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?


  1. Jared says

    Hey Mano,

    So far I have found the “Colonial Experience” series very interesting.

    I am reminded of the scene from “Life of Brian” when someone asks rhetorically, “And what have the Roman’s ever done for us?”. And then they start listing one by one all of the nice infrastructural improvements brought by the Romans.

    But I also agree with you that these improvements were all for the benefit of the Romans, and that any positive impact they have on the “natives” is incidental.

    The negatives of imperialism become even more clear when you start looking at issues of self-determination.


  2. says


    Funny you should mention the Life of Brian clip. I had scheduled it to appear in part 4 of this series!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *