Independence Square, Colombo
My friend at Notes from Ceylon has written a measured defense of colonialism. His argument seems to be that colonialism was not all bad and may have, on the whole, been a good thing. This is contrary to the Piers Brendon book he’s reviewing, which characterizes it as a global suck. My view is sort of like that towards a child borne of rape. It came from a bad place, but you can’t help but love the child.
The world we live in today is defined by the sins and sacrifices of our ancestors more than their triumphs. The current ethnic makeup and former economic power of the United States was built on slavery. The current economic power of China is built on lessons learnt from genocidal economic and social mistakes. The European wealth that drove much of the civilization of the last few hundred years was plundered from the colonies.
On one level, this is simply how life flows across the world. It has no eye for niceties or orders, it simply takes the path of least resistance. Sailing and communication technology meant that the globe would be connected at some point. Since the Chinese bowed out and Arabs didn’t organize, it came down to the Europeans. Since there was no Al Jazeera, shit happened. Somethings grew from the shit, which is what NFC and others cite as the lasting benefits of colonialism.
British-built roads, railways, seaports and airfields were designed to facilitate colonial commerce and project imperial power, yet were of incommensurable value to the local people who also used them
In addition to transport, we also have a common lingua for communication, a global Internet based in English and a set of democratic, Parliamentary values that come from the west. Founded on hypocrisy yes, but still something that youth from Tunisia to Oman can give birth to anew. These are obvious benefits.
The question, however, is are they worth the cost. Sitting here now you have to say yeah, because we don’t know anything else and we’re kinda attached to the reality we’re in. But were there better ways to connect the world? Obviously yes.
Colonialism in Sri Lanka was relatively benign compared to the horrors of Africa. The destruction and latent violence of colonialism was such that almost every colonized country erupted in bloody warfare when the colonists left. Then there is the lingering hurt pride, used by unscrupulous dictators from Mugabe to Gaddafi. We are still paying for the bad karma of colonialism, even as we reap its benefits.
However, like a child borne of rape, this world has an identity of its own. There are lessons to be learnt from the past, but I don’t feel any particular emotional judgement looking back. I think many nationalists are mad at colonialism because they didn’t think of it first. I think many liberals rail against it because they feel guilty. I am born a lot later and have seen both sides and in between. I must say, I see things as a child, with a hope and a future of its own. You have to think that if not for slavery we wouldn’t have, well, not Obama, but let’s say Tupac. If not for colonialism we wouldn’t have me (included for personal import, not global). I think that humans generally fuck stuff up in the beginning, but there’s no life without fucking.