The Legacy of Colonialism

The political reactionaries of the pale-skinned world have spent a lot of time and energy complaining about critical race theory and other attempts to actually talk about the history of how Europeans enslaved some folk and appropriated land and other resources that others had been using for their own benefit. They tend to focus on the fact that talking about this makes white people feel guilty (or otherwise uncomfortable). So I think it's important to point out that we do have a general concept that the descendants of a wrong-doer are not guilty of their ancestor's crimes, so being honest about the past isn't about guilt among present folk.

That doesn't make the past irrelevant, though. I've benefited (in some noticeable, if not spectacular, degree) from being descended from a Chairman of the Brutish East India Company back in (if I remeber roughly correctly) about 1700. As a young child I attended a great-uncle's 75th birthday party in a magnificent Georgian mansion (well, mostly, its extensive and lovely gardens). More subtly, my parent via that ancestry grew up in a moderately wealthy household with several centuries (at least in the paternal line) of university education; and both of my parents were well educated in a country that had prospered off the economic benefits it had garnered from a history that included both the slave trade and colonial trade advantages, in which that corporation played a significant rôle. Well educated parents give an enormous advantage in life to their children and I, too, got a good education, with which they were able to afford to provide me – thanks, in large part, to how well educated they were. Likewise, throughout the western world, people have benefited to varying degrees from the colonialist past, while much of the rest of the world still lives with problems that have their roots in that past.

Admitting to the reality of how we got here does not have to be a reason to feel guilty. The only thing anyone should feel guilty about is if they benefit from such a history and deny it. Denying the truth is indeed wrong and you should not do it – nor should anyone ever write laws that protect you from facing up to the truth. That would be a genuine violation of the right to free speech. (The 1700s authors who articulated that right are all quite clear: it is a right to speak what you truly believe. It is not a right to tell lies, or otherwise deceive, especially if one outcome of that is to cause others (who make the mistake of believing you) to honestly echo your lies or act on them.)

There are human interactions in which all parties gained and after which none owes any debt to the other parties (these, furthermore, tend to leave the parties grateful to one another, which often leaves them more willing to deal favourably with one another in future). One of the painful truths of how European national and corporate interests gained power over much of the world is that this routinely was unfair to other parties; most obviously to those enslaved as part of the Atlantic Slave Trade but equally in all the other territories and cultures where European (and particularly English) traders subverted governments and other institutions in order to secure for themselves advantageous trading positions (a pattern which continues to this day, among corporations and governments, with China now joining the western nations more traditionally associated with such conduct). Similar can be said for treaties with indigenous people whose understanding of land-rights (among other things) was not aligned with how the pale-skinned parties to those treaties subsequently benefited from enforcing their reading of the text they had written.

Those harms to the darker-skinned parties to those interactions are historical: none of the first-hand parties to those interactions are still alive. No-one who isn't perpetrating similar harms today is guilty of them. Yet those interactions did benefit the pale-skinned parties unfairly at the expense of the other parties – in some cases, inhumanely so. Even where the cost to folk today is not direct – they were not born slaves of the masters who had inherited their parents as slaves, since we have abolished slavery in the interval – there remains, none the less, a cost. Just as I have benefited from the vast wealth one Chairman of the Brutish East India company accrued, so also have all the descendants of slaves – and of citizens of cultures disrupted to suit colonialist interests – suffered, in varyingly diluted ways, the harms of the same unfairness from which I have (likewise indirectly) benefitted:.

I have benefited from England's colonial history. My gain from it is hugely diluted: three centuries have passed, and several steps off the line of primogeniture, but still I have benefited from it. That does not make me guilty of anything. It does, however, leave me well aware that my relative prosperity and the relative poverty of those affected by these historical harms do not represent a fair status quo; it may not be my fault, but I want a fair and just world, which I cannot have without addressing that unfairness.

It's more or less impossible to work out the details. Most descendants of that long-dead Chairman of the Brutish East India Company probably don't even know about that ancestor – and, even if all did, there is no coherent way to quantify the proportions in which each benefited. Surely there is a mirror of this in those who were harmed by the original abusive interactions, making it hard to know how any restitution should be divided among those affected by the echoes of that harm. Worst of all, there is no coherent basis for telling how the present harmful consequences, that deserve to be compensated, compare to the historically-diluted benefits the heirs and assigns of the offenders have ended up gaining thereby. (If the latter doesn't add up to enough to cure the former, restitution will be a problem – as well as yet another proof that the predatory practices that colonialism first normalised cause net harm.)

The lack of an unequivocally fair way to repair the unfairness that results from the wrongs of the past is indeed a problem: but it does not mean we cannot do anything about that unfairness. Admitting that unfairness in the first place is a prerequisite of thinking about how we can shape a fairer and more just society; while pretending that how things are is just fine and dandy, and fair and just, is simply dishonest.

The colonial past isn't the only way, of course, that the past has shaped the present. Those with wealthier parents always have enjoyed consequent advantages compared to those with poorer parents, regardless of whether the parental wealth or poverty was fairly or justly arrived at. That echoes down through generations

all of which is bad not just for the obvious victims but indeed for all of us, missing out on what that poor kid would have done if not held back by inherited poverty and on how much those long-suffering employees would have achieved had they been well managed – or, for that matter, merely left to get on with what they would have done without a bad manager getting in the way.

Inherited unfairness, whether due to colonialism or otherwise, implies that society cannot be just and fair unless it actively looks for ways to correct for that unfairness. To me this implies a need to make it easier for folk to get educated and to get started in decent careers, without their backgrounds being a decisive factor in what opportunities are open to them. If we do not do this, none of us can honestly say that what each has is what each justly earned.

See Also

This ramble was initially prompted by an article in The Guardian on The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy.

The other side of the coin is to learn from the past and stop letting the powerful perpetrate kindred crimes in the present and future. So one of the big things that we (whether beneficiaries of past wrongs, those hampered by the consequences thereof or all the folk in between) need to do is watch out for the ways that our modern powers may be replaying the same old monstrosities. For example, if corporate executives aid and abet kleptocrats' efforts to plunder the countries they rule, we need to recognise that as today's equivalent of what the Brutish East India Company did to several civilisations, that leaves us today struggling to find a fair mode of restitution. We should be fighting those present injustices so that later generations don't have to deal with questions equivalent to those we struggle to resolve today.

Valid CSSValid HTML 5 Written by Eddy.