Colonialism: Myths and Realities

My only claim to fame in regards to colonial scholarship rests on a paper I wrote for an Honors course in Western Civilization as an undergraduate. The paper won a spot at an Honors consortium held at Stanford, so I was able to do even more research on the subject. The following post is a summation of my research in blog form.

The first task I have is to explain what colonialism is not. Colonialism is not a European invention or concept designed specifically to keep non-white people down. The myth of the evil white colonialist is one of the most pernicious myths espoused today, and for a couple of big reasons. The first reason is that colonialism has been around for a long time. Today, the Han practice colonialism through the fascist Chinese state. In the 19th century, the Ashanti practiced colonialism throughout their slave-trading empire. The Ottoman Turks practiced colonialism until their empire collapsed in 1923 (and with it a 600 year period of colonialism). The theocratic Javanese state of Mataram practiced colonialism until its demise in the 17th century. The Incan state was also well-versed in colonial practices.

It is important to remind readers of colonialism’s history because of a lack of criticality on society’s part. This lack of critical thinking skills stems from the condescending view of non-Western societies that the modern Western citizen has adopted. As co-blogger Jacques Delacroix so eloquently states:

Liberals profess to reject American military intervention abroad because of a strong myth of people of color’s virtuousness. According to this liberal myth, people of color, non-whites, seldom ever do anything wrong by any standard. When they do, as when they eat their neighbors, for example, it’s always somehow because of something or other that Westerners, Whites, usually Americans have done to them, or to someone else. Or something. And then, of course, you shouldn’t do anything to them or in connection with them.

The idea that Western civilization is somehow responsible for inventing and propagating colonialism is actually a condescending one, and, conveniently enough, permits me to segue into reason number two for combating the pernicious myth that White European society is to blame for all the world’s problems: the myth doesn’t allow for any intrigue or guile or cunning or Realpolitik on the part of colonized societies.

This concept is especially important to grasp if you want to gain a better understanding of how international politics works today. In the early 16th century Portuguese ships arrived on the western coast of the island of Java, one of the world’s most important trading regions at the time. The Portuguese promptly allied with a local polity, a kingdom known as Sunda, and began to work on building a fortress to protect Sundanese elites from another rival polity on the island: Demak. Got this so far? The European player on the scene is just one of aspect of what is thus far a three-way affair, and this is going on in one of the world’s busiest trading regions. One Javanese polity has enlisted the support of a European polity to help protect it against another, stronger Javanese polity. There is no coercion on the part of the Portuguese. Indeed, the Portuguese had no choice but to make alliances in order to survive in the region.

Demak recognized what was going on between Portugal and Sunda, so it attacked and defeated the two allies. Decisively. The Demak elite then created two vassal, or buffer, states out of the recently conquered territory: Cirebon and Banten. Got that? The Portuguese are out of Java. So too is the Sundanese state. What we have are three Javanese polities: Demak, Cirebon, and Banten, with the later two serving as buffer states of Demak. So Demak is practicing colonialism with the former Sundanese state.

Here we can see Banten, Cirebon, and Demak. Notice how Demak has created two buffer states on the volatile northwest coast to protect its inland capital city?

One hundred years later saw the return of the European state to Javanese politics. European traders had been active in Java for over a century now, and the Spanish and Portuguese states both maintained expensive and inefficient fort throughout the region, but in the early 17th century traders from England and the Netherlands arrived. And they had state-allocated capital backing them. The state funds also meant that the traders would be somewhat beholden to factions back in Europe, and it precisely because of the state-sponsored capital that we see European merchants bringing Christianity with them.

When the Dutch arrived in Java the Demak state had disappeared and Banten, formerly a vassal state of Demak, was an independent polity of limited influence in the region. For its part, Demak (and its other vassal state, Cirebon) was largely replaced by the Mataram state, an inland kingdom of rapidly gaining influence. Banten tried to play the English and the Dutch off on each other because the elite essentially wanted its coastal cities to remain free trade zones. Unfortunately, the Dutch and English traders were working for state monopolies (are there any other kind?) and free trade was out of the question. Got that? It’s now the 17th century and the Dutch, the English, Mataram, and the Bantenese are all in the picture. To further complicate things the Ming state, a Han-dominated empire, was pursuing a policy of targeted migration to the northwest coast of Java.

The Batanese state was the first to go. After signing a trading deal with the Dutch, it tried to do so with the English as well in order to try and balance the two European polities off on each other. The Dutch defeated the Anglo-Banten alliance and the Dutch East Indies Company, a state-created monopoly, established a capital city on the island of Java. The English state was purged from the region, and the Bantenese were weakened by the defeat. In the following two centuries, the Bantenese and the Mataram empire would wage war against the Dutch, against each other, for the Dutch against each other, and for each other against the Dutch. Civil wars and alliances with other states in the region were constantly happening, and none of these were instigated by the Dutch polity in the region.

The Mataram empire at its height.

You see, the Europeans were far too weak to conquer Asian and African polities outright. Furthermore, the aims of the state-sponsored corporations were not to plunder, pillage or govern foreign peoples, but to enrich the states that created the monopolies. Even during the Age of Mercantilism it was recognized that colonization is a costly endeavor. Got that? By the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century the Dutch had virtually no control over its colonies, and the Dutch were often sucked into local affairs against their better judgement. The Javanese polities were not only the purveyors of violence, destruction, theft, and colonization in the region, but they actively tried to recruit the Dutch state to help them in their causes. This is a process that has been ongoing since European polities began sailing around the world, and is not limited to the Dutch/Javanese experience.

One can this very process being played out today in Iraq, Iran, Eastern Europe, Libya, Syria, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and, of course, the Indonesian archipelago. Just think of the influence that Kurdish factions have had on American policy towards Iraq (or Turkey). Think of the influence that Libyan exiles have on French and Italian policy. Think of the Tibetan influence on Western policymakers. So this whole argument that White Europeans came to dominate the globe due to bloodthirsty Christianity, or a lust for money, or a lust for power is horribly wrong.

Yes, European colonization has made a big mess of the world, but the cause of the colonial process  can hardly be attributed to the actions and intrigues of Europeans alone. Polities and factions throughout the world have played an equal part in the process of colonization as it has unfolded, just as they do today.

The key to altering this ongoing process is actually quite simple: people need to recognize that individualism, free trade, internationalism, decentralized government and the rule of law are paramount for creating a peaceful and prosperous society.  As co-editor Fred Foldvary said:

Africa could best have political reform with a radical decentralization of voting to the villages and urban neighborhoods. The local communities could then federate along national interests if they wished.

Indeed. Colonialism is still a problem today, both for the societies doing the colonizing as well as the colonized, but to attribute this process to Europeans, Western civilization, and capitalism is just as scurrilous to world peace and prosperity as the arguments for policing the globe. In fact, the idea that white folks and capitalism are the root of all evil is a far more worthy ideological successor to Suleiman the Magnificent’s desires than it is to Richard Cobden’s.

Suleiman the Magnificent’s awe-inspiring empire. This map sucks. I’ve seen a better one with all of the provinces listed as the Ottoman empire had created them. It was beautiful, but I didn’t find it within the first three pages of Google.

Opposing colonialism is a good thing, but it would be wise to remember why this is: colonialism is just Realpolitik played out to its logical end. It is never good for the colonizing society and hardly ever good for the society being colonized. It is a costly and inefficient method of meeting the demands of interest groups at the expense of society as whole.

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30 thoughts on “Colonialism: Myths and Realities”

  1. Great Post!

    As a WASP (actually, very little AS, but the WP fits) it is nice to get the “white man’s burden” off of my back, and as a Non-interventionist, it is nice to have yet another reason to oppose variants of mercantilism, colonialism, interventionism, and imperialism.

  2. You obviously didn’t read the article Dr. J. Colonialism is a process that involves lots of different factions vying for power (and not liberty).

    You are embarrassing yourself again!

  3. Brandon. I read your essay the same day, right after you sermonized me so harshly that big tears came to my eyes. Pretty much as I had guessed, it’s a good essay; I like it. It’s useful for the many people who don’t read much because they don’t have time or because they don’t know how. However, I still don’t know why you wanted me, of all people, to read it. I learned some interesting trivia about long-forgotten kingdoms from the region of Indonesia and that’s always good. Yet, I see no relevance to my recently published short and facetious but pretty brilliant essay: “Colonialism and Democracy.”

    1. Arguing with apologists for Europe’s 19th century colonialism is something I don’t get to do often, so I want to take a few minutes and spell out my argument more clearly.

      The argument for colonialism, no matter where it comes from (whether it be Han or French), is ultimately based on two things: arrogance and altruism.

      In the 19th century colonialism in what is now the poor, despotic, post-colonial world making up much of Africa and Asia was considered a government program well worth taking up, for the sake of the peoples living under despotic regimes in non-European states.

      There is a lot of merit to this argument. However, once the Europeans finally imposed their will upon the peoples they sought to free and subsequently civilize, their mode of governance was hardly any different from that of the despotic regimes they helped to overthrow.

      Remember, Europeans were hardly strong or powerful enough to impose their will on populaces by themselves. They had to make alliances with rival polities in order to assert their will over a populace. Guess what happened to the allies who helped the Europeans conquer a polity?

      One more guess: what happened to the peoples who the Europeans purportedly wanted to help? Yes, property rights were often violated in pre-colonial regimes, but they were much better protected than they were under colonial apparatuses.

      Here is a useful chart showing the GDP (PPP) per capita of every state in the world.

      When I say that your calls to bomb the Assad regime (“we should further attack the Assad regime…”) remind me of colonialism, it is because your calls to bomb the Assad regime remind me of colonialism: you wish to help some factions in a polity defeat what you perceive to be other, more despotic factions. Be careful what you wish for Dr. J.

      Mali, Chad, and Niger have all become destabilized over the last few weeks. Can you guess why? I’ll give you yet another hint: they are all neighboring states of a regime you desperately wanted to overthrow. Aren’t you glad you got your wish?

  4. Now, why isn’t THAT printed in the New York Times? Very good !

    Thomas Sowell uses the same logic when he destroys the myth that only white people had slaves…how slavery has been around for all of history and used by every Nationality.

    So many GOOD things have come out of ‘colonialism’…too….Why do they alway pick on the white people? Because they have been the most “inventive.’ ? Mmmmm….

    1. Thank you Myrthryn.

      Not to make you jealous or anything, but Jared Diamond, the author of GG&S, teaches an Honors undergraduate course at my school. It is a seminar designed for 20 or so students, which means that a lot of one-on-one interaction with Dr. Diamond is guaranteed. I am still deciding if I want to take it, though, because the class does not pertain to my major…

      1. I’d be envious, but I don’t succumb to “hero ” worship as I do great thoughts. The great thing about GG&S is that it offered the perfectly understandable solution to the question. It was a smack the head sort of moment. Why did such a great thought take so long to be thought?

  5. Myrthryn,

    Glad you don’t succumb to hero worship!

    You also ask a great question which I don’t think I can answer, but will try to anyway, for the sake of my own clarity:

    Why did such a great thought take so long to be thought?

    I’m tempted to conclude that as far as we’ve come in the world, as humans, we still don’t know all that much about anything. Knowledge is sort of an acquired process that requires a certain amount of openness that the world has never really experienced up until the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    I do a lot of reading on pre-colonial polities, property rights, and post-colonial thought and one that of the things that really stands out to me as I read through the major texts is a sudden, almost palpable, shift in the academic literature concerning social sciences beginning in the mid-to-late 1990’s. This shift moved away from promoting a social system and towards an attempt at trying to understand and explain the world.

    The result of this shift, of course, is that works like GG&S come out more and more often. And more importantly, the shift also represents an acknowledgement, however grudgingly it may be, that property rights are key to not only prosperity and peace, but also to understanding how human beings act (sometimes through state actors, sometimes not) the way that they do.

    The world hasn’t really been as connected and accessible as it is today, and I think that as the various societies integrate more and more, we’ll see a continuance of the nomothetic explanations for human societies that we’ve been showered with throughout the past two decades.

  6. I wanted to thank for liking my post on america unhinged. This is a very informative article. A lot of info that I didn’t know and I always enjoy learning something new.

  7. Every nation has aspects of it’s past of which it can be proud and others of which to be ashamed. The UK was a major participant in the transatlantic slave trade which undoubtedly brought great misery to hundreds of thousands of human beings. Whenever I visit Liverpool’s Maritime Museum and walk around it’s slavery exhibitions I feel shocked to the core at man’s inhumanity to man. However the UK can be proud of the fact that it’s government abolished slavery in 1807 and played a major role in preventing the trade thereafter. Europeans should never have participated in the trade, however the task of European slavers would have been rendered far more difficult where it not for the assistance provided to them by warring tribes who often sold captives from other tribal groupings into slavery.

  8. As indicated I think, colonialsim currently is a political propaganda tool embracd by the Left to help justify its programs. The historical fact is that all societies of man have always extended their influences as far as possible regardless of what that was called.
    The process arises naturally out of economic interests, seems to me though it can also be driven by internal political needs, In any case, it follows man wherever he goes, whatever the color of his hide, the culture he inhabits or the language he speaks as the post makes evident. Western whites get the current attention because they had the industrial revolution first and employed it in the ongoing, age-old process.

  9. Good post. Liberals just hate facts — just hate ‘em, hate ‘em, hate ‘em. They confuse them. Wait, that’s confusing, too. They (facts) confuse them (liberals). That’s better. Liberals are usually tolerant only when your view and their’s are the same.

    It surprises me that modern day liberals, to include many of our black brethren, still believe slavery, imperialism and colonialism are all relevant today and some still think that restitutions should be made for their ancestors’ slavery, when modern day whites had nothing to do with their enslavement and therefore owe the modern day descendants nothing more than equal respect and opportunity.

    They would be better off worrying about some of the world’s despots, dictators and other deceivers, like the one in the White House right now.

    1. rmekrnl,

      You said that it surprises you that many modern-day liberals believe that slavery, imperialism and colonialism are relevant today, but the whole point of the post is that these three issues are relevant for today! Well, at least the second two (the ism’s). Slavery was something that you brought up on your own, but it is still relevant for today too.

      1. We can either agree to disagree or I can just bow to your superior research. Either way, good, thought-provoking post, which is probably why you did it in the first place. I know that’s why I post a lot of my comments, just to get people to stop and think for a change.

  10. Wow, awesome blog layout! How long have you been blogging for?
    you made blogging look easy. The overall look of your site is
    fantastic, let alone the content!

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