‘Exterminate All the Brutes’ by Sven Lindqvist has been in my to-be-read pile for quite a while (perhaps explained by its depressing title). Those who’ve read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness might recognise the title as the last sentence of that book and this is Lindqvist’s starting point. This history-cum-travel book investigates the dark history of European colonialism and brutal extermination of indigenous peoples. It’s a distressing but highly recommended read and one which explains some of the systemic racism which still haunts the Western world.
Hitler, Lindqvist argues, stood on the shoulders of generations of Europeans when he created the Holocaust. Colonialists before him had invented the idea of extermination when they slaughtered indigenous populations to raid their natural resources and expand their influence and geographical reach. Hitler took extermination to the next horrifying, industrial level, Lindqvist writes. The Europeans’ superior ships and ‘their cannons that killed long before the weapons of their opponents could reach them’ made their conquests possible and confirmed, in their minds, that extermination was ‘another name for natural selection’.
There are plenty of victims of European colonialism to choose from: the Tasmanians and Aborigines in Australia, the Congolese, the Native Americans, the Hottentots in South Africa, the South Sea Islands inhabitants, Vagogo people in East Africa, the list goes on.
Winston Churchill doesn’t come out well of this book. His romanticising of battles in Sudan, like it’s some sort of game ‘full of fascinating thrills’ in which ‘no one expected to get killed’, is disturbing reading, but even that pales next to the story of the French Captain Voulet and his expedition of 1,600 men who ‘move like a swarm of locust’ through central Africa perfecting the art of cruelty and extermination.
The men out in the field doing the actual colonising were often brutal people who, far away from oversight, made the most of the opportunity to torture, abuse and murder people, with impunity.
Cut off from their native country by enormous distances, poor communications and impenetrable jungles, they exercised imperial power without any control from home.
The travel writing part of Lindqvist’s book is less interesting and feels a bit contrived, but is a relatively small part and doesn’t take away from the power of this book. You might have read about some of this before but, taken together, it conveys a powerful message that can’t be repeated enough times. As Lindqvist writes:
It’s not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and draw conclusions.
‘Exterminate All the Brutes’ by Sven Lindqvist is published by Granta, 172 pages.