Throughout human history, it’s always the few who rule the many in a pyramid structure. European colonization whose heydays lasted for around two centuries until the end of World War II presents an interesting feature — a small minority of foreigners imposing control over millions and millions of natives all around the world. Could they have done it just by brute force? Did they belong to a superior race and culture? Was it due to prevailing circumstances favorable to the Europeans? The European colonial period is a phenomenon in scale and consequence, notably — the birth of the United States; the transplant of millions of Africans to America and their enslavement; Spanish being spoken in Central and most South America; and English becoming the dominant language of today’s business world. There is no doubt that European colonization derived its technological, mercantile and military powers from the Industrial Revolution that originated in the medium-size island nation of Great Britain. However, there existed other important factors that require further investigation.
The term “gunboat diplomacy” represented only one part of the strategy for colonial success. The other part was “divide and conquer” that took advantage of the lack of cohesion among the populations in foreign lands, such as India, Egypt and China, which despite their much larger size, seemed to be encumbered by their ancient cultures when the foreigners came to conquer. Did the colonizers come in an armada ready to deliver a great punch? It was impossible due to the vast oceans and the difficulties in establishing a supply line of food, troops and weapons. In fact, they came initially as explorers and missionaries, and later in small warships carrying limited numbers of troops for the purpose of defending the small costal enclaves they occupied. Such limited expeditions could not survive on new lands unless they received sustained fresh supplies from the natives. But why did the natives want to help the foreign occupiers? Well, people do things to protect and enhance their own interests unless being inspired by something bigger than self.
Adding to the supply problems was the scanty geographic and demographic knowledge about foreign lands. When the British first came to India for instance, did they really know how big and how populous the country was? There were no satellite surveys and population census at that time. The British were very cautious because they understood the dangers they might get into if they ventured into the hinterland where the natives might be hostile. To their surprise and advantage, they discovered that size did not matter because the natives lacked cohesion and a strong national government to protect them.
At that time, the Indian subcontinent was fragmented into small kingdoms or territories ruled by kings, despots, religious heads, sect leaders, big business owners, or tribal chiefs. All the English needed was to play one group against another by supplying their collaborators with some of their modern weapons. Thus the strategy of “divide and conquer” worked until the whole subcontinent finally came under British rule, known as British Raj from 1858 until 1947 when India became independent. Due to their limited strength, the British were only capable of ruling over the rulers and elites of the fragmented territories on the subcontinent, not directly over the common people because the nation of India did not exist. They creamed off the profits and strengthened the positions of the collaborators for mutual benefits. As for the sea of natives across the entire subcontinent, the British bosses were largely invisible except in some big cities where the elites lived. Local laws and customs continued to function as long as the British could keep the profits they wanted.
Initially, British colonization was not carried out by the government but by the privately-owned East India Company engaging in the trading of tea, cotton and silk. Since the mid 1700’s, the Company gradually expanded its power from commerce to ruling a large part of the Indian subcontinent by maintaining a private army of native Indians to protect its interests besides allying with one local ruler against another. When the Indian rebellion occurred in 1857, the Company sought help from the Royal Navy. This created a strong collusion between private commerce (money) and government (the military) in the colonizing venture, which later became a profitable working model for venturing elsewhere. In 1874, the East India Company was dissolved. Its trading and administrative functions were absorbed into the Colonial government machinery. Its private army was nationalized by the British Crown.
The tradition of employing a native army continues up to this day as evidenced by the Gurkha Brigade of Nepalese soldiers serving in the British Army. When everything seemed to work perfectly, what caused the demise of the British Raj? World War II intervened. Britain became much weakened despite being a victorious power. In India, a new leader emerged by the name of Mahatma Gandhi. He led his people against British rule employing non-violence tactics such as targeting British commercial interest like salt harvesting. This struck at the heart of colonialism. Non-violence worked because the natives had the preponderance in number, galvanized and led by a strong leader. Targeting commercial interests worked because the colonizers’ objective was profits only, without which they would withdraw quickly. After the 1947 independence of India, their biggest colony, the British Empire began to crumble, so did the other European empires. A new wave of national consciousness grew in the colonized world that spelled the end of European colonialism.
The history of European colonization offers many insights into the powerful impacts of the Industrial Revolution and its uneven distribution around the world. In its wake, most ancient cultures have been disrupted and exploited by the European colonizers, some even to this day. There are obvious winners and losers. The huge material spoils of the winners seem to remain in the hands of the commercial elites without trickling down to their fellow citizens. As you can see, the living standards of the British people have not significantly increased as a consequence of more than 200 years of empire at whose zenith the sun never set. For the Europeans, the period of colonization is by no means a glorious or inspiring one, because it represents greed, bully and exploitation of the weak.
With respect to the losers, they have finally emerged out of European colonization, but many of them are still mired in under-development especially in Africa. The colonized peoples should not continue to dwell on the miseries of that period and demand compensation or aids because it won’t help. As memories fade through the passage of time, the next generation of Europeans are not likely to blame their forefathers for their exploitation of foreigners, never mind feeling guilty for their greed and the mess they have created around the world. The colonized peoples should better move on now that they have complete control of their destinies. They should focus on self-strengthening. It starts at home. It has nothing to do with foreign aids. It’s all about how to develop their own people’s talents and potentials.