In Praise of Western Colonialism, White Men, and Modernity

 

AerialPPThe existing leftist social environment backed by political organizations, academia, and media is for white men, especially Europeans, to be eternally responsible for their colonial and imperial past. I consider white guilt to be one the most dangerous mentalities poisoning the western world.

Western civilization has done a world of good in human history. Western culture has given us Bernini, Mozart, Montesquieu, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, and Newton. The western world has given us individual liberty, freedom of expression, a culture of human rights, and the rule of law. It has given us electricity, clean water, airplanes, computers, medicines, and automobiles. The west has given the world modernity.

Undoubtedly, there were many problems with western colonialism, but there were also a lot more decent things westerners had done for other races as well. British imperialism did a lot of good around the globe, from India to Hong Kong to South Africa. We think of French colonialism as problematic in comparison to British imperialism. Just look at the differences between Haiti and the Bahamas. Even so, French colonialism was a force of good in some parts of the world. France had done worthy things for the Khmers in Cambodia. I probably sound biased since I come from a Francophile family. My maternal grandfather was influenced by French culture. He grew up speaking both French and Khmer as his native tongues. His father was very French in the way he thought and talked. So I’m quite fond of France and the French in general.

I’m also thankful for the French. The single most important thing was France saving Khmers from going the way of the Chams of Champa, a people without a country. If France didn’t come in when it did, Thailand and Vietnam would have split Cambodia between them long ago, using the Mekong as their natural border. I’m not going to bore you with all the reasons why Cambodia, once a powerful Khmer Empire, became a vassal state of its neighbors. Short answer, Khmers as a people became stupid and weak, from top to bottom, from Kings and Queens to the very lowest peasants. Fortunately, one King did wise up, King Ang Duong. With the Siamese–Vietnamese War over Cambodia’s sovereignty during the 1840s, King Ang Duong feared Cambodia would be no more. He began making contacts with the French in the 1850s. He invited the French to come in. France didn’t even want Cambodia in the beginning, for the country was weak and poor and inconsequential; it wasn’t worth the effort. Not until the presence of Britain emerged in the region did France come to Cambodia.

France formally established its protectorate over Cambodia with King Ang Duong’s son, Norodom, in 1867 and it lasted until 1949. France kicked out Thai officials from the Khmer court, and took back several Khmer provinces from under Thailand’s control.

France introduced a lot of changes to the country. They introduced the universal value of a freeborn private citizen with the abolition of slavery. Corrupted land ownership was reformed and proper rule of law was administered. They established an educational system and properly instituted an administration, which was previously corrupted and poorly handled by the King and his counsel.

In 1870, urban planning was carried out all over the country and the most significant one was that of Phnom Penh, which was to be the country’s new capital. The French turned Phnom Penh, which was a riverside village sitting on a swampland, into a city equipped with paved roads, the royal palace, museums, schools, hotels, penitentiaries, garrisons, banks, public works offices, telegraph offices, law courts, and hospitals. Khmer citizens were also able to build pagodas and houses of worship.

By the 1920s, Phnom Penh was known as the Pearl of Asia. Over the next few decades, Phnom Penh experienced speedy growth with the building of ports, a railway system, an airport, housing and one of the most impressive buildings in the country, Phnom Penh Central Market. Economic activities also started to grow with rice and pepper productions. Rubber plantations were built and run by private investors. Other economic expansions continued to develop. France brought modernity to Cambodia.

CentralMarket

hd-1920-phnom-penh-rue-jules-ferry

France had also started proper restorations of many of the country’s ruined temples. Researchers and archaeologists began to study many ruins, restored scriptures, and in doing so brought back Khmer culture. Before the arrival of the French, Cambodia was constantly in a state of war for a few hundred years. Much of the country history, culture and the arts were lost to the people. Classical literature and the arts such as sculpting, silk weaving, dance and music were reborn under the French.

France reintroduced Khmers to their lost culture. Under the French protectorate, Cambodia was able to preserve its identity, traditions, culture, and way of life, which would have been destroyed otherwise by Vietnam and Thailand. Colonialism saved Cambodia.

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  1. DialMforMurder Inactive
    DialMforMurder
    @DialMforMurder

    Fritz:Excellent and interesting post.I would love to learn more.

    Can anyone recommend any histories that honestly address western colonialism, both positive and negative, in print these days?

    I recommend “Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World” by Niall Ferguson. I consider it a good, even-handed account of the history of Britains Imperial era. It was written a few years ago now,  around the turn of the millenium, which was probably the height of the white guilt consensus. So you have to applaud how many pro-British points he did manage to push through. One thing in particular I took away from that book: as much as people might complain about the British and the French, by almost any measure the Germans and Japanese were far worse (the Russians too, if you consider their Tsardom and Soviet State a colonial power in the same sense). The British and the French throw up numerous examples of seeking to understand, include and treat with dignity their colonial subjects in a way the others almost never did.

    • #31
  2. Ray Kujawa Coolidge
    Ray Kujawa
    @RayKujawa

    If the Western world were so bad in all the things we have given the world, how come everybody wants what we have? And why do they want  to make us feel guilty for having what they want?

    • #32
  3. Ray Kujawa Coolidge
    Ray Kujawa
    @RayKujawa

    Fritz: Can anyone recommend any histories that honestly address western colonialism, both positive and negative, in print these days?

    I read Winston Churchill’s The River War about the reconquest of the Sudan. I personally consider the desert railway that was built to be able to transport the army and its provision as one of the modern wonders of the world. It’s still there. And the British determination to retake the Sudan gave hope to many people who were suffering under the curse of the Mahdi.

    • #33
  4. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Kipling’s Ki& all sorts of stuff he wrote when he was young & still in India show you a lot of what was wrong & right with empire. His judgment is not unfailing, but he gets the basic things about order, protecting people, & the price paid for this right.

    • #34
  5. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Fritz:Excellent and interesting post.I would love to learn more.

    Can anyone recommend any histories that honestly address western colonialism, both positive and negative, in print these days?

    A two volume autobiography The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian and Thy Hand Great Anarch – by Nirad Chaudhury – may be of interest to you.  He was a big fan of the Raj, though also a pretty incisive critic.  And he writes about the personal, which is more illuminating imho than a dry set of facts, statistics and trends.

    His focus – Bengal, the Raj – may be narrow, but Bengal was the longest colonised region in India (almost two centuries), so what his story lacks in breadth it may deliver in depth of insight about what the Raj meant for Indians and for the British.

    He was immensely unpopular in India for his views – imo because he cut close to the bone.

    • #35
  6. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Ray Kujawa:If the Western world were so bad in all the things we have given the world, how come everybody wants what we have?

    It does seem pretty confused.

    And why do they want to make us feel guilty for having what they want?

    And perhaps a waste (or corruption) of human time and energy.

    • #36
  7. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Ray Kujawa: If the Western world were so bad in all the things we have given the world, how come everybody wants what we have?

    Because they aren’t idiots.

    Ray Kujawa: And why do they want to make us feel guilty for having what they want?

    They don’t. The next Korean or Indian or African-African (as opposed to African-American) engineer I run into trying to lay a imperialist guilt trip on me — plus the one after that — will make a grand total of two.  They are too busy trying to get a green card, or cadging Ravi Coltrane or Blake Shelton tickets, or restoring a ’66 Mustang, or just raising their families.

    The “anti-imperialists” are mostly historically and culturally illiterate middle-class boobs who wouldn’t know the Raj from the Fonz. They took a single history class down at the community college taught by some progressive social justice warrior wannabee and the rest of us have to suffer for it.

    • #37
  8. Hypatia Inactive
    Hypatia
    @Hypatia

    I very much enjoyed this post.  I knew France had a colonial Empire on a huge scale.  I’m a Francophile too! I love the French! I love France , and its history, especially the Revolution…

    But,  I could enter more joyously into the spirit of your generous piece if the French, on a national and often on a personal level, didn’t believe themselves so {expletive} SUPERIOR!   And especially in relation to Americans, even though the French brought 4 times as many African slaves  to the New World as were brought to the British colonies, and even though  the US never was a colonial power.

    We became  very close to a French couple who were working in the US a few years ago. They and their 3 bébés spent a lot of time at our place.  When they said godbye, they cried great Gallic torrents and embraced everybody, including our nanny and our caretaker!  Said Mme:  “Eet will be so ‘ard  for us when we go ‘ome–all our friends ‘ATE  Americains, but we– we know you are not ALL B-A-AD!”

    Why don’t they love us like Lafayette did?  What have Americans ever done to France (except defend her from the Germans)?

    • #38
  9. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Most of the places colonizad were stagnant, imobilized by the accumulated, for lack of a better word, interests.  Or backward for having been cut off from the rest of us.  The problems arose because we were panicked into leaving precipitously

    • #39
  10. OldDan Member
    OldDan
    @OldDanRhody

    Hypatia:I very much enjoyed this post. I knew France had a colonial Empire on a huge scale. I’m a Francophile too! I love the French! I love France , and its history, especially the Revolution…

    But, I could enter more joyously into the spirit of your generous piece if the French, on a national and often on a personal level, didn’t believe themselves so {expletive} SUPERIOR! And especially in relation to Americans, even though the French brought 4 times as many African slaves to the New World as were brought to the British colonies, and even though the US never was a colonial power.

    [Snipped to stay under 250 word limit]

    Why don’t they love us like Lafayette did? What have Americans ever done to France (except defend her from the Germans)?

    I look upon the French as sort of a mixed bag.  When I am annoyed by some egregious example for French hauteur I remind myself of the vailliance of the French paratroopers during the siege of Dien Bien Phu (Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard B. Fall).  There is more to them than wine and cheese.

    • #40
  11. Marion Evans Inactive
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    There were some good things and some bad things brought by the Europeans to other parts of the world. I don’t think that on balance we can conclude that it was a net positive or a net negative because we do not know what could have been without colonialism. We see today what happens to countries in the Middle East (and to Indochina in the 1960s and 70s as a matter of fact) when modern weaponry and ideology are introduced to populations that are not ready for modernity.

    • #41
  12. Hypatia Inactive
    Hypatia
    @Hypatia

    OldDan:

    I think we’re saying the same thing! I love the French too.  It’s just, where does the hauteur come from in relation to Americans?  I see no historical basis for it, is all…..

    • #42
  13. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Hypatia:OldDan:

    I think we’re saying the same thing! I love the French too. It’s just, where does the hauteur come from in relation to Americans? I see no historical basis for it, is all…..

    It’s not us, it’s them. I remember hearing somewhere that the reason French governments tend not to last is because Frenchmen (I could stop there) all believe they’re the smartest in the room and have difficulty building consensus on the matter. [I’m familiar with this way of being from the stories of my mother’s mixed-French family. They loved nothing more than a good argument with lots of intellectual preening and displaying.]

    I would hope Americans have gotten over the condescension and just keep outperforming them. Admire the good and forgive the bad.

    • #43
  14. Larry Koler Inactive
    Larry Koler
    @LarryKoler

    Zafar: The Raj had no interest in doing that. In fact the (last) Great Bengal Famine of 1943 (up to 4 million dead) occured in a year with good crops (no drought, no floods) but when the British commandeered rice for their troops in SE Asia during the war. It was a man made famine, not a natural disaster.

    And if the Japanese had invaded Bengal? How many would have died then, I wonder?

    And if the Raj had begged foreign countries for food how would the food have been delivered? By ship? Shipping lanes and ships themselves were in short supply. So, you compare this time with post war and feel satisfied in this comparison AND blame the British for being unfeeling and completely unconcerned. You say: “The Raj had no interest in doing that.” Why do you say this?

    I notice that the article mentions that “Churchill refused to release shipping to send food to India.” Why not use the internal routes of commerce to send food into Bengal from within India if food was abundant in India that year? Why is there need for shipping if it was good year?

    Did the British strip food grown in Bengal from them and send it to the war effort? Or was there a problem in Bengal and food had to come from other parts of the country but was now not available because of shipments to the war effort?

    4 million dead is holocaust levels and I find it to be unconscionable that this happened but establishing blame in such simplistic terms is not right either. I need to know much more about this before I blame colonialism itself.

    Final comment: did colonialism in India do more harm in terms of population and respect for the poor? Or less harm? It’s important to have a whole story.

    • #44
  15. Charlotte Member
    Charlotte
    @Charlotte

    Lidens, if Physics doesn’t work out (or, really, even if it does), please write a book about your experiences and perspectives on recent world history. Your posts are riveting.

    • #45
  16. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    Aaron Miller:Would the world be half as civilized or prosperous without the force of empires?

    Great question. Dinesh D’Souza claims India wouldn’t be in even the second economic world tier without the influence of the British. His favorite comment?

    Gandhi could afford to lay himself across railroad tracks as a form of protest because he knew the British would stop the train. Communists would have kept on going.

    • #46
  17. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    I consider white guilt to be one the most dangerous mentalities poisoning the western world.

    You and renowned author/professor and former Ricochet contributor Shelby Steele do as well in his most powerful book White Guilt.

    • #47
  18. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    EThompson:

    Aaron Miller:Would the world be half as civilized or prosperous without the force of empires?

    Great question. Dinesh D’Souza claims India wouldn’t be in even the second world tier without the influence of the British. His favorite comment?

    Gandhi could afford to lay himself across railroad tracks as a form of protest because he knew the British would stop the train. Communists would have kept on going.

    So would the French have. Ho Chi Minh was similarly unimpressed with the Mahatma’s bravery.

    • #48
  19. Fritz Coolidge
    Fritz
    @Fritz

    Thanks for the book recommendations. Off to the library!

    • #49
  20. Sweezle Member
    Sweezle
    @Sweezle

    Marion Evans:There were some good things and some bad things brought by the Europeans to other parts of the world. I don’t think that on balance we can conclude that it was a net positive or a net negative because we do not know what could have been without colonialism. We see today what happens to countries in the Middle East (and to Indochina in the 1960s and 70s as a matter of fact) when modern weaponry and ideology are introduced to populations that are not ready for modernity.

    In 1975 two thousand years of Khmer history was wiped out in Cambodia. The past 40 years Cambodia has struggled to recover its culture. Your observation is spot on.

    • #50
  21. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Larry Koler:4 million dead is holocaust levels and I find it to be unconscionable that this happened but establishing blame in such simplistic terms is not right either.

    It is an enormous number – and like all numbers in India is rubbery.

    There is a fair amount of research on it, however – and it’s within living memory.

    …did colonialism in India do more harm in terms of population and respect for the poor?

    Wrt respect for their lives (bolding added):

    In 1901 the Lancet estimated conservatively that 19 million Indians had died in Western India during the drought famine of the 1890s. The death toll was so high because of the British policy of refusal to intervene and implement famine relief (unlike the anti-profiteering measures etc. taken by the Mughals and Marathas during famines)…in the 1870s some 17 million or so Indians die[d] in the Deccan and South India due to the “let them starve” policies encouraged by Lord Lytton …in 1901 when people called for famine relief, the London government urged Delhi to contribute to the Boer war instead of famine relief but had no objection to the huge expense of the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta.

    And their attitude to people in Britain was different:

    Throughout the autumn of 1943, the United Kingdom’s food and raw materials stockpile for its 47 million people – 14 million fewer than that of Bengal – swelled to 18.5m tonnes.

    The problem with colonialism in a nutshell.

    • #51
  22. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    It’s the same basic issue that resulted in grain being exported from Ireland to England during the Potato Famine.  And the problem was not that the British were good or bad or much different from anybody else.

    The issue is that representative Governments act to meet people’s needs (as the British Govt did in the UK during the War – by importing food and insituting measures like wartime rationing and banning hording) because they have to – and non-representative Governments (like colonial ones) have no such mechanism of answerability to make them perform.

    • #52
  23. Lidens Cheng Member
    Lidens Cheng
    @LidensCheng

    There’re positive and negative sides of empire-building. I don’t presume to think everything was peaceful and wonderful. But my grandparents’ attitude toward colonial rule was not unlike my attitude toward racism in America today. Do I think there are racist Americans? Yes, I do. Is racism a problem in America? No, it is not.

    Also, Cambodia nationalistic and anti-France movement originated in Buddhist monasteries. It was the fear of Catholicism. And when the monks led, the peasants followed. It wasn’t anything to do with the flight of the lowly peasants getting crushed by horrid white men. The movement attracted mostly French-educated Khmer elitists. Those were the elitists who were taught by the French about Khmer splendid past, the past they took pride in.

    The only anti-France weekly journal, which was in French by the way, hardly ever mentioned any French exploitation. Among the literature produced during the 1930s and 1940s, only one novel was anti-France. The rest were stories about the average Khmer, ordinary lives in Cambodia, lives that were barely oppressed by the French.

    • #53
  24. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    I’m mostly in agreement Lidens – and I’m sorry if my counterpoint went on and on.  Colonisation (for good and for ill) was a part of our history, like a lot of other things – and digesting it and moving forward rather than dwelling on its ills or (even worse) using it as an excuse for present day failure is the healthiest response, imho.

    I like a lot of the things India got from the process – I just wish (which is unreasonable, but there you go) that we could have gotten them without the bad ones as well.  But one could say that about anything.

    • #54
  25. Ray Kujawa Coolidge
    Ray Kujawa
    @RayKujawa

    EThompson: Gandhi could afford to lay himself across railroad tracks as a form of protest because he knew the British would stop the train. Communists would have kept on going.

    This is interesting (and I like one of the follow up comments too). If Britain didn’t come there would be no train tracks to lay himself across. But as long as he knew they would stop the train and not hurt him, he wasn’t really risking his life at all. In retrospect, it seems like little more than a publicity stunt. One that makes a mockery of the intelligence of his own people.

    • #55
  26. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Ray Kujawa:

    But as long as he knew they would stop the train and not hurt him, he wasn’t really risking his life at all.

    He didn’t know that.

    A late family friend’s father was the doctor who was in charge of keeping Gandhi healthy while he was in British custody during the freedom struggle.  Eventually his influence was such that the British were terrified of him getting sick while locked up by them, but it wasn’t that way from the beginning.  Consider:

    Hindu refugees fleeing death and persecution in East Bengal (soon to be made into East Pakistan and later independent Bangladesh) besieged Muslim areas like Beliaghata seeking revenge for their sufferings. Gandhi sought to deter further killings by living among Muslims himself, and he embarked on a hunger strike against communal violence that generated such public shame and outrage that sectarian tensions in the city gave way to universal concern for the aging man of principle. Gandhi broke his fast as weeping rioters laid their machetes at his feet.

    He had a genuine, immense moral influence on the people of India.  It was not a con job.

    • #56
  27. Larry Koler Inactive
    Larry Koler
    @LarryKoler

    Zafar: Eventually his influence was such that the British were terrified of him getting sick while locked up by them, but it wasn’t that way from the beginning.

    And the reason they were terrified: violence in the streets caused by his death. We rightly revere Gandhi for his courage and strategy but there is no way to sugar coat the fact that Gandhi was threatening the British (and the whole country) with violence by going on fasts, especially while in prison. This was not lost on him, either. He had to have weighed the consequences and must have decided that the violence that would ensue upon his death would also have a result that was worth it, bringing the days of British rule to an end.

    I’ve mentioned this conundrum before in other threads and it shows the extreme difficulty of operating with perfect purity in this world.

    There is a fact known about Vishnu the great preserver — that in preserving and saving his devotees and those placed in his charge the method he uses is to destroy demons. He is forced to kill in order to preserve.

    • #57
  28. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    He didn’t know that.

    He certainly did and I refer you to leading scholar Arthur Herman’s Gandhi & Churchill.

    • #58
  29. Larry Koler Inactive
    Larry Koler
    @LarryKoler

    EThompson:

    He didn’t know that.

    He certainly did and I refer you to leading scholar Arthur Herman’s Gandhi & Churchill.

    Well, he was certainly taking a risk but he did it with some certainty that comes from knowing the British very well. He forced them to live up to their own and often expressed ideals. I know that he wanted them to grow through this process, to become better. He did not want to vanquish the British as such — he wanted the higher ideals to be taught and to be lived up to.

    This play between the great men of India and the great men of England is a tremendous drama that will be studied for many centuries.

    • #59
  30. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Larry Koler:

    EThompson:

    He didn’t know that.

    He certainly did and I refer you to leading scholar Arthur Herman’s Gandhi & Churchill.

    Well, he was certainly taking a risk but he did it with some certainty that comes from knowing the British very well. He forced them to live up to their own and often expressed ideals. I know that he wanted them to grow through this process, to become better. He did not want to vanquish the British as such — he wanted the higher ideals to be taught and to be lived up to.

    This play between the great men of India and the great men of England is a tremendous drama that will be studied for many centuries.

    Let us remember also the aftermath of Amritsar. Firing on mobs stopped; soldiers were now & then torn to pieces by mobs.

    • #60
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