Wednesday, May 08, 2002
Dinesh D'Souza has a piece in The Chronicle: Two Cheers for Colonialism. Typical D'Souza stuff: he takes post-colonial studies types for railing against the West for its unique villainy while ignoring the benefits of colonialism and the fact that other cultures were imperial, not just the West.
All true, but somehow missing something. What distinguishes 19th and 20th-century Western imperialism from the imperial regimes of the Romans, Chinese, Moghuls, Arabs, Mongols, Hellenes, Persians and so forth.
It seems to me there are two answers.
First, the West conquered effortlessly, universally, and with very few numbers. With really minimal application of force and few men under arms, a handful of countries counquered the entire world. The reasons the West was able to do this are manifold, ranging from political to technological factors. But it was nonetheless an acute humiliation for the rest of the world's societies to suffer such ignominy.
But second, the West refused to assimilate to the conquered societies. When the Spainish conquered Mexico, or Alexander Syria, or the Arabs Egypt, or the Romans Gaul, or the Mongols China, or the Normans Britain, or the Moghuls India, the conquerors merged with or displaced the local population. They came not only to rule but to live. As a result, new societies were formed that were amalgams of the conquered and the conqueror. There might yet be wide divisions based on class or religion or race that divide conqueror and conquered, but these were divisions within a society, between those who intend to stay and dominate and those who were there before and wish to throw off that dominance.
How different was French and British colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. The French conquerors did not seek to build new societies in Senegal or Vietnam, nor the British in India or Kenya. They came to rule only, as a people apart. This was mostly a simple matter of demographics. Where the Europeans were able to demographically dominate - in North America, for instance, or Australia - new societies were indeed created. Where they were not, even where the Europeans did come to stay and build new societies - as the French did in Algeria or the Dutch in South Africa - the demographic imbalance doomed their efforts to ultimate failure. Yet, nonetheless, European imperial efforts might have succeeded had the Europeans married the local ruling class; though, had they done so, the European conquerors would simply have vanished into the local population with time, as the Normans did in Britain or the Mongols in China.