Where the Sun Never Sets: Colonial & Post-colonial Histories

Nov 17, 2015 8:30:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr Michael Woolf CAPA International Education

Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

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At the height of its power and influence, between 1815 and 1914, the British Empire spread over 14 million square miles. It contained a population of around 450 million; over 20% of the people on the planet lived under the British flag. At any time, the sun shone somewhere in the Empire. There was no equivalent in human history of a political system that reached so far and so wide. The decline of this mammoth structure created reverberations and consequences that reshaped the modern world.

The histories of colonialism and post-colonialism are, clearly, relevant to the agenda of international education though they are frequently discussed in moralistic and simplistic ways, rather than with the necessary analytical focus that they deserve. In our centers, particularly Dublin, London, Shanghai and Buenos Aires we teach this topic, formally and informally, given that colonialism and its aftermath has shaped the host environment.

The urbanization of the environment and consequent social dynamics are inevitably closely related to the mobility of populations, both voluntary and forced. There is a demonstrable connection between post-colonial history and those realities. In these contexts, colonial and post-colonial histories ought to be an integral part of what students learn within the situations in which they study.              

Image: British colonies since the 16th century via Wiki Commons

We need, however, to reach beyond the clichés of anti-colonialism. There is a default position in which the assumption is that colonialism was, and is, a form of oppression and exploitation. There are, of course, many examples that can be used to uphold that view. Closely connected is the idea that liberation from colonial control offers a model of human aspiration, an expression of a noble commitment to freedom and self-determination. The heroes of colonial liberation become idealized into quasi-iconic models. The simplistic view that colonialism is bad and post-colonialism is good is implicit in some of the ways in which global history is constructed.

As educators, we have some responsibility to make that simplistic formula rather more problematic. Does anyone really believe that Zimbabwe is a more comfortable or prosperous place for its citizens than its colonial antecedent, Southern Rhodesia? Do the inhabitants of Hong Kong view the future with total confidence? How many of them feel more secure now than they did under British rule? In Outposts, Simon Winchester (writing in 2003) observed that:

"It cannot escape the notice of even the most rabidly anti-colonial campaigner that the essential livable decency of the place stems not necessarily from any peculiarly innate goodness in its people, but from – may one dare say this today? – the wisdom and benevolence of the colonial masters who planned and ruled the territory for a century and a half so lately ended."

Hong Kong skyline
Photo: Hong Kong skyline by Anton

Post-colonial experience in Hong Kong has not brought anything like real self-determination or enhanced freedoms.

The leadership of the liberated confederation of  Rhodesia and Nyasaland, also known as the Central African Federation, may demonstrate some further uncomfortable truths: Robert Mugabe emerged as the leader of what had been called Southern Rhodesia and became Zimbabwe; Hastings Banda led Malawi (formerly Nyasaland); and Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia (Northern Rhodesia). It would take some significant act of selective imagination to see this trio as unequivocally ethically or politically superior to the colonial administration.

The Federation lasted from 1953 to 1963 and, for all its imperfections, was based around two principles: an admittedly white-led paternalistic liberalism was embodied in the unique African Affairs Board. The Board was created to protect African rights (counter to the example of the powerful apartheid state of South Africa to the south). The other objective was economic development and growth and, in that respect, the region saw expansion that was unprecedented in most of Africa. The collapse of the Federation was a result of an entirely valid rejection of white dominance of the political and economic structures. Nevertheless, post-colonialism led to economic decline rather than continued growth. The emerging governments did not prioritize the liberation of the people in any noticeable way. For most of the population, post-colonial life was less prosperous and less secure.

This is not a preamble to a defense of colonialism, nor is it an expression of some kind of imperialistic nostalgia. It is intended rather to draw attention to an uncomfortable truth. There are many contexts in which post-colonialism made life worse rather than better for most of the population. The record of post-colonialism in Africa was, for the most part and with noble exceptions, marked by governments that were corrupt, incompetent and, sometimes, brutally cruel.  Many of them still exhibit a disregard for the welfare of their peoples that would have deeply shocked the colonial administrators. For most of the citizens (apart from a privileged elite) the transition from colonial to post-colonial in Africa led to no marked increase in prosperity, security or democratic potency. Even in the case of India, “the jewel in the crown”, the process of transition to independence was marked by bloody conflict, partition, and religious bigotry that had been substantially restrained under the Raj.

Photo: Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, an historic railway station in Mumbai Maharashtra and an example of Victorian gothic architecture in India by Joe Ravi

Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” carries a distasteful sense of racial superiority but, simultaneously, it expresses the idea that colonialism involved a sense of responsibility for, and service to, the colonized.

Take up the White Man's burden -
Send forth the best ye breed -
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need

The “burden” is certainly a deeply patronizing and, in contemporary perspectives, racist idea but, at its heart was a notion that there was an obligation to strive to alleviate suffering. The underlying motivation in the poem is idealistic:

Fill full the mouth of famine
And bid the sickness cease

Our contemporary sensibilities reject, of course, the underlying assumptions embedded in Kipling’s poem but they should not obscure the fact that, given the historical moment, the sentiments were benign: the aspiration humane.

Image: This 1890s' advertisement for soap uses the theme of the white man's burden, encouraging white people to teach cleanliness (public domain)

The phrase “the colonial legacy” does not necessarily signify negative consequences. In contrast, it frequently signifies the remnants of civil order and ethical, if patriarchal, government. Nick Lloyd, lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London argues that:

"By the time the British left India in 1947, they had given the subcontinent a number of priceless assets, including the English language, but also a structure of good government, local organization and logistical infrastructure that still holds good today."

There was not, of course, only one model of colonialism. There were national variations and regional differences, a spectrum of behaviors that range from brutality to compassion, motivations along a spectrum of commercial greed to idealistic commitment. Even the behaviors of individual administrators were significantly distinct so that the actual experience of being governed was profoundly different for different individuals and communities. That said, the benefits and positive legacies of colonialism are edited out of the collective memory because they conflict, in some way or another, with politically palatable versions of history.

In contrast, the crimes of colonialism cast long shadows. The continuing plight of the Chagos Islanders, who are still suffering from a gross injustice, is a clear example. In short they were expelled from their communities, particularly on Diego Garcia, to meet the needs of the American military. Shamefully, this was facilitated by a Labour government in 1969 and implemented by a Conservative government in the early 1970s despite the fact that the inhabitants of the island were, as colonial subjects, under the “protection” of the British government.

Photo: Map of the Chagos Islands (public domain)

Under any measure, this collusion was a betrayal of the human rights of Chagos Islanders. A community of around 1,500 people received neither care nor justice. The plight of these people has been subject to a deeply shameful act of historical amnesia though there is a small group still fighting to rectify this wrong. The choices made in the late 1960s and 1970s by successive British governments were driven by military priorities at the expense of the vulnerable and powerless for whom we have legal and moral responsibilities.

At some level, it is uncomfortable to be anything other than anti-colonial in the current environment. The history of colonialism is, in any case, marked by many acts of racism, stupidity and cruelty. However, we should also not ignore the fact that the history of post-colonialism is also marked by many acts of racism, stupidity and cruelty. There are numerous examples of colonial administrations seeking to bring benefits to the colonized. However, it would make little or no sense to argue that the idea of of colonial government is anything other than an anachronism. Nevertheless, if we aspire to teach students about the realities of history, rather than prevailing orthodoxies, we need to recognize that not all colonialism was evil nor did the realities of post-colonialism always bring real advances in human or civil rights.

The world we inhabit is a complex set of paradoxes. The post-colonial world was no perfect alternative to colonialism. The end of colonialism brought much injustice and pain to many peoples. In some cases, all that changed was the color of the oppressor. The ethical restraints of colonial administrators were loosened to permit, in some cases, the emergence of the monstrous figures of Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe.

That was not, and is not, liberation.

Thanks Mike! 

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Topics: International Education