Magazine article The Spectator

This Land Is Their Land

Magazine article The Spectator

This Land Is Their Land

Article excerpt

That land is their land DIE IF YOU MUST by John Hemming Macmillan, L30, pp. 855, ISBN 1405000953

In 1961 the anthropologist Richard Mason was exploring a river in southern Amazonia when he was ambushed by a hitherto unknown tribe of Indians, later identified as the Panara. His body was found transfixed by eight arrows, with the skull and thigh smashed by heavy clubs. More than 30 years later, his friend John Hemming, the author of this extraordinary, encyclopaedic chronicle of encounters between Brazilian Indians and the outside world, went back to meet elderly members of the tribe, and learned that the Panara, alerted to Mason's presence by the 'swish-swish' of his jeans as he walked down the jungle path, killed him because he was a stranger.

The most remarkable aspect of this story comes when Hemming's Panara informant explains apologetically that at that time their word for 'stranger' was the same as that for 'enemy'. 'We did not know that there were good white men and bad white men.' Following Mason's death, the tribe had been uprooted from their traditional dwelling-place, lost half their number to disease, seen the jungle destroyed to make soya fields, experienced their culture being battered by radio and television - all by white men good and bad alike. By rights, the Panara, like the roughly 200 other Indian groups so far discovered in Brazil, and the estimated 40 as yet undiscovered, had every reason for continuing to identify strangers as enemies. The best-intentioned carried germs - of disease, culture and modernity - as cataclysmic in effect as the ruthless greed of miners, ranchers and timber companies.

That the Indians have learned to make a distinction, and with good reason, is testimony to their astonishing resilience, and to the heroic dedication of some anthropologists and field-workers. Thus from the dense detail of Hemming's history emerges, quite unexpectedly to those accustomed to headlines of near-genocidal destruction, a strangely optimistic lesson, not just for the Indians but for the global juggernaut of Western civilisation.

The book's title comes from the instruction given in 1910 by Candido Rondon, first head of the Indian Protection Service (SPI), the department set up by the Brazilian government to deal with the country's indigenous peoples. 'Die if you must,' he instructed those going to meet the Indians, 'but never kill.' The SPI was created because the three great R's of Brazilian modernisation - rubber, roads and railways - were penetrating deeper into Indian land. Motivated by Auguste Comte's Positivist philosophy, its workers were to lead the Indians from hunting to farming, to trading and the modern world - and not so incidentally to enable roadbuilders and rubber-tappers to operate peacefully. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.