Posted by: martinworster | November 27, 2012


Colonialism – good or bad? Discuss…

I’ve been hearing quite a bit about Stuart Laycock’s book ‘All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round To’ which asserts that Britain has invaded nine out of ten countries at one point in its history. That’s quite an achievement – or is it? I have very ambivalent feelings about Britain’s colonial past. On the one hand I do feel a certain pride that for such a relatively small country we exerted such a disproportionate influence and power across the globe. We certainly punched above our weight for quite a few centuries. An empire on which the sun never set. On the other hand there are aspects of this history – slavery, exploitation, pointless wars, bloodshed, indigenous genocide etc – that are totally shameful. 

These mixed and often contradictory feelings can also be traced to my own education and upbringing. My main school was Haileybury – or to give it it’s full name, Haileybury and Imperial Service College. It was founded in 1806 by the East India Company and was for many years a feeder school to Britain’s various colonial outposts around the world. It provided the civil servants, officials and high ranking military to govern the empire. Finish your schooling then it was off to India, Mayanmar, Singapore, Malaysia, Rhodesia, Ceylon or other far flung places (many that have now changed names) to divide and conquer. As such the education was – at least when I was there – a traditional public school that still took in pupils from all over the world and followed centuries old traditions. I’d say it was a B list public school, considering Harrow and Eton were the premiership. Of course with this long and illustrious history the education was probably quite traditional plus you rubbed shoulders with lots of posh people like Lords and chaps with double barreled names. Rugger was de riguer, home work was called ‘prep’, teachers ‘beaks’ and it boasted both the largest unsupported dome and the largest academic quadrangle in the UK. The school used the traditional house system who’s names – Kipling, Batten, Colvin, Bartle Frere – harked back to colonial days and former military heros. The alumni boasted Prime Ministers, minor celebrities and general ruling class fodder. 

After leaving school I then went on to the left leaning ‘Red Brick’ Sussex University where I studied English in the School Of African And Asian Studies (AFRAS). The buzzword’s here were Post Colonial Studies which meant pretty much that I had to dismantle – or deconstruct – many of the assumptions, values and history lessons I’d acquired at my former college. Colonialism was seen as pure exploitation. A ruthless extraction of foreign countries natural resources and complete subjugation – or in some cases, annihilation – of indigenous populations. A promotion of the us (British, Christian, superior) vs them (savage, heathen, inferior) complex in justifying this global rape. Admittedly, Sussex was quite radical – I remember it offered feminist lesbian readings of Shakespeare – so it was good to be shaken in my knowledge base. I’d always heard some dissenting voices to the colonial exercise, plus to be honest, at 19 years old I probably didn’t really think too deeply on it, more inclined to pulling girls at the Students Union and raving at the weekends if I’m entirely honest.

It was however good to absorb these opposing thought systems which still to this day influence me and I’m still affected by the whole ‘hang on you guys tried to teach me this thing and then you tell me that all that is untrue and now this is how it really happened’ type contradictory ideas system. So without sounding too on the fence, I am still undecided on some parts of the legacy of colonial rule. For instance you could look at India and say it’s growing economy might have been aided by business ideas and infrastructure (primarily rail) as a result of colonial rule. Or, you could look at how members of the Mau Mau rebellion in 1950s Kenya were treated by the British – tortured, put in prison camps and slaughtered and say these were war crimes and atrocities of the most heinous kind and therefore by extension all colonialism is bad and exploitative.

 The contradictory nature of my education clearly affected me and gave me an extreme case of rational empiricism as a guiding philosophical principle. I only truly believe what I can verify in front of me my with facts and from my own experience and direct observation – ie don’t believe anything you are told, particularly by institutions, the government and most of all religion. Questioning things is a good thing. The truth is highly malleable depending on who’s version you believe.  

Living in the US there’s always jokes about empire when people find out I am English. I frequently retort that things have slipped here ever since they gave up the King but at least they still speak English, perhaps the most all pervasive legacy of colonialism. Plus, I see many parallels with America’s current changing role in the world and Britain’s post World War II trauma of coming to turns with the loss of an empire. One by the one the colonies moved towards independence and Britain’s power on the world stage declined. Much like America’s current predicament as other economies, particularly China, grow and lessen the States’ dominance and hegemony. America’s influence – economic and cultural – is steadily waning. It can be hard for a nation psychologically speaking as they come to terms with this lessening power. Hopefully America can learn that being the biggest dick on the block isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Of course militarily speaking America is by far still the superpower, spending as much on the military and weapons as the next twenty countries combined. Let’s hope it uses them less and less as the world hopefully evolves and we all strive towards a higher plane of existence that involves less violence and war. 


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