WHAT WAS COLONIALISM?
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.
THE SUN NEVER SETS
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.
EXPLORERS AND ADVENTURERS
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.
MOVEMENT AND WEALTH
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.
BRITAIN WAS A COLONY TOO
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