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.

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