Following his very helpful review of Nigel Biggar’s Colonialism: a moral reckoning, John Root offers reflection on five paradoxes of European colonialism and its legacy.
In April 1964 I attended a selection conference for ordination in the Church of England. One of the selectors was a thoughtful, late middle-aged high churchman, who prior to his ordination had been a District Commissioner in the Sudan. I was a bright young student coming to the end of a degree where I was specialising in Colonial and Commonwealth history. (I was later to lecture part-time to degree level in the subject). Harold MacMillan had delivered his famous Wind of Change speech in South Africa a few years earlier, and the majority of Britain’s possessions in Africa had just become (or were about to be) independent.
I shared the optimism of the time that this was a positive, heart-warming, indeed proud, conclusion to Britain’s colonial rule. The ex-District Commissioner selector thought otherwise, and argued that our withdrawal was premature and likely to be disastrous. Certainly, Sudan’s post-independence history has been far more tragic than anyone then forecasted.
That courteous discussion all those years ago over lunch at a retreat house near Cheltenham is a far cry from contemporary debates over the legacy of Empire. Nigel Biggar’s Colonialism: a Moral Reckoning is a much more wide-ranging and in-depth continuation of that discussion, set against a considerably more negative evaluation of British colonialism than the ex-District Commissioner or I shared at the time. But Biggar has sought, as we did, to make a morally responsible assessment, rooted in the reality of historical events as they unfolded to agents at the time, rather than judging them against a never-existent and Utopian norm of a global network of independent, fully democratic nation states.
Marjory Perham, whose 1963 Reith Lectures ‘The Colonial Reckoning’ was formative for myself, and an obvious predecessor for Biggar’s book, spoke of the inadequacies of all attempts at such reckonings, as like using a tape measure to measure an elephant. Indeed the impact of the colonial expansion of western Europe is such a foundational and irreversible reality of the contemporary world that confidence in attempts to reckon with it are still distorted by too close an engagement with a hard-to-measure phenomenon.
So instead let me offer five paradoxes—as a participant white Christian—in attempting to come to terms with an historical sequence that has shaped everyone in the world.
1. European colonialism was both normal and unique.
‘From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live’ was Paul’s reflection to the Athenians on the ebb and flow and flux of peoples (Acts 17:26). As peoples from mainland Europe settled in Great Britain, they began to coalesce into political units that then sought for both protection, trade, settlement and domination to bring other parts of both the British Isles and what is now France under control. There was similar constant flux of both migration, trade and invasion across the vast Eurasian landmass, until in the sixteenth century maritime powers sought to trade not overland but by sea, and in so doing discovered lands, resources and people of which they had had no idea.
These fledgeling European settlements, conquests and then Empires followed long-established patterns by which peoples around the globe had sought to control the lands and economies of other peoples, if primarily for their own benefit but also through interactions and trade which could be mutually beneficial.
But the extension of western European power eventually metastasised (particularly by virtue of naval, military, financial and technological dominance) from another temporary extension of power into a supremacy that uniquely and permanently brought virtually the entire globe into one economic and political system. If these European empires eventually faded like all others, if the world map stopped being coloured red in large parts, nonetheless the legacy of those empires didn’t fade away. English became the nearest to a global language, the dollar the most powerful currency, north Atlantic universities the world’s dominant intellectual centres.
The impacts of previous empires were eventually dispersed. This imperial impact will never be reversed.
2. European colonialism was brutal and humanitarian.
‘Derby catched by Port Royal eating canes. Had him well flogged and pickled, then made Hector shit in his mouth’. Thus the Jamaican planter Thomas Thistlewood in 1756 (quoted in James Walvin Black Ivory p 239), whose diaries are full of similar and far more revolting incidents. Caribbean slavery may have been the worst, but by no means the only example of the cruelties that went along with colonial rule. Britain’s punishment of the Indian mutineers also stands out, as does the gratuitous cruelty of Belgian rule in the Congo. But oppression was by no means limited to the colonial stage. Infamously, Engels could think it possible to compare the suffering of Manchester cotton-mill operatives as being on a par with slaves in the Caribbean.
Concern for the well being and right to life of the individual has intensified with remarkable speed over the past century. National mourning over the death of each British soldier in Afghanistan contrasts starkly with national readiness to accept deaths in the thousands in one day’s battle on the Somme only a century earlier.
European Empires, not least the British, were also marked by a stream of moral accountability for the exercise of power. If, in the Caribbean, absolute power often corrupted absolutely, there were countervailing tendencies to call the exercise of colonial power to account. The Abolitionist movement of the early nineteenth century was of a piece with a wider, often evangelical, movement, notably the Report of the Select Committee on Aborigines of 1837, instigated by the evangelical Fowell Buxton, which was set up to
consider what measures ought to be adopted with regard to the native inhabitants of countries where British settlements are made, and to the neighbouring tribes, in order to secure to them the due observance of justice and the protection of their rights; to promote the spread of civilization among them, and to lead them to the peaceful and voluntary reception of the Christian religion.
If, on the one hand, moral scruples could be severely pressured and undermined by political and financial opportunism, on the other hand the sense of moral accountability and humanitarian concern was never extinguished and led to Britain’s Empire always being under pressure to give a moral account of itself.
3. European colonialism both humiliated and weakened, and enlarged and prospered colonies.
As Europeans travelled more widely they had to give an account of how peoples differed from each other. Their conceptual starting point was that humans were descended from common ancestors no more than 6,000 years previously, therefore with a strong presumption of an inherent commonality. The anthropological tools for comprehending difference naturally didn’t exist until the encounters were well under way; only the encounters with the unexpected and inexplicable could generate the tools.
One result was rabid expressions of superiority. James Walvin describes the propaganda of late 18th c planters: ‘leaving the British readership with a set of caricatured images which went well beyond most previously published material. It was extremist literature, and it was published on a massive scale’ (in ‘Questioning Slavery’, p 85). Further, by the late nineteenth century, partly due to the impact of ‘scientific racism’, and partly due to the jarring conflicts of the Indian Mutiny and the Jamaican Morant Bay Rebellion, Europeans could polarise into more aggressive and separatist forms of racial arrogance
Yet European rule was only possible by substantial co-operation with indigenous peoples. Whilst this involved a clear imbalance of power, it also increasingly demanded mutual understanding , an entering into each other’s world. Timothy Brook describes the early interactions in the Far East:
Rather than complete transformation or deadly conflict, there was negotiation and borrowing; rather than triumph and loss, give and take; rather than the transformation of cultures, their interaction. . . It was a time not for executing grand designs, but for improvising’ (in ‘Vermeer’s Hat: the 17thcentury and the Dawn of the Global World’, p21).
European attempts to understand the ‘other’ can not be merely dismissed as tools to facilitate exploitation. It also stemmed from an increasing understanding of the historical depth, complexity and subtlety of other cultures. Nor was the appropriation of western culture, and especially faith, mere servility. Lamin Sanneh has pointed out how Christianity’s impulse to translate the scriptures into indigenous languages gave formal shape—dictionaries, grammars—that enabled local cultures to operate on an international level and become part of the global literary and academic community. Whilst in his ‘Empire: The British Imperial Experience’ (1996), Denis Judd wrongly judged that post-independence ‘it soon became apparent how shallow in many cases the conversion [to Christianity] had been’ (p 417), in fact subsequently, African Christianity’s ability, indeed demand, to hold its own on the world stage has become highly contentious.
Similarly, the leading role played by novelists writing from within post-colonial contexts—as evidenced in literary prizes—has underlined that embracing European cultural forms has had a dynamic and invigorating effect. On another level, the rise to prominence of Indian CEOs in several top Silicon Valley companies is the consequence of traditional Indian mathematical capability merging with western mathematical developments. In all these ways the offensiveness of European racial arrogance has been in conflict with and increasingly over-ridden by shared involvement in the colonial shaped global culture.
European economic activity also had contradictory results. Indigenous peoples disappeared with the spread of European power. The Caribs of the eastern Caribbean did so; controversially, as discussed two weeks ago, so did the aboriginals of Tasmania. Others have been driven to struggle in remote inhospitable areas. (Not just through the advent of Europeans—the orang asli (ancient people) of Malaya were driven into the peninsula highlands by the incursion of Malays). Peoples who have been traditionally hunters and gatherers have had their way of life made unviable as land has been possessed and given over to agricultural or forestry production by western development. There are clear examples of ways of life disrupted and peoples demoralised through the inexorable spread of western policies of economic development.
Yet alongside this the introduction of European technology has improved local agriculture and food supplies, notably through the green revolution. Europe’s global reach meant that cash crops could be beneficially transferred from part of the world to another. The spread of European owned plantations—for example in tea, cocoa or palm oil—did lead to peasant subsistence farmers being ousted by plantation labourers working for a pittance, but long term it made possible income generation for national economies
4. European Colonialism has made possible a great future and a disastrous future.
The more European colonialism has become embedded into the fabric of the modern world, the more extreme seem to be the consequences. From one perspective it seems outrageous that anyone should have a bad word to say against it. Even the most virulent critics of colonialism are doing so from a context of unparalleled physical comfort and intellectual freedom. Overwhelmingly they are well fed, well clothed, well housed. If operating in a western society they have exceptional academic resources to pursue their studies and considerable academic freedom. Of whatever ethnicity we are materially privileged way beyond the dreams of our forbears.
On a global level the number of people in extreme poverty has dropped from 2 billion in 1990 to 650 million today (though the situation may have gone into reverse in the immediate past). According to the economist Oded Galor (in ‘The journey of Humanity’) the average wealth of humankind has increased fourteen-fold over the past 200 years; and life expectancy has doubled from an average since time immemorial of 25 to 40 years. So for the proportion of British people to be proud of the empire to drop from a half to a fifth between 2014-2019, suggests the sulky churlishness of an adolescent refusing to appreciate the innumerable benefits of the world they live in. Clearly those benefits have not been evenly distributed, but not only has the West benefitted, both India and China, home to over a third of the world’s population have seen massive increases of people living in relative comfort.
Yet from another perspective, the tiny fraction of people who have emanated from Europe and now settled around the globe, have unleashed devastating and possibly terminal threats on the population of the rest of the world. Packing away nuclear weapons of mass destruction seems an unlikely prospect. Humanity may well never be free of the spectre of a whirlwind of mass nuclear destruction which will far outweigh the gains in scientific understanding and industrial productivity which have marked the past 400 years. The war in Ukraine has underlined how quickly the conjunction of a few unwelcome throws of the dice could be devastating for humanity.
Even less down to chance are the probable consequences of global warming wrecking harvests, making settlements uninhabitable, generating uncontrollable population flows. Already it is the poorest areas of the world, the recipients of European colonial expansion, that are most severely damaged by climate change. The dominance of European-led globalisation could lead to catastrophic collapse from a prosperous, relatively peaceful global society to a world of hunger immiseration and conflict.
5. European colonialism can make us optimists or pessimists.
If you discuss colonialism you will inevitably find yourself in bad company. If you defend it, there will be no shortage of nationalists springing to the defence of Britain’s colonial record and chalking it up as a win in an artificially constructed culture war, disregarding the shameful legacy of enslavement, brutality, expoloitation and racial arrogance. If you speak negatively of colonialism you are giving comfort to those who would traduce Europe’s record, and—despite the massive improvements listed in the section above—write it off as nothing more than a catalogue of disgrace and shame.
Instead, to quote a favourite Dylanism, ‘the wheel’s still in spin’. As of this moment, surely the reckoning must be that after half a millennium in which western Europeans and their descendants have come increasingly to the fore, the world is in a considerably better place in terms of popular well-being, notwithstanding the vast pockets of immiseration which still exist.
‘Counter-factual’ historical imaginings can easily delude, nonetheless whilst we can easily imagine how European expansion could well have produced a better world in many ways, perhaps we do better to think of how the sudden upsurge of European economic and military power could have led to immeasurably greater brutality, exploitation and continuing, deepening oppression, of which indeed we have seen occasional glimpses but no permanent establishment. The Holocaust indicated the appalling depths to which some expressions of European power could sink. China’s current policies, where Xinjiang is but the worst example, show the brutality of national aggrandisement when unconstrained by moral principles. The outcomes of hegemonic European colonial expansion could have been inconceivably disastrous for the globe. That they have not been should make us quietly grateful. Our nineteenth century forefathers in faith would have attributed it to divine providence. I am not sure they would be wrong.
The exercise of European-developed technological and military prowess can still, of course, be an unmitigated, irreversible disaster for humankind. But I think a wiser, but always fearfully incomplete, defence against such possible disaster is a sober, chastened thankfulness for what European Christianity has given to the world, and continuing commitment to humane, thoughtful, incremental improvement.
This article was first published at John’s substack here.