God, Gold and Glory: The Dawn of Western Imperialism

Marissa Vahlsing


"In ancient times the opulent and civilized found it difficult to defend themselves against the poor and the barbarous nations; in modern times the poor and barbarous nations find it difficult to defend themselves against the opulent and civilized." -Adam Smith

During a recent visit to Jamaica, I observed a number of resorts that themed their golf courses and pools after the old sugar plantations of the island. As the sun-burnt American and British children splashed among the recreation of the 'old mill', local Jamaicans in floral uniforms served drinks to the adults lounging by the pool. The association between the plantation and the modern resort did not appear to disturb the tourists relaxing in the sun. And why should it? This is a different time. The Jamaicans, of whom 91% are descendents of plantation slaves, live and work freely on the Island. As I walked along the beaches which were quickly eroding due to the coastal development by such resorts, I watched the Jamaican employees sweep the seaweed into small piles and carry them off the beach in order to maintain the postcard view of the ocean that the tourists traveled there to see. It occurred to me that something more was at work there. The way in which indigenous cultures, peoples and their land have been commercialized and commodified for the enjoyment of pleasure seeking tourists must have roots somewhere. I began to wonder in what way the acceptance of past exploration and conquest by Europeans of land and people created a justification for today's exploitation of indigenous cultures and environments through tourism and other such devices as transnational corporations and trade.


This question is undoubtedly broad, but perhaps through such a lens as a modern day tourist resort that is frequented by predominately European descendents and employs natives, we can explore the ethical origins of the mechanisms at work. We know that in the centuries following Columbus's "discovery" of the New World (of which Jamaica was a part), a monstrous new networking of power and trade developed between Europe, Africa and the America's. Originally motivated by '; evangelical' missions of proselytization and the search for resources, European travelers traversed the Atlantic and often enslaved and killed the people they discovered on the other side. The explorers regarded both the indigenous people and their natural environment as commodities to be utilized for their own advancement. Although we believe that we have moved beyond these practices today, we continue to benefit from the seeds that these practices have sown. The sheer belief that a person or a resource can be bought and sold, owned and discovered has not left us. It continues to infect our current global systems from those of international corporate relations and trade to the conduct of pleasure seeking tourists.


According to anthropologist Carlo Cippolla, "When Albuquerque attacked Malacca in 1511 he told his officers that they had to exert themselves in battle because of two reasons: 'the great service we shall perform to the lord in casting the Moors out of the country. …and the service we shall render to the King Don Manoel in taking this city because it is the source of all the spiceries and drugs" (Cippolla 1) During the ensuing battles and confrontations the native populations of the New World were devastated, paving the way for colonial development and the allocation of resources. While we may no longer necessarily glorify this method of establishing our home in the New World, we accept it. The glorification of colonial conquest through such players as Columbus and Sir Francis Drake sowed a certain amount of pride among the American people who commemorate their achievements through devices such as Columbus Day. Although current investigation into the actual details of the conduct of Columbus and his men in terms of their treatment of the Native Americans has hemmed any glorification, an acceptance of conquest still lives among the American people. Our history books, although somewhat revised, still paint Christopher Columbus as a hero and rarely refer to the brutal tactics he employed against the Indigenous Americans. Columbus remains to many of us a discoverer of the new world. We accept this even though we acknowledge that the Americas were already inhabited by people whom the explorers often took no pains against exterminating or condemning into slavery.

Ogier Ghilselin Busbecq wrote that for expeditions to the Indies and the Antipodes, religion supplied the pretext and gold the motive" (Cippolla 2). This same sense of 'manifest destiny' justified by our favor with god and our lust for new resources and sources of labor remains with us. The first encounters between the Europeans and the natives of the New World are indicative of these European motives. Such motives rendered both the indigenous people and their environment as resources to be utilized or to be cleared away in order to reach what was useful. This was accomplished through both direct and indirect means and forever changed the New World landscape and its peoples. "For the New World as a whole, the Indian population decline in the century or two following Columbus's arrival is estimated to be as large as 95%. The main killers were old World germs to which the Indians had never been exposed." Among these killers were small pox, measles, influenza, and typhus. In one instance, the white people were said to have sent gifts of blankets previously used by small pox patients to "belligerent" natives in order to wipe them out (Diamond). In addition to this monstrous infection of the Native Americans, the explorers actively murdered or enslaved the natives in order to retrieve spices, gold and other commodities. Another tactic was to simply scam the natives out of their land because they were not aware of its value to the Europeans. It is said that the entire leg of Cape Cod was traded with the natives there for the price of a kettle and a hoe. For many of the natives who were nomadic hunters and gatherers, this concept of pricing land, labor or gold at a monetary value was unfamiliar and unimaginable. When the European explorers landed their ships upon the New World shores, they also landed the new fangled concept of commodification that pervaded the Old World.

If gold supplied the motive, then religion played an interesting role in providing the pretext. Mission and crusade here mixed and reconciled "the antithesis between business and religion that had plagued the conscience of Medieval Europe."(Cippolla) Due to their own success in obtaining resources and technologies and utilizing them in innovative ways, the Europeans considered themselves favored by the Christian god. This favor rendered them "chosen" to spread gods will and carry it out through their own advancement of king and country. Consequentially, they viewed the natives of the New World as savage and backwards due to their customs and predominately animistic religions. This justified the plundering of their land and peoples and at times converting them to "civilized Christianity". This task was relatively easy to execute. "In the Americas things turned out to be exceptionally favorable to European Invasion. The geophysical conditions of most parts of the continent were not forbidding; the country was not very densely populated and the natives were technologically very primitive." (Cippolla) Although the technological 'backwardness' may have left the New World natives vulnerable to European invasion, it was not until later that their backwardness in these terms cast them as "uncivilized". That attitude was adopted during the industrial revolution and sustained their practice of dominance over peoples and lands. "In the industrial era, scientific and technological measures of human worth and potential dominated European thinking on issues ranging from racism to colonial education. They also provided key components of the civilizing-mission ideology that both justified Europe's global hegemony and vitally influence the ways in which European power was exercised" (Adas). Michael Adas asserts that during the industrial revolution, most European thinkers concluded that their unprecedented control over the natural world enabled by modern science and technology proved that the European ethos corresponded more closely to the "underlying realities of the universe" than those of any other society. This brings us back to the religious pretext. Adas also suggests that initially, European travelers shared with overseas peoples a sense of helplessness and awe against the natural world. This belief was radically altered during the late 18th century and the degree to which a society had mastered its environment reflected the "extent to which it had ascended from savagery to civilization". This leads him to conclude that the most decided distinction between the original explorers and the people, whom they discovered, was a religious one.


Still, the greatest paradox was yet to come. "In order to acquire Western techniques, the non-European people had or have to undergo a more profound and general process of Westernization. Paradoxically enough, in order to fight against the West they have to absorb Western ways of thinking and doing. "(Adas) Thus, the New World peoples were left few choices for success other than to take root in the Western device of regarding land and labor as resources to be bought and sold. Enter the resort in Jamaica were this imperialistic principle continues to hold the locals in a new age form of servitude. The resort in Jamaica is only one microscopic example of a global process that has been under way since these European explorers set out in search of God, Gold and Glory. This imperialistic attitude that lusts after new sources of material wealth and cheap labor, self-justified by an idea of manifest destiny, provides the backbone for nearly all modern international transfers carried out by the Western world. Current free trade agreements as outlined by NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) demand a maximization of resources and commodities with little regard to the peoples or environments that are supplying the goods. Additionally, multinational corporations have set up shop in countries where the people are willing to provide cheaper labor in order to produce more goods for less money. We hear talk of this when we learn of a company like Nike setting up sweatshops in Thailand. And for some countries, their only chance of success in the cut-throat global economy has been to allow Western entraprenours to build soulless resorts that degrade the local environment, often underpay the local employees and thwart local businesses. Clearly these issues are too large to be discussed in a single breath, but we may be able to better understand the consequences of such global transactions if we study what drives them: the good ol' quest for god, gold and glory.


Cipolla, Carlo M., Epilog from "Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400-1700" Sunflower Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 132-148.

Diamond, Jared, "Ch. 11: Lethal gift of livestock," in "Guns, Germs, and Steel" W.W. Norton & Co, 1997, ISBN 0-393-03891-2, pp. 195-214
Cipolla, Carlo M., Epilog from "Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400-1700" Sunflower Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 132-148.

Adas, Michael, "Machines as the Meaure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance", Cornell Univ. Press 1989, pp. 1-35.


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last updated 1/29/03