The discourse of “The West versus the rest” has certainly shaped attitudes and, hence, the realities of colonization and subsequent development of the world outside of Europe. The evidence of this is perhaps most striking in the Americas. We can clearly see the roles played by European’s existing “archive” of information regarding the outside world and the stereotypes that developed, post “discovery”, of America’s native inhabitants. I should note here that in writing this paper I am doing so, inevitably, as one caught within the bounds of the existing “West v rest” discourse. When using terms such as “modern,” “development,” “civilized,” etc. I am doing so with the understanding that those terms will be understood as they generally have been within the framework of the discourse at issue.
Europe’s preconceptions of the outside world had been in formation for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before Columbus landed in the West Indies. Thus, before any contact had been made by early explorers with indigenous peoples, Europeans already carried with them assumptions about whom or what they might find if and when they did reach far off, as yet undiscovered lands. They came to these assumptions, we read, from four sources: classical knowledge, religion, myth and traveler’s tales.
Indeed it is often difficult, among these four sources, to discern where one source ends and another begins. For example, when reports of large men living in what came to be known as Patagonia were heard at home, they almost immediately were combined with preconceptions driven by myth and classical teachings about the peoples that inhabitant distant lands and the size of the locals was greatly exaggerated.
Europe had begun, by the time of the early explorers, to consider itself as its own entity. It was made up of nations and monarchs with competing interests and different religions (types of Christianity within “Christendom”) to be sure, but Europe was a known commodity to...
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