The following text taken from the bestselling book Sapiens is Yuval Noah Harari’s brilliant take on what set apart the European conqueror at the dawn of their golden age of imperialism from the peoples they conquered and from other empire builders that came before them:
Around 1517, Spanish colonists in the Caribbean islands began to hear vague rumours about a powerful empire somehwere in the centre of the Mexican mainland. A mere four years later, the Aztec capital was a smouldering ruin, the Aztec Empire was a thing of the past and Hernán Cortés lorded over a vast new Spanish Empire in Mexico.
The Spaniards did not stop to congratulate themselves or even to catch their breath. They immediately commenced explore-and-conquest operations in all directions. The previous rulers of Central America — the Aztecs, the Toltecs, the Maya — barely knew South America existed, and never made any attempt to subjugate it, over the course of 2,000 years. Yet within little more than ten years of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Francisco Pizarro had discovered the Inca Empire in South America, vanquishing it in 1532.
And so we step back a bit and consider a popular claim Filipino ‘patriots’ teach their children — that a lot about the culture that sets the Philippines back and hinders its ability to achieve its full potential is a result of something the Spanish conquistadores who colonised the Philippines introduced to the native culture — that, as this line of thinking goes, had the Philippines’ native people been left to their devices, they will have gone on to become a great people themselves.
But as Harari writes above, the native Americans the Spaniards encountered had sustained great empires with thousand-year histories themselves, yet had failed over those centuries to turn the vast and rich continent of the Americas into a source of wealth and power the way the Spaniards did within decades of their arrival. So too, evidently, was the case of the natives the Spaniards who arrived in the Philippine islands encountered.
Harari asserts that the key cultural feature of European colonial powers that enabled them to conquer the world lay in their thirst for knowledge which they satisfied by mounting audacious enterprises of exploration of the unknown. Harari writes in Sapiens, “European imperialism was entirely unlike all other imperial projects in history.” He continues…
The Romans, Mongols and Aztecs voraciously conquered new lands in search of power and wealth — not knowledge. In contrast, European imperialists set out to distant shores in the hope of obtaining new knowledge along with new territories.
James Cook [who went on to discover Australia in a British financed semi-military expedition in the 18th Century] was not the first explorer to think this way. The Portuguese and Spanish voyagers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries already did. Prince Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama explored the coasts of Africa and, while doing so, seized control of islands and harbours. Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ America and immediately claimed sovereignty over the new lands for the kings of Spain. Ferdinand Magellan found a way around the world, and simultaneously laid the foundation for the Spanish conquest of the Philippines.
Indeed, while the other powerful cultures of the time convinced themselves that they knew everything and looked inward into their comfy wealth and prestige, Europeans underwent what Harari calls “a revolution of ignorance”. By admitting that they did not know the answers to a lot of the important questions of the time, Europeans embraced a spirit of exploration and inquiry into the unknown.
We see today the same stark difference between native Filipinos who happily wallow in wretchedness and the exasperated mostly-expatriate observers who can only watch and facepalm themselves at the obvious solutions to that wretchedness that Filipinos choose to ignore. The inherent inability of Filipinos to do things differently in order to achieve a different outcome that has long baffled observers seems to stem from the same condition that afflicted the Aztecs and Mayans — a lack of curiosity over possibilities that there may be bigger and better ways out there worth exploring.
Nowhere is this more evident in Filipinos’ choice of presidential candidates in their national elections. The banal sameness of the political debate — and the options to choose from — election in and election out is astounding. Filipino voters seem to be totally disinclined to even consider that there may be other options. Instead, they imprison their thinking within the same fatal comfort zone that their politics have languished in over the last several decades.
These observations of the way Filipinos continue to choose the easy path of muddling along in mediocrity leads us to a confronting reality — that Filipinos are too lazy to think much less physically explore the uncharted.
No guts, no glory, as the old cliché goes. Glory belongs to those who beg to differ. To the Filipino belongs only the same poverty brought upon by a wholesale lack of curiosity.
[Photo courtesy Wikipedia.]
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