In The War of the Worlds, how does Wells draw parallels between the Martians' treatment of Earth and Britain's treatment of its colonies?
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Wells makes the parallels between the Martians and human colonists quite explicit at the very start of the novel, when in the middle of a cool scientific exposition on the Martians he inserts the following scathing observation:
And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit? (Book I, chapter I)
This is the only time in the novel that Wells comments directly on European colonialism, which reached its heights in the later nineteenth century, and very often took brutal forms in regions all around the globe. in the rest of the book, he proceeds to show what it is like to be on the receiving end of an aggressively expansionist race with technological superiority that allows it to dominate others. The humans are reduced for a time to being literally ‘underfoot’, to quote the title of the first chapter of Book II. From the point of view of the Martians they really have no more consequence than insects generally do for humans.
With his rise from a poor-working class background, his training in science and socialist tendencies, Wells was a lifelong critic of the Establishment, imperialism, and indeed of the whole of civilization as he knew it – the supposedly advanced and secure Western civilization which had succeeded in imposing its will upon so many other peoples, taking over territories and resources. In this book he envisages a strike at the very heart of this civilisation, London, the centre of the huge British empire, covering nearly a quarter of the globe, which maintained its hold with technological might and a vastly developed navy. While British imperialism generally steered clear of such brutal excesses like the atrocities perpetrated in the Congo by the Belgians – inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s famous colonialist critique, Heart of Darkness - it too was capable of savage reprisals against its subject peoples, like the response to the Indian Mutiny in 1857.
The oppression the British Empire caused was not on the scale of that caused by the Martians on earth, but the underlying principle is really the same: the assumption of superiority over another group, another race or species, and the will and the means to exercise that supposed superiority. In The War of the Worlds Wells takes the idea of colonialism out of its familiar context and places it on a truly universal scale.
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