Once the West set out to conquer the world. Those days have gone for ever

A series of defeats have done for colonialism, and its more virulent form, imperialism

Andreas Whittam Smith
Tuesday 10 September 2013 18:18
A map of the British Empire from 1897
A map of the British Empire from 1897

Now, 600 years after the first European colony of the modern era was established by Portugal on the North African coast, an extraordinary question arises. Does the reluctance of Western electorates to support a policy of punishing Syria for alleged use of chemical weapons mark the end of what began all that time ago and has continued ever since? For the notion of the US Navy firing cruise missiles into a Middle-East nation from vessels in the Mediterranean to “teach it a lesson” is pure Western imperialism. And we don’t seem to want to do it any longer.

The story in outline is well known. Portugal and then Spain started the process. Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer, reached India in 1498. And as the Portuguese pushed further east, seeking valuable spices, they established fortified trading posts along the coasts of their habitual routes. Spain focused on the Americas and the search for gold and silver, which it found in great quantity. Unlike Portugal, Spain sent out large numbers of settlers, soldiers and administrators. Notoriously, the Europeans also brought infectious diseases against which the indigenous peoples had no natural protection.

Already, at this early period, three of the enduring features of colonial expansion were present: trade, the extraction of wealth, and a condescending disregard for the local populations. And there was a fourth feature, religion. The Portuguese had vainly searched for the Christian kingdom of Prester John that was supposed to exist somewhere in the Orient. And alongside Spanish soldiers there travelled Christian missionaries. Work on the first cathedral in the Americas began in 1514. That was the first stage.

In the second stage, England, France and Holland got into the business. During the 16th and 17th centuries, they began to establish overseas trading posts outside the areas dominated by Spain. They explored what is now the US and Canada. They also seized some of the larger islands of the Caribbean such as Barbados and Martinique. Martinique, conquered in 1635, is still a French possession. The emphasis on trade remained.

But the cultivation and export of valuable crops became more important – tobacco, cotton and sugar. Tragically, the labour-intensive nature of the last named led directly to the Atlantic slave trade, with 10 to 12 million Africans transported across the ocean. Religion still played a role, but in a different guise – the desire to escape the Old Continent’s religious restrictions and set up godly communities far away from the authority of Canterbury and Rome.

Then we come to the first round of defeats. In stage three, 1770 to 1830, what had been achieved was overturned. For the European powers were all but expelled from the Americas, leaving only the Canadian provinces in British hands. The American War of Independence was won in 1783 when Britain recognised the United States of America as an independent, sovereign state. In the same 60-year period, the Spanish and the Portuguese were also driven out. Napoleon’s invasion of Spain and Portugal had sundered the ties between the two mother countries and their central and South American colonies. By 1831 they were gone.

What had begun as a spontaneous process in which traders, adventurers and fortune hunters, with priests and pastors alongside, had set sail across the seas to seek their fortunes mutated into imperialism, which is a state supported enterprise. After defeat in the Americas, the attention of European nations turned to Africa and Asia. Indeed, the apogee of empire building was reached between 1870 and the outbreak of the First World War. This is the fourth stage. Competition between the European powers generated the “scramble for Africa”. This was done partly to satisfy commercial aspirations for ready supplies of raw materials such as copper, cotton, rubber, palm oil, cocoa, diamonds, tea and tin. The acquisition of colonies also became a matter of national prestige, with Germany and Italy late entrants into the race.

Religious considerations played a part as always. Some Christian churches launched missionary projects to save the “heathen”. This was the period when notions of racial superiority flourished in Western Europe, even in so-called respectable society. In 1899, for instance, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem entitled The White Man’s Burden: “Take up the White Man’s burden/ Send forth the best ye breed/ Go send your sons to exile/ To serve your captives’ need/ To wait in heavy harness/ On fluttered folk and wild/Your new-caught, sullen peoples/Half devil and half child”.

From 1914 onwards, however, imperialism came under increasing pressure and moved towards fresh defeats in the field. Two world wars within 35 years exhausted Britain and France. Independence movements gathered strength. And the fact that troops from the colonies fought side by side with Britain and France in war – in the cause of freedom! – served to undermine the notion of white supremacy.

To begin with, however, the imperial powers carried on as before. So while the First World War was raging, the French and the British governments arrogantly agreed how to carve up the Middle East should the Ottoman Empire collapse – as in fact it did. A year later (1917), the British Foreign Secretary of the time, Lord Balfour, told the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland that the Government viewed “with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object”. Then after 1918, the new League of Nations gave France control of Syria and Lebanon, while the British were granted the mandates for Iraq and Palestine. The imperial instinct, had proved to be deeply rooted and has only slowly lost its strength.

While Britain wound down its empire without serious incident after the Second World War, the French fought bitter battles in Indochina (1946 -54) and in Algeria (1954-62) to delay the process. They did not succeed. The British declined to mount rearguard actions. The European powers, having been defeated in the Americas 150 years earlier, now they found themselves driven out of Africa and Asia.

Meanwhile the two countries were completely overshadowed by the United States, which, while not an imperial power, acted as if it were in its self-appointed role as leader of the free world. So for many years, the US, the UK and France paid for the expensive navies, armies and air forces that are required if power is to be projected far from home. In other words, they maintained the equipment and trappings of imperial nations.

Except that Nemesis, or the spirit of divine retribution, was waiting to punish them for their arrogance. Afghanistan and Iraq turn out to be the final disasters. The British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, the French defeats in Indochina and Algeria, and finally the ignominious withdrawals by the US and its allies from Afghanistan and Iraq, these have done for colonialism and its more virulent form, imperialism. There can be no going back. No US president, no UK prime minister, no French president is ever again going to ask Congress, Parliament or National Assembly to approve the invasion of a another country, even by airpower alone. After 600 years, that is over. Never again.

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