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THE on­go­ing Black Lives Mat­ter protests have fo­cused at­ten­tion on Bri­tain’s his­tory of tak­ing re­sources, wealth and slaves from other coun­tries, with calls for it to be taught in schools. Dr Joanne Ruth Davis, re­search as­so­ciate at SOAS (School of Ori­en­tal & African Stud­ies) Univer­sity of Lon­don gave us this run­down of the his­tory of colo­nial­ism and why it’s still rel­e­vant to­day.


Have you ever heard the say­ing “the sun never sets on the Bri­tish Em­pire”? Dur­ing the 1800s, Bri­tain had con­quered so much of the world that wher­ever there was day­light as the Earth turned, the rays would land on a colony [a coun­try con­trolled by a more powerful na­tion] of the Bri­tish Em­pire.

The cit­i­zens who lived in these colonies, who re­searchers in this field call ‘au­tochthonou­s [pro­nounced ‘or-tok-thon-ous’] pop­u­la­tions’, be­came Bri­tish whether they chose to be Bri­tish cit­i­zens or not, and had to obey the same laws. Bri­tish colonis­ers ruled the colonies from afar. They owned the nat­u­ral re­sources and work­ers in each colony.

The say­ing about the sun never set­ting on the Bri­tish Em­pire was used to show how Bri­tain had su­per­hu­man strength, power and author­ity, as it had man­aged to de­feat the sun.


Bri­tain was not the only colo­nial­ist na­tion. Af­ter the Re­nais­sance, start­ing in 1450, coun­tries with ports and a coast­line de­vel­oped their sea­far­ing tech­nol­ogy. France, Spain and Por­tu­gal, as well as Ger­many, Italy, Bel­gium and Hol­land, also ven­tured to ex­plore the world be­yond the shores of Europe.

They were in­spired by the idea of new­ness: new spices, fab­rics, jew­els and pre­cious met­als would be ex­otic ad­di­tions to their nor­mal pos­ses­sions and cul­ture, and would raise their sta­tus even fur­ther. Ships al­lowed them to trans­port cargo back and forth to show, and then sell, their dis­cov­er­ies.


As these Euro­pean ex­pe­di­tion­ers jour­neyed across the world, they set up re­fu­elling stations along the way so that they could re­fresh their food stores, leav­ing be­hind staff to run them. The ex­plor­ers set­tled in South, North and Cen­tral Amer­ica, and along vir­tu­ally the en­tire African coast south of the Sa­hara. They set­tled in Ma­cau, Hong Kong, In­dia, Aus­tralia, New Zealand and the South Pa­cific, but didn’t set­tle in main­land China or Ja­pan.

The stations were sit­u­ated along coast­lines, so that ships’ crews could have easy ac­cess to pro­duce made on the stations. Af­ter their stations be­came small coastal towns, peo­ple ven­tured in­land and some­times set up new re­mote trad­ing stations. The re­fu­elling and trad­ing stations grew, both in size and num­ber, and some­times

a fort would be added and sol­diers would ar­rive. Lo­cal labour­ers were re­cruited to do me­nial [bor­ing, un­skilled] work, but sel­dom treated fairly. Slowly, all as­pects of the ex­plorer party’s cul­ture were more im­por­tant and powerful than the cul­ture of the au­tochthonou­s pop­u­la­tion(s), and the colo­nial­ists estab­lished their own pow­ers even fur­ther.


Colo­nial­ism is ba­si­cally about the move­ment of wealth. The colo­nial states wished to own more of the amaz­ing prod­ucts they found along their jour­neys, es­pe­cially plants like sugar, rub­ber and cof­fee, and nat­u­ral re­sources such as jew­els and gold. They used labour­ers from the colonies to ex­tract goods, farm crops and mine re­sources. The colo­nial­ists wanted to in­clude the value of these re­sources within the ac­counts of their own coun­tries rather than the coun­tries they oc­cu­pied. They also wanted the land, so colo­nial­ists be­gan to say that the au­tochthonou­s pop­u­la­tions were in­fe­rior in cul­ture, lan­guage, de­sign, re­li­gion and many other as­pects of daily life. They said that au­tochthonou­s peo­ples were un­fit to man­age and de­velop their own nat­u­ral re­sources, com­pared to the abil­i­ties of the colo­nial­ists. By the late 19th cen­tury they had in­vented whole the­o­ries that rulers ought to be the white colo­nial­ists, while the black or brown-skinned work­ers were to be the ruled.

Au­tochthonou­s pop­u­la­tions re­sisted the set­tlers’ pres­ence, em­ploy­ment prac­tices and land use. But

even though they were legally equal be­fore the law of the colo­nial power, peo­ple still did not have proper rights – for ex­am­ple, even the right to vote. They of­ten ex­pe­ri­enced ter­ri­ble poverty as a re­sult, with the prob­lems poverty brings: ill-health, star­va­tion, slav­ery, over­crowded liv­ing con­di­tions and po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion [cruel and un­fair treat­ment] for stand­ing up for their lives.

Peo­ple even needed per­mis­sion to jour­ney freely around their own coun­try. Mil­lions across the world were ab­ducted and sold away into slav­ery across the planet. But slav­ery was le­gal un­til 1826 and slave traders were le­git­i­mate [legally ac­cept­able] trades­men and their com­pa­nies were le­gal.

Even­tu­ally, war oc­curred. Au­tochthonou­s pop­u­la­tions who put up a fight were usu­ally killed be­cause they lacked guns and ar­tillery [big weapons such as can­nons]. Re­sis­tance and calls for so­cial change did not work, and would cost mil­lions of lives for the next 150 years, be­fore the first coun­tries gained in­de­pen­dence, be­gin­ning with Ghana in 1957. All those global re­sources be­longed to the colo­nial states for all that time.


In a way, all coun­tries in the whole world have been colonised in one way or an­other. There is no re­gion any­where in which new­com­ers have not de­clared and won wars, leav­ing cit­i­zens at their mercy and chang­ing the shape of their so­ci­ety for ever. Bri­tain was it­self a colony, firstly to the Ro­mans, who con­quered Bri­tain in 55BCE (Be­fore the Com­mon Era). Soon af­ter the Ro­mans were ex­pelled in 410CE (Com­mon Era), Vik­ings sailed from Den­mark and Swe­den in their so­phis­ti­cated ships and con­quered coastal ar­eas of Bri­tain, Ice­land and North­ern Ire­land, Green­land and North Amer­ica. The Vik­ings also trav­elled by land east, to­wards In­dia and China. They too ru­ined whole so­ci­eties with mur­der and may­hem and stole their goods, which is how Vik­ings get their pi­rat­ing rep­u­ta­tion. Other so­cial meet­ings were less vi­o­lent, and some Vik­ings re­mained in the places they found, even af­ter their main group moved on. Ei­ther way, both Roman and Vik­ing cul­ture, lan­guage, myths and re­li­gion be­came part of Bri­tish cul­ture af­ter time. For ex­am­ple, the English word ‘twin­kle’ for starlight is taken from the Dan­ish word ‘ton­kle’ for star. The word’s ex­is­tence means that Bri­tain’s colonised her­itage can be seen in its daily cul­ture with­out our ever even know­ing it or think­ing about what that rep­re­sents.


In the 15th cen­tury, com­pe­ti­tion be­gan to rage be­tween the var­i­ous Euro­pean sea­far­ers. These colo­nial pow­ers were all try­ing to outdo each other in the race to take over the world’s coun­tries. This meant that they spent more time fight­ing each other than ac­tu­ally colonis­ing. For ex­am­ple, they would com­pare the num­ber of ships they had, the wars they won at sea against each other, as well as how much they had taken in jew­els, lux­u­ries and nat­u­ral re­sources from the coun­tries they colonised. Fur­ther­more, when colo­nial states went to war against each other, even in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent part of the world, the win­ner took over all the ter­ri­to­ries of the whole re­gion be­long­ing to the loser. The fate of the au­tochthonou­s peo­ples was en­tirely in the bal­ance.

This turned out to be too ex­pen­sive for the colo­nial­ists. In­stead of con­tin­u­ing to fight each other, in 1887 the Euro­pean su­per­pow­ers made the Map of Ber­lin to carve up Africa fairly be­tween them. This meant that they could save for­tunes by end­ing the wars against each other.

The leaders of the au­tochthonou­s pop­u­la­tions across the world were not with them or in­volved in this, and many spent the fol­low­ing cen­tury fight­ing against these new borders, which cut through com­mu­ni­ties and so­ci­eties with­out car­ing for their nor­mal lines. The colo­nial­ists didn’t carve up the rest of the con­ti­nents in the same way, but they did stop fight­ing each other.


Colo­nial­ism is re­ally in­ter­est­ing, be­cause no two colo­nial his­to­ries are the same, even if the gen­eral pat­tern is. Dif­fer­ent colo­nial­ists used dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to oc­cupy au­tochthonou­s lands, and au­tochthonou­s peo­ples in those lands each re­sponded uniquely to is­sues of colo­nial­ism.

This pro­vides a com­pli­cated set of ideas to be un­der­stood, yet colo­nial­ism is not part of the Bri­tish school cur­ricu­lum in his­tory, eco­nom­ics or lit­er­a­ture. To study Bri­tish colo­nial his­tory, you have to be at univer­sity, but there are pre­cious few re­searchers who do – which means there are good jobs avail­able. Per­haps this is be­cause while big so­cial changes oc­curred in the colonies, noth­ing changed in Bri­tain or other colo­nial cap­i­tal cities. How­ever, there was a vis­i­ble build-up of wealth, as im­pres­sive build­ings and roads, towns, uni­ver­si­ties and so on were set up us­ing the money made from colo­nial­ism.

Some have asked that colo­nial­ism be in­cluded in the school cur­ricu­lum be­cause of its real im­por­tance. And it is true that colo­nial his­tory is a fea­ture of our mod­ern lives and rel­e­vant even to 2020. Right now, stu­dents and staff at uni­ver­si­ties around the world, in­clud­ing in Bri­tain, are de­mand­ing that uni­ver­si­ties de­colonise their in­sti­tu­tions. This means in­sti­tu­tions look very care­fully at each cur­ricu­lum for in­stances of racism or bias against any par­tic­u­lar group and re­place these with knowl­edge found in other knowl­edge sys­tems. In­sti­tu­tions should also sup­port new types of re­search and take a good look at sub­jects that may have ex­cused the in­equal­i­ties of colo­nial­ist ideas. In turn, many uni­ver­si­ties take these ac­cu­sa­tions very se­ri­ously and seek ways to change their prac­tices. These and other in­sti­tu­tions do not want to be thought to ex­cuse or en­cour­age a ter­ri­ble colo­nial his­tory of racism, race supremacy [think­ing that one race is bet­ter than an­other] and treat­ing peo­ple un­fairly.

Ev­i­dence of the Bri­tish Em­pire can still be seen in many coun­tries, in­clud­ing the Rash­tra­p­ati Bha­van in Delhi, In­dia. It is the home of the In­dian pres­i­dent but was one of the many build­ings in the city built by Bri­tish ar­chi­tect Sir Ed­win Land­seer Lu­tyens. Part of the city is still known as Lu­tyens’ Delhi

A map from 1883 show­ing the Bri­tish Em­pire in red. Above: a Goodyear tyre ad­vert from 1935, com­par­ing the com­pany to the Bri­tish Em­pire

Colo­nial­ists in­spect the rub­ber that African work­ers have been forced to col­lect

A car­toon show­ing Eng­land as an oc­to­pus with its ten­ta­cles grab­bing land across the globe

The Mau Mau up­ris­ing against colo­nial rule in Kenya led to some of the most hor­rific abuses by Bri­tain’s colo­nial­ists. Thou­sands of peo­ple were im­pris­oned, hanged or mur­dered, in­clud­ing women and chil­dren

The statue of slave trader Ed­ward Col­ston in Bris­tol was rolled into the harbour dur­ing the Black Lives Mat­ter protests in June

Cape Coast Cas­tle in Ghana was used to hold slaves be­fore they were taken by ship to the Amer­i­cas

The Ro­mans’ pres­ence in Bri­tain can still be seen at sites like Ch­esters Roman fort and Hadrian’s Wall

Vik­ing ships ar­riv­ing off the coast of Bri­tain

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