Mar 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.


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  1. 1


    Did you ever consider changing your name back to Nallasegarasingam?

  2. 2

    No, I never did. And as far as I know, no one in my extended family did either.

  3. 3

    What are your thoughts on China and Tibet? Aren’t we witnessing colonialism in real time?

  4. 4

    Although I think that ethnic allegiances are a form of tribalism that we should transcend, there are times when the animosity between ethnic groups is so great that trying to force them to live together seems futile and simply leads to increased violence and bloodshed.

    In the name of peace, I think that ethnic nationalities that meet the (admittedly somewhat ambiguous) criteria for nationhood should be allowed to have their own nation. I think Tibet qualifies, as does Kashmir.

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