Colonialism, redefined

The term ‘colonialism’ has seen varying and gerrymandering definitions, no doubt as a result of a widespread smear campaign by those who fear effective governance. The term comes from the word ‘colony’, the enclaves the pioneers establish in the newfound lands for social, political or economical reasons. Before the Christian zeal entered the scene in the period between 1880s and the First World War, those colonies operated for solely economical gains.

Not unlike the mass exodus from the Third World to Europe and America today, the Europeans of the nascent days of colonialism saw their “manifest destiny” in the lands across the seas. Most crew members of early explorers and mercantile fleets don’t even know how to swim. To people like those, we owe success stories like America and Canada.

Through trading posts, these societies and colonies enjoyed good relations with the indigenous population. In Canada, for instance, the French and the Natives coexisted in a harmony that James Fenimore Cooper (and Hollywood) could not even dream of. In India, the early English merchants adapted and even intermarried into the native society. To this day, the global business success in places like Macau, Hongkong, Singapore and Shanghai owe their thanks to eclectic brand of talent and diversity that these empires brought together.

What today’s world doesn’t seem to understand is how these commercial ‘colonies’ became political entities and subordinate nations. However, colonialism was never political until the newcomers like Germany and Italy politicalized it in the first half of the 20th century. The British Empire was assembled “in an absence of mind”, and even the most imperialistic of all British Prime Ministers, Viscount Palmerston, hated the notion of having the political responsibility for the colonies.
By the 18th and 19th centuries, the colonies have become both a trend and a necessity. People also like to blame the colonialism for human exploitation. Widespread industrial revolution created by increasingly mercantile empires may have contributed to slavery, but slavers and privateers were individual brigands who operated without any approval from any Chancellery of Europe. In addition, British Royal Navy was almost singlehandedly responsible for abolishing slave trafficking and piracy in African and in the Caribbean. Naval ships patrolled the English Channel to prevent the slave ships from being built.

Sensationalism and rewriting history also contributed to typecasting colonialism and the age of progress as the forces of evil. Pirates, rapists, thieves, brigands and racketeers became the wronged heroes in literature, and on screen. On the contrary, the empires were forces of good. Jean Houdin in North Africa was exposing the fraudulent ways of native ‘witchdoctors’ and ‘magicians’. Ritual killings (thugee), wife burnings (suttee) and triads were being suppressed by the British in the Orient. Bloodthirsty native rulers like Kings of Dahomey, who offered frequent sacrificial murders and selling his captured prisoners to slavers, were gone. The rule of law, jurisprudence, education and sanitation were introduced to the areas which languished under absolute rulers.

In short, it was these much reviled empires, not some native Robin Hood or Joan of Arc that delivered the greater portion of the world’s population from oppression and inhumane rituals. It may not be so self-evident in retrospect, but the mere fact that the British were able to administer their rule of law to a subcontinent of 250 million people with their Indian Civil Service of a few thousand stood as the testament to the popularity and the efficacy of the imperial government.


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