In search of the ‘merits’ of colonialism

Is there anything good that came out of colonialism, past or present?

Singapore's Raffles Hotel, which opened in 1887, is named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who established British colony on the island [File photo: Wong Maye-E/AP]

British newspapers these days bristle with opinion pieces waxing sentimental about Britain’s colonial past. One Oxford don who is launching a research project to celebrate the ethical merits of the British empire admonishes the readers of The Times to not “feel guilty about our colonial history”.

After all, remembering imperial atrocities could stop the British from tackling the world’s problems, presumably at the point of bayonets or under an umbrella of aerial bombardment.

Another opinion piece, woefully ignorant of Singapore’s history or of British imperial ventures more generally, tells us that “Singapore shows us that colonialism can work”.

The author does mention its rise on the back of opium trade, but does not seem to know that Singapore, like so many other Indian Ocean port cities, was ruthlessly exploited by the British, and if the colony became prosperous, it was not because of the glories of imperial management or economic liberalism.

The ‘merits’ of colonialism: railroads and parliaments

The Victorian buildings the author praises were constructed by local and regional merchant capital (not imperial investment), using local workers, some of whom were forced into bonded, indentured or corvee labour.

If anything, throughout the British colonies, imperial intervention stunted economic growth, introduced limitations and barriers to already existing trade, and brutally exploited workers, peasants, sailors, soldiers and the like for profits shipped to banks in London; not to mention the use of Singapore’s port as a glorified fuel depot for colonial navies, and the deployment of military force in and around the colony to quash any resistance to the empire.

And more often than not, colonialism has left behind hardened sectarian and ethnic divisions and racialised class structures. The authoritarian rulers to whom the colonial masters handed the keys to the city pay lip service to democracy but stifle political participation by unruly publics; and in this they are supported by former colonial masters who value their “stability” and loyalty.

Apologists for empire put the economic and ecological devastation, de-development, exploitation, and global inequalities wrought by colonialism on one side of the ledger. On the other side, they acclaim the railways, the parliaments, the infrastructures, and the modern bureaucracies.

In their hagiographies of the empire, there is an echo of the famous scene in The Life of Brian in which a Judean revolutionary played by John Cleese issues a call to arms: “What have the Romans ever done for us?” His comrades respond by listing the range of infrastructures the Roman Empire had built in ancient Judea: aqueducts, roads, sanitation, irrigation and so on.

Fascinatingly, this Monty Python scene is based on a Talmudic passage in which a Rabbi Judah also praises Roman infrastructural projects. Rabbi Simon, however, challenges this simplistic obsequy to empire, “All that they made they made for themselves; they built market-places, to set harlots in them; baths, to rejuvenate themselves; bridges, to levy tolls for them.”

The Oxbridge-educated members of the Python comedy collective chose to exclude this critical Talmudic passage from their film. The arguments of subsequent cheerleaders for empire and colonialism similarly elide the problems fundamental to such colonial policies.

A statue of Sir Stamford Raffles stands next to the Victoria Theatre in the  Central Business District of Singapore [Reuters/Edgar Su]
A statue of Sir Stamford Raffles stands next to the Victoria Theatre in the  Central Business District of Singapore [Reuters/Edgar Su]

Another false claim of a colonial ‘success’ story

The colonisation of Palestine is an exemplary instance of the reality of colonialism belying successive colonial regimes’ claims of their developmental aims. The oft-repeated Zionist cliche that the European settlers colonised “a land without a people” and “made the desert bloom” ignores that the earliest colonies were abjectly failed experiments in agriculture.

It was only after the early 20th century colonists began observing and taking lessons from Palestinian peasants and farmers that they were able to adapt their methods to the semi-arid ecological conditions in a countryside with which they were unfamiliar.

From very early on, the colonists planted foreign species of plants throughout the parts of the country occupied in the 1948 Nakba (“Catastrophe”). This sowing of alpine vegetationaccelerated after the establishment of the Israelis state on lands and territories from which the majority of its Palestinian inhabitants were forcibly expelled between 1947 and 1949.

These pine forests deliberately erased the footprints of demolished Palestinian villages. In parts of the country, they also proved to be a drain on the country’s aquifers, more suited to hardy species of flora and trees adapted to surviving the semi-arid conditions of the Mediterranean landscapes.

Israeli politicians today boast more about the country’s hi-tech industry than its agricultural advances. Whatever innovations have occurred in that sector have come out of massive Israeli military investment in technologies of repression.

Smart city algorithms, facial recognition software, drones, robotics, surveillance applications, wiretapping systems, data-mining programmes used to collate open-source data about ordinary people, all these technologies were either developed by the military’s intelligence research arm, or via incubators paid for by the Israeli military.

The Israeli government has in turn exported these technologies to some of the most repressive regimes around the world, including Arab states with which it supposedly does not have any relations. Gaza and the West Bank have been repeatedly used as laboratories in which instruments of colonial suppression could be forged.

Beyond technology, brick-and-mortar techniques of military control have been the bread and butter of Israeli colonisation of Palestine. The concrete wall that encircles Palestinian enclaves in the Occupied Territories is a prime example. Interestingly, the idea of using a wall as a counterinsurgency measure was a gift given to the Israeli military by their early colonial sponsors. The British Mandatory government, with the help of the Jewish labour union, Histadrut, was the first governmentto build a wall in Palestine in the 1930s, as a means of quelling rebellion by Palestinians.

The Israeli military has even used supposedly non-military infrastructures such as roads as a means of expanding settlements in the West Bank territorially and as a way to control the movement of Palestinians there. And so much of the construction, agricultural prosperity, technological innovation, and economic development of which the Israeli boasts has been the result of abuse of underpaid, exploited, heavily controlled Palestinian labour force (whether from the Occupied Territories or citizens of Israel).

These Palestinian workers, even those holding Israeli citizenship, are paid far less than their Jewish counterparts and can be fired at will.

The prosperity of one people in Israel is predicated on the continued colonial control of another people, the Palestinians, on their enduring economic exploitation, and on the continued violence against them.

More than a decade ago, Paul Gilroy caustically and accurately described a British attachment to “a resolutely air-brushed version of colonial history in which gunboat diplomacy was moral uplift, civilising missions were completed, the trains ran on time and the natives appreciated the value of stability.”

The intervening time has only made this nostalgia more fervent, as memories of the catastrophic US and European interventions in Iraq have begun to fade, and as Brexit has brought out the worst of Little Englander xenophobia and fantasies of past glory (which only ever existed for a sliver of the British population at any rate).

However, the continued colonisation of Palestinian, an early 20th century instance of British colonialism morphed into Israeli settler colonial project, shows that colonialism is anything but the glorious developmental mission its advocates acclaim.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.