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.
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.
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.
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.