What’s wrong with colonialism, anyway?

Now it’s Clive of India (d. 1774) whose name has to be expunged for being offensive to our brittle sensibilities.

Let’s rename it after Greta Thunberg

This military leader in the employ of the East India Company (EIC) did much to establish the British presence on the subcontinent, largely and satisfyingly at the expense of the French. He became the British governor of Bengal, and his tenure was controversial even in his own time.

Working with Warren Hastings, Clive laid the foundations of the British Empire, but both of them came under attack for mismanagement and corruption. Their most vociferous critic was Edmund Burke, who eventually redirected his animus towards the bigger target of the French Revolution.

Though both men were eventually acquitted at their trials, historians still argue about Clive’s career. This is a debate I’m neither willing nor indeed qualified to join. Yet those who wish to erase Clive’s name from history don’t join the debate either. They simply put their tyrannical foot down.

Their syllogistic thought proceeds from general principles. Thesis: Clive was a colonialist. Antithesis: Colonialism is evil by definition. Synthesis: Clive was evil.

Therefore his statue outside the Foreign Office should be toppled and, more immediately, his name must be taken off a house at Merchant Taylors’ School for Boys. According to headmaster Simon Everson, “Robert Clive has always been a controversial figure.”

True. But if we censor ex post factum every controversial figure in history, we’ll soon run out of heroes. In fact, we’ll soon run out of history.

For example, the Houses of Parliament are adorned by the statues of Richard I and Oliver Cromwell. Applying our exacting modern criteria to both, we find them not just controversial, but downright criminal. Richard offended our commitment to multiculturalism by leading a crusade, while Cromwell butchered the Irish – not something our Equalities Commission would countenance.

Like most modern perversions, such a retromingent approach to history’s giants is ignorant, immoral and inane. This goes to show yet again that any thought or action inspired by a wrong premise will itself be wrong.

In this case, the wrong premise is that colonialism is bad ipso facto. This belief is inspired by an ideological commitment to the equality of everything and everyone. If all civilisations are equally good, then there can be no moral justification for any claim to civilising interference.

Logically following from this is the insistence that, say, British settlers committed a crime against egalitarianism by colonising North America and wiping out, or at least segregating, the indigenous civilisation. Those Red Indians were every bit as civilised as the white colonisers, albeit in different ways.

There’s no denying that the colonisation of America entailed much brutality, some of it regarded as criminal even at the time. But on balance one would have to admit that the continent has derived a few benefits as well.

History is written not so much by the victors as by the victories. And victories outnumber defeats in the history of colonisation by a wide margin. For some civilisations aren’t just different from others, but also superior to them.

British civilisation, for example, was made greater when the Isles were colonised by the Romans in the first century and the French Normans in the eleventh. The Romans also civilised most of the Mediterranean peoples they colonised, including the rather brutish Franks. The Spanish and the Portuguese left Latin America better off than it had been before their arrival, while ending such multicultural practices as Aztec cannibalism.

And India still benefits from the institutions left behind by the British colonisers, for all their occasional cruelty, venality and corruption. They too put paid to some objectionable aspects of multiculturalism. For example, even the staunchest champions of diversity will find it hard to hail as charmingly idiosyncratic the ritual of immolating the widow together with her dead husband.

Even John Stuart Mill, not widely seen as a champion of tyranny, defended British presence in India. According to him the British promoted the protection of legal rights, tolerance of conflicting opinions, and an economy better equipped to handle natural disasters. In our own time, India wouldn’t have become the world’s largest democracy and one of the biggest economies without the legacy of British colonialists – including Clive.

I’m not suggesting that a pair of wings be attached to the bronze back of Clive’s statues in London and Shrewsbury – he was no saint. But the statues of saints adorn cathedral façades, not public squares. These tend to favour sculptural representations of soldiers and statesmen, few of whom would pass through the fine sieve of modern scrutiny.

Yet their names signpost our civilisation, making it a living organism. The opposite of that is historical amnesia, severing the country’s roots. And severed roots have the same effect on civilisations as they do on trees.

None of this is to imply opposition to historical revisionism as such. As new archives are found or opened, new facts come to light. Dispassionate historians use such discoveries for retrospective threshing, separating the wheat of historical fact from the chaff of historical myth. This may lead to a reassessment of past events and personages, something to be welcomed by everyone who values truth.   

But no new facts have been uncovered about Clive, Rhodes or other Empire builders. Frenzied attacks on their memory are inspired by a Procrustean attempt to squeeze history into the framework of a fly-by-night ideology. This, I suggest, is rather the opposite of truth.

3 thoughts on “What’s wrong with colonialism, anyway?”

  1. If you have any spare cash lying around, my advice is to invest in any manufacturers of Mary Seacole statuary and memorabilia.

  2. Having been born in Calcutta during the dying embers of the British Raj, I remember being told by my father while growing up there that the British left behind three important legacies – the English language, Indian Railways and the Indian Civil Service. All three helped hold together the sub-continent and make India the nation it is today.

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