Colonialism is paradox. University seminars go around in circles. One faction lists the positive outcomes of colonialism while the other provides an equally convincing list of negative outcomes. So it goes with colonialism. Building railroads is good. Violating human rights is bad. Violating human rights to build railroads is surely wrong. Was the short term violation of human rights for their long term expansion justifiable? Questionable if the improvement of human rights was an unintended consequence of colonialism. This despite the way historical revisionists use the development of places such as India to justify and rationalise past imperialism.
Some subscribe to the view that the British brought a way of organising and running society that everyone was able benefit from. This view has merit, but the long term benefits of imperialism were unintended. Portraying colonialism in this positive light is historical revisionism. The British did bring the railroad and bureaucracy to India, and these features have helped India in the long run. Yet it is important to keep in mind that at the time of their implementation the purpose of these instruments was to subjugate the people of India and benefit England rather than India. The honesty of British bureaucracy is admirable. Honesty in bureaucracy and administration is one of the cornerstones of a meritocracy. Eliminating corruption will surely benefit humanity. Yet the bureaucracy installed by the British was surely corrupt in a different sense. Its purpose was inherently to favour British interests. The interests of local communities were placed below those of the empire. The ‘great lesson’ left behind by Britain could be that the best way forward for African development is to subjugate England and use British labour and resources to send goods and capital back to Africa.
Religion is another paradoxical aspect, but one that must lean towards the negative side of colonialism. There are plenty of well-meaning religious followers who believe they are acting as forces of good. Proselytisation was one motivation for European colonisation. Despite its outdated ring, there are still individuals who believe in spreading Christianity. Missionaries continue to travel to Africa to convert the masses. Religious organisations can tap charitable donations and operate in the international development community. The attitude that ‘our religion is best’ is an offshoot of the attitude that we are simply better. The Pears soap advertisement analysed by Hobsbawm in ‘Age of Empire’ is evidence of the colonial belief that white was better than black. The inference that the black in the Africans’ skin could be made clean with soap is another version of the belief that the African soul can be made clean with Christianity.
Education surely does not fall into the same category as religion in the history of imperialism. Learning to read does not simply create a bureaucratic class to run colonial administration. Filling bureaucratic posts may have been a motivating factor for the British to teach Indians how to read. But education led to Indian demands for self-government and their ability to turn these demands into reality. Education led to self-government and allowed India to be governed to serve the interests of Indians. Education is what allowed democratic government to take hold in India and to let the government pursue policies which allowed India to avoid famine.
Statements about the benefits of capitalism or the ills of colonialism have an opposite argument waiting in response. Stating that capitalism was built on the backs of developing countries invites points about economic inequality and the transfer of wealth from one side of the room, and evidence of long term economic benefits from the other side of the room. Capitalism is here. Our world has a financial system based on debt, and development projects require funding from lending institutions.
Colonialism was not undertaken to benefit the people in the colonies despite what a revisionist historian may claim about the long term (if unintended) benefits of colonialism. Colonialism was designed to benefit the coloniser. Reaping these benefits was the motivation for colonising in the first place. It is important to remember that during the age of colonisation indigenous populations were not considered ‘people’. Ascribing 21st century ideas and values to individuals and states of the 19th century does not produce deep understanding of the period. The notion that Africans enjoyed human rights would have been ridiculous to 19th century Europeans.
Developing countries are poor in the sense that they do not have the wealth to enjoy the material benefits of the developed world. Yet these material benefits have come to the West with the abandonment of rural living and a massive shift to cities. This shift was accompanied with a philosophical evolution about the rights of the individual and the responsibility of the state to protect and nurture inalienable rights of humanity. Justice became an aim of state policy. The pursuit of justice will lead the way out of poverty.
The new imperialism which replaced colonialism is said to be cultural. Western capitalism no longer requires natives to be harshly controlled by colonial masters. New imperialism requires the natives to adopt the beliefs of their colonisers and to become willing participants in their own enslavement. Pursuing justice means pursuing ideas which have their roots in Western philosophy. Yet the value of such notions cannot be dismissed because they come from the West. There are good and bad aspects to all culture. Colonised populations do not need to wear Nike shirts, but they do not need to shun Western culture in its entirety. Nike t-shirts need only be replaced with ones bearing the image of Claude Levi-Strauss.
Nike is not my culture. Neither is Coca-Cola. Canada suffers from the same cultural imperialism as former colonies. Traditional values and social codes have disappeared in Canada and have been replaced with a culture of consumerism. Education provides a weapon of resistance and consumerism can be resisted. Ethiopia will surely have evidence of Western consumerism. Freedom dictates that people have a choice. The Asian tiger economies all adapted Western consumerism to their own cultures. Africa can surely do the same.
- You: Let’s end the myths of Britain’s imperial past (guardian.co.uk)
- The ‘Arab spring’ and the west: seven lessons from history | Seumas Milne (guardian.co.uk)
- Imperialism and the “Anti-Imperialism of the Fools” (anendtoempire.wordpress.com)
- Jeremy Paxman: what empire did for Britain (telegraph.co.uk)