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Migration and Invasion
on 31 January 2010
David Day analyses the stages by which "supplanting" societies occupy and subdue peoples and lands, eventually making them their own. His approach is thematic rather than chronological, although there is a sequential approach to his account of this process of takeover. Each of the eleven chapters examine stages along the way: the rituals of claiming a land by leaving marks and tokens of their "discovery"; defining them within a system of power and knowledge (mapping and naming); creating a rationale and justification for according preference to one's own claim to title of the land over that of its existing inhabitants; exploiting and developing the land for agriculture and minerals.Among the most interesting of Day's insights into this process are his accounts of how ploughing and tilling the land was deemed to bestow rights of possession on a "supplanting" society: pastoralism and agriculture achieving dominance over nomadic hunter- gatherer societies.
Linked to this is the universal practice of creating "foundation stories" that "supplanting" societies tell themselves and others in order to bestow legitimacy on their aspirations and the methods used to achieve them. Behind and beyond all this is what Day calls the "genocidal imperative"; as a last or even less than last resort, "supplanting" societies kill large numbers of the indigenous peoples and move the remnants on to more remote and less fertile land. Interestingly, disease has been a bigger killer of indigenous peoples than mass murder,often being brought in the wake of the incursions of "supplanting" societies to peoples with no natural resistance to them.
Day ranges widely across the world in his choice of examples of these themes. He gives particular emphasis to the experiences of the Aztecs and Incas in central and south America; American Indians in Canada and the United States; the Ainu of Hokkaido; the Aborigines of Australia and the Macedonians in the Balkans. Present day struggles, as in Indonesia and Macedonia, shed contemporary light on historical processes from further back in the past.
A book of this kind runs the risk of degenerating into a series of opportunities to make facile moralising judgements about "supplanting" societies with the infinite benefit of hindsight. Day admirably avoids this temptation and remains impressively dispassionate and even-handed. I was particularly impressed by Day's dismantling of Israel's foundation story as it was used to legitimise the supplanting of the Arabs living in Palestine. Day is perceptive in his analysis of Zionism and the ceremonies used by the young state of Israel to memorialise its foundation struggles. It seems to me that Day manages this all the better by remaining dispassionate and avoiding rhetoric that can all too easily slip into something that risks being exploited for anti-Semitic purposes.
Day wisely remarks that migration has been a constant process since the evolution of humans, and that "indigenous" peoples have in all likelihood "supplanted" a previous society in their turn. He does not shrink from detailing the horror of the genocides that have resulted from that, for example that perpetrated on the Herero people by the Germans in South- West Africa. The book's essentially humane quality is expressed in the final chapter, which points to the benefits of migration, as in maintaining workforce levels in the face of demographic changes brought about by ageing populations and declining birthrates.
Altogether, this is a well written and researched book by a specialist in this field, which will contribute to a better understanding of a process that is acutely topical today.