Colonialism: WTF? Introduction to colonialism and imperialism
Hello, my name’s Tom, and welcome to another episode of What the Theory?, my somewhat sporadic series in which I aim to provide some sometimes enjoyable but certainly accessible introductions to some key concepts in the humanities. A few people have asked in the comments to some of my other What the Theory? videos for a video about postcolonialism. And that was certainly the video that I set out to write today. However, just as when we were looking at postmodernism it was important for us to first have a decent grasp on modernism to really understand the ramifications for postmodernism, it became increasingly clear that it was key to have a proper understanding of colonialism before even being able to begin to discuss postcolonialism. And, although I did try initially to work them into one video, it looked like it was gonna be absolutely massive. So, what I decided to do instead is to split it up into two videos, this first one on colonialism and a second one on postcolonialism which will come out shortly after. If you would like to see that video when it does come out then please do consider subscribing and, equally, if you have any suggestions or desires for a video you’d like to see then please do comment down below and let me know, that’s always really useful. A second precursor to this video is that I’m aware that, as someone from England, my understanding of both colonialism and postcolonialism can only ever really be academic. As such, what I’ve aimed to do throughout both videos is to draw on a wide range of scholars many of whom have a far more visceral experience of colonialism and the repercussions of that. For now, though, here we go with Colonialism: What the Theory? Colonization has a long history. Archaic Greece (that’s the period just before Classical Greece) established colonies both around the Mediterranean Sea but also around the Black Sea. They did so partly in order to gain access to different kinds of raw materials but also to deal with their overpopulation problem. The notion of Empire similarly goes back to Ancient Egypt when the Upper Valley, led by King Narmer, conquered the Lower Valley thus uniting the country. And it’s worth saying early on in this video that, within what today we’re going to be referring to as colonialism, there is in fact a number of different political systems. So, colonialism and the idea of going to “settle” a foreign land is very different to the idea of Empire and one nation ruling over another territory. For the purposes of today’s video, however, we’re going to largely conflate both those two (and also the many kind of sub forms of colonialism or Empire) in order to talk more broadly about the notion of one nation ruling over a distant territory, usually overseas. And this is partly simply for the reason that I often cite, in order to keep this video digestible in one sitting, but also because, as always with this series, what I’m interested in today is primarily the cultural both implications and justifications of colonialism rather than the minutiae of each of the particular political systems which enabled it to happen. And, despite those historical antecedents which I’ve already discussed, we’re today exclusively going to be talking about modern colonialism; that is when European nations set out to either send their own citizens to settle in foreign territories or established political control overseas. So, let’s begin with a brief (and certainly incomplete) review of how the process of colonisation happened. From the early 16th century, technological advances in both shipbuilding and also navigation allowed a number of European nations to travel overseas much further than they had before. And, with this, they identified possible trade benefits. Though this period often gets termed (extremely problematically) as the “Age of Discovery”, it’s important to remember that, as Jean Brown Mitchell reminds us in the Encyclopedia Britannica article, that ‘it was new roots rather than new lands that filled the minds of kings and commoners, scholars and seamen’. Particularly, many European nations were keen to access more quickly and more directly luxury goods from Asia. Commodities such as pepper and many spices until this point had to be transported over land thus going through many different territories each of which would add their own layer of profit. Their motive, then, was that, by more directly importing some of these goods over the sea rather than over land, they might be able to cut out some middlemen and therefore bring the price down on these items. As nations set off in search of these trade routes, however, time and again they instead found themselves encountering new land masses which they were previously unaware of. (This ignorance to other continents is in spite of the fact that the Vikings had previously visited North America, but that’s perhaps a story for another time). A prime example of this is the Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus who was searching for a passage to Asia when he instead came across the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas (known to its then inhabitants as Guanahani). As more lands began to be “discovered”, European nations largely decided, rather than just to trade with the indigenous peoples, to instead establish political control over these territories and rule them from afar. And it’s worth remembering that, in all cases, the primary motive for doing so was to better exploit these newly found lands for economic advantage. In South America, for example, Spain found a number of veins of silver ore; whereas, in North America, it was largely tobacco that was deemed to have real economic potential back in Europe. Due to similar technological advances in shipbuilding and navigation that had led to the first contact between Europe and the Americas, this period also saw the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade in which expeditions from European nations set out to West Africa to either abduct African people themselves or purchase them from local slave catchers. Enslaved Africans were, for the most part, shipped to the Americas in order to carry out the work that the exploitation of the natural resources of that continent required. Spain’s silver mines and the tobacco farms of the British colonies, then, were populated largely by enslaved people from Africa. And it’s worth pointing out that, in establishing their political power over the rest of the world, slavery and colonialism very much intersected to make the European nations that were involved in both even more powerful. And it wasn’t just about exploiting the natural resources of these newly found territories, it was as much about being able to control trade both going into these places and out of them. The Industrial Revolution in Britain, for example, was largely made possible because of the “new markets” that were opened up through the expansion of the empire. The fact that European colonialism was initially driven by trade rather than by the political motive of wanting to have that kind of political control over the rest of the globe can perhaps be seen most keenly in the example of the various East India Companies. The East India Companies of Britain, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal were initially private companies. The British East India Company, for example, was a private enterprise which set out for India in order, primarily, to make money off the spice trade. They gradually, however, also became involved in the trading of cotton, opium and slaves. It was this private company which initially took control, by force, of the Indian subcontinent; it was only after the Indian Mutiny of 1857 in which control was passed directly to the UK government. This would be a very long video if I attempted to lay out the exact things which happened in every case whereby a European nation took political and economic control over another. By 1900, however, European nations had control of over 75% of the rest of the world. It’s also worth pointing out how recent much of this activity was for while here we’ve mainly focused on the beginnings of the colonization process, much of this activity continued well into the 20th century. For example, only 10% of the continent of Africa was under European control as recently as 1870 when the so called “Scramble for Africa” saw this grow over a few decades to 90 percent. For the rest of this video, however, I want to focus not on the political system of colonialism but instead on the ideology of colonialism that sat beneath that. And the ideology of colonialism had two main effects in its contemporary period: the first was to legitimise these actions in the minds of those who were undertaking them and the citizens of the countries in whose names they were supposedly acting. But far more important is the impact of colonial ideology on the so-called “subjects” of the countries which were being ruled over. Margaret Cohen and Kavita Reddy document the development of colonialism as an ideology fairly extensively in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for the term. Most interesting is their reminder that early colonialism took place within a political and religious context in which notions of Natural Law, a philosophy developed most influentially by Thomas Aquinas which argued that all human beings, as God’s creations, had certain inherent rights, was gaining traction. The popularity of this philosophy had even reached the Vatican and, very early on, Pope Innocent IV, in stark contrast to the papal authority given to the Crusades, stated that it was not legitimate for European nations to wage war on indigenous peoples simply for the reason that they were not Christians. Instead, violence against these people could only be just if they were seen to be breaking Natural Law themselves. As Cohen and Reddy write, ‘non-believers had legitimate dominion over themselves and their property, but this dominion was abrogated if they proved incapable of governing themselves according to principles that every reasonable person would recognise’. Here, then, we find the genus of an idea which is a mainstay of colonial ideology throughout the ages in which people already living in lands which European nations wished to colonize were presented as being uncivilized and thus having no understanding themselves of any kind of moral code. As early as Columbus’s second voyage to South America, the Spanish drew upon very flimsy evidence that the indigenous people were engaging in cannibalism in order to present them as being “uncivilized” and thus in contravention of natural law. Colonialist Nations came to brand their conquering enterprises not as attempts to take control of foreign lands and indenture indigenous people for material gain but, instead, as some kind of mission to “civilize” the “uncivilized” peoples of the world. Such notions of “civilizing the natives” continued long after the Enlightenment where Reason largely replaced God as the moral arbiter. John Stuart Mill, for example, though recognizing the exploitative nature of colonialism, largely came to accept that a period of political control was needed in order to civilize indigenous peoples to a point where they might be capable of self-government. Of Spanish attempts to ‘civilize the Indians of Paraguay’ he writes that ‘the real difficulty was the improvidence of the people; their inability to think for the future; and the necessity accordingly of the most unremitting and minute superintendence on the part of their instructors’. We see here that notion of the Spanish being required to “instruct” Paraguayans in how to live in a society. These justifications for colonialism and imperialism were developed further following the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. Philosophers including Herbert Spencer and Karl Pearson attempted to apply Darwin’s theories of evolution to human society in a developmental view of history which argued that all human societies were on the same trajectory. Thus, they posited pre-industrial nations, rather than having entirely different contexts to European nations, were just “less developed”. This sat alongside a number of pseudo-scientific treatises which attempted to suggest that non-Europeans (or non-white people) were in some way “less evolved” than Europeans. A combination of both of these can be found in Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem The White Man’s Burden in which he depicts “the white man” as been burdened by the responsibility of bringing colonized (non-white) people ‘to the light’ of civilization. I won’t give you an awful poetry recital here but I will leave a link down to the poem below if you want to go and have a read of it along with some other further reading from around this topic. We can get a taste for what this “civilizing mission” looked like by taking a brief look at the education system in India under the British Raj. Prior to the arrival of the British in India, an informal system of education already existed in the continent. It was largely focused on the education of boys over girls and funded by patronage rather than by government, but this was true of education systems all across the world including in most of Europe. Initially, educating the people of India was not even a thought in the mind of colonizing forces, however, eventually, partly due to pressure from Indian officers within the East India Company and party due to the need to recruit administrative workers from the continent itself, the company passed a charter which started the process of beginning an education system in India. Rather than building upon the informal network of schools which already existed, however, the East India Company, and eventually the Raj, instead decided to build their own completely new system. And, as Syama Prasad Mookerjee argues, the system they built ‘was largely dissociated from the cultural and educational traditions of the people and made an alien language the vehicle of new ideas that were expected to regenerate the people of India’. Education was to be carried out only in the English language and to focus on a so- called “Western curriculum”. It was only accessible by those who were already relatively affluent with the idea that this would cause a filtration of British culture down into lower castes. The motive of this education system was indeed laid out pretty bluntly by the British MP Thomas Macaulay who wrote that ‘we must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, opinions, words and intellect’. Further, to those opposed to such a process of acculturation, he suggested that ‘I’ve never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia’. This entire education system, then, was predicated on the notion that European (or, mostly, British) culture was vastly superior to that which already existed in India. Across the subcontinent, the likes of Shakespeare and Milton were deployed as examples of how great this culture is and also to build an affinity amongst Indians to the land that was colonising them rather than their own nation. More broadly, the publication of works of literature in Sanskrit and other indigenous languages was suppressed in order to stop great works of Indian culture being spread throughout the continent. And we’ll see in the following video about postcolonialism the effect that this has had on a number of different nations: the suppression of indigenous and already- existing culture in those countries at the expense of extending the reach of the “great European Canon”. So, to tie this all up a little bit: we have, in this video, taken a very incomplete look at colonialism. It is an absolutely massive subject and one which has had ramifications for the whole world and how we talk about human geography. As we’ll see in my next video on post colonialism, previously colonized nations are still dealing with the material and cultural consequences of colonialism and, equally, echoes of colonial rhetoric can be found in the way that contemporary politicians talk about military intervention (primarily from Europe or from America) into the Middle East. But also in that whole notion of how we talk about “the West” or “Western culture”. For today, however, that just about wraps it up. This has been a step into a slightly new field for me, something which I’ve studied a little bit before but not to this depth. So, it’s been really really enlightening. If you have any questions, however, please feel free to put those below and I, or perhaps some other visitors to this video, will have an attempt to find you some answers for those. As always, if you think this video might be a vague net positive for the world then please do consider giving it a thumbs up, that’s always really helpful. But thank you very much for watching and have a great week!