Review: "Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold: Europe's Conquest of Indigenous Peoples"
Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold: Europe's Conquest of Indigenous Peoples
By: Mark Cocker
In Mark Cocker’s book, Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold: Europe’s Conquest of Indigenous Peoples, the author explores the often grueling and chaotic experience of indigenous cultures in the wake of Europe's Imperial Age. Cocker explores the effects of imperialism in four distinct spheres: Mexico, Tasmania, the American Southwest, as well as Southwest Africa. In doing so, the author clearly illustrates many of the horrors implemented by Europeans upon the unsuspecting natives of these various locales. Aside from outright military conquest, Cocker posits that lies, deceit, and treachery were all tools employed by Europeans to bring local populations under their complete control. By doing so, these conquerors succeeded in establishing a foothold on these territories that could not be easily broken.
Cocker's Main Points
As Cocker shows, Europeans succeeded in destroying these indigenous civilizations not only economically, militarily, and culturally, but also biologically since diseases such as smallpox destroyed countless natives upon exposure. An obvious question that arises from this is, what motivated Europeans in their imperial advances? More importantly, how did they justify the forceful expansion and destruction of so many native people? Cocker explains that racist notions of white superiority combined with a fundamental desire for the land, gold, and riches of local tribes and communities were the largest contributors to this wholesale destruction (Cocker, pg. 127). As a result of these desires, prominent cultures and civilizations such as the Aztec, Mayans, Inca, Apache, and Aborigines faced destruction on a scale they had never witnessed in years prior to the arrival of Europeans. Yet, as Cocker explains, Europeans did not view this destruction in a negative light; on the contrary, these conquests were seen in a very positive manner. Not only did conquest offer the Europeans a chance to possess great wealth and prestige, but they were also seen as a means of spreading civilization to the uncultured and heathen societies of the world. As such, Europeans viewed their expansion as a means of spreading Christianity outside the confines of the European continent. To conquer these various populations -- in their minds -- was a means of saving them from an inevitable demise. As Cocker states: “Christian conquest could thus be dramatized as the purification of an evil empire” (Cocker, pg. 132).
All in all, Cocker does a tremendous job at explaining the multiple horrors that befell native cultures during the age of imperialism. Cocker clearly demonstrates how Europeans displayed no regard for non-white cultures and civilizations, and how they used their advances in technology and military might to exploit and suppress native forces. As he argues, the indigenous people of Africa, Tasmania, and the Americas stood no chance against their rapid advances. While some tribes and cultures attempted resistance, such as the Apache, Cocker makes it abundantly clear that these attempts only delayed the inevitable in many ways. Without the proper technological advances, these various cultures faced a complete dissolution of their way of life and were forced to either assimilate or accept the inferior status placed upon them by their conquerors.
In many ways, the widespread destruction of these cultures can still be seen today. The subjugation and destruction of non-white societies, particularly in Africa during the age of imperialism, continue to be felt in the present day and will continue to be prominent in the foreseeable future as communities attempt to recover from the evils of imperial conquest presented in years prior.
Overall, I give this book a 4/5 Star rating and highly recommend it to anyone interested in late 19th Century European history.
Questions for Discussion
1.) What type of sources does Cocker rely on within this work? Primary or secondary? Does this choice bolster or hurt his overall argument?
2.) Who is Cocker's intended audience? Can both a scholarly and general audience appreciate this work, equally?
3.) What would have happened if the Age of Imperialism had never occurred? More specifically, what would have happened to all the indigenous civilizations if they had not come into contact with Europeans?
4.) What were some of the strengths and weaknesses of this book? What specific areas of this work could have potentially been improved upon?
5.) Did you find this work to be engaging and easy to read?
6.) Were the chapters and sections organized in a logical manner?
7.) What did you learn from reading this book that you didn't know beforehand?
Suggestions for Further Reading
Hull, Isabel. Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practice of War in Imperial Germany. New York: Cornell University Press, 2005.
Rich, Norman. The Age of Nationalism and Reform: 1850-1890. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976.
Cocker, Mark. Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold: Europe's Conquest of Indigenous Peoples. New York: Grove Press, 2000.