Monday, May 16, 2016

Were we (are we?) really enlightened?

Nineteenth century Americans and Europeans loved to do comparisons of places, societies and people around the world. 19th century atlases often contained charts showing comparisons of the heights of mountains, lengths of rivers, and so forth. A comparison of cultures was also something which would appear from time to time.

This chart, issued in 1830 by D.F. Robinson & Co. exhibits "the comparative size, population, form of government, and number of square miles, in each of the principal Empires, Kingdoms &c. of the globe." That is an interesting part of this chart, but it is the panel of four scenes at the bottom, showing "the Manner of Building among different Nations according to their Civilization" which is of particular interest.

At the left is shown an Indian Village, the manner of building by the "Savage." This term was not used in the sense of fierce, violent, and uncontrolled, for the Indians looks quite peaceful, despite the appearance of some men with guns (note that a dog is playfully jumping up to this group). Instead, the term was used in the chauvinistic attitude of superiority where the Indian culture was not really "civilized."

Next over is a picture of Canton, showing what is described as a "Half Civilized" culture! This would certainly have come as a surprise to the Chinese (who themselves probably considered western culture as at most half civilized). The notion that the Native Americans were "savages" was one that was long standing, but the chutzpah of calling Chinese culture half civilized a breathtaking. (Actually, I suspect that at least some of our current political figures--not to mention any names--probably continue that belief to this day).

Constantinople appears next as the example of a "Civilized" culture. No argument there...

The chutzpah though continues in the last panel, where Philadelphia is a level up from even "civilized," representing an "Enlightened" nation. Now I love Philadelphia, and in 1830 it certainly was one of the most sophisticated cities in the world, but these labels are not reflections of the actual relative "civilization" of these cultures, so much as a reflection of the self-satisfied and blinkered attitude of the publisher and many western citizens. That is not to say that people from the other cultures (Indian, Chinese, and Turkish) wouldn't have had their own hierarchy with their own civilizations at the top, but this chart does give us a really good look at the attitudes held in the U.S. at the time.

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