Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010



Whether implied or overt, the threat to the survival of entire nations is the basis of terror scenarios in world epic poetry, fiction, and chronicles. The theme flourishes in a broad span of genres, including the Greek historian THUCYDIDES’S The History of the Peloponnesian War (ca. 400 B.C.), Diego Duran’s chronicle Aubin Codex (1576), the memoir A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince (1850), the Nigerian dramatist Aime Cesaire’s PROTEST play A Tempest (1969), and MARYSE CONDE’S historical novel I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (1986). Imperiled peoples are standard figures in the literary APOCALYPSE and VISIONARY LITERATURE, including YEVGENY YEVTUSHENKO’S threnody “Babi Yar” (1961), Jerzy Kosinski’s surreal novel The Painted Bird (1965), and JOHN HERSEY’S World War II reportage in Hiroshima (1946). Among the chilling examples stand two classics of the surreal, The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926), meditations on injustice by Franz Kafka, a writer during the confused aftermath of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Because of a distrust of governmental court trials and punishments, he envisioned the advent of perverted science in central Europe and the strategies of the Holocaust. A generation later, in “O die Schornsteine” (“O the Chimneys,” 1947), German-Jewish playwright and poet NELLY SACHS commemorated the Jewish sufferings engineered by Hitler’s perverted science. For her lyric threnodies, she earned the 1966 Nobel Prize in literature.

In early Hebrew literature, the biblical HERO epic Joshua (ca. 1050 B.C.) skirts ethical issues by incorporating mass murder and arson as punishments for the fallen city of Jericho. The core theme of the epic EXODUS (ca. 450 B.C.) is the plight of enslaved Hebrews under an unrelenting Egyptian pharaoh, possibly Ramses II. A more chilling atmosphere invades the book of Esther (ca. 175 B.C.), a later chronicle of a single hero standing between her people and annihilation. At the fall of Troy in VIRGIL’S AENEID (17 B.C.), an epic composed as propaganda for the Roman emperor Augustus, the securing of a Greek victory around 1200 B.C. requires the slaughter of troops along with the murder of the royal children, the progenitors of future warriors against the Greeks. Because of the pervasiveness of vengeance as a family and clan duty in ancient literature, Agamemnon’s warriors hack apart Priam’s male relatives and toss infants from the battlements. The slaughter of the Trojan innocents recurs in three plays by Euripides (see GREEK DRAMA)—Andromache (ca. 425 B.C.), Hecuba (ca. 424 B.C.), and The Trojan Women (415 B.C.), pacifist dramas that commiserate with female and child noncombatants involved in wars between rival empires. The History of the Peloponnesian War (ca. 400 B.C.) by Thucydides reminded Greek readers that the slaughter of islanders on Melos in 416 B.C. continued a Mediterranean bloodlust that had changed little over the centuries.

In the five centuries after the Italian navigator Christopher Columbus led the way west from Iberia to new wealth and dominion in the late 15th century, New World epic showed little variation in its depiction of indigenous races in Antigua, Brazil, Hawaii, Hispaniola, Martinique, Mexico, and Peru. A series of lost-world stories fills the pages of BARTOLOME DE LAS CASAS’S A Brief Report of the Devastation of the Indies (1542), a summation of predations against the AZTEC of Mexico City in The True History of the Conquest of New Spain (1568) by Bernal Diaz del Castillo (1492-1584) and in Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru (1617), written by the New World’s first mestizo historian, GARCILASO DE LA VEGA (El Inca). In O Uraguai (Uruguay, 1769) Brazilian-Portuguese writer, former Jesuit novice, and rebel Jose Basilio da Gama (1740-95), narrated the one-sided victory of Portuguese-Hispanic firepower against the prehistoric weaponry of some 30,000 Guarani of Uraguay in 1756. In five cantos, the action begins with carnage and enslavement, raises hopes for negotiation, and then returns to the inevitable massacre. Some 130 years later, Polynesian royalty wrote of issues of ethnic survival in Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, Liliuokalani (1898), the last native monarch of the islands. In the postmodern era, the enormity of racial obliteration fueled “Ovando” (1989), a monster FABLE of imperial audacity by the African-Carib-Scots author JAMAICA KINCAID.

Cleansing Australasia

In ways both subtle and overt, exposes of ethnic cleansing in the South Pacific damned Anglo- Saxons for subjugating aborigines in Australia and Tasmania and severely reducing their populations. In The History of Tasmania (1852), the Reverend John West (1809-73), the chronicler of the island originally called Van Diemen's Land, promulgated the view of black natives as an eyesore and scourge. To the dismay of settlers in rude huts, he lumped into one complaint the “idle and uncleanly men, of different civil condition but of one class; tribes of dogs and natives” (West 1852, 67). In subsequent discussion, he justified Caucasian prejudice on the grounds that native Tasmanians are heathens and attackers of farmers and herders. Some insurgents became “reckless oppressors of the natives; often the accomplices of the bushrangers (outlaws)” (132). Such comments justified European indifference to the decimation of the Tasmanian Palawa, whose population was reportedly reduced from 5,000 to 300 between 1803 and 1833.

A more sympathetic view in A History of Tasmania (1884) by James Fenton (1864-1950) shifts from West's contempt for native communities to compassion for a doomed race. Fenton admits the genocidal effects on aborigines of starvation, disease, war, and “European vices” (Fenton 1884, 23). After a mass land grab, aborigines were “scattered abroad in broken families to mix with hostile tribes in the most inhospitable and unproductive regions of the interior” (23). Fenton quotes Governor William Sorell, who branded the extermination of natives as “repugnant to humanity, and disgraceful to the British character” (98). Despite governmental condemnation, stockmen, herders, and freebooters roam the land and “indulge a demoniacal propensity to torture the defenceless” (98). Fenton acknowledged that, under threat from immigrants, “aborigines were rapidly becoming extinct” (381).

On July 22, 1933, an editorial in the West Australian dropped subtlety for overt promotion of genocide. Of the half-caste, the author declared, “On the ground alone that he is a nuisance to us, we should hurry on his disappearance” (quoted in Scott 1999, 7). On October 3, 1933, a corroborative editorial in the Daily News turned wishful thinking into a quasi-scientific image of “a small stream of dirty water entering a larger clear stream. Eventually the colour of the smaller is lost” (7).

Australia also suffered the severe depletion of native communities after British colonization began in the late 18th century. In 1938, Xavier Herbert (1901-84), a novelist from Geraldton, Western Australia, earned the Miles Franklin Award for Capricornia, a fictional microcosm of ethnic erosion in Darwin in the Northern Territory. He introduces his subject by pointing out the skill of the aborigine at blocking past invasions in 1642 from Batavia (present-day Jakarta) in the East Indies by the Dutch East India Company. Once European settlers established themselves, they displaced the black race from their heritage, but left the inexperienced colonists with a harsh desert on which aborigines had flourished from prehistory. The white males who ravished Binghi “black velvet” (female aborigines) sired half-breeds—“yeller-fellers” or “com- boes”—who were of no more value than dingoes (Herbert 1943, 11). According to Herbert, further sexual intercourse weakened the black strain along with native language and oral literature.

In 1999, the Australian author Kim Scott (b. 1957), a half-caste descendant of whites and Nyoongar (west coast) aborigines, stirred new theories of genocide with a counter-history, Benang: From the Heart, winner of the Western Australian Premier's book citation and a RAKA (Ruth Adeney Koori Award). The linguistic tour de force also earned him the Miles Franklin Award, the first received by an indigenous author. Scott researched the social and economic oppression of aborigines from 1915 to 1940 under Auber Octavius Neville, the architect of a state system of taking aboriginal children from their grandparents in an effort to strip black Australian youth of ties with native dialects and ethnicity, the subject of the film RabbitProof Fence (2002). His findings produced stories of land swindles, “up -breeding” (eugenics), and the erasure of indigenous peoples, whom he first examined in True Country (1993). Scott relates the story of Benang through the mind of Harley, a halfcaste who yearns for a true accounting of his past: “I found myself wishing to reverse that upbringing, not only for the sake of my own children, but also for my ancestors, and for their children in turn. And therefore, inevitably, most especially, for myself' (Scott 1999, 21). Estranged from their homeland, old timers reminisce about the ancestors whom whites massacred and the ghosts that haunt Ravensthorpe, a region as bleak for Australia's aborigines as Warsaw for Polish Jews or as Wounded Knee or the Little Big Horn for Native Americans. Of native resilience, Scott exults, “I am part of a much older story … with its rhythm of return, return, and remain” (495).

World War II

The 1930s and 1940s revived humanitarian concerns from which world leaders had retreated after the “civilizing” measures of their predecessors. The predations of Nazi Germany stocked literature with gruesome images of the Holocaust, an attempt by the Third Reich to exterminate Jews, Gypsies, dissidents, homosexuals, the senile, the insane, and the handicapped. In Ecrits de guerre 1939-1944 (Wartime Writings, 1939-1944), the French pilot and fabulist Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-44) excoriated Adolf Hitler's egotistic vision of PanGermanism and criminalized Nazism for its exclusion of outsiders from a future master race of blueeyed blondes. Simultaneously, from the upstairs window of a spice shop in Amsterdam, Holland, Anne Frank (1929-45), the teenage author of The Diary of a Young Girl (1947), a monument to realistic CHILDREN'S LITERATURE, viewed individual acts of kindness and cruelty during the pervasive terrorism of central and northwestern Europe. In PROTEST at the treatment of ethnic Jews, at age 12, she began recording the slow subjugation of citizens, whom SS officers and the German army deprived of rations while rounding up Jews for extermination in gas ovens.

The barbarity of Hitler's “final solution” permeated decades of verse, fiction, screenplay, and memoir. In 1971, the Dutch freedom fighter Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983) published The Hiding Place, a memoir of her concealment of Jews in Haarlem, the Netherlands. Postwar honors from the State of Israel listed her with the Righteous among the Nations alongside Oskar Schindler, a Sudeten German manufacturer who saved some 1,200 Jews from extinction. His life story was the subject of Schindler’s Ark (1982) by Australian author Thomas Keneally (b. 1935) and Stephen Spielberg's film Schindler’s List (1993). Substantiating Frank's and ten Boom's observations, the Dutch-American novelist Johanna Reiss (b. 1932) described the valor of the Oostervelds, a family of Gentile rescuers in The Upstairs Room (1990). In this story, through the couple's evasions and trickery, eight-year-old Annie de Leeuw survives to publish a children's memoir replete with privation and terror.

The lingering horrors of organized extermination flourished in the writings of ELIE WIESEL and ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER. Similarly haunted by wartime inhumanity, the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko returned to an anti-Semitic killing ground in his threnody “Babi Yar” (1961), a monument to the more than 30,000 Ukrainian Jews mass-murdered on September 29 and 30, 1941, at a ravine in Kiev. Killings continued at Babi Yar into 1943, with an estimated 100,000 or more Jews murdered. Anatoly Kuznetsov (1929-79) expanded on the grotesque with Babi Yar (1967), a documentary novel personalized in the style of John Hersey's Hiroshima (1946). The action of August 13, 1943, when the Nazis forced prisoners to exhume and burn corpses, moves methodically through mass shackling and the digging up of remains—“the final phase of Babi Yar—the attempt to efface it from history” (Kuznetsov 1966, 302). One corps of laborers disinters and rips apart corpses, then hauls them to furnaces. A separate corps, the goldseekers, pried jewelry from fingers and, with tongs, gold teeth from skulls. From the mass cremation of remains, the workers moved on to crushing bone fragments and spreading ashes over vegetable beds. Kuznetsov adds, “Prisoners on their last legs, those who couldn't work anymore, were also dumped in—alive,” a reference to the filling of a mass grave (306).

In 1965, the Polish-American novelist Jerzy Kosinski (1933-91) wrote of a young boy's travels through wartime Poland in The Painted Bird, a novel with disputed autobiographical roots. Through an imagistic narrative, the author avoided historical method to produce an episodic allegory. The text places the lone boy in a pseudo-medieval time and place parallel in tone and atmosphere to eastern Europe under Nazi occupation. When fact collides with the surreal, the narrative jolts the reader as the boy encounters unutterable evil. Traumatic scenes—mass sodomy, eye excision, garrotting, snarling dog packs, amputation, skinning alive—take on a picaresque sadism. Identified as a “gypsy bastard,” the boy survives, but he “felt as empty as a fish bladder punctured again and again and sinking into deep, muddy waters” (Kosinski 1976, 157), the soullessness that Elie Wiesel described as “night.” Ironically, the boy moves hopefully toward Joseph Stalin's Russian ranks and seeks safety among faceless survivors he embraces as “my friends, the night people” (232). For its powerful fictional depiction of Polish depravity, the Polish government suppressed the book for a quarter of a century. Both dramatist Arthur Miller and humanist scholar Elie Wiesel rank the novel among significant Holocaust literature.


Collingwood-Whittick, Sheila, and Germaine Greer.

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Welch and Sons, 1884.

Gama, Basilio da. The Uruguay: A Historical Romance of South America. Translated by Sir Richard F. Burton. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

Herbert, Xavier. Capricornia. New York: D. AppletonCentury, 1943.

Kosinski, Jerzy. The Painted Bird. New York: Grove, 1976. Kuznetsov, Anatoly. Babi Yar. New York: Dell, 1966. Scott, Kim. Benang. Fremantle, Aust.: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1999.

----- . True Country. Fremantle, Aust.: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993.

Vice, Sue. Holocaust Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Routledge, 2000.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by Patric Dickinson. New York: Mentor, 1961.

West, John. The History of Tasmania. Launceston, Tas.: Henry Dowling, 1852.