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March 31, 2009

The colonial experience-8: The rise of nationalist feeling

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While colonial powers needed to create an educated, elite class to act as surrogates for them and help them rule the country, providing access to that education created its own problems. While some in the educated elite were happy to play the role of junior partner to the colonialists and enjoy the rewards, others became, as a result of this western education, more aware of the political currents that were sweeping the world as a result of the Russian and Chinese revolutions, and the rise of anti-colonialist nationalistic sentiment following World War II.

These people returned from their education abroad to organize trade unions, form political parties, and agitate for independence. Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam returned from France to lead that country's liberation struggle against the French. English-educated Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi led similar struggles in India, and Sri Lanka had its own counterparts. All these leaders tended to have socialist leanings, having visions of creating a society that was just and egalitarian and non-racial.

But as we have sadly seen, the centrifugal forces that were unleashed by the divide-and-rule policies in the colonies based on long-standing inter-tribal suspicions were too strong to be overcome and almost all countries succumbed to ethnic clashes following independence. Those leaders in the fight for independence who were non-racial were often swept aside by pandering politicians only too eager to use ethnicity as a wedge to inflame passions and ride to power on racial issues. As a result, India has seen terrible Hindu-Muslim-Sikh violence, Sri Lanka has similar conflicts between Sinhala and Tamil people, and the ethnic violence in African countries are too many and well-known to list.

As a result of these problems exacerbated by the colonial powers, many countries descended into authoritarian rule with ruthless dictators, the worst examples being Mobutu Sese Seko in what was then called Zaire and is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, Idi Amin in Uganda, and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. These tragic post-independence developments enabled colonial powers like the British to smugly claim that they were the ones who kept the peace between the warring groups, and that thus their presence was beneficial, when in reality, they were the ones who helped fan the existing tensions and suspicions into flames. While the post-independence political leaders of those countries share a huge amount of blame for the degeneration of their countries, the colonists also have blood on their hands.

One bright spot in Africa was Tanzania under its founding president Julius Nyrere. An interesting intermediate case in Asia is Singapore, where an authoritarian leader Lee Kuan Yew kept a tight lid on ethnic divisions and successfully led a program of modernization and industrialization that has made that small country a world leader in commerce and resulted in Singapore having one of the highest standards of living in the world.

So coming back to Jared's original question about how it could be that he, the only non-Indian in a class that dealt with British colonialism in India, could see the negative aspects of it, it comes down to the depth of one's understanding of the political history of the colonized countries. Attitudes amongst the people of the former colonies towards the colonial experience depends on, I think, the politics and background of the family from which the person comes.

Most of the students who come to the US are probably like me, the products of a relatively small, urban, English-educated elite, and thus come from the group favored by the colonial powers. There is absolutely no doubt that having the benefit of an English education has opened our minds to a world of knowledge and enabled us to go abroad and experience much more than we would have otherwise. Knowledge of the English language and its associated literature has enabled us to more easily absorb western culture and science, which are both dominant in the world today. There is no question that this particular legacy of the colonial experience has been good for us personally.

Making broad generalizations, those who left the colonial country because of the turmoil that followed independence, tend to think of the pre-independence colonial times as one of peace and prosperity, at least for the urban elite to which they belonged. This is especially likely in the case of ethnic and religious minorities who bore the brunt of the post-independence backlash by the marginalized majority against those whom they perceived as unfair beneficiaries of colonial largesse.

Against that group are those who grew up in households or communities that were more politically aware at a deeper level. I have said that my grandfather's view of British colonial rule was positive, although he knew that they considered brown-skinned people like him as ultimately inferior. They were sufficiently nice to him and rewarding of his services that overall he thought they treated him well, and that he fared better than he would have at the hands of the majority community.

My father, on the other hand, lived during the time of transition to post-colonial rule, with almost exactly half his life growing up in a British colony and the second half in an independent state. So he grew up with all the privileges of being English educated but at a time when anti-imperialist sentiment was strong and nationalist fervor was high, especially in the universities and amongst what used to be referred to as the intelligentsia. He belonged to both and his political leanings were influenced by that experience. So he did understand the negative aspects of colonial rule while at the same time being a beneficiary of it.

The next generation, mine, is entirely post-colonial and where we stand in relation to our colonial past is also mixed. The more politically aware can see both the long-term benefits as well as the damage that colonialism has done, and we are ambivalent towards it. Others who do not go into it as deeply may have a rather one-sided view depending on their own personal situation and how colonialism affected their own lives. Those who come from families that benefited, the urban English educated class, see it as mostly a good thing while the rest may see it as largely negative.

This series had its genesis the attempt to explain to Jared why it was that the Indian students in his colonialism class seemed to have a positive view of that experience. I suspect that most émigrés are those from the English-educated urban classes, since they are the ones who have access to the means for going abroad and they, I suspect, are the ones who dominated Jared's class. So this post ends my long-winded answer to his question.

POST SCRIPT: Interesting talk today

Jeff Hawkins will be speaking today (Tuesday, March 31, 2009 from 4:30-5:30) on the topic On Intelligence: What Intelligent Machines Can Learn From the Human Neocortex.

Hawkins is co-founder of two computer companies, Palm and Handspring, and is the architect of many computing products such as the PalmPilot and Treo smartphone, and the author of the book On Intelligence (2004).

The talk will be given in the Wolstein Auditorium on Cornell Road on the campus of Case Western Reserve University. For more details, see here.

March 27, 2009

The colonial experience-7: Majority-Minority divisions

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

One of the most depressing features of so many countries that gained independence in the post-colonial age that began with the end of World War II is the inter-ethnic tensions, discrimination, and violence that often occurred.

It must be made clear that tensions between the different ethnic communities were not created by the colonists out of nothing. It is not the case that the different ethnic groups had been living in a harmonious paradise before the arrival of the colonists. The tribal instincts and in-group/out-group thinking that are the bane of existence and the cause of so much violence and hatred all over the world existed long before the appearance of the modern nation state. What the colonial powers did was to take those existing suspicions and animosities and use them as important elements in their divide and rule strategy, thus perpetuating and aggravating them.

The British have a history of using a minority community's latent suspicions of the majority to woo them as allies against the majority, thus preventing any unified action against the British. They did this in ways large and small. One way they did this in Sri Lanka was to give excessive patronage rewards to the minority Tamil community. For example, the minority Tamil community was far more welcoming concerning the opening of missionary schools and churches, and as a result they ended up learning English in greater numbers and occupying the elite professions and the higher ranks of the administrative and commercial sectors in numbers that far exceeded their proportion in the population.

This had a two-fold benefit for the British. It created a spiral of behavior in which the minority communities felt more grateful to the British and tended to look to them as their protectors from the majority community and to be more ingratiating towards them, and it shifted the resentment of the majority community away from the British and towards the minority, thinking of them as somehow conniving with the British to obtain greater rewards at their expense. As a result of these and similar policies in other colonial countries, the minority communities were the ones most fearful of what would happen to them at the hands of the majority once the colonial power left. After a country gained independence, the lid came off the simmering conflict and often escalated into open-warfare. The roots of the twenty-five year long civil war that has gone on in Sri Lanka, and the insurrection that took place against the government in the 1970s and 1980s, can all be traced to these policies of the British.

Similarly, the Belgians in collusion with the Roman Catholic Church deliberately set about magnifying the extremely minor distinctions between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and favoring the minority Tutsis, thus setting in motion the train of events that led to the horrendous genocide of 1994 in which over 800,000 mostly Tutsis were killed in the space of a few months at the hands of their Hutu neighbors.

One sees this pattern repeated in almost all the former colonies. In fact, it is hard to find a post-colonial country that has not had such problems. Especially in Africa, the colonial powers often created countries that had not existed as single entities before. But rather than drawing boundaries that separated nations according to traditional ethnic boundaries and thus ensuring relatively homogeneous populations, they would draw lines that divided ethnic communities and forced them into political unions with other communities with whom they had traditional animosities. As a result, we have so many brutal ethnic conflicts going on in so many countries. This was a heinous crime committed by colonial powers that is impossible to excuse.

But the British in Sri Lanka also created divisions in other seemingly minor ways. For example, the social clubs that people join and spend evenings with their friends and families are an English institution. They created such clubs in Sri Lanka too, and which had sports teams that competed with each other, and some of these clubs had explicitly ethnic affiliations with names that reflected them: Sinhalese Sports Club, Tamil Union, the Moors (Muslims) Sports Club, and the Burgher Recreation Club (the Burghers were those people whose ancestry included some Portugese, Dutch, or British). The British had their own exclusive clubs, open to whites only.

It seems incredible to me now that Sri Lankans should have tolerated such blatantly ethnicity-based social clubs for so long, even after independence, and taken them for granted. Although the clubs now have memberships that are open to all ethnicities, the very names are offensive. But they still exist and indicate that abhorrence to tribal sentiment and allegiance is not anywhere near as widespread and as strong as it should be.

POST SCRIPT: Americans are willing to pay more in taxes to improve infrastructure

It has long been treated as an article of faith that Americans hate raising taxes for whatever reason. But Republican pollster Frank Luntz finds that this is not true.

Consider this: A near unanimous 94% of Americans are concerned about our nation's infrastructure. And this concern cuts across all regions of the country and across urban, suburban and rural communities.

Fully 84% of the public wants more money spent by the federal government -- and 83% wants more spent by state governments -- to improve America's infrastructure. And here's the kicker: 81% of Americans are personally prepared to pay 1% more in taxes for the cause. It's not uncommon for people to say they'd pay more to get more, but when you ask them to respond to a specific amount, support evaporates. (That 74% of normally stingy Republicans are on board for the tax increase is, to me, the most significant finding in the survey.)

March 25, 2009

The colonial experience-6: Divide and rule

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While the colonies were a prime source of revenue for England, they also served as places to send young English men who were seen as black sheep in their well-connected families or as places where the less well-connected could make their fortunes. But the British could never hope, by sheer force of numbers and soldiers, to keep their far-flung empire under their control for a long time. Even the strong and well-organized Roman empire collapsed under this kind of logistical strain, and we see the same thing happening right now with the US trying to maintain its global dominance militarily. It is causing immense stress on its budgets and threatening to bankrupt the country.

In the previous post in this series, I said that one strategy they adopted was to create a class of surrogates who were educated in western ways in language, dress, manners, and mode of life, so that they were sympathetic to the British presence and even saw it as largely a positive thing.

But while that policy could be seen as a fairly benign strategy that even had some positive features, the British also adopted the tried and true strategy of all imperial powers, the cruel and infamous policy of 'divide and rule'. This required setting up suspicions and antagonisms between groups of local people so that they would not unite against their rulers, but would instead compete against each other for dominance or for favorable treatment from the British. While the British remained, they were able to prevent the simmering animosities they themselves deliberately fomented into breaking out into open conflict, thus creating the façade that they were peacemakers, when in truth they were instigators of dissension.

The British were so successful at both creating this class of surrogates that was sympathetic to their interests and also in sowing ethnic dissension that even to this day there are people in the colonized countries who see the period of British colonization as almost wholly benevolent and that independence saw the beginning of the decline of those countries, with ethnic clashes breaking out, authoritarian governments taking over, widespread corruption, the breakdown of law and order, and failed economies. Zimbabwe is the paradigmatic case of a post-colonial collapse.

While it is true that the departure of the British often did result in such collapses, and the political leaders who replaced the British share much if not most of the blame for the breakdown, the roots of those problems can often be laid at the feet of the British, as a result of policies they deliberately put in place. Where the post-independence rulers can be faulted is in their inability to see the traps set for them and take effective counter-measures. Instead many post-independence leaders cynically exploited the divisions sown by the colonial countries and used ethnic hostilities to gain power, despite the long-term problems and suffering they thus caused.

A few, like Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, and Julius Nyerere, the first prime minister of Tanzania, were intellectuals who could see beyond tribal thinking but they were the exceptions. And even Nehru could not prevent Hindu-Muslim brutality from dividing his country.

As part of their strategy to be able to rule the colonies with the minimum number of residents, the British created two types of divisions: class and ethnicity. To create the former, we saw the careful cultivation of a class of local people who were educated to identify themselves with the British culture and to look down on their own people who were now English-speaking. The residue of that policy exists even today. The English-speaking middle classes think of themselves as somehow superior to those people who are comfortable speaking only in the indigenous languages of Sinhala and Tamil, and who speak English badly or mispronounce words. Such people are referred to disparagingly as 'gamayas' (village people), implying that they lack the sophistication of their urban counterparts.

This set up tension between the English-speaking, largely urban, middle classes and the poorer rural people who spoke in the vernacular. The English language became referred to as the 'kaduwa' (sword) that divided the people into two. Even as late as when I was in college, the students were categorized as the 'kults' or the 'harayas'. The word kult was (according to local folklore) a corruption of the word kultur, the German word for high culture, and stood for those who could speak English well and adopted western style manners and clothes and tastes in music and films, while the word 'haraya' stood for an ordinary person or plebeian.

The economic, social, and political dominance of the kults naturally created resentment amongst the harayas (who were in the numerical majority). The harayas felt that they were being denied access to the higher levels of economic and social life through no fault of their own, merely because of accidents of birth and background. After independence, this resentment boiled over and in Sri Lanka there was a backlash against English in the mid-1950s with politicians pandering to the majority by seeking to abolish English as the language of government and commerce, to limit access to learning it in schools, and adopting a 'Sinhala Only' policy, making the majority language the official language of the country. The idea was that then the rural majority that spoke in the vernacular would then have greater access to the higher levels of the professions, business, and society.

This policy was the reverse of the earlier pro-English policies but had long-term disastrous effects. One result was that the minority ethnic Tamil community, which spoke Tamil, felt discriminated against. They saw the Sinhala Only policy as directly targeting them and this, building on long-term suspicions, eventually led to calls for a separate state and the current civil war.

The drive against English also coincided with the increased use of English worldwide as the language of international trade and commerce and science. English was too important to be ignored or suppressed and efforts to do so only resulted in an even smaller elite being able to learn it and thus have access to education abroad or to have access to the knowledge explosion occurring worldwide. So Sri Lanka actually suffered from its anti-English drive, hindering the creation of the kinds of educated people who could take advantage of the science and knowledge explosion. They are now trying to change course and bring English back but two generations of students have gone through the anti-English educational system. That makes it that much harder to now have enough people to provide adequate instruction in English.

So adopting the policy of giving the majority language (which was only spoken in Sri Lanka) pride of place resulted in two long-term negative consequences. It aggravated the suspicions of the minority that the majority community was seeking dominance over them, and it was a step back into insularity at a time when the world was becoming increasingly interdependent and using English as the means of communication and commerce and science.

POST SCRIPT: Media obliviousness

Glenn Greenwald has an excellent post about how the journalists in the mainstream media are completely oblivious to their true relationship to the people they supposedly cover, and why they are baffled at being the targets of Jon Stewart's and Stephen Colbert's humor.

March 23, 2009

The colonial experience-5: Creating loyal surrogates

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The British, in my opinion, were much smarter colonial powers than (say) the French or the Belgians. The Belgians were arguably the worst, as can be seen in what they did to the Congo under Emperor Leopold. As is the usual pattern, the colonialists used religion as a pacification tool. "[Leopold] claimed he was doing it to protect the "natives" from Arab slavers, and to open the heart of Africa to Christian missionaries, and Western capitalists."

The Belgians were vicious, ruthless, and brutal exploiters, stripping the colonized countries of their natural wealth as quickly and as efficiently as possible, with no thought whatsoever for the welfare of the people. In the name of Jesus and western civilization, they killed and raped and mutilated men, women, and children. The brutal Belgian empire did not leave much of a positive legacy when they were eventually forced to leave by the worldwide tide of anti-colonial nationalism that arose following the end of World War II.

I have criticized before Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness for its racism, but his stark description (though not identified as such, it is based on what happened in the Congo) of the sub-human nature that the Africans are reduced to as a result of working for the white ivory hunters is compelling. The native people were seen as little more than beasts of burden, ill-treated, forced to work under slave-like conditions with little food or rest, and then abandoned by the side of the road when their usefulness was over. In the book, they are portrayed as if they were animals who scarcely talk but simply whimper and moan and eventually crawl off to die.

Although the British were as capable of brutality as the Belgians, by and large they kept it in check and made greater efforts to improve the conditions in the colonies. As a result their former colonies view them with much greater approval than the former Belgian colonies.

The British wanted to be an empire over the long term and they realized that since they were an island nation with a small population far away from the countries they sought to rule, they could not hope to conquer and keep distant lands using only force. They had to create a class of people locally who would either identify with the rulers or at least realize that there was a lot to be gained by siding with them against their own people. So they set about creating a group of surrogates, Sri Lankans who adopted the values, manners, and mores of the British rulers. Such people felt that they had more in common with the English than their own people, and thus distanced themselves from the majority.

The British achieved this by creating schools and churches to transform children into little brown English men and women, and using the administrative services under their control and the newly burgeoning commercial sector to provide the reward structure for those Sri Lankans who were willing to essentially switch their allegiance to the British, to see them as a benevolent force in the nation's history. Since the higher levels of the world of government and administration and commerce was conducted almost exclusively in English, anyone who wanted to advance in those areas knew that they had to learn English and to speak and dress and behave like the English.

There was no shortage of ambitious parents who were willing to make that deal. They sent their children voluntarily to the schools set up and run by the Christian missionaries in the urban centers which, in addition to being much better equipped in terms of classrooms and laboratories and sports facilities, and having much better educated and trained teachers, guaranteed that the products of those schools would either go on to university and the elite professions or obtain secure and lucrative employment in the government and private sectors.

I too went to such a school, a boarding school (though it had a substantial number of students like me who were not boarded) set up by Anglican missionaries in which the education and social life was modeled entirely (with a very few exceptions) on British public schools. The students wore uniforms, went to assembly and chapel, played cricket and rugby, had the prefect structure, and so on, very much like Hogwarts in the Harry Potter stories. The only difference with a similar school in England would be the vegetation and the skin color of the students.

Many people also became Christians and even adopted the names of the colonizers as this meant even greater acceptance, and thus greater hopes for advancement, from the colonial rulers. Traditional Sinhala and Tamil names tend to be polysyllabic and the colonial powers made very little effort to try and learn them, changing the geographic names to ones they found easier to pronounce. Those Sri Lankans eager to gain acceptance often changed their names to those commonly found in the ruling countries. As a result, the most common names of people in Sri Lanka even now are Fernando, de Silva, and Perera, reflecting the early Portugese influence, and one can find names like Mather, Hoole, Paul, Wilson, Watson, and so on, reflecting the later British presence. While a few people born after independence with such names self-consciously changed them to more indigenous-sounding ones, these names are so ubiquitous that they are no longer seen as being foreign.

Some families retained their traditional family names (though sometimes modified slightly to make it easier for the British to say them) but adopted British first names. For example, my grandfather's name started out as Charles Nallasegarasingam. But when he went to work for the British army in Burma, he shortened and changed it to Charles N. Singham, presumably because it was easier to say and Singham sounded more anglicized, like Bingham. He gave his four sons the first names Reggie (Reginald), Leo (Leonard, my father), Benny (Benedict), and Archie (Archibald), all of whom sound as if they are members of the Drones Club and friends of Bertie Wooster.

This co-opting of an important class of local people played an important role in the length of time that the British were able to keep their colonies, as well as shaping the colonies' attitudes towards England after independence.

Next in the series: Divide and rule policies

POST SCRIPT: But what's in it for me?

In a previous post, I wrote about the Ayn Randians who are threatening to 'go Galt'. The merchant banker in this Monty Python sketch captures the attitude of those people perfectly.


March 17, 2009

The colonial experience-4: The economic transformation

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Perhaps the biggest disruption caused by the British colonialists was the massive change in rural life and agricultural practices as a result of the conversion from a somewhat communal, subsistence form of agriculture, where much of the local resources used for food production (such as water supplies, grazing land for animals, and forests as a source of food and fuel) was held in common, to a plantation economy with strict private ownership.

Sri Lanka before colonial rule was a feudal country and in such systems land usage was controlled by the feudal lords or by tradition. The colonial powers, on the other hand, were mercantilist and later capitalist and in such systems, it was necessary to have clear rules about who owned what, especially land. Since many of the farmers in rural areas in Sri Lanka did not officially have title to the land they cultivated, the land being either held in common by the village or rights assigned by custom or by the feudal lords, it was easy for the central government to get ownership and convert that land into single crop plantations under the control of large British-owned companies.

Creation of this plantation-based economy resulted in the displacement of huge numbers of small farmers and villages from their traditional lands and crops and made them into landless peasants, suddenly transformed from self-sufficient people, albeit often at a bare subsistence level, into unskilled laborers, forced to seek low paying jobs on the plantations or in the newly growing urban areas. The problem of how to solve the huge problem of landless peasants has been the bane of all those former colonies that had a plantation economy imposed on them.

Furthermore, traditional foods like rice now had to be imported in large quantities because the land was now being used for cash generating export crops. Local communities that were largely self-supporting now became interdependent with distant communities and even foreign countries.

The increased trade within the country and between the country and the external world did result in development of the country and the creation of new sources of wealth due to the rise of the merchant class and its associated banking and financial and transport sectors. It also resulted in urban areas now becoming the centers of activity. As a result, the terms of trade between rural and urban now shifted to the benefit of the latter, thus impoverishing the rural sector. By 'terms of trade' I mean that while the rural sector produced basically food, the urban sectors supplied finished goods (clothes, machinery, etc.), and the amount of food (say bags of rice) that needed to be grown to purchase (say) a shirt was such that the labor of the rural peasant became worth much less than that of the urban worker, resulting in a decline in the standards of living of the rural peasantry, except for a few wealthy land and plantation owners.

In turn, the terms of trade between Sri Lanka and England favored the latter, because Sri Lanka was basically exporting low value-added agricultural cash crops while importing high value-added finished goods. Thus Sri Lankan labor became effectively much cheaper than British labor. As has been said, the British made Sri Lanka into a tea plantation economy, the Caribbean countries into a sugar plantation economy, all so that the English could have their perfect cup of tea at a cheap price.

There was little or no attempt by the British to create local industries since they wanted to increase markets for the products grown in England, and creating industries in the colonies would defeat that goal. The British were content to keep Sri Lanka as basically an agrarian country producing food for the British and world market, and as a place to sell (or more appropriately dump) their own finished products. For a long time after the end of colonial rule, clothes, cars, canned goods, toys, etc. sold in Sri Lanka still came almost exclusively from England. It was only after independence that local industries started being created on a wide scale.

Having this captive market in the colonies was good for the colonial powers in the short run but actually harmful to them in the long run. While they still controlled the colonies, it enabled them to avoid having to compete with other rising world economic powers like the Americans. But this also discouraged them from investing in making improvements. As a result, when these colonial markets became open to the world as a result of the post-World War II movements for independence, the British found their products were no longer competitive in terms of quality or price. It used to be, for example, that when I was a child almost all the cars in Sri Lanka were English brands like Austin, Morris, Vauxhall. Rover, Triumph, and all the buses were made by British Leyland. The rapid decline in their market share following independence was quite remarkable, though one can still find forty year-old models on the roads.

So although Sri Lanka was modernized by the British in some ways, like all other colonies it seriously lagged behind in its own industrialization and in the production of finished goods for domestic consumption and for export. The net result was the steady siphoning of the wealth of the land from rural Sri Lanka to urban Sri Lanka and from there to England, with urban Sri Lanka getting some of the crumbs that fell in transit. These crumbs took the form of modern towns and cities and the creation of an educated urban elite.

This latter group plays an important role in how attitudes towards colonialism were shaped, with some seeing the British presence as largely positive and others as negative, depending on how much they personally benefited. The ambiguity of their response reflects the contradictory role that the urban centers played in colonial times, benefiting in some ways from colonial rule and losing in others. I will expand on this later.

POST SCRIPT: What about the aqueduct?

This clip from Monty Python's Life of Brian about Roman rule in Palestine captures well the inherent ambiguity of the relationship between the colonizing power and the colonists.


March 13, 2009

The colonial experience-3: The missionaries

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

It is well known that in the colonies conquered by the Europeans, the Bible and the gun went hand in hand. Soon after a country was militarily overpowered, missionaries were often the next group to go in under their protection, even before merchants and traders. These missionaries were the first to establish a permanent presence in many areas of the country, setting up rudimentary medical facilities, classrooms, and churches. Although they did have the backing of the military, the missionaries were often personally courageous and even humane people, taking aid and a strange message to the remotest parts of a distant and foreign land and often having to deal with an initially suspicious and hostile population, and by doing so, winning souls for Jesus. Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart gives a good description of this process at work in Nigeria.

Many of the missionaries with their schools and hospitals and social work represented the kinder, gentler face of colonialism, the velvet glove hiding the iron hand, and thus masking the basic exploitative nature of colonial rule. By preaching about Jesus, they sought to replace local religious myths and totems, that often represented local interests, with Christian myths and totems that were common to a larger group. They thus tried to create allegiance to a larger political entity than the village or tribe, and to get the local people to identify with the values of the colonists.

Many of the missionaries in Sri Lanka had the same attitude towards the locals that the administrators of the Indian schools in America had, that what was best for the Sri Lankan people was to suppress as much as possible local language and custom and have them adopt western ways. So successful were they that this attitude persisted long after the British formally left. Missionary schools taught by foreign priests and nuns continued to exist after we gained independence, and punishing students for not speaking English was also common in some Sri Lankan missionary schools.

Even during my own education, long after independence in a school set up by Anglican missionaries, the chaplains and some of the teachers were English, but they were generally progressive people who genuinely seemed to have the interests of the Sri Lankans at heart. (At least they seemed so to me when I was a schoolboy. It could have been the case that they were simply good actors. But I doubt it. To be really effective as a missionary, you have to be a true believer, convinced that you are truly serving god by converting the locals. While such people are misguided, they are usually incapable of willful deceit.)

By preaching Christianity with its idea that what happens in this world is not important, that what really counts is the health of your soul and that your reward is in heaven, they promoted a message of acquiescence to colonial rule and thus sought to blunt the appeal of those who argued for revolting against the occupiers. That dynamic has always been there, with religion undermining the message that redressing injustice and exploitation in this world is an important goal and that people should unite to overthrow their oppressors whether they be their own people or foreign rulers.

We saw that same thing happen with the slaves in the US. Their adoption of Christianity probably resulted in greater acceptance and endurance of their suffering under the slave owners. The slaves were encouraged to seek consolation by looking forward to their rewards in heaven and not seek justice on Earth, thus blunting the efforts of those who argued that they had a right to a good life here and now and that slavery was an abomination.

I have written before about how Christianity has been systematically used as a cover for political and economic exploitation. Religion has been a wonderful ally to those seeking to maintain the status quo.

It is not an accident that religious missionaries were among the first groups of people to follow colonial conquerors and received the full patronage and protection of the colonial rulers. The famous African quote "When the missionaries came to our country they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘let us pray’ and we closed our eyes to pray. At the end of the prayer, they had the land and we had the Bible" captures accurately how religion served the interests of the colonial powers.

Next in the series: The economic transformation created by the colonists.

POST SCRIPT: I don't get Twitter

Although I signed up for a Twitter account a long time ago to see what it was all about, I have never used it. But I get messages that people have signed up to follow my "tweets", as the messages (limited to 140 characters) are called. I completely share Tom Tomorrow's bafflement as to why anyone would want to follow me, or anyone else for that matter, on Twitter.

Jon Stewart doesn't understand the appeal of these new networking crazes either.


March 11, 2009

The colonial experience-2: The (mostly) bad

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While many of the things introduced by the British had beneficial features, almost every one had its own negatives, apart from the introduction of universal suffrage. The reason was that each of these things was not created exclusively for the benefit and advancement of the local population but to increase the ability of the colonial powers to control the population and exploit the country's natural resources for the benefit of England, especially a climate that was ideally suited for the growing of food and spices. Any benefits that did accrue to the locals were incidental.

For example, although the new road and rail networks provided greater mobility for the population, that was not their primary intent. Instead they were designed to facilitate the transport of the products of the new cash crop plantations to the coastal ports for export. One can see even now how the winding rail lines through the central hill areas follow the path of the plantations. These systems, along with the telephone and telegraph systems, also enabled easier access to, and thus greater control of, the entire country to the small band of British colonial officers based in the urban centers, enabling them to keep tabs on what was going on.

Also, while the police and army consisting of Sri Lankans brought about greater security for people, they could, and were often used to suppress opposition, especially as the independence movement started to grow in strength.

The goal of any colonial power is very simple and unambiguous: to exploit the resources of the conquered country for the benefit of the ruling classes in the conquering country. The ultimate mechanism for achieving this is also simple: raw power. But power only takes you so far for so long. To achieve long-term dominance one needs to win the allegiance, or at least the acquiescence, of significant sectors of the local population. So while the foundation of achieving the political and economic goals of the colonialists lay with brute force (they had the guns after all), the task of winning the hearts and minds of the people to feel positive about their subjugation by their foreign rulers fell largely, though not exclusively, to the missionaries.

By setting up schools and churches, these people sought to create an important class of people: those who were of the local population but who identified more with the interests of the colonial power. They did this by giving benefits such as land and titles and leadership positions in legislative and administrative bodies to those who were willing to use them to advance British interests. Over time, this group became identified as being 'national' leaders, even though they spoke English, wore western dress, lived a western lifestyle, and had little in common with the people they supposedly represented.

This is not to say that all the colonialists were cynical exploiters. Many of them, especially at the middle and lower levels, probably were genuinely interested in the welfare of the 'natives' (as we were so quaintly called) and sought to improve their lives by bringing modernity to what they perceived as backward people. This is probably more true of those missionaries and educators (and often the same person played both roles) who built churches and schools with the goals of saving the heathen from hell and replacing their pagan beliefs with what they saw as belief in the one true god. I have little doubt that most of these people sincerely thought that teaching children English and making them adopt western ways of life in terms of clothing, speech, and lifestyles was a good thing.

It is not unlike what happened with Native American children in the US who were forcibly removed from their families on the reservations and sent to distant boarding schools where they were systematically stripped of all their traditional cultural connections and forced to adopt the majority white culture. In those schools, children were, for among other things, forced to cut off their long hair and were punished if they were caught speaking in their own languages and not in English.

Many of the people who implemented what we now condemn as a woefully wrong-headed and cruel policy did so out of the best of intentions, thinking that the only way to save the Indians from what they saw as the wasteland of life on the reservation was to have them adopt the ways of white people. The Olympic gold medal-winning athlete Jim Thorpe is probably the best known of all of them. He attended Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, which had as its founding principle: "Kill the Indian and save the man."

But while bribes and coercion can result in some people being willing to serve the interests of their colonial masters, to achieve the best results you need to have local people who think that the ways of the colonial powers are truly better and that by advancing those interests, they are also advancing the interests of the local people. You need to win the hearts and minds of a significant group of the local population.

This is where the missionaries came in, as I will discuss in the next post in this series.

POST SCRIPT: How not to win hearts and minds

A US soldier excoriates Iraqi police recruits. (Very strong language advisory.) I wonder how the interpreter deals with the constant stream of profanity. Does he gloss over it? Censor? Literally translate? Translate idiomatically?

March 09, 2009

The colonial experience-1: The (mostly) good

In a comment on my earlier post on portrayals of the developing world in western culture, Jared raised a really interesting point about his odd experience of taking a class on "British Colonialism in India" and finding that, while he was the only non-Indian student, he was also the only one who seemed to think that the practices of the British colonialists were not altogether benign.

He was rightly surprised that although we now tend to look on colonialism as a bad thing, the descendents of the very people who were colonized, the ones most likely to have been aware of, and even scarred by, the negatives of it seemed to take a much more positive view of it. He wondered why this was so, and the next series of posts gives my long-winded answer to his question.

The relationship of colonized people with the colonial powers is a complex one and I will try to sketch out some general themes. In the process, I will draw heavily on my own and Sri Lanka's experience with colonialism, because it is what I know best and also because I think it shares broad similarities with many other British colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.

Sri Lanka was colonized continuously from about 1500 CE by a back-to-back succession of colonial powers, first the Portugese, then the Dutch, and finally the British, each staying for about 150 years. I was born after we finally obtained independence from the British in 1948 so I have always lived in an independent country. But my grandfather was born in Sri Lanka when it was a British colony, went to Burma as a youth, and actually worked there for the British army, evacuating to Sri Lanka only during World War II when the Japanese overran that country. As a result, my father grew up in a British military 'cantonment' there, as the British bases were called, coming for the first time to Sri Lanka when he was an undergraduate, and living there ever since.

My grandfather admired the British very much, despite their outright and often overt racism towards the so-called darkies. Although he knew that because of his skin color he could never rise above a certain level, he was nevertheless grateful to the British for what he considered fair treatment within that limited framework. My father, however, was not an admirer of the British, and I even less so, and my family's responses reflects the ambiguity of reactions to the colonial occupation.

There is no question that the British in particular speeded up the pace of modernization in Sri Lanka and its incorporation into the global economy. The British built a network of roads and railways and telephone and telegraph and postal systems that, for the first time, linked the entire country in an efficient communication system. They created an extensive administrative system, modeled on the British Civil Service, that brought order and accountability. They set up a legal system and police and other security forces to maintain order. They created first coffee and then tea and rubber plantations that became (and still are) the main export cash crops, along with coconut and spices. They built hospitals and brought modern science and medicine to the country, displacing from dominance (but not eliminating) the traditional ayurvedic medical practitioners, who used various herbal methods. They built churches and converted many to Christianity. They built schools and introduced the English language.

Most importantly, they introduced the idea of democracy by creating legislative bodies at all levels of government from local to national, and introduced elections as a means of selecting people's representatives. While the decisions of these bodies were ultimately subordinate to the British governor, they did allow for self-rule in certain areas. The principle of universal adult suffrage (i.e., the right of all women and men of adult age to vote) was adopted in Sri Lanka in 1931, the first country by a wide margin outside of Europe and North America to do so, and remarkably early considering that women in the US only got the right to vote in 1920, England in 1928, and supposedly enlightened France only granted that right in 1944, Italy in 1945, and Belgium in 1948.

Were these actions by the British good things? Most of the time, undoubtedly so. But apart from the introduction of universal suffrage, almost every one had its own negatives.

Next in the series: The (mostly) bad

POST SCRIPT: Lambasting the anti-government zealots

One tactic that people who oppose measures to improve the lives of all people (like a single payer health care system would do) is to sneer at the very idea that government can do some things better than the private sector.

Bill Maher shows how to respond to them in his New Rules segment on his show Real Time.