The first task I have is to explain what colonialism is not. Colonialism is not a European invention or concept designed specifically to keep non-white people down. The myth of the evil white colonialist is one of the most pernicious myths espoused today, and for a couple of big reasons. The first reason is that colonialism has been around for a long time. Today, the Han practice colonialism through the fascist Chinese state. In the 19th century, the Ashanti practiced colonialism throughout their slave-trading empire. The Ottoman Turks practiced colonialism until their empire collapsed in 1923 (and with it a 600 year period of colonialism). The theocratic Javanese state of Mataram practiced colonialism until its demise in the 17th century. The Incan state was also well-versed in colonial practices.
It is important to remind readers of colonialism’s history because of a lack of criticality on society’s part. This lack of critical thinking skills stems from the condescending view of non-Western societies that the modern Western citizen has adopted. As co-blogger Jacques Delacroix so eloquently states:
Liberals profess to reject American military intervention abroad because of a strong myth of people of color’s virtuousness. According to this liberal myth, people of color, non-whites, seldom ever do anything wrong by any standard. When they do, as when they eat their neighbors, for example, it’s always somehow because of something or other that Westerners, Whites, usually Americans have done to them, or to someone else. Or something. And then, of course, you shouldn’t do anything to them or in connection with them.
The idea that Western civilization is somehow responsible for inventing and propagating colonialism is actually a condescending one, and, conveniently enough, permits me to segue into reason number two for combating the pernicious myth that White European society is to blame for all the world’s problems: the myth doesn’t allow for any intrigue or guile or cunning or Realpolitik on the part of colonized societies.
This concept is especially important to grasp if you want to gain a better understanding of how international politics works today. In the early 16th century Portuguese ships arrived on the western coast of the island of Java, one of the world’s most important trading regions at the time. The Portuguese promptly allied with a local polity, a kingdom known as Sunda, and began to work on building a fortress to protect Sundanese elites from another rival polity on the island: Demak. Got this so far? The European player on the scene is just one of aspect of what is thus far a three-way affair, and this is going on in one of the world’s busiest trading regions. One Javanese polity has enlisted the support of a European polity to help protect it against another, stronger Javanese polity. There is no coercion on the part of the Portuguese. Indeed, the Portuguese had no choice but to make alliances in order to survive in the region.
Demak recognized what was going on between Portugal and Sunda, so it attacked and defeated the two allies. Decisively. The Demak elite then created two vassal, or buffer, states out of the recently conquered territory: Cirebon and Banten. Got that? The Portuguese are out of Java. So too is the Sundanese state. What we have are three Javanese polities: Demak, Cirebon, and Banten, with the later two serving as buffer states of Demak. So Demak is practicing colonialism with the former Sundanese state.
One hundred years later saw the return of the European state to Javanese politics. European traders had been active in Java for over a century now, and the Spanish and Portuguese states both maintained expensive and inefficient fort throughout the region, but in the early 17th century traders from England and the Netherlands arrived. And they had state-allocated capital backing them. The state funds also meant that the traders would be somewhat beholden to factions back in Europe, and it precisely because of the state-sponsored capital that we see European merchants bringing Christianity with them.
When the Dutch arrived in Java the Demak state had disappeared and Banten, formerly a vassal state of Demak, was an independent polity of limited influence in the region. For its part, Demak (and its other vassal state, Cirebon) was largely replaced by the Mataram state, an inland kingdom of rapidly gaining influence. Banten tried to play the English and the Dutch off on each other because the elite essentially wanted its coastal cities to remain free trade zones. Unfortunately, the Dutch and English traders were working for state monopolies (are there any other kind?) and free trade was out of the question. Got that? It’s now the 17th century and the Dutch, the English, Mataram, and the Bantenese are all in the picture. To further complicate things the Ming state, a Han-dominated empire, was pursuing a policy of targeted migration to the northwest coast of Java.
The Batanese state was the first to go. After signing a trading deal with the Dutch, it tried to do so with the English as well in order to try and balance the two European polities off on each other. The Dutch defeated the Anglo-Banten alliance and the Dutch East Indies Company, a state-created monopoly, established a capital city on the island of Java. The English state was purged from the region, and the Bantenese were weakened by the defeat. In the following two centuries, the Bantenese and the Mataram empire would wage war against the Dutch, against each other, for the Dutch against each other, and for each other against the Dutch. Civil wars and alliances with other states in the region were constantly happening, and none of these were instigated by the Dutch polity in the region.
You see, the Europeans were far too weak to conquer Asian and African polities outright. Furthermore, the aims of the state-sponsored corporations were not to plunder, pillage or govern foreign peoples, but to enrich the states that created the monopolies. Even during the Age of Mercantilism it was recognized that colonization is a costly endeavor. Got that? By the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century the Dutch had virtually no control over its colonies, and the Dutch were often sucked into local affairs against their better judgement. The Javanese polities were not only the purveyors of violence, destruction, theft, and colonization in the region, but they actively tried to recruit the Dutch state to help them in their causes. This is a process that has been ongoing since European polities began sailing around the world, and is not limited to the Dutch/Javanese experience.
One can this very process being played out today in Iraq, Iran, Eastern Europe, Libya, Syria, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and, of course, the Indonesian archipelago. Just think of the influence that Kurdish factions have had on American policy towards Iraq (or Turkey). Think of the influence that Libyan exiles have on French and Italian policy. Think of the Tibetan influence on Western policymakers. So this whole argument that White Europeans came to dominate the globe due to bloodthirsty Christianity, or a lust for money, or a lust for power is horribly wrong.
Yes, European colonization has made a big mess of the world, but the cause of the colonial process can hardly be attributed to the actions and intrigues of Europeans alone. Polities and factions throughout the world have played an equal part in the process of colonization as it has unfolded, just as they do today.
The key to altering this ongoing process is actually quite simple: people need to recognize that individualism, free trade, internationalism, decentralized government and the rule of law are paramount for creating a peaceful and prosperous society. As co-editor Fred Foldvary said:
Africa could best have political reform with a radical decentralization of voting to the villages and urban neighborhoods. The local communities could then federate along national interests if they wished.
Indeed. Colonialism is still a problem today, both for the societies doing the colonizing as well as the colonized, but to attribute this process to Europeans, Western civilization, and capitalism is just as scurrilous to world peace and prosperity as the arguments for policing the globe. In fact, the idea that white folks and capitalism are the root of all evil is a far more worthy ideological successor to Suleiman the Magnificent’s desires than it is to Richard Cobden’s.
Opposing colonialism is a good thing, but it would be wise to remember why this is: colonialism is just Realpolitik played out to its logical end. It is never good for the colonizing society and hardly ever good for the society being colonized. It is a costly and inefficient method of meeting the demands of interest groups at the expense of society as whole.
Colonialism is a process that involves lots of different factions vying for power (and not liberty).
Arguing with apologists for Europe’s 19th century colonialism is something I don’t get to do often, so I want to take a few minutes and spell out my argument more clearly. The argument for colonialism, no matter where it comes from (whether it be Han or French), is ultimately based on two things: arrogance and altruism. In the 19th century colonialism in what is now the poor, despotic, post-colonial world making up much of Africa and Asia was considered a government program well worth taking up, for the sake of the peoples living under despotic regimes in non-European states. There is a lot of merit to this argument. However, once the Europeans finally imposed their will upon the peoples they sought to free and subsequently civilize, their mode of governance was hardly any different from that of the despotic regimes they helped to overthrow. Remember, Europeans were hardly strong or powerful enough to impose their will on populaces by themselves. They had to make alliances with rival polities in order to assert their will over a populace. Guess what happened to the allies who helped the Europeans conquer a polity? One more guess: what happened to the peoples who the Europeans purportedly wanted to help? Yes, property rights were often violated in pre-colonial regimes, but they were much better protected than they were under colonial apparatuses. Here is a useful chart showing the GDP (PPP) per capita of every state in the world. When I say that your calls to bomb the Assad regime (“we should further attack the Assad regime…”) remind me of colonialism, it is because your calls to bomb the Assad regime remind me of colonialism: you wish to help some factions in a polity defeat what you perceive to be other, more despotic factions. Mali, Chad, and Niger have all become destabilized over the last few weeks. Can you guess why? I’ll give you yet another hint: they are all neighboring states of a regime you desperately wanted to overthrow. Aren’t you glad you got your wish?
However, once the Europeans finally imposed their will upon the peoples they sought to free and subsequently civilize, their mode of governance was hardly any different from that of the despotic regimes they helped to overthrow. Very much the same point that G.K.Chesterton was making about Cecil Rhodes in the last two paragraphs of an article entitled THE SULTAN: http://www.cse.dmu.ac.uk/~mward/gkc/books/misc.html#2H_4_0029 even if you find the language rather quaint: it was written over 100 years ago.
06/28/2015 at 6:27 pm
Thanks for the heads up Pirhosigma.
I would only add, for the sake of clarity, that the colonial governments were still despotic. This is a point often lost (by Right-wingers) in the contentious debates about the role that European colonialism has played in our world.
I wish the Left would recognize that colonialism isn’t the boogieman that it thinks it is, and that the Right would recognize that colonialism only furthered the despotism found in much of Asia and Africa.
Thomas Sowell uses the same logic when he destroys the myth that only white people had slaves…how slavery has been around for all of history and used by every Nationality. So many GOOD things have come out of ‘colonialism’…too….Why do they alway pick on the white people? Because they have been the most “inventive.’ ? Mmmmm….
…property rights are key to not only prosperity and peace, but also to understanding how human beings act (sometimes through state actors, sometimes not) the way that they do.
Every nation has aspects of it’s past of which it can be proud and others of which to be ashamed. The UK was a major participant in the transatlantic slave trade which undoubtedly brought great misery to hundreds of thousands of human beings. Whenever I visit Liverpool’s Maritime Museum and walk around it’s slavery exhibitions I feel shocked to the core at man’s inhumanity to man. However the UK can be proud of the fact that it’s government abolished slavery in 1807 and played a major role in preventing the trade thereafter. Europeans should never have participated in the trade, however the task of European slavers would have been rendered far more difficult where it not for the assistance provided to them by warring tribes who often sold captives from other tribal groupings into slavery.
As indicated I think, colonialsim currently is a political propaganda tool embracd by the Left to help justify its programs. The historical fact is that all societies of man have always extended their influences as far as possible regardless of what that was called. The process arises naturally out of economic interests, seems to me though it can also be driven by internal political needs, In any case, it follows man wherever he goes, whatever the color of his hide, the culture he inhabits or the language he speaks as the post makes evident. Western whites get the current attention because they had the industrial revolution first and employed it in the ongoing, age-old process.
Good post. Liberals just hate facts — just hate ’em, hate ’em, hate ’em. They confuse them. Wait, that’s confusing, too. They (facts) confuse them (liberals). That’s better. Liberals are usually tolerant only when your view and their’s are the same.
It surprises me that modern day liberals, to include many of our black brethren, still believe slavery, imperialism and colonialism are all relevant today and some still think that restitutions should be made for their ancestors’ slavery, when modern day whites had nothing to do with their enslavement and therefore owe the modern day descendants nothing more than equal respect and opportunity. They would be better off worrying about some of the world’s despots, dictators and other deceivers, like the one in the White House right now.
Fascinating article. Like racism, colonialism is not exclusive to white Europeans. One of the better articles on colonialism that I’ve read in a while.
More Musings on Colonialism | Notes On Liberty
[…] argue that when the various European powers gained outright control of non-European lands (this process in itself took centuries, by the way, and I deplore the historical narrative that argues Europeans set out to conquer […]
I feel that the true danger in this is that it inhibits immediate recognition of colonial activities undertaken by actors who do not meet the established criteria. It creates a massive blind spot akin to only being able to recognize slavery if the slaves are of African descent and quite literally bound in irons, or only admitting that a genocide is afoot if the perpetrators sport swastikas and speak German. The worst ills that plague humanity are too often framed as belonging to either a particular race, culture, even time, or – worse – to ‘monsters,’ despite their being ancient in origin and common property of us all. Thus we continually find ourselves off-guard against them. Sitting beneath a tree, watchfully expecting the next bolt of lighting to land exactly where the last did – far from wherever we are right now.
The Spanish system of colonisation was not much different from the British which is either you capture the local king or form an alliance with him.
The British were the best colonialists because they got the scraps and had to make something of them.
The British were the best because they used a combination of “graft,” which means they used indigenous institutions as much as they could and tried to incorporate those as best they could into the British global order, and assimilation, which means they tried to find ways to make their subjects into citizens. The British were best because they had the best calibration of graft and assimilation. The French were good, too, but they focused more on assimilation. The Dutch were the opposite of the French, too much graft and not enough assimilation, a product, perhaps, of the particular corporatist character of Dutch colonialism and the VOC. The Portuguese and Spanish were awful!
As someone who is British, and who has lived in a British colony, Bermuda, I can say that being a colony has done wonders for the economy. Without the benefit of colonialism – for over 400 years – we would be simply a speck of nothing (25 square miles) in the Atlantic. We would be more likely a colony of the United States, rather like Hawaii or Puerto Rico.