Colonialism


Recently, I visited the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. In a documentary clip, a reporter asked the President, “Why do people around the world seem to hate us?” This is the question that most Americans have been asking for half a century but still cannot find the answer. JFK pointed out the historical perspective that many Americans failed to see, or refused to recognize. He mentioned two key words, white colonialism.

Since the Industrial Revolution originated in England with the commercialization of the steam engine around 1710, the English merchant fleet and the Royal Navy became mechanized instead of relying on sails and wind. This new technology made a powerful force for venturing out into the new world. The merchants wanted to make money and the Royal Navy was eager to protect their own citizens engaging in business worldwide.

With technology and firepower over other peoples, the British ambition did not stop with making money alone. They wanted to claim lands in the name of the British Crown. So it happened that the East Coast of North America became a British colony, followed by many territories in Africa, India, and some Chinese coastal cities including Hong Kong. By the end of the First World War, the British Empire acquired more territories in the Middle East from the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, and was known as the empire where the sun never set.

As the Industrial Revolution spread, other European countries, the US, Russia, and Japan joined in to compete with each other in the greatest land grab in human history. By the late 1930s, the colonizing powers had carved up the rest of the world into pieces of colonial territories for permanent occupation. The end of the Second World War rendered Europe devastated and much weakened. India was the first to fight for independence from the British Empire, followed by many others all over the world. This ushered in the era of decolonization.

Colonialism was not practiced by whites alone. Japan had colonized Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria until its defeat in World War II. China used to practice a colonialism called “tributary states” where no land grab was involved, but the neighboring countries must pay annual tributes to the Chinese Emperor to satisfy his ego. In return, the Emperor returned a precious gift to acknowledge the subordination of the tributary states.

In most places around the world today, the native people can name one European country as their former colonial master. The Chinese can name even eight including Japan and Russia. The term “foreign devil” was coined by the Chinese to show popular disgust regarding foreign occupation.

Have you ever wondered why a small island country like Britain could conquer so many territories? How many Navy ships did they have? How many troops could they transport overseas? In the American Revolution of 1776, England sent less than 5000 troops to suppress the American independence movement, which was their biggest challenge. England did not send 5000 troops to conquer India or Africa due to the long distance involved. This made people think that the natives in India or Africa must be stupid. They were not. They just did not have the means to fight back.

In the old times, the natives lived in small isolated tribes that were not totally friendly to one another. The British came in and played one tribe against another. They employed the strategy known as divide and conquer. This strategy only worked when the natives were disunited and lacking a strong leader. Thus the success of colonialism during that time depended on this smart strategy being used, aided by superior technology and firepower brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Manpower was not an important factor in the success of colonialism.

The US has a unique colonial background. It is both a victim and a perpetrator of colonialism. America was first colonized by England. Gaining independence from England in 1776 could have identified the US as a victim similar to many Asian and African countries. However, an aggressive US foreign policy changed world perception. The US later bought the land colonized by France (Louisiana Purchase); grabbed the Philippines colonized by Spain; annexed Texas, California, Oregon and Washington from Mexico; and took all the lands from the native Indians as the US expanded westward. Although the US has never colonized Africa, it suffers from the stigma of practicing slavery lasting until the end of the Civil War, and racial segregation until the mid 1960s. In addition, the US invaded Iraq and continues to station troops in many sensitive areas, notably in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Afghanistan. This gives the Jihadists plenty of reasons to spread the message of hate and recruit more members.

Besides the stigma of white colonialism, the US carries another baggage, which is ironically the burden of being a superpower. There is a Chinese saying that a bigger tree attracts more wind. If the US were an under-developed agricultural country, nobody would pay much attention to it. Being a superpower where image assumes greater importance, the US must worry about what people think about herself.

As a matter of fact, the rest of the world does not seem to hate the American people. What they hate is American foreign policy and military ventures worldwide. The US government has a habit of being friendly to the wrong leaders who fail to gain genuine support from their own people. The list is long: Chiang Kai-Shek of Nationalist China, Nguyen Van Thieu of South Viet Nam, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, the Shah of Iran, the Saudi Royal family, and the corrupt governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and so on. Until the US government learns this lesson, it will continue to be hated around the world. This hatred may occasionally flare up into violence against American citizens who wind up being innocent victims.

(August 2010)

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