The argument surrounding the recent conflict in Iraq was two sided: one favored ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein; the other did not. Arguments of the anti-war sides bordered on accusing the United States of being an imperialist and colonialist power. That America had become an occupying force that sought to impose its will on a weaker nation found favor among most of the Middle Eastern Islamic countries. Though this argument might prove philosophically and intellectually disingenuous; there is historical precedence to colonialist ambitions. The Dutch, Spaniards, French and British and to a lesser extend the Danish colonized most of the world for more than five hundred years. The legacy that we see today in the world's lingua franca, the English language, is testament to that fact that the British were largely victors in the intra-imperialist wars. "Britannica" ruled the world for several centuries. Over the last century, most of the countries became independent. This legacy is also seen in the Commonwealth of Nations -- countries that were, in the past, British colonies. The most recent colonies to be returned to China were Hong Kong (with much fanfare). Not all colonies however, have attained independence. Almost two decades ago, the British fought the Argentines to retain possession of the Falkland Islands, also called the Malvinas.
Two of the key possessions of the British were, what became the United States of America and, the "Jewel in the (British) Crown," India. The circumstances surrounding the creation and relinquishing of both colonies are completely different. India was a civilization that had withstood several millennia of history. The British began as trading partners with India. In the United States, European (mostly English) settlers came to the "New Country." In the Americas, they had to contend with non-uniform groups of indigenous, Native-American tribes. The new settlers who evolved an identity of their own eventually got tired of being dictated to by the government of the Old country.
In this essay, the rationale for British colonialism will be discussed from the perspective of other colonial powers from Europe. The European perspective is favorable to colonialism, the primary, albeit non-spoken premise being assertion of superiority. The revisionist perspective, on the other hand, is one of revulsion towards imperialism. The lives of three symbols of colonialist power will be illustrated: Lord Robert Clive, the first Governor General of India, Lord Charles Cornwallis, last Governor General of America and Captain James Cook, the discoverer and first foreign (non-aboriginal) purveyor of the newly discovered land of Australia. Britain's history might expound their virtues of martial and leadership abilities and their adventurous spirit. But their exploits also resulted in untold hardships in the colonies they helped establish.
In Colonialism, one state claims sovereignty over territory and people outside its own boundaries. This is often for economic supremacy over resources and labor, and often markets. Supporter of colonialism aver that the colonizers are superior to the colonized, thus justifying this kind of rule. They argue that colonialist rule benefits the colonized by developing the economic and political infrastructure necessary for modernization and democracy. The Europeans supporters of colonialism aver that they have helped unify nations with disparate regions -- they have helped bring civilization to the "savage." The British were helped in their colonial ambitions because, along the way, they became the seat of the Industrial Revolution. This ensured that they set up manufacturing establishment infrastructure in different colonies. One of the reasons for this was the availability of raw materials in colonies. England, as a nation is too small with very few raw materials. Others have argued, however, that colonialism actually leads to the transfer of wealth from the colonized to the colonizer, and inhibits successful economic development. They add that colonialism does political, psychological, and moral damage to the colonized as well.
If one checked out the archives of the British colonialism, their own reasons would be premised on mercantilism. The main goal was, "favorable Balance of Trade." (Smith and Skinner, 1999) The aims of mercantilism were that nations should limit the importation of goods and services as much as possible so as to prevent the exporting of gold. Silver and gold were the resources that brought a nation wealth and power. Great Britain had four major aims in its mercantile policy. They wanted to encourage growth of a native merchant marine fleet and protect English manufacturers from foreign competition. The protection also extended to agriculture, especially grain farmers. The aims were to accumulate as much hard money as possible.
Naval superiority was the telling point as to why Britain was the foremost of all colonialists. The concept of mercantilism was tied in with Navigation Acts. The effect it had on the colonies was deleterious. Consider some of the protectionist examples for the Americas: Virginia tobacco could only be sold in England. No foreign ship could be docked in the Americas. Goods could only be exported (or imported) in foreign ships. Duties were assessed on goods at the ports of entries and exits. At one point no wool, hats or tobacco could be exported except through England. The Sugar Act was one of the seeds that bore fruits of the American War of Independence. Although the colonists did not object in theory to these acts, they went out of their way to avoid the consequences of them by refusing to pay duties and smuggling. Colonial governors could enforce these acts only with difficulty, and even though various levels of authority were granted to naval officers, enforcement was expensive and in the end impractical.
The case of India provides a different view as to the mechanisms of colonialist expansion. It was common knowledge that caused explorers to try and find India. Its riches were incomparably greater than those of the European states. Such was the situation when the East India Company began its trading activities in the early 17th century. Trading with India, given the wealth of natural resources and the relative proximity gave the British a competitive edge they had hitherto not enjoyed. Initially, relations between Indian and British were cordial. So lucrative was the trade that even though India would accept nothing but silver (or gold) in return. The burgeoning slave trade was very profitable to the company.
By the middle of the 17th century, the East India Company was re-exporting Indian goods all over the world. At the end of the 17th century, the silk and wool merchants of France and England were unwilling to put up with the competition from Indian textiles. They sought and won restrictions on purchases from India. This put a strain on the company and the revenues of the Indian states. There were renewed suggestions that came down from Europe that trade could be restarted at the cost of war. India then became the new battlegrounds for competing colonialists. (Mukherjee, 1974) advanced the argument that that there were compelling economic imperatives that drew the European India Companies into the path of imperialism. That primarily, "monopoly rights assured the India Companies of the exclusive privileges of buying and selling, it did not guarantee that they could buy cheap. For that, political control was essential." Finally, in 1857, Queen Victoria deemed that all Indians were her subjects.
Britain also similarly annexed Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The French and British ruled most of Africa. In the Americas, the British systematically colonized each state in the seventeenth century. At the same time, the West Indies islands were also under the British rule. Indeed, many nations were well served by the industrial infrastructure left behind by the British. Ironically also, when much is made of the British Royalty that probably will stand the test of time, Britain was the first nation to demonstrate to the world that democracy was the best form of governance, bar none. This ideal put paid to entire eras of medieval serfdom. Self-determination of the common man, wherever practiced today, means that the people are relatively satisfied. Revisionist theories would predict, however that democracy as a concept was self-evolving and would have happened at some point in history, whether it happened with British or not. Also, merely copying democracy could have brought democracy to other countries. The premise that the colonialists brought about democracy through colonization is patently false. In the desperate attempt to hold on to colonies, the British used very brutal means to suppress freedom of expression, which is the foundation on which fundamental rights of democracy are built.
Since, in this work, the evils of colonialism are shown through the examples of the United States and India, consider prominent colonialists who came to exemplify colonialism. One can rest assured that these men were not personally evil. Indeed, they were probably merely following orders. Charles Cornwallis was the last Governor General of the Americas. He officially surrendered to George Washington approximately after the Declaration of Independence Proclamation was signed. Cornwallis was born to nobility and was bred for martial leadership. Although opposed to the measures that provoked the American Revolution, he…