". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Question -- Does Colonialism Need to Be Learned?

Do groups need to learn the structures and methods of colonialism, genocide and slavery, or are these patterns of community behavior innate in human societies because the species is a hierarchal one, as well as a cooperative one?

Or have these all been learned thousands of years ago by the universal oppression and suppression and co-opting of women's (and children's) autonomy, bodies and non-remunerated labor, and what their labor produces?

Is this even a legitimate question?

I've been thinking about this, provoked by DuBois and Naipaul.


K. said...

This is at minimum a Ph. D. thesis. There must be some work, though, on the history and sociology of institutions. The sociobiologists would argue that colonialism is in some way a genetic response. Certainly, the tribal notion of race superiority goes back to the beginning of time. Why whites developed colonialism and other races did not likely as something to do with early technological superiority, a la Guns, Germs, and Steel. Psychologically, there has to have been the idea of "civilized" (Western and therefore superior) and "uncivilized" (non-Western values and living standards, and therefore inferior and not fully human). It seems to me that the colonizing power must believe in its bones -- in its DNA, if you like -- that the colonized are a subhuman labor commodity. You couldn't enslave and colonize otherwise -- the cognitive dissonance would be too great.

Foxessa said...

Books have been written, certainly. I've reading as many of them as I can. It's interesting too, how European colonialisms differed from each other, and what they all had in common.

The evolution of British colonial determination accelerated tremendously with the publication of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, which came concurrently with over half of England's naval trade being that of transport of slaves from Africa to the New World.

But some of the foundation of that was with the Royal Africa Company's charter of 1672 that bracketed slaves with commodities like gold, ivory and beeswax. In other words the Royal Africa company designated a portion of humanity as things. Whereas in the French legal code of Louisiana slaves were designated not as chattel, but real property, like the land, to which they were expected to be attached. But in the Spanish legal code, there was provision for slaves to buy themselves free.

But it truly was the Cornwallis surrender at Yorktown that sent the British into colonial spasm -- "The World Turned Upside Down," and the fear that the sun was already setting on the British Empire. In reality the Brits, about to embark upon the Napoleonic phase of their long rivalry to control the global resources, were about to expand their empire to its greatest extent.

But everywhere you read the imperialists' determination to learn from their mistakes that caused the loss of those 13 colonies, as they perceived them. They created policies and coded them in the legal systems of the regions they controlled to ensure none of what happened in those colonies would happen in India or Burma or Jamaica. (They were really terrified of losing their West Indian colonies, as closely affiliated by trade and relationship were their white populations with those of the lost 13 in North America.)

As Adam Smith put it, after the escape of "the American tiger" Britain had to exercise great care about breeding more "colonial cubs to grow up to become savages like the North Americans."

In truth, what happened in those colonies was unique, because these who fomented the movement for independence were English themselves, with the same legal systems, same religions, same social customs, though with that deep strain of individuality that has been the hallmark of the U.S. for so long.

India and her people were another story -- and the Brits went to great pains to ensure that they stay separate and unequal.

But a major hallmark of most colonial powers is to exploit, not develop. Germany left her former West African colonies with something like 50 miles of highway, for instance.

K. said...

The irony is that overall the colonial scheme was a money loser for the colonizing nation. Just like the financial bailouts, individuals got rich at taxpayer expense. And when there was fighting and dying to be done, the common soldier or sailor who did it was from the lower classes. Although Winston Churchill said at the onset of WW2 that he had no intention of presiding over the end of the British Empire, by the war's close the people of England had no more stomach for imperialism. They didn't want to pay for it, either.

Getting back to your original query, it's hard to think of single western institution that was so damaging to everyone involved as imperialism.