Former peers of the Minoans and Vikings

April 26 2014

The Polynesians […] ventured upon the tour de force of Oceanic voyaging. Their skill was to perform these stupendous voyages in frail open canoes. Their penalty has been to remain in an exact equilibrium with the Pacific – just able to cross its vast empty spaces, but never able to cross them with any margin of security or ease – until the intolerable tension has found its own relief by going slack, with the consequence that these former peers of the Minoans and the Vikings have degenerated into incarnations of the Lotus-Eaters and the Doasyoulikes: loosing their grip upon the Ocean and resigning themselves to be marooned, each in his own insular paradise, until the Western mariner comes at last from the ends of the Earth to exterminate them as he exterminates the Arctic hunters’ seals or the prairie hunters’ bison. [Footnote: The decimation of the Polynesians by the Western “beach-combers” has not, of course, been deliberate; yet the bullet and the harpoon which have done such execution among the non-human [he might have added human] fauna of North America are not so deadly to Primitive Man as the germs of contagious diseases which the Westerner involuntarily brings – not to speak of the profound devitalizing influence which the Westerner’s very spiritual presence exerts upon the Primitive who suddenly comes into social contact with him.]

A strenuous Victorian is uncomfortable with tropical ease and prefers the Minoans and Vikings.

He might as well use Charles Kingsley further and call the Polynesians water babies. He is using the word Polynesians in its old-fashioned sense of Pacific islanders generally. Which devitalised them more: the idyllic islands or the intruding Westerners? Of course, the latter.

Old posts:


The temptations of Odysseus.

A Study of History, Vol III, OUP, 1934

3 Responses to “Former peers of the Minoans and Vikings”

  1. dino Says:

    “A strenuous Victorian …” … yes, Toynbee does embarrass himself in the eyes of the modern reader with his rather brutal frankness.

    Which devitalised them more? He would have said that the Europeans delivered the “knock-out blow” – but that the lethargy had already left them ripe to receive it.

    Of course, they didn’t stand a chance against western aggression, lethargic or not.

    And what about Easter Island? Wasn’t that self-inflicted? What Toynbee called “idolisation of the ephemeral self”?

  2. dino Says:

    … I would have to say that, Polynesians notwithstanding, Toynbee’s thesis that societies only succumb to outside pressure once they have degenerated from within seems to hold good in general. Gibbon’s idea that the Roman Empire was the victim of barbarism and religion is, of course (as Toynbee pointed out), more a reflection of Gibbon’s own time and place than historical reality.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Thanks for the comments. Yes, that inevitable “knock-out blow”, an Americanism that Toynbee makes sound strangely English.

    The idea of degeneration within allowing barbaric forces from without to enter is appealing, but perhaps dangerous too. An easy one for loony reactionaries to resort to.

    There can be a polarisation, I suppose. Dustbowl of fanatical Islam the obverse of the luxury of the indifferent post-religious world.

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