At the beginning of Conquest, Day claims that the “central argument” of his book is that “a more complete and useful understanding of our world” can be gained by adopting the concept of what he calls “supplanting societies.” This concept, he avers, will reveal that the “history of most societies can best be understood when they are seen as part of never-ending struggle, in a world of shifting boundaries, to make particular territories their own.” It is a intriguing idea. Sadly, however, he offers no further explanation as to what his newly minted term actually means, or what it is intended to supplant.
The book’s eleven chapters offer instances of the means by which “supplanting” was achieved in a large number of widely different cultures and societies from Japan to Denmark, from Anatolia to Australia. Conquering, he makes clear, was by no means a European prerogative. His material ranges over every kind of occupation, from settler colonies (the British in North America and Australia) to mestizo societies (the Spanish in Central and South America) to offshore “factories” leased from indigenous rulers (the Portuguese in parts of Africa and India) to the kind of indirect rule exercised by the British in India and just about every European power in nineteenth-century Africa. Not all of these conquerors were, by any means, equally devoted to “supplanting,” and although the term “supplanting society” crops up from time to throughout the book, it is not accompanied by anything that might count as an [End Page 381] argument—a serious omission for any work trying to unite in 237 brief pages what amounts to the collective political experience of all mankind since 1519.
What Day provides instead is a mass of intriguing and fascinating detail covering many of the more salient aspects of the colonizing (or supplanting) process, from the use of maps—one of the most successful chapters in the book—to the deployment of foundation myths and what he calls, unfortunately, “The Genocidal Imperative.” Each chapter is a separate essay, briskly written and easy to read, but none, except the last, comes to any specific conclusion. Furthermore, most of the chapters skate around, or simply omit altogether, the intellectually more complex aspects of their ostensible subjects. Chapter 1, “Staking a Legal Claim,” despite its title, contains no discussion of the law. Instead, it recounts a number of entertaining, if familiar, anecdotes about what Jonathan Swift called bitterly the erecting “of a rotten Plank or a Stone for a Memorial,” the sometimes absurd rituals of occupation in which conquerors have indulged since the Assyrians—the raising of flags, the felling of trees, the reading of solemn declarations to empty beaches, and so on.
What Day does not discuss are the fierce legal battles about the legitimacy of conquest and supplanting that engulfed, at one time or another, every European colonizing power and that ultimately led to the creation of what today we call “international law.” Similarly, another key chapter, “Tilling the Soil,” does little more than quote two largely disconnected passages from Hugo Grotius and Emer de Vattel, an eighteenth-century diplomat, and cite numerous instances of the argument—widely, and misleadingly attributed to John Locke and frequently invoked by the English settlers in North America—that “unoccupied land” (terra nullius) belongs by natural right to the first person able to cultivate it. Oddly, too, given his constant references to the history of Australia and New Zealand (one of the more original features of the book), Day says nothing about the ruling of the Australian High Court in Mabo v. The State of Queensland in 1992, which conceded that the lands of the Meriam peoples of the Murray Islands in the Torres Straits had been taken from them by the British Crown on legally unsustainable grounds of terra nullius,
Conquest has the laudable intention of demonstrating, in an easily accessible way, that the “history of the world has been the history of wave after wave of people, intruding on the lands of others.” It is a general book...