themselves based on what they are not. When analyzing history, events should be evaluated according to the conditions of the period in which they occurred.

So I think it's very human nature for explorers to see themselves as a superior race, almost godlike when they encounter these naive Native Americans. This is not a thought I put forward to justify what has been done. Rather, this is exactly what Thomas Hobbes focused on when he planned the Social Contract. The reliability of human nature is questionable, and we tend to hurt each other. Especially from the moment, our ego perceives the weakness of the other person, it tends to be a central motive that governs us. This is also the main motivation for the massacre in America and the reason why the European identity has settled down. Their nature governed them and caused the extinction of the weak. Rudyard Kipling's poem The White Man's Burden is ideal data to better understand this mentality.

Take up the White Man’s burden

Send forth the best ye breed

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child…


Kipling, Rudyard (1940). Rudyard Kipling's Verse(Definitive ed.). Garden City, NY: Doubleday. pp. 321–323. OCLC225762741.

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