Europe, Headlines

LITERATURE: Imperialism and War of the Worlds

Asoka Jayasekera

LONDON, Feb 24 1998 (IPS) - This month marked the centenary of the publication of one of the world’s best known literary critiques of imperialism – even if few of its millions of readers recognise it as such.

British novelist H.G. Wells defined an entire genre with his 1898 novel, “The War Of The Worlds,” a fantasy account of the near destruction of the world by alien invaders that can still thrill readers 100 years later.

At the time it was an immediate bestseller. “There is not a dull page in it,” enthused one reviewer in the Spectator magazine. “One reads and reads with an interest so unflagging it is positively exhausting.”

Since 1898, The War Of The Worlds has taken many different incarnations. It was a memorable radio play in the 1940s and has been filmed several times in the past 50 years, popping up in its newest form as the hit movie of 1997, Independence Day.

Each time the basic premise has never changed: Vastly more developed people from another world arrive in force, then mercilessly set about massacring the locals with a view to taking over and settling the planet.

As a trained scientist Wells was always acutely aware of the potential destructive power of science. Five years before the Wright Brothers first flew, The War Of The Worlds detailed chemical and biological weapons, lasers, missiles and the carnage of mec hanised warfare, backed up by overwhelming air power.

But according to his biographer, the former British Labour party leader Michael Foot, Wells had a different agenda from the outset.

Imperialism, particularly as practised by the English, disgusted Wells and he had been particularly shocked by the slaughter of Australian aborigines by British settlers a few years previously.

In 1898, Britain was still the most powerful imperial power on the planet. According to Foot, Wells planned to write a book that would show the English what it would be like to be overtaken by a race more developed, better armed, even more ruthlessly genocidal than themselves. To the Martians, he wrote in the introduction to The War Of The Worlds, “we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us.”

In precise detail he then documents how the Martians land near by the town where he then lived, Woking, in south east England, before going on to lay waste huge tracts of London with laser beams and poison gas.

Puny mankind seems powerless to stop the invaders from taking over by overwhelming force and Wells then reminds the reader of Britain’s own sins in this department: “Before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races.

“The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of 50 years,” he wrote in The War Of The Worlds. “Are we such apostles of mercy as to compl ain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

British colonists arrived in Tasmania in 1830, overtaking a local population of 5,000 aborigines. The men were shot, children forced into servitude and the women kept for the Europeans’ sexual relief.

All the aborigines were dead by 1879. Their last leader was killed and decapitated so that his skull could be studied. His preserved head was kept in a cupboard in Edinburgh University until 1991.

A British official known only as ‘Robinson’ wrote at the time: “The Europeans destroyed in a genocidal matter in my opinion, the Tasmanian Aborigines, considering them inferior. They wanted land for sheep grazing as well, and wanted to get rid of the aborigines who hunted kangaroos on that land… The Europeans had a superior attitude, whoever or whatever got in their way should be removed and discarded.”

Throughout the book there are subtle references to this and other real-life imperial genocides on Earth.

Even when the Martians are finally killed off by Earth’s natural bacteria, Wells writes of the “huge fighting-machine that would fight no more for ever,” deliberately echoing the words of Native American Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce on surrendering to the U.S. Army in 1877: “I am tired of fighting… My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more for ever.”

Wells’ book was the first in a century hundred of novels, plays and movies based on the basic plot line of alien invasion followed by mass destruction followed by narrow escape. Nowadays, few take note of the political sub-text and, of course, in real life there was no narrow escape for the Tasmanian aborigines and other victims of British imperial weapons technology.

The son of a shopkeeper, Wells was a life-long socialist and unshakeable critic of British imperialist arrogance. “That England of the Victorian old men, and its empire and its honours and its court and precedences, it is all a dead body now,” he wrote in 1918, “…and it has to be buried out of our way lest it corrupt you and all the world again.”

But perhaps he was wrong about it being dead. The writer Robin McKie finds a modern relevance to Wells’ original lesson in the present Gulf Crisis. To most native Iraqis, McKie wrote in the British Observer newspaper on Sunday, “a laser guided smart bom b will seem as incomprehensible as a Martian heat ray”.

In The War Of The Worlds, Wells imagined how imperial Britain might come under attack from a race who were as mystifyingly cruel and technologically powerful as the British colonialists must have appeared to the Tasmanian aboriginals.

How must the British forces, as they trained their laser guided bombs on Iraq, have looked to the ordinary Iraqi farmer one hundred years later? And what on earth would Wells think of his countrymen, were he alive today?

 
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