A people devoid of "genius and imagination"

TILL THE 16th century, so little was known in Europe of Africa and Asia that the main task for Western scholars in the 16th and 17th centuries was to record the bewildering variety of strange new worlds and reconcile them with their constricted medieval vision of the earth.

The works of ancient writers, like Herodotus and Pliny, paid scant attention to science or technology but fixed a variety of images of Asia and Africa in the European imagination. Popular legends of monsters from the deep and of equatorial waters that boiled like giant cauldrons, were gradually discarded as experience proved them false, but myths of headless humans with eyes on their chests and with fur-covered bodies persisted as late as the 18th century. Scottish naturalist Lord Monboddo would routinely ask 18th century travellers to look out for humans with tails, of whose existence he was convinced.

Few overseas travellers were aware of the scientific discoveries transforming Western knowledge of the natural world. The Scientific Revolution began half a century after Vasco da Gama's voyage to India, with the publication in 1543 of Copernicus' On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres and Vesalius' On the Fabric of the Human Body. Machines had not yet become the preferred measure of human worth, but their quality and complexity had begun to be associated with cultural advancement.

Between the end of the 17th and the first half of the 18th century, the curiosity of missionaries and scholars, sea captains and merchants swelled into a passion for information about exotic lands and the customs, institutions and beliefs of non-Western races. It resulted in the accumulation of an enormous amount of information, much of which seems science fiction today. This and the spate of technological inventions in Europe, for example, James Watt's improved steam engine (1769), made 18th century Europeans confident that they had surpassed all civilisations, past and present. China, touted until then as the model to be emulated, was dismissed in a 1782 travel account by Pierre Sonnerat as a nation of people devoid of "genius, activity and imagination". Sonnerat was equally critical of Indian technology, ascribing its poor quality to despotism, excessive reliance on tradition and the climate.

In 1728, a Dominican friar, Jean Baptiste Labat, published a five-volume survey of French activities in Senegal, based on reports of colonial administrators. Labat's use of technological arguments as a justification for colonialism anticipated 19th century trends. Using mining as his example, Labat concluded Africans had neither the technology to exploit their abundant resources nor the intelligence to develop mining technology. So, Labat argued it was incumbent on the French to exploit these resources, with the Africans, described as stupid and indolent, able to provide only labour under strict supervision. By the 19th century, this attitude was used to vindicate European colonialism as a great, civilising mission and Victorians, for instance, took pride in the argument that as they could travel almost 100 km per hour by train, they must be five times more civilised than Indians, whose bullock carts plodded along at about 18 km per hour. By extension, those who walked were idiots!