This essay on the debate about the merits of colonialism, and of the British Empire in particular, was published 26 January in the New York Review Daily.
The sun may have long ago set on the British Empire (or on all but a few tattered shreds of it), but it never seems to set on the debate about the merits of empire. The latest controversy began when the Third World Quarterly, an academic journal known for its radical stance, published a paper by Bruce Gilley, an associate professor of political science at Portland State University in Oregon, called ‘The Case for Colonialism’. Fifteen of the thirtyfour members on the journal’s editorial board resigned in protest, while a petition, with more than 10,000 signatories, called for the paper to be retracted. It was eventually withdrawn after the editor ‘received serious and credible threats of personal violence’.
Then, in November, Nigel Biggar, regius professor of theology at Oxford University, wrote an article in the London Times defending Gilley. Biggar saw Gilley’s ‘balanced reappraisal of the colonial past’ as ‘courageous,’ and called for ‘us British to moderate our postimperial guilt.’
Biggar also revealed that he was launching a fiveyear academic project, under the auspices of Oxford University’s McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life, called ‘Ethics and Empire’. The project aims to question the notion prevalent ‘in most reaches of academic discourse’, that ‘imperialism is wicked; and empire is therefore unethical’ and to develop ‘a Christian ethic of empire. Fifty eight Oxford scholars working on ‘histories of empire and colonialism’ wrote an open letter condemning the project as asking ‘the wrong questions, using the wrong terms, and for the wrong purposes.’ A second open letter with nearly two hundred signatures from academics across the globe expressed ‘alarm that the University of Oxford should invest resources in this project.’ Another Oxford historian of empire, Alexander Morrison, denounced these open letters as being ‘deeply corrosive of normal academic exchange’ and encouraging ‘online mobbing, public shaming and political polarization.’
Like all such debates, this latest controversy comprises many threads. Was colonialism good or bad, and for whom, and in what ways? How should one debate these questions in academia, and in politics? And why has this debate erupted now?
Apologists for colonialism argue that Western powers brought economic development, the rule of law, and liberties to its colonies. According to Gilley, colonialism stressed ‘the primacy of human lives, universal values, and shared responsibilities’ and constituted a ‘civilizing mission’ that ‘led to improvements in living conditions for most Third World peoples.’ For Biggar, it introduced ‘order’ to the nonWestern world. And for many British historians, the British Empire was preeminent in achieving all this. As Niall Ferguson put it in his 2003 book Empire, ‘no organization in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British Empire…. And no organization has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world.’
It is an argument that confuses economic development and political liberalization, on the one hand, with colonialism, on the other. The British Empire began to take shape during the early seventeenth century, with the English settlement of North America and Caribbean islands, and the creation of corporations, such as the East India Company, to administer colonies and overseas trade. The origins of colonialism lie, in other words, in a time when Britain was still a feudal kingdom, with a parliament but little democracy, and when manufacture was dominated by the handloom rather than the factory.
If Britain could, over the next 250 years, transform itself from a backward, undemocratic state into a modern industrial power, why could not any of the nations it colonized have done so, too? Why assume that it was only colonization that allowed India or Ghana to develop?
One answer might be that the countries that Britain colonized were even more backward than Britain was at the time, and lacked the social and intellectual resources to transform themselves as Britain did. But the reality, at least in some of its colonies, was the opposite. Consider India. At the beginning of eighteenth century, India’s share of the world economy was 23 percent, as large as all of Europe put together. By the time Britain left India, it had dropped to less than 4 percent. ‘The reason was simple,’ argues Shashi Tharoor in his book Inglorious Empire. ‘India was governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for two hundred years was financed by its depredations in India.’ Britain, Tharoor argues, deliberately deindustrialized India, both through the physical destruction of workshops and machinery and the use of tariffs to promote British manufacture and strangle Indian industries.
It was not just India from which resources flowed back to Britain, though in different countries it happened in different ways. Britain’s West Indian colonies were at the heart of the ‘triangular trade’ by which goods from Britain were used to purchase slaves from West Africa who were taken to the Caribbean, and from whose labor great riches flowed back British merchants in Bristol, Liverpool, and London.
The historian Robin Blackburn notes that around 1770, total investments in the domestic British economy amounted to £4 million (about £500 million, or $700 million, in modern values). This investment ‘included the building of roads and canals, of wharves and harbors, of all new equipment needed by farmers and manufacturers, and of all the new ships sold to merchants in a period of one year’. Around the same time, profits from the slave trade and slave labor came to £3.8 million. Not all profit was reinvested but, suggests Blackburn, ‘slave generated profits were large enough to have covered a quarter to a third of Britain’s overall investment needs’. Without the slave plantations, it is unlikely that Britain would have been able to industrialize, or to forge an empire, as it did.
What of democracy and liberalism? The Enlightenment helped transform the intellectual and moral culture of Europe in the eighteenth century, and laid the ground for modern ideas of equality and liberty. ‘All progressive, rationalist and humanist ideologies,’ as the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm put it, ‘are implicit in it, and indeed come out of it.’
But if the European Enlightenment was crucial to the development of progressive social ideals, European colonialism as a practice denied those ideals to the majority of people. It maintained slavery, suppressed democracy, and was rooted in a racialized view of the world. It was not colonialism but anticolonial movements that truly developed Enlightenment ideals. From the Haitian revolution of 1791, the first successful slave revolt in history, to the Quit India movement, to the liberation struggles of Southern Africa, the opponents of empire demanded that equality and liberty applied to them, too.
As the Martinique-born Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon wrote in his 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth, ‘All the elements of a solution to the great problems of humanity have, at different times, existed in European thought.’ The problem was that ‘Europeans have not carried out in practice the mission which fell to them.’ So, it was left to the anticolonial struggles to ‘start a new history of Man.’
But, respond defenders of empire, the ‘new history’ created by anticolonial struggles has been disastrous. There is no gainsaying that, in the decades following independence, many former colonies descended into chaos and worse. The reasons are manifold, and partly lie, as Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire shows, in the policies enacted by the colonial powers themselves before independence and in the economic and political conditions imposed by Western powers after. The horrors of the postcolonial world seem, however, to have created an amnesia about the horrors of colonialism. Gilley, for instance, commenting on the current disorder in the Democratic Republic of Congo, suggests that ‘Maybe the Belgians should come back.’
Belgian colonialism instituted an almost unimaginable reign of barbarism and terror. King Leopold II laid claim over the ‘Congo Free State’ as part of the European ‘Scramble for Africa’ at the end of the nineteenth century. He was, he insisted, acting on humanitarian motives – to abolish the slave trade. In reality, Belgium waged a war of enslavement. Congo was transformed into a mass labor camp, in which the most brutal of punishments were inflicted for the most trivial of offenses. If villagers did not meet their rubber quota, their children’s hands and feet were sometimes chopped off. Between the 1870s and the 1920s, the population of the Congo fell by a half – an estimated ten million people lost their lives to Leopold’s brutal regime. It was, observes the writer and historian Adam Hochschild in his book King Leopold’s Ghost, ‘a death toll of Holocaust dimensions’.
Supporters of the British Empire argue that its rule was far more benign than the terror of the Belgian Congo. That is not to place the moral bar very high. But here, too, there is considerable historical amnesia. From Tasmania, where a whole people were virtually wiped out for resisting British rule in the ‘Black War’ of the 1820s and 1830s; to Jamaica, where the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 led to a sixweek rampage by British troops, during which more than four hundred people were killed and almost the same number summarily hanged; to Ireland and a history of bloody terror from Oliver Cromwell’s savage war of conquest in the seventeenth century to what the Irish historian Thomas Bartlett called the ‘universal rape, plunder and murder’ wrought by British troops after the 1798 Irish rebellion, to the brutal acts of revenge exacted during the Irish War of Independence by the Black and Tans, a British-controlled paramilitary police force, in the 1920s; to India, where some three million died in the Bengal famine of 1942–1943, caused by the British decision to export rice, for use in the war theaters and for consumption in Britain, from a state that usually imported rice, and at a time of great local shortage—the experience of the ‘order’ of the British Empire was cruel and ferocious. Even Niall Ferguson, in his paean to the British Empire, acknowledges that ‘when imperial authority was challenged… the British response was brutal.’
Perhaps the most egregious claim of the apologists is that the British Empire should be lauded because it helped end slavery; this was ‘one of the undoubted benefits of colonialism,’ as Gilley puts it. Imagine an arsonist who burns down a building, killing many of its inhabitants. When the people inside try to flee, he forces them back. Eventually, after many hours of this, he decides to help the people, both inside and outside the building, who are trying to put the fire out. Would we say of this arsonist, ‘Yes, he may have burned the building down and killed dozens of people, but what really matters is that he threw some water over the fire at the end?’ That is akin to the argument of the apologists for Empire.
In 1807, Britain passed a law banning the slave trade. But for more than three centuries, Britain had been intimately involved in that trade; three centuries of savage enslavement, pitiless brutality, and casual mass murder. Twelve million Africans are thought to have been transported to the Americas, half of them in the peak years of the Atlantic slave trade between 1690 and 1807. In those peak years, about half of these slaves were taken on British ships. Historians estimate that at least one in ten, and possibly one in five slaves, died on the Middle Passage, the journey from Africa to the New World. This suggests that half a million Africans may have lost their lives while being transported on British ships.
‘It is important to remember’, the historian David Olusoga observes in his recent book Black and British: A Forgotten History, ‘how few voices were raised against slavery in Britain until the last quarter of the eighteenth century. The Church of England was largely silent on the issue, as were most of the politicians.’ This was inevitable, he adds, because ‘too much money, too many livelihoods and too much political power were invested; millions of British people lived lives that were intimately connected to the economics of slavery and the sugar business.’
It was not the British Empire that began the struggle against enslavement, but slaves themselves, and radicals in Europe. When slaves rose up, the British response was savage, and not just in British colonies. In Haiti, after the revolutionaries defeated the French, Britain sent more than 20,000 men to try to retake the island as a British colony. They, too, were humiliatingly defeated by the army of former slaves.
The reasons that led Britain to eventually ban the slave trade in 1807 are still debated by historians. There are many threads to the story: the growing social influence of both working class radicalism and Christian moral evangelism; the decline in the political power of West Indian planters; the entrenchment of Enlightenment ideals of equality; the changing economics of plantation production; the strategic advantage that Britain now had in being able to police its imperial rivals, such as France and Spain, which were still involved in the slave trade.
Whatever the causes of the ban, the historian of slavery James Walvin has observed, ‘the discussion about British morality and sensibility in 1807 has served to obscure what went before. And what went before was not only important to Britain, but it was brutal on a scale which, even now, is scarcely credible.’
As Marika Sherwood shows in her book After Abolition, Britain continued to profit from the slave trade even after 1807. Britain, she writes, ‘not only continued to build slaving vessels, but it financed the trade, insured it, crewed some of it and probably even created the many national flags carried by the vessels to avoid condemnation.’ Slavery flourished unhindered. It took another three decades before Britain ended slavery itself with the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act; and even then, not throughout the empire. Not until the twentieth century was slavery legally abolished in colonies such as Burma, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone.
Even where the Abolition of Slavery Act did end slavery, it did not end slavelike conditions. Slave owners were handsomely compensated for the loss of their ‘property.’ Some £20 million (about £16 billion, or $22 billion, in today’s values) was set aside by the British government to recompense 46,000 slave owners. Not only did the slaves themselves receive no reparation, but, under the Act, they were compelled to provide fortyfive hours of unpaid labor each week for their former masters, for a further four to six years after their supposed liberation. ‘In effect,’ writes David Olusoga, ‘the enslaved paid part of the bill for their own manumission.’
The suggestion that the British Empire was good because it ended slavery reflects historical amnesia of the most decadent kind. And yet, as the historian Katie Donington puts it, ‘the ‘moral capital’ of abolitionism’ has continually provided ‘a means of redeeming Britain’s troubling colonial past.’
The arguments for the moral good of colonialism are, then, threadbare. Many academics are, however, concerned by demands for the retraction of Gilley’s paper, or for Oxford University to reassess Biggar’s Ethics and Empire project. A letter signed by a number of leading scholars, most of whom politically and intellectually disagree with Gilley and Biggar, expressed alarm at the ‘censorious attitudes and campaigns directed at Third World Quarterly.’ The signatories saw it as part of a wider problem: that of ‘a rising tide of intolerance on campuses and in the academic profession, with certain scholars and students seeking to close down perspectives with which they disagree, rather than debating them openly.’
Critics of Gilley and Biggar protest that they are not calling ‘for the curtailing of the writer’s freedom of speech’ but simply want to maintain academic ‘standards.’ The question of academic rigor is important; nevertheless, the distinction between maintaining standards and demanding the suppression of what are regarded as morally or politically unacceptable opinions is a fine one. ‘Our default reaction to cases like this,’ argues Justin Weinberg, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and the editor of Daily Nous, a popular philosophy blog, ‘should not be ‘retract!’ but rather, ‘rebut!’’ If Gilley’s article is full of mistakes, he observes, ‘then the job of the experts is to point this out and help us learn from them, so people are less likely to make them again.’
The ‘rebut rather than retract’ advice is particularly important because the issue of colonialism is a matter not just for academia but for the wider political culture. According to opinion polling, some 43 percent of Britons think that the British Empire was a ‘good thing’ and 44 percent that British colonialism is ‘something to be proud of’ (compared to 19 percent who think the empire was bad, and 21 percent who believe that colonialism is a matter for ‘regret’). Other polls have shown even greater support for British colonialism. The public support for colonialism reflects, at least in part, the lack of a full and proper debate on the issue. Against this background, the arguments of Gilley and Biggar may best be seen as an opportunity to have that debate, and to change public opinion, rather than dismiss their claims as ‘shoddy’ and ‘distorted,’ even though they are.
Why has the debate erupted now? For many, the obvious answer seems to be Brexit. The desire to leave the EU, critics insist, is little more than a form of nostalgia for a Britain that has gone, and for an empire that is no more. The ‘need for nostalgia’ argument is, however, a recurring theme throughout postcolonial British history. ‘The continuing decline… and the meanness of spirit’ of Thatcherite Britain, Salman Rushdie wrote in 1984, led many to yearn ‘nostalgically’ for the days of empire, and to a ‘recrudescence of imperialist ideology and the popularity of Raj fictions,’ such as the TV adaptations of Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown and MM Kaye’s The Far Pavilions. Nearly forty years on, the Indian news website The Wire, in a review of Bengal Shadows, a new documentary about the Bengal famine, writes similarly of ‘a Brexit-scarred Britain… increasingly showing signs of a growing nostalgia for its colonial past.’
There is certainly a strand of imperial nostalgia that has never quite disappeared in the national consciousness, and that keeps resurfacing, especially at times, as now, when Britain is searching for a sense of identity. It is one strand of the Brexit discussion, but hardly one that dominates the debate.
Today’s apologists for colonialism are driven as much by present needs as by past glories. In his Times article, Nigel Biggar referenced not empire nostalgia, but the lessons of empire for contemporary Western foreign intervention. ‘If we believe what strident anticolonialists tell us,’ he argued, ‘it will confirm us in the belief that the best way we can serve the world is by leaving it well alone.’ A more ‘balanced view of empire,’ on the other hand, would allow us to ‘think with care about how to intervene abroad successfully’ and ensure that ‘we won’t simply abandon the world to its own devices.’ What the British Empire tells us about Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan was not that the interventions were wrong but that ‘successful intervention requires more, earlier.’
Similarly, Gilley uses his claims about colonialism to argue for the ‘abandonment of the myth of selfgoverning capacity’. He calls for Western institutions, international bodies, and multinational corporations to help create ‘good governance.’ It is, in other words, a call for overriding democracy and installing technocratic forms of rule.
Foreign intervention and technocratic governance: these are very contemporary issues, and ones with which liberals wrestle as much as reactionaries. Liberals may despise empire nostalgia, but many promote arguments about intervention and governance that have their roots in an imperial worldview. We should not imagine that apologists for empire are simply living in the past. They seek, rather, to rewrite the past as a way of shaping current debates. That makes it even more important that their ideas and arguments are challenged openly and robustly.
The images are, from top down: Thomas Jones Barker, ‘The Secret of England’s Greatness’ (1863); Painting of two astronomers from late Mughal period, artist unknown; photograph by Alice Harris Seeley of Nsala Wala, a worker in the Belgian Congo staring at the hands and feet of his daughter, who had been butchered because he failed to meet his rubber quota (photo taken in 1904); Diagram of a slave ship, ‘The Brookes’, showing how the slaves would have been crammed in for the ‘Middle Passage’ journey from West Africa to the West indies; ‘Morant Bay Rebellion’ by Barrington Watson (1964); ‘Bengal Famine’ by Gobardhan Ash.
Bravo. The most reasonable and persuasive review of this argument that I have seen.
You quote Weinberg: “If Gilley’s article is full of mistakes, he observes, ‘then the job of the experts is to point this out and help us learn from them, so people are less likely to make them again.’ ”
Quite so, and I am a little surprised that you do not throw your own weight behind that conclusion. Or perhaps you regard the case as so obvious as to benefit from being unstated.
As I read it, that’s exactly what Kenan is doing.
Perhaps so, basing the arguments here mainly on the specifics, rather than on the general case for open debate, about which he has often written so eloquently: “The public support for colonialism reflects, at least in part, the lack of a full and proper debate on the issue. Against this background, the arguments of Gilley and Biggar may best be seen as an opportunity to have that debate, and to change public opinion, rather than dismiss their claims as ‘shoddy’ and ‘distorted,’ even though they are…. They seek, rather, to rewrite the past as a way of shaping current debates. That makes it even more important that their ideas and arguments are challenged openly and robustly.”
And given the passions aroused by this issue, that may be a very wise tactic.
Yes, I thought I was clear where I stood. I can’t write a general defence of free speech in every article 🙂
The old imperialism was motivated by the need to offset declining profit margins at home by seeking greater profits overseas. Today’s ‘humanitarian interventionists’ seek to offset domestic failures with moral victories overseas. They are no better than their colonial forebears.
Imperialism was also motivated by the wish and need to prevent revolution at home.
E.g. Destroying the Indian textile industry so as to save the Lancashire textile industry and thus save Britain from revolution.
E.g. Sending the young men to Australia in the 1840’s (to tame the outback or kill Aborigines), thus preventing Chartist insurrection.
“If ever England repents !” sighed Chesterton, without much hope.
But now England (and the rest of Britain) must – or be utterly destroyed.
After 6 centuries of modernity – a rising tide of economic growth raising all boats; and three centuries of exporting its problems to other places on the globe, Britain must for the first time face its problems and (horror of horrors !) solve them.
This will require re-distribution of wealth and income, plus real social justice, not the Labour Party’s well-intentioned attempts at it.
But who said repentance is easy or cost-free ?
“At the beginning of eighteenth century, India’s share of the world economy was 23 percent, as large as all of Europe put together. By the time Britain left India, it had dropped to less than 4 percent.” And the same thing happened to China for the same reason — the massive expansion in the population and production of Europe and North America. In 1800, the Qing Emperor ruled over about a third of humanity and about a third of world GDP. By the 1880s, the US economy was larger, by 1913 the British economy was larger. So, imperialism did extract resources (that is what imperialism does) but that 4% figure has little to do with it.
On the profit of slave plantations, the industrial revolution did not really take off until the 1820s, with railways and steamships, when slavery was in decline. It is useful to remember that the alternative to slave profits was not no profits, but alternative avenues of commercial endeavour: counterfactuals are tricky things.
It is also useful to remember that there was also Islamic imperialism and Islamic slave trade. The Sahara slave trade lasted much longer, and was every bit as horrible, as the Atlantic passage, with large scale castration of male slaves added in.
On counterfactuals, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Thailand all avoided imperial occupation, with some brief exceptions during 1939-1945. They do not look all that different from their neighbours, which undermines both the “colonialism was awful” and “colonialism was good” lines.
I am also dubious about the “anyone could do it” line on industrialisation and democracy. Europe had some very specific features which made it much more likely to develop both non-autocratic governments and economic take off. Whatever the costs of imperialism, it did make European success and models very, very obvious across the globe.
indeed, counterfactuals are practically useless because they involve arbitrarily changing some variables without knowing how others would have been affected. So the question of whether empire, taken as a whole, was good or bad is really on the level of 1066 And All That. What one can say is that (a) its motivations were seldom altruistic and (b) many of its protagonists treated people of other races and cultures in ways which would not only be considered barbarous today but would have been so considered even then if applied to members of their own race, especially if also of their own class – and usually were condemned by at least some of their contemporaries. If tempted to acquit Columbus or Cortes, we should remember that we thereby betray Las Casas; and so on.
It is not me that is introducing counterfactuals. It is those who claim that colonized countries could not have developed without colonization. It is the implicit counterfactual in that claim that I am challenging.
Quite. I thought I was defending you!
Sorry, I obviously misread your comment. My apologies.
Good points. The deployment of the “share of the world economy” stats on India in 1800 and mid-20c is a kindergarten error in economic history that even an economic ignoramus like me can detect. And, as you say, we have the examples of other territories not colonised for the whole period or at all as some kind of “control”. And this brings me to another whole issue, which is how Malik (typically) keeps trying to consider British (or sometimes West European) empire as a unique phenomenon, in order to be able to characterise it as uniquely bad. For most of recorded human history more humans have probably lived under “empires” of one kind or another, than have lived in other kinds of state formation. How these have differed over time and geography, and how far they have been comparable is a huge, massive, complex subject, which can be considered from all kinds of different perspectives and disciplines, but it is clear that identifying specific, unique features (causes, impacts etc. ) is something that has to be discussed and argued for, not taken for granted as a sort of sacred assumption.
Malik here is a wonderful example of how the sacred assumption subverts the intellect, such that e.g. it must be pretended that all debates on empire must be about Western (mostly British) empire and that the only relevant question that everyone is answering (whether they seem to be or not!) is, Was it a Good Thing or a Bad Thing (answer is set in advance: In all respects a Bad Thing). We see this happening as Malik presents Bigow’s project on Ethics and Empire as some mere “apologetics” for (British) imperialism. I am afraid I suspect Malik of merely taking this at second hand from the protests of progressive “critical” historians, and never looking at the freely Googlable rundown on the project. Because if you look it up the first thing that hits you on the programme is the line up of ancient historians and classicists discussing ancient (mostly Latin) ideas of empire and ethics (including criticisms, obviously), and there are a plethora of comparative possibilities elsewhere too in the history of attitudes….Chinese, Islamic, various African and so on. You can look at ideas and practices surrounding slavery in the same way .But it’s a funny thing, “critical” in the sense of “right-on” historians and pundits don’t really like it when academics try to do this, in case it might divert from the simplistic and tunnel-visioned “critical” approach to Empire (Western esp. British).
You seem to have missed the fact that I linked to the project (and quoted from it). So, yes, I do know what the project is about.
Actually, it is the proponents of colonialism that want to talk primarily about ‘Western esp. British’ imperialism. Here are the opening lines of Giley’s abstract:
‘For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name. It is high time to question this orthodoxy. Western colonialism was, as a general rule, both objectively bene cial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found, using realistic measures of those concepts.’
And the final line of Biggar’s Times article:
‘Bruce Gilley’s case for colonialism calls for us British to moderate our post-imperial guilt.’
As you yourself put it, both are ‘freely Googlable’. Perhaps you want to google them and show me where either mentions ‘Chinese, Islamic, various African and so on’ imperialism.
Yes, Biggar’s ‘Ethics and Empire’ project suggests that it will deal with ‘ancient empires’ and ‘medieval empires’ as well as ‘modern empires’. But, as you have googled it, you will know that it is a five-year project that began last June and won’t finish till August 2022. When that project produces something substantive I will engage with. In the meantime I will engage with what Biggar has actually written, about the Gilley controversy and about British colonialism, not with he might have written. Or is that being too ‘right on’?
Lorenzo from Oz,
My point is that India was not some backward country that only through British colonialism was able to develop. Tharoor suggests, to the contrary, that the impact of colonialism was to denude Indian manufacturing ability.
Unless industrial development after the 1820s happened ex nihilo, the fact that ‘the industrial revolution did not really take off until the 1820s’ is irrelevant to the question of whether profits from slavery played a role in the growth of Britain’s industrial capacity. No reputable historian (whatever their view of colonialism) would deny the significance of slavery-generated profits.
Slavery was not an ‘alternative’ to ‘Britain’s commercial endeavour’, it was central to it.
I love the ‘whataboutery’. Yes, there was Islamic slave trade, which can and should be criticised. But ‘what about the Islamic slave trade’ is not an answer to criticism of the European slave trade but an attempt at a diversion.
This is perhaps your most pertinent point. There has been a long debate about the material, social and cultural reasons that some nations were able to develop and others not. But the issue is far more complex than you suggest. First, the fact that, say, Thailand was not colonized does not detract from the specific points I make about the impact of colonialism. Second, the reasons some countries that were not colonized did not develop lie, in part at least, with imperialist policy.
In his book The Islamic Enlightenment, Christopher de Bellaigue tells the story of the relationship between Muslim majority countries and modernity, and argues that since the late eighteenth century these countries have been ‘going through a pained yet exhilarating transformation – a Reformation, an Enlightenment and an Industrial Revolution all at once.’ Inevitably there was a backlash in these countries, as there was in Europe. Unlike in Europe, those who promoted Enlightenment values in the Muslim world faced another problem: that of the European powers themselves.
Take Iran, one of the countries you mention. In August 1906, a year-long popular struggle for democracy against the Shah and his autocratic government succeeded in establishing an elected national assembly and a new constitution. But the European powers were fearful that the new, democratic Iran would no longer be a pliant creature, acting in their interests. So, in August 1907, Britain and Russia signed an accord dividing Iran into two zones of imperial influence. Russian troops invaded Iran, dissolved parliament, and arrested and executed many deputies. Britain established a de facto colony in its area of influence in the south-east of the country.
Four decades later, after democracy had been restored in Iran, Western powers again intervened to destroy it. In 1951 the democratically elected Prime Minister Muhammed Mossadeq nationalised the oil industry. Britain and the United States engineered a coup d’etat that, two years later, overthrew Mossadeq and returned the Shah to power – and Iran’s oil industry to Western control. The eventual consequence of Western attempts to suppress democracy in Iran was the revolution of 1978-79 – and the seizing of power by Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters.
So, by all means look at why a country like Iran has ended up as it has. But look at the full picture.
One of the ‘costs of imperialism’ was the denial of the ability of colonized, or semi-colonized, countries to industrialize – as, say, in India – or to democratize – as in Iran.
yes, I think you could make a case that the effects of “indirect” imperialism in countries like Iran and China were even worse than those of direct rule. The latter had some compensating advantages – introduction of rule of law etc, even if far from impartially applied – while the former led to a debilitating culture of conspiracy theories because everyone knew that ostensibly independent rulers were in fact being manipulated by (and often in the pay of) external powers. That experience fatally coloured the culture of such countries and its consequences are still easily visible today.
I produced a series of films on Empire & the Labour movement for Channel 4 in the late 1980s. I discovered footage in a Pathe newsreel of scenes in Bengal during the famine. A starving infant sat before an empty bowl. These we included in the series. I well remember the card index in Pathe’s file cabinets on which was neatly typed a description of the scenes, date and technical data , and across the whole of which was stamped in large red letters the word “censored”.
From a Hegelian / Lacanian point of view, it is useful to remind ourselves that the Master-Slave dialectic (Herrschaft und Knechtschaft) is often internalized by the person who accepts for themselves the role of the Slave. This internalized discourse of the Other among many people in the colonized parts of the World leads to low self-esteem, inferiority complex, and an inability to imagine their existence without approval by the Other. This is the true fifth column of colonialism, and the reason why so many former colonies fail. This is the reason the Tsipras government in my country, Greece, a self-proclaimed “radical leftist” govenment, now implores approval by the neocolonial institutions such as the IMF and the ESM, and sends emails to Germany’s Schulz begging him to please accept to cooperate with Merkel, because the Greek government cannot envision a future for itself without a strong command in Berlin. The internalization of the discourse of the Master can only be undone by implementing the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, as described by Paulo Freire.
It’s also why now the White Folks are so obviously ageing and decadent, their weakness has unleashed a growing surge of resentment against both white folks and the West. When the oppressed are no longer overawed, their resentment leaps upwards.
This began when the White Folks tripped over their own feet in 1914; but the surge has re-started and become fierce since 2008.
No one, in a million years, can possibly weigh the good chapters and aspects of the British Empire against the evil ones. So no final verdict on the Empire can ever be reached.
I deplore apologists and neo-apologists for Empire. But no less repugnant are the more strident anti-imperial voices; those of affluent, middle-class people living in the West (thus benefiting greatly from Britain’s imperial past !) while damning – not just the Empire – but the West and its people as a whole, employing the tactic of Collective Guilt; “some white people did terrible things, so you’re a terrible person too.”
can you give a source for that quote? No one has ever said it to me.
A more revealing statistic than how economies fared under Western domination may be how they have fared since then. Here I think it is worth looking at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angus_Maddison_statistics_of_the_ten_largest_economies_by_GDP_(PPP) ; Maddison is used as a source by Niall Ferguson, no less, in his Reith lectures, “The Great Degeneration”, fig. 1.1, so I hope I will not be accused of anti-West propaganda.
Though reducing the discussion to whether Western empires were a Good Thing or a Bad Thing is indeed more worthy of a place in 1066 And All That than here
The pains of a deep wound is hardly known, understood and appreciated simply by the scar. It is more so when arbiters look only with the eyes of today instead of commingling yesterday and today. This academic debate is not totally new but giving a justification to buoy the future for those with peripheral inducrion in history is the big challenge.
I agree that debate is better than censorship.
I reply your criticism of the British Empire.
1. Economic development
2. Political development
1. Size of Indian economy
2. Profit from slave trade
The growth rate increased by x4 from 1700 to 1870.
The share of world economy fell because the rest of the worth was developing
Profit from slavery
The profits from slavery and the investment in infrastructure are similar in size but not the same money.
Lots of the profit from slavery was spent on luxuries and not invested in infrastructure
As Fanon said:
‘All the elements of a solution to the great problems of humanity have, at different times, existed in European thought.’
The post colonial governments have been disappointing in rarely doing any better and often worse than the colonialists.
It is wrong to compare attitudes to slavery in 1800 with ours 200 year later.
Slavery in the Ottoman Empire and Arabia at the same time was worse and continued for longer.
For me the main reason slavery was stopped by the British was because steam power created other opportunities for profit.
British slave trade created profits that helped the Industrial Revolution which ended the need for slavery.
You apologize for post colonial failures by exaggerating the problems of colonial history
Another great, well-thought-out post.
I have a few initial thoughts on my own and would very much appreciate a response. These are not designed to defend colonialism – I am just intrigued to hear your thoughts on them. (Apologies if I have misunderstood some of your arguments or if you’ve answered similar questions in comments above).
In refuting to apologist claims that the Empire helped the economic and political development of colonies, you argue that there is no reason why certain colonies might have transformed into a modern (implicitly democratic?) power over the course of several centuries by themselves, like Britain itself did. However, don’t you feel this argument minimizes the crucial, individual political contexts of each country, so fundamental in affecting progress? For example, China was (is still?) an imperial power, that for much of its history was more developed in Britain – yet it has not (never?) reached the same level of democratisation as we have; there was nothing about its being less backward than European powers that made political (liberal/democratic) development inevitable. (Just to be clear – I realise that British imperialism negatively affected China in the form of the Opium Wars, but given the breadth of Chinese history the Opium Wars do not provide an adequate explanation for her issues). I don’t accept the apologist argument that Empire was advantageous to many of its countries, but I don’t find your counter-argument entirely satisfactory for the reason expressed above.
Secondly, regarding problems in former colonies, where should one strike the balance between highlighting how colonialism contributed to many of their postcolonial problems and not diminishing the agency of post-colonial politicians? In stressing the effects of colonialism, is there not some risk in giving legitimacy to certain African politicians who continue to excuse their failure to tackle problems by blaming them on the legacy of imperialism, when, in many but not all, economic and political policies enacted by post-colonial governments are a major factor in such problems? How do we address problematic colonial legacies without minimizing the agency of non-Europeans?
Finally, I take issue with your claim that arguments in favour of liberal interventionism is rooted in an imperial worldview. I think there too many differences between the two for the claim to hold. Empire may have been justified and excused on the grounds of “helping people”, but we know such claims were hardly sincere and colonies were created for the benefit of the colonizer. The liberal interventionist desire, meanwhile, to “help people” is far more sincere and is less a cover for self-interested imperialism. It is motivated more by stopping humans rights abuses and ethnic cleansing – in Kosovo, for example, – and is sometimes done with the complicity of the country’s government, as in the case of Sierra Leone. Even Iraq, where the lines between interventionism and occupation were most blurred, military action was not motivated entirely by self-interest, some Iraqis (trade-unionists) actively advocated western support, and at least it saw the disposal of the horrific Saddam Hussein. I know the distinction between liberal interventionism and imperialism is not always clear cut, but, fundamentally, in regards to their motive (which is most relevant when talking about worldviews, I think), one is selfish and one is selfless (though we all benefit from more democracies), and one is about diminishing the people of the nation where intervention takes places and the other is about empowering them. Furthermore, likening liberal interventionism to imperialism gives credence to those tyrants who, while attacking their own people, construe outside attempts to help their victims as western imperialism. (I know you personally haven’t got as far as to see liberal interventionism as imperialism, but it’s a relevant point given its centrality to much of the discussion about overseas intervention). In summary, then, my question is this: where should we draw the line between making sure we don’t endorse imperial viewpoints and absolving ourselves of the moral responsibility to help those suffering under tyrants in other countries, through, if needs be, military intervention?
In regards to the second and third paragraphs I know present-day political considerations should not our interpretation of the past. But it is difficult to escape the times in which we live, and finding an answer to the questions I raise can then help resolve the issue.
Thanks – not least for reading all what I have written,
Just noticed a few typos and places where sometimes my meaning is unclear. E.g. first sentence of first paragraph. However I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to work out what I mean!