This 2019 Live Stream from Al Jazeera is a good resource for students studying the Global Development option in A-level sociology.
They asked the question: how does colonialism shape the world we live in today, and fielded responses from the audience who took part via #BecauseColonialism
Below I summarise part 1 of what is a week long series of discussions around the topic!
By the beginning of the 19th century most regions of the world had been colonised by European powers – with colonialism being an exploitative and extractive process, with some colonising powers introducing slavery and practicing genocide.
Some of the more obvious legacies of colonialism on the colonised regions include language and cultural and religious traditions which were inherited during the colonial period,
Negative consequences include and ethnic divisions which remain to this day, but some argue that governance physical infrastructures benefitted some colonised regions.
The participants in this stream include:
- Priyamvada Gopal author of Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent
- Miguel de Barros, president of the association of history teachers in Portugal.
- Akin Adesokan, associate professor of Literature, Indiana University.
The starting point for the livestream is a tweet by someone pointing out how they think colonialism currently affects their life – pointing out how they still proudly use English names, how Wikipedia entries tend to have the European conquest date as the starting point, and that most people can’t name 20 things about their Tribe.
Priya states that she wouldn’t be an English lecturer if it were not for colonialism – because the English colonisers (following Lord Macorly’s 1835 Minute) wanted to use education to create a class of Indians who were ‘English in every way but blood or colour’ to act as interpreters for the English rulers to the Indian masses. Her ancestors were part of that class.
Miguel was born in Angola when it was still a Portuguese colony, returning to Portugal in 1975.
He explains how he never questioned anything – the fact that it was only white people living in nice houses in cities and black people as servants and living in their tribes outside of cities – that was just normal to him.
They now take a couple of comments from the livestream audience which picks up on how colonialism still exists in the ‘economic realm’ – with most capital being invested in Europe and only small amounts being invested in ex colonies.
One of the legacies of this is many talented people from poorer countries seek job opportunities abroad because of the lack of them at home.
Akin says although he grew up in Nigeria, an ex-British colony, he doesn’t feel as if he had a classic colonial experience, because Nigeria was independent by the time he was born.
However he thinks that what he calls ‘American cultural imperialism’ is far more significant today – despite being politically independent during his Youth, Nigeria was flooded with American cultural values, and he suggests this is the reason why so many Nigerians aspire to wanting to leave the country (when in reality there’s nothing wrong with traditional Nigerian values, my addition.)
Capitalism is very much tied up with the colonial project and you cannot understand colonialism without understand capitalism – and so in this sense colonialism is not in the past, as we all have to live with a capitalist system today!
Although the mantle of the imperial project has shifted over the years – from Europe to America, but now also to Brazil, India and China who are increasingly becoming involved in land appropriation and resource extraction.
Were there any Positives of Colonialism?
This question is posed 12 minutes in and this video clip from Monty Python’s Life of Brian is used to illustrate one argument:
‘What have the Romans ever given us in return’?
Miguel points out that comparing Roman colonisation with European is unfair because the later was more rapid and brutal and extractive – they simply had more means available to them!
Calls this the ‘India Railways argument – quoting Walter Rodney, the Guyana’n anti-colonialist who reminded use that the colonisers didn’t built railways so Indians could visit their friends, they built them so they could extract resources – they invariably led to the ports!
Miguel also argues that in many Latin American countries, we still need decolonlisation from within – as countries such as Brazil have clear dividing lines between those descended from Europeans and those who were not, with the government of Brazil, for example, tending to side with the former today.
Colonialism and Modernity
One argument raised is that while Colonialism was violent and extractive, it also brought with it modernity – which was a liberalising force – and so while the colonisers might not have been in Africa and India for the benefit of the people – some of the positive, liberal values of modernity filtered down to the people over the decades, which was a positive process, and maybe made de-colonisation inevitable in the end?!?
What would have happened without Colonialism?
We don’t know, ultimately, as there are so few examples of uncolonised regions.
In Africa, Ethiopia was for a very long time the only area to remain uncolonised but eventually even that fell prey to Mussolini.
The idea that mass blood shed and extraction is worth it for a couple of airports and railways is a bit silly!
Colonialism and Corruption
The colonial powers depended on corrupt, self-serving indigenous elites to run the countries for them, and when the European powers eventually pulled out it was those corrupt elites who took over the reigns of power – and colonialism didn’t just come to an end, the European powers maintained huge stakes in the ex colonies and we had neo-colonialism for a long time.
How do you teach colonial history in a country which used to have colonies?
The show wraps up with an interesting point by Miguel who says there is resistance among older Portuguese people to teaching the darker side of colonialism, because they were taught a more positive narrative, but things are changing!
Relevance to A-level sociology
The main use for the above resource is to provide students with an evaluation of Dependency Theory – all three authors seem to be agreeing that there is still a lingering legacy of colonialism, and it’s primarily the colonising powers which have benefited.
Moreover, they seem to agree that aspects of colonialism are still with us today!