Imperialism - A Different Perspective

 by Wakeley Paul


"I CANNOT THINK OF ANY PLACE THAT BRITAIN LEFT LEFT WORSE -LESS HEALTHY - LESS PROSPEROUS - LESS EDUCATED - THAN WHEN SHE FOUND IT"
JOHN DERBYSHIRE, NATIONAL REVIEW

"OUR MASTERS THEN, WERE STILL AT LEAST OUR COUNTRYMEN"
LORD BYRON, FROM THE MOUTH OF A GREEK PATRIOT

These represent opposite sentiments and opposing attitudes toward imperialism. Colonials are loathe to recognize the unquestioned advances made under imperial rule. "They did it to benefit themselves" they cry. Who else would they seek to benefit? The imperialists didn't come with the intent of improving the colonies. The motives of the Imperialists were the same basic motives that govern all international action, namely national self interest. The results were incidental but important.

Does the motive really matter? Good motives can produce disastrous results and visa versa. The Sinhalese believed that they were well motivated to advance Sinhala Buddhism, but the results have been unquestionably disastrous.

Former colonial subjects rarely acknowledge the advances made under imperial rule without questioning the imperialist's motives. The roads, the railways, the organized plantations were built for their profit they cry. Of course they were, but the motives are irrelevant It is the results, whether good or harmful that matter.

Once the British empire got into its stride, there were humanitarians with nobler aspirations and visions who stepped in. There were the evangelists, the educators, the civil servants, doctors, lawyers and engineers who broadened our views and perspectives and helped us to reach new horizons. Some, among the converted and unconverted, viewed each other as different end beams off the same common source of light, while others regarded religious conversion as an imperialist conspiracy to assuage their colonial subjects and mollify them. The advances in the fields of education in science, law, democracy, and western philosophy are only grudgingly acknowledged as something that would have emerged in the course of time, anyway. The horrors the subject people were heir to when locally ruled are shoved under the mattress with the sentiment, well "at least they were us". Were they? Those rulers were a race apart from their people. Representative government was an alien concept, which is why it was not really strange for the average colonial subject to accept their new foreign conquerors without undue upheaval. The endless civil wars among tribal entities, races and even among themselves were tamed by British intervention, even if their actions were motivated by commercialism.and the need to maintain order. Sentimentality glorifies the national past while ignoring portions of its gory past.

Wars and struggles for Independence from British rule, for example, did not erupt spontaneously overnight. The colonials accepted their rulers. The leaders of the colonies became little Englishmen before they became ardent nationalists Gandhi, Nehru, the Bandaranaikes and Senanayakes were all products of parents who were anglophiles. They were all the products of British education before their spirits were aroused to demand Independence. English education and English concepts of justice was the incense that motivated them to become nationalists. The English language had become such a symbol of advancement, that I remember vividly, one journalist saying contemptuously, "they cannot even speak English properly!". A fluent command of the English language, actually became the false criterion for determining literacy. That's how deeply we were influenced by British thinking, a fact not to be ignored.

Imperialism carried with it a mixture of salutary goals such as the abolition of slavery commingled with the dastardly reparations demanded from the Chinese for the seizure of opium in Canton. These good and evil phenomena were all part of the imperial heritage. It was no different to other historical phenomena. It had its wings and its swings and was like the phantom in town. sometimes it was here, sometimes there and sometimes it was no where to be found, but its impact was ever present.

Imperialism is a curious phenomenon of history, which had its opponents as much among the rulers as amongst the ruled. Dr Johnson and Adam Smith in England were anti imperialists In the 19th century, the Manchester liberals opposed imperialist adventures on the grounds that it hindered free trade. Former colonials are now opposing free trade which is being fostered by the World Bank the I M F and the W T O.. Prime Minister Disraeli proclaimed the virtues of imperialism as being in Britain's interest, while his rival Gladstone, ranted and raved over the inhumanity and injustice inflicted on peoples in distant colonies. They despised each others views with such civility, over this and other subjects, that when Disraeli was asked to define the difference between 'tragedy and disaster' he said "If Mr Gladstone fell in the Thames fully clothed and was unable to swim, that would be a tragedy, but if someone rescued him, that would be a disaster"

Colonialism was not a phenomenon that emerged overnight as a conscious policy of Britain. As J R Seely, the famous historian famously remarked "It happened in a fit of absence of mind" Sometimes the flag followed trade, sometimes trade followed the flag, but the flag ended up , just about everywhere.

Americans who ostensibly disavow colonialism as contrary to their historical tradition, had the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, Samoa and the Panama Canal Zone listed as U S possessions as late as 1924. The Americans were quick to disavow this, claiming that they were mere temporary protectorates under their tutelage, not colonies. " We did not have Royal Durbars to impress on the ruled that we were their rulers "they protested. "We were there to help them, not rule them" they insisted "We were ready to move out the moment we were done with what had to be done" was their plea. Does not this same refrain recur over Afghanistan & Iran ? How temporary is the control of these outposts ?. Hawaii became a state of the Union, P R has become a virtual satellite. President Bush and his cabinet keep reiterating that the war on terrorism over which Afghanistan and Iran were fought and won, will be long and protracted. So the claim that they will leave when their mission is accomplished seems meaningless. The question is "When is when and is when; and is when for ever "?

Is there a new philosophy since 9/11 that since terrorism lurks everywhere, everywhere is fair game for American intervention. Does this spread to those nations that pose a danger to this country because of uncontrolled native or not so native diseases, which if unchecked now, can have universal impact later. Such interventions are not without precedent. The Panamanian dictator was overthrown for endangering the US by the growth and export of drugs, Mossadeq was overthrown for nationalizing and jeopardizing the flow of oil to the west. The liberal left justifies some of these interventions on humanitarian grounds; the conservatives on the grounds of national interest. On whatever ground, intervention is necessary whether it be for the human good or the national interest. International agencies like the United Nations are welcomed by liberals to broaden the importance of the humanitarian trumpet call to action, but considered by conservatives as dangerous to the national interest. It is like transferring the powers of the Congress to the General Assembly" they argue, "and that is a reckless abandonment of power to an organization that does not represent the national interest". "It is a meaningless surrender of power to the powerless, which America can ill afford" they insist. They carry this further with some justification and say, " The powerless should emulate us, not the other way around. We have hardly any desire or need to be ruled by them" They may well have a point or two or three.

Sri Lanka, like many former Brutish colonies, is heir to a new form of colonization, and imperialism from within. The Sinhalese pretend that we are fellow countrymen in order to rule us. In the words of D.S.Senanayake, on the verge of our being granted independence from Britain, "Do you want to be governed from London, or do you want as Ceylonese, to help govern Ceylon" That appeal is now hollow. The underlying truth is that 'They are they, And we are we, And the time has come, For us to part" Those who the British claimed to unite are falling apart and demanding separation. These are the new emerging ethnic trends in the former loosely merged colonies. While the west becomes inter racial we emerge in an opposite direction as part of our present history.

The bottom line is that imperialists are unloved, whatever they may say or do. Americans who always want to be liked, find this hard to believe. They genuinely, if naively, believe, that their interventions are necessary to save mankind from one disaster or another. The British and other former imperialists had no such illusions. They intended to impress their colonials that they were a superior breed who had a right by force to control their inferiors; and to do so for every ones good. It didn't matter that they were motivated by self interest and were disliked for it. That were not there to be liked. They were there to rule... They had no qualms about turning their colonies into mini Englands while retaining some of the native pageantry. But it was "Rule Brittania, Brittania rules the waves" even if they had to wave the rules to do so. The colonials were there to be ruled, not loved...

The Americans shudder at the thought. Every current American intervention is bathed in honorable intentions and objectives and accompanied by a desire to leave the moment their goals are accomplished. The trouble is, are they ever accomplished? NATO forces yet linger in Europe 58 years after the end of World II. The cold war that motivated NATO has come and gone, but they yet remain.. Korea, fifty years after a truce was declared, is yet divided by its DMZ, [De-militarized zone]. The Vietnam war is an unceasing source of agony,analysis, and comparison; while the Gulf wars end, but never end. The Arab Israeli conflict into which America has not poked its physical fingers except by providing money and supplies to Israel, is yet a matter of dominant concern.to the whole world. Why has there been no physical intervention by America in this conflict ? Because Israel is regarded as self sufficient in coping with the problem. Intervention is only justified when the U S views the locals as incapable of treating their own sores..

While we fight our battle for political independence , we must not fail to realize that the most potent form of modern imperialism is economic imperialism. The foreigners presence though physically absent is an ever present factor in the existence of the third world.. Whether it be through direct aid or aid through the World Bank or the IMF or the presence of multi national corporations through free trade and open competition, the purse strings of the third world are controlled and maneuvered by the west. Subsidized agriculture in the first world shrinks markets for the third world farmer whose economies are mainly agricultural. Recently, third world delegates walked out of the WTO talks in Cancun, Mexico, on the ground that the first world was not cutting the subsidies enough to help the third world farmers Here again, the Third World makes the mistake of assuming that the first world owes them a living. They don't. Their primary obligation is to sustain their farmers and make them productive citizens. The third world also ignores the American farmers argument that they feed the world based on higher yielding agricultural techniques, without which the world could be driven back to tarvation. "There is no way" they insist "that the third world farmer, with his outmoded techniques, could fill that void. It will hurt rather than help these weeping protesters" the farmers proclaim. The underlying truth is that despite our protests and demands for change, we have to recognize that the west controls our economic puppet strings and will continue to do so.. We have also to remember, that unlike the British, our present Sinhala rulers are moribund financially, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. We have nothing to gain from their rule. Our only expectation is relief on being released from their control. They leave us with no gold. They leave us instead with a share of their national debt, incurred in mainly in fighting us.

Our objectives are to move toward greater self sustenance, much, much, easier said than done. I remember a Sinhalese friend once saying to me " What have you fellahs got to worry about. You people wanted education, and now you are getting the best of it abroad" 'How true' I thought, 'now let us use it'. We have education combined with experience and expertise from abroad. That is our golden asset to be squeezed to efficient capacity.

What we cannot afford is to be left exponentially behind on the one hand; or have a brain drain like the Sinhalese suffered from their treatment of us. We need to tap a combination of resources consisting of education, experience and expertise, as the Israelis have done to maximum advantage. Internationally, we must be an inspiration to investors and helpers who do not harm our national interests. National interest can at times be self defeating, a danger we must be constantly conscious of.. Our alliances cannot be founded on the now defunct divisions twixt left and right. Our goals must be more pragmatic than that. On occasion, national interest may give way to international cooperation.. Above all, we must disabuse ourselves that anyone else owes us a living. It may be in the interest of the first world to have a prosperous third world to trade with, but we have to provide that prosperity, as the recipients of the Marshall plan did so effectively.after World War II. They became a source of inspiration for what they accomplished with the aid they received. Israel is another example of how to be an inspiring beneficiary of aid. The Third World has a history of blaming everybody but themselves for their pathetic plight. First it was their imperial rulers, then their former rulers, then the Tamils who were favored by the rulers, then federalists, then separatists, then back to their imperial rulers. It goes on and on in a never ending cycle. The arrow never points to them

In the end, we are heirs of a British imperialist tradition. The Americans may like to forget it, but cannot. They are as much heirs of it as we are Jan Morris, an an epilogue to Farewell to Trumpets saw the empire as "that infinitely slow and spasmodic movement towards the unity of mankind" We are bound together by the English Language, traditions of English Law, The MAGNA CARTA and the concept of modern Democracy. Canada, Australia , India, South Africa, Malaysia and several African nations are heirs of this heritage. 71% of the freed nations, are democracies, giving the benefit of the doubt of the use of that term to describe some of them.

Our expatriates would not be functioning effectively abroad if not for a combination of these inherited assets We have a most talented, energetic, and effective Diaspora as any nation. They function most powerfully in the English speaking world. Let us not forget our debt to the British Empire for all they have given us. It is no shame to give thanks. It is but a civilized gesture, like tact is in marriage. We cannot live without it, or deny it when it is due.

I end this, hoping that no one will interpret this, as my being an advocate of imperialism past or present. Past Imperialism had its drawbacks, today's forms of imperialism pose lurking dangers we must recognize and deal with. Screaming at and blaming it for creating a host of problems for us is not the answer. We have to devise counter measures to neutralize its effects and where possible, turn them to our advantage .This requires calculation in moderation, not hollering in aggravation.

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Posted September 27, 2003