The 20th Century was crammed with scientific and technical breakthroughs. The Silver Dart, for instance, became airborne in February, 1909 near Baddeck, Nova Scotia; the first flight in Canada. Sixty years later, an American stepped onto the moon’s surface. Antibiotics, plastics and transistors became commonplace. Medical innovation transformed lives and the management of fertility set off a revolution of its own. There were, as well, parts of Rachel’s century that were harder to see than others because they occurred inside people’s heads, in the ways people thought about themselves and the world. If the theme of those far-reaching changes could be summed up in a word, that word would be authority.
The 20th Century still belonged to an age of authority. To most it was as normal as breathing in and breathing out. It was as though life could not be better organized. There were care takers and those who were taken care of and it permeated international relationships as well as family relationships. They formed custodial relationships and each was entitled to their domain. Teachers, physicians, priests, and royalty were among those who were placed in authority and they took care of their pupils, patients, parishioners and citizens. Even personal relationships were ordered in hierarchies of authority: younger children to older ones, wives to husbands, people of color to whites, workers to bosses.
During this same century, these custodial relationships began to crack and crumble like a bridge built without allowances for expansion and contraction. The collapse began among those who were the cared for. When they came to believe that custody no longer served them well enough, then either the relationship fell apart or new ways of connecting had to be invented. Sometimes those changes were welcomed and other times they were mightily resisted. Either way, change didn’t occur quickly or easily and sometimes it occurred with studied effort and newly minted legislation.
Colonialism was the name given a system whereby a country took over territory, its resources, its peoples and ran it like a branch plant for the benefit of the parent-country. Ever since the Portuguese first developed the navigational skills to sail around the Cape of Africa toward India and beyond, “for gold and Christians” is how they described it, most nations of the world took their turns as colonizers. In 1901 a British postage stamp was issued. The image was a flattened turquoise map of the world with all the British possessions highlighted in red. The wording read: “No vaster empire has there been.”
Certainly, what is now Canada, the United States, Central and South America were the objects of European ventures to plant colonies and search for short-cuts to the Pacific en route to the riches of Asia. When Jacques Cartier’s party found the mighty River St. Lawrence and navigated it inland as far as the rapids near present-day Montreal, they proclaimed it Lachine! China! The English settlement in the province of Virginia at Jamestown required three attempts before it became a colony that thrived.
Typically, colonists had utilitarian regard for the indigenous people they met as they wrestled their way westward for less expensive land. History is still strewn with the wreckage from early encounters between the conquerors and the conquered and our ancestors were participants in a taken-for-granted imperialism. What today we call imperialism was only considered justified pride to a loyal subject, even of 1900. Two world wars and a financial depression probably contributed as much as anything to the end of colonial adventures. Furthermore, colonial soldiers, assumed to be second-rate to those of their mother country, soon discovered they were as good as the best of them and having survived a larger and less kind world than they had known, they returned home to begin working for independence movements and self-government. Former colonies, with varying degrees of defiance, began cutting umbilical ties with mother countries. It was a form of custodial relationship that the cared-for would no longer tolerate and the care-takers could no longer afford or enforce.