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10-08-2015, 16:11

The Philosophy of Colonialism

To justify their conquests, the colonial powers appealed, in part, to the time-honored maxim of “might makes right.” In a manner reminiscent of the Western attitude toward the oil reserves in the Persian Gulf today, the European powers viewed industrial resources as vital to national survival and security and felt that no moral justification was needed for any action to protect access to them. By the end of the nineteenth century, that attitude received pseudoscientific validity from the concept of social Darwinism, which maintained that only societies that moved aggressively to adapt to changing circumstances would survive and prosper in a world governed by the Darwinist law of “survival of the fittest.” Some people, however, were uncomfortable with such a brutal view of the law of nature and sought a moral justification that appeared to benefit the victim. Here again, the concept of social Darwinism pointed the way. According to social Darwinists, human societies, like living organisms, must adapt to survive. Hence the advanced nations of the West were obliged to assist the backward nations of Asia and Africa so that they, too, could adjust to the challenges of the modern world. Few expressed this view as graphically as the English poet Rudyard Kipling, who called on the Anglo-Saxon peoples (in particular, the United States) to take up the “white man’s burden” in Asia (see the box above). Buttressed by such comforting theories, humane and sympathetic souls in Western countries could ignore the brutal aspects of the colonial process and persuade themselves that in the long run, the results would be beneficial to both sides. Some, like their antecedents in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, saw the issue primarily in religious terms. During the nineteenth century, Christian missionaries by the thousands went to Asia and Africa to bring the gospel to the “heathen masses.” To others, the objective was the more secular one of bringing the benefits of Western democracy and capitalism to the feudalistic and tradition-ridden societies of the Orient. Either way, sensitive Western minds could console themselves with the belief that their governments were bring- ing civilization to the primitive peoples of the world. If commercial profit and national prestige happened to be by-products of that effort, so much the better. Few were as effective at making the case as the French colonial official Albert Sarraut. Admitting that colonialism was originally an “act of force” taken for material profit, he declared that the end result would be a “better life on this planet” for conqueror and conquered alike. But what about the possibility that historically and culturally, the societies of Asia and Africa were fundamentally different from those of the West and could not, or would not, be persuaded to transform themselves along Western lines? After all, even Kipling had remarked that “East is East and West is West, and ne’er the twain shall meet.” Was the human condition universal, in which case the Asian and African peoples could be transformed, in the quaint American phrase for the subject Filipinos, into “little brown Americans”? Or were human beings so shaped by their history and geographical environment that their civilizations would inevitably remain distinctive from those of the West? In that case, a policy of cultural transformation could not be expected to succeed. In fact, colonial theory never decided this issue one way or the other. The French, who were most inclined to philosophize about the problem, adopted the terms assimilation (which implied an effort to transform colonial societies in the Western image) and association (collaborating with local elites while leaving local traditions alone) to describe the two alternatives and then proceeded to vacillate between them. French policy in Indochina, for example, began as one of association but switched to assimilation under pressure from liberal elements who felt that colonial powers owed a debt to their subject peoples. But assimilation aroused resentment among the local population, many of whom opposed the destruction of their native traditions. Most colonial powers were not as inclined to debate the theory of colonialism as the French were. The United States, in formulating a colonial policy for the Philippines, adopted a strategy of assimilation in theory but was not quick to put it into practice. The British refused to entertain the possibility of assimilation and generally treated their subject peoples as culturally and racially distinctive (as Queen Victoria declared in 1858, her government disclaimed “the right and desire to impose Our conditions on Our subjects”). Although some observers have ascribed this attitude to a sense of racial superiority, not all agree. In his recent book Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire, the historian David Cannadine argues that in fact, the British often attempted to replicate their own hierarchical system, based on the institutions of monarchy and aristocracy, and force it on the peoples of the empire.

 

 

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