Your opinion on colonialism

Your opinion on colonialism

It’s terrible.  It is terrible, it was terrible, there is no way of doing it that isn’t terrible.

You get a lot of Westerners – especially in England – tying themselves in knots, trying to find a way in which colonialism was somehow ‘not that bad,’ which has never seemed to me to be a morally adult endeavour.  Colonialism stripped countries of so many different types of wealth – not just capital, but cultural and human too.  How many Beethoven’s or Einsteins or Curies or Austens were lost to the world, because they were being crushed and enslaved by an occupying power?

That’s not to say there weren’t some aggregated benefits to countries that were colonised – access to western medicine (in particular vaccinations) being an obvious and huge benefit to any civilisation – but the vast majority of those benefits 1) could have been accrued in other ways, and 2) occurred so that the occupying power could more effectively generate wealth from the colonised country.  In my book, there’s no credit for doing things that were only accidentally beneficial, if the chief aim was more effective expropriation of the people you did them for.

It’s not a coincidence that so many of the world’s ongoing conflict zones – DRC, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Kashmir – are in formerly colonised countries.  Colonialism fucks up a country’s political identity, often for generations.  (The only places this didn’t happen – Australia, the US, Canada – are where the colonisation was so overwhelming it became impossible for the indigenous people to mount an effective resistance).  

Ireland is a useful example here, because unlike the later decolonisations in Africa and Asia, it’s arguable that Ireland was de-colonised properly (albeit, this was entirely accidental).  People often forget – or never knew to begin with – that there were more than fifty years of political campaigning for independence in Ireland before the 1916 Rising.  And those fifty years mattered – as Irish men got the vote, political movements agitating for change sprung up – campaigning for reform of land ownership, or women’s votes, or worker’s rights.  There was an entire cultural revolution, promoting the Irish language, promoting Irish sports, developing a national theatre to fight back against the English depictions of ‘stage Irishmen.’  

All of this happened before political independence, and as a result you had entire generations indoctrinated with certain democratic precepts – one man, one vote, elections being sacrosanct, peaceful transfers of power.  Westerners tend to take those assumptions for granted, but they are not necessarily intuitive – and many of the countries that decolonised in the 50s and 60s had their first ever free election in the same year they gained independence.  

Democracy depends on a certain level of education – and here’s a horrifying statistic for you: when the Democratic Republic of Congo (though I don’t think it was called that at the time) gained independence, there were only 12 university graduates in the whole country.

Think about it – a country roughly two thirds the size of Western Europe, with only 12 university graduates.  The Belgians effectively abandoned them – they subjected the Congo to the most nightmarish colonisation imaginable (think of the levels of brutality in the Eastern Front during World War Two, and you’d be about right), devastated the social and political infrastructure, and did virtually nothing to educate the population.  

All of this would be bad enough, but of course the Congo – like many other de-colonised countries – was sucked into the competition between the Americans and the Soviets in the Cold War, something which led directly to the American-sponsored execution of its first Prime Minister,

Patrice Lumumba.

At least when Ireland gained independence it was effectively left alone.  But Vietnam, Congo, Cambodia, Uganda… so many of those countries were never even given that chance.  Like, the Irish governments post-Independence were terrible in many ways – the Irish state was authoritarian and rigidly socially conservative from 1922 until, oh, the late 60s, and the legacy of that has yet to be grappled with – but when a political party lost an election, they accepted that loss as the natural order of things.  

Which might not seem like very much, but it’s what separates Éamon DeValera from Robert Mugabe.  Both men were involved in their country’s fight for independence, both men were thorns in the sides of the imperial powers after independence… but when DeValera lost an election, he acknowledged that fact and stepped down from office.  (I am simplifying things hugely here – and it’s possible that the Irish civil war – which forced a split in the political party that delivered independence – played a big role in forcing acceptance of democratic norms early on in the existence of the state, at least as they pertained to who was supposed to be in government).

But how much of that – and this is perhaps worrying to think about – was because the Irish population, being long-educated in how elections are supposed to work, simply wouldn’t have accepted it if he’d tried to stay in office.  Zimbabwe had its first free election in 1980.  South Africa didn’t have one until 1994.  It’s not surprising that those countries have become in many ways one party states – I want to be clear, I’m not blaming the people who vote for them.  

From their perspective, it’s like voting for Churchill.  The man (or party) that secured independence, that drove out the evil Empire, is standing for election – of course you vote for him.  Especially, if you have almost no experience of how democratic politics is supposed to work, because you’ve been under the jackboot of an expropriating, racist power for decades.  If you were in Star Wars, wouldn’t you vote for Princess Leia?  

It gives those people huge political leverage, and if, while they’re in government there’s some graft, some corruption, people are disappearing for no reason… well it’s nothing compared to what was going on before.

The prevalence of strong men politicians and human rights abuses across the de-colonised world is not a coincidence, it’s the result of a political vaccuum that was purposefully created by the colonising powers.  And anyone who tries to argue that building a few trainlines somehow balances the scales doesn’t deserve the compliment of rational opposition as far as I’m concerned.