Adas chronicles the history of the interaction between Europe and Africa and Europe and Asia using the accounts of European explorers and diplomats, businessmen, generals and civil servants, and he contends that the European evaluation of foreign cultures shifted from early religious and social comparisons to later technological judgements.
Before the industrial revolution, explorers, traders and diplomats of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries tended to focus on the differences in religious beliefs and the social, especially family, structures. Hinduism, polytheism, Confucianism, polygamy, nakedness, the wealth and cleanliness of cities, the power of kings: Westerners noticed these things. The Chinese Ming and Qing Empires and the Mughal Empire in India were overwhelming and impressive to travelers and priests who had left starving hordes and squabbling princes in Europe. Nevertheless, European accomplishments in abstract time and distance measurements -- mathematics, clock-making, astronomy and shipbuilding -- were noticeably superior. And if the Portuguese sailing down the coast of Africa didn't see any boats able to contend with their own, there were still material goods, cloth and metalwork that could be exchanged.
After the industrial revolution, from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, for Westerners the ability to measure distances accurately using specialized instruments, and the ability to move materials and build structures using machines were the hallmarks of civilization. Non-Western civilizations were then significantly re-evaluated. The Chinese li , for example, was a flexible unit of measure, depending on the type of surface being traversed. Without a standard unit of measure, no European could determine the distance between any two points, and (apparently) neither could the Chinese. More significantly, the Chinese were perceived as being too proud to acknowledge the superiority of European systems, of clocks, guns, ships; they were too mired in old philosophies and hierarchies. Indians, too, were the inheritors of a great but long-since declined civilization, the blind followers of an old, error-ridden philosophy of astronomy. The Africans, by contrast, had never had a great civilization, and thus had no sense of time beyond the present, no planning beyond the gratification of present sensual needs. As the empires of the East collapsed, and were pressured to respond to the market- and resource-hungry West, the African, Indian and Chinese civilizations were labeled: primitive, superstitious, tradition-mired, desperately in need of the civilizing, guiding hand of the West. The West had a civilizing mission to accomplish, but the motives and means of that mission were hotly debated, then and now.
Self-discipline in punctuality, separating leisure and work, and learning new skills for new tasks, were a source of pride, especially to those self-made men of the industrial age for whom the mastery of these things was seen as essential. Lack of punctuality, lack of curiosity, indifference to the importance of "hard work" became a source of offense: people in Africa, Asia and India apparently didn't value these personal qualities and were thus seen as children who couldn't tell time, or master complicated skills, or be self-disciplined at work. How were these people to be improved? Ruskin, an anti-industrialist, on an incident during his travels around Shanghai, relates the following incident:
"We were among a great forest of great junks -- most quaint and pictureque they looked -- so old fashioned they seemed that Noah's Ark, had it been there, would have had a modern look about it. My friend to whom the launch belonged, and who is in the machinery line himself, gave his opinion. He began by giving a significant movement of his head in the direction of the uncouth-looking junks, and then pointing to his own craft with its engine, said he did not much believe in war [as a means of civilizing China]; and the missionaries were not of much account. "This is the things to do it," he added, pointing to the launch;" let us get at them with this sort of article, and steam at sixty pounds on the square inch; that would do it; that's the thing to civilize them -- sixty pounds on the square inch." Ruskin Qtd. in Adas p. 233
Ruskin doubtless saw the friend as a trifle too uncomplicated in his assessment of needs. But the mechanic articulates one point on the spectrum of responses. Colonial administrators in India and Africa were slow to develop one policy; some saw the need for a wholesale change in culture, language and religion, others (a minority) simply thought that technology should be introduced.
Adas describes at some length the various kinds of "civilizing offenses." There were early improvers who wanted to offer the tools. There were more who saw the need for a civilizing mission: but then a debate ensued about what parts of the culture should be expunged, and why, and whether or not the group in question could respond, and at what level. Adas insists that not all who were a part of the civilizing mission were racists, per se. They saw the Asian and African and Indian social problems as not a problem of race, but of climate, of centuries of despotic rule. Race, he contends, is intertwined with, but not the same as judging and measuring by technological superiority. However, both racism and clear technological superiority prompted disdain. Racists blocked channels of learning by setting colonial educational policy to the perceived level of need. Later, institutionalized racism came about with phrenology. Alongside of education stood theories about the the hierarchies of the races, or explanations of the current state of the cultures. There were future cultures vs. past cultures, day, twilight and night peoples, (197). Others described cultures as proceeding through five stages: infancy, willful, emotional, empirical, and rational. (311)
European confidence in its own power, its fitness to govern colonials, was exploded by the miseries of the Great War. No longer able to argue that they should be the governors by rights of the civilization they brought, they also began to question the standards used to measure civilization..
Adas spent ten years to put together this book, and yet it does seem
as if the inquiry is barely begun. It poses two key unanswered questions.
What does Adas think the Europeans should have used to measure other civilizations?
"For all the problems associated with scientific and technological innovations,
they remain the only way we have yet discovered to provide a decent standard
of living for a high proportion of the populations of human societies."
Perhaps the last chapter could have been expanded to include some of the
other ways that civilizations have been evaluated. Adas does suggest that
the "thought systems," techniques of production and patterns of social
organization developed in the East can serve human societies also, and
ought to be explored, and used. Second, Only a few African, Indian and
Chinese writers were mentioned. Although beyond the scope of the present
work, it would be quite interesting to read a complementary survey on the
writings of Indians, Africans and Chinese about the same set of interactions.