I am not long off the phone with a most amazing woman, a particularly erudite British woman who, seated in her office deep in a venerable British ivory tower, took part in a discussion with others of a more hard-left bent (which is, unfortunately, mainstream in British academia), all of whom decried Britain's colonial past. My friend, a closet conservative, kept her tongue out of a sense of self preservation. But when a Malaysian professor spoke up and said she was glad her country had been colonized, an uncomfortable silence descended.
I am always amazed by how completely the modern socialists of Britain have been able to plant the canard in the British public's mind that British colonialism is a grave and unforgivable sin - and one for which the country must atone through such things as multiculturalism and reverse discrimination. It involves a complete distortion of history and today's reality.
The truth is that British Colonialism was Britain's gift to the world. A sizable chunk, if not the majority of the most prosperous and free countries in the world today have emerged from Britain's colonial empire - the US, Canada, India (which today boasts the world's biggest democracy), Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand to name but a few. Indeed, as I pointed out in a post below, the U.S. not only adopted most of Britain's legal, governmental and bureaucratic systems, but the Bill of Rights itself is in large measure an amalgam of the rights of British Protestants at the time of our nation's founding. Our debt to Britain is deep and lasting.
In all of history, I can think of only two colonial powers that have had a major positive impact on the world. The first is Rome. As they expanded throughout Western Europe, they built up the infrastructure in each area they laid claim. They brought with them writing and a language that unlocked a rich store of knowledge. They brought advanced science, engineering and sophisticated forms of government administration. These things they left in their wake, allowing Western Europe to evolve much faster than those who did not benefit from Roman rule.
This Monty Python short from the Life of Brian that perfectly captures what it meant to be colonised by Rome.
The second colonial power to have such a major positive impact is of course Britain. The Brits, just like the Romans, brought a host of benefits to the nations they colonized, from education to the English language, from trade to capitalism, from government bureaucracy and democracy to the British legal system. What further set Britain apart from other colonial powers of the time was that Britain tended to treat her colonies as what amounts to junior trading partners. That was a major difference between Britain, Spain and France. The latter two looked upon their colonies as areas to be exploited for their riches
Compare Britain's former colonies today with those of France and Spain. The former are mostly functional, stable and economically viable states. The latter tend to be dysfunctional, corrupt and with lesser economic development.
For instance, compare the U.S. and Canada to Mexico, Argentina, or virtually any of the other South and Central American countries colonized and raped of their resources by Spain. Compare Nigeria - perhaps the most stable and prosperous of African states - with France's Chad. They are mirror opposites. Compare any of Britain's Caribbean Island colonies with France's former slave colony of Haiti, the poorest and most dysfunctional country in the Western Hemisphere.
There have been three classes of locales where British colonialism did not work to leave strong, stable countries in its wake. These classes are Islamic countries, many African countries still mired in tribalism, and in those countries that have suffered coups or dictatorships in the wake of Britain's withdrawal.
Virtually every Islamic majority country colonized at one time by Britain has failed to develop. Most today are ruled by autocracies of one form or another and are saddled with moribund economies. The reasons for that can be gleaned from the observations of Winston Churchill made during his time in the Middle East as a soldier and memorialized in his book, The River Wars:
"How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries.
Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.
Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen; all know how to die; but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. . . .
The River War, first edition, Vol. II, pages 248-50 (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1899).
With the observations of Churchill in mind, compare Pakistan and neighboring India. Both were part of Britain's colonial empire and both received their independence at the same time. The people of Pakistan and India are of the same race. The only difference between them is that Pakistan is an Islamic country under the increasing influence of Wahhabism. Today, India is the world's largest democracy, it is a free capitalist nation with a booming economy. Pakistan is mired in poverty, its democracy is atrophied and its civilian elected government has only the most tenuous hold on power.
Or for that matter, compare all other Middle East countries with Israel. Israel has a vibrant democracy and economy built on the British model. All of the other many former British colonies in the Middle East, from Egypt to Jordan to Arabia and others, all have dysfunctional autocracies and weaker economies.
The second group of countries that did not benefit from British colonialism are those countries that were driven off the track by a coup or the installation of a dictator in the wake of Britain's withdrawal. Zimbabwe is one example. Uganda is another, as is Burma. Indeed, Burma exists next to Malaysia, another of Britain's colonies. Malaysia has a GDP fully 14 times that of Burma. And also close by is Singapore, one of the richest places on earth in terms of GDP. Malaysia and Singapore embraced the gifts of British colonialism. Burma was subject to a military coup by a junta that sought to impose Karl Marx's socialism.
Lastly are those former colonies in African nations where tribalism was and is stronger than nationalism. That said, Nigeria, once Britain's colony, is rapidly becoming the jewel of Africa based on the British model. It is overcoming a degree of tribalism that is amazing. Over a century ago, over 500 different languages where spoken in Nigeria. Today, English is the unofficial unifying language and Nigeria is a functioning nation state with a rapidly expanding economy.
To put all of this in perspective, the belief among Brits that British Colonialism is an unforgivable sin comes out of the socialist ethos of Karl Marx who famously wrote in the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto:
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
Marx, a creature of his time and place, wrote his grand theory of history specifically as a condemnation of the colonialism, imperialism and capitalism that formed his world. But Marx's theory is a deeply distorting and simplistic one that ignores all which does not fit cleanly within its theoretical box.
Brits today who decry the colonial period are embracing their inner Marx. Britain's socialists, as Marx's theory directs, would focus on the sins of their forefathers as unforgivable while ignoring all of the reality around them. Today's British socialists suicidally think of nationalism as an evil and they would deconstruct their own nation out of guilt.
The reality is that virtually every nation on this earth has at one time or another taken control of the territory of others by force. If the Pakistanis make Brits feel guilty for colonization, lift up the knickers on Pakistan's history and you will find brutal wars of aggression against her neighbors sprinkled throughout her history. Virtually all nations and races have been colonial powers or fought brutal wars of aggression at points in their history. There are sins aplenty in every nation on earth.
And if we are going to do a comparative itemization of sins, let's begin with the Arabs and the Turks who spread Islam by the sword during the greatest imperialistic expansion in our world's history. They spent centuries laying waste to mostly Christian lands and installing Islam and Arab/Turkish rule in its stead. The Arabs made conquest of the entire Middle East, all of North Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan, much of Spain and parts of Italy, with forays into France. The Turks did the same in Byzantium, Greece, and the Balkans, until finally beaten back at the gates of Vienna, Austria. And these colonizers never left of their own free will. Together the Arabs and the Turks are leagues beyond Britain in the breadth of their expansion and colonialism. Nor, with hindsight, can we say that their colonization was in any way benign.
But that aside, if Brits today believe colonialism is wrong, then they need not further engage in it. But that does not mean that they alone have to atone for outlandishly magnified sins of the past.
The penultimate question one must ask is whether the world would be better off today had there been no British colonialism? To anyone of intellectual honesty - and to at least one Malaysian professor teaching in Britain today - the answer to that question has to be an emphatic and absolute "No." The truth is that there is a significant portion of this world that owes their peace, prosperity and stability to the legacy of British colonialism.
The real tragedy is not that Britain was once a colonial power, but that today, Britain is so chained up in the distorting guilt of Marxian philosophy and so embracing of that philosophy's bastard child, multiculturalism, that a significant portion of Britain's populace - and in particular much of it's political and academic elite - no longer value and are willing defend their own culture and heritage. That said, if these individuals would only look about, they would see that there are a host of countries across the world who, once colonized, have adopted the many benefits Britain bequeathed them and are quite willing to defend to the death those benefits today.