This is a reaction I had to a chapter on economics in a book called Decolonization: A Short History by Jansen and Osterhammel. I was surprised how much I didn’t like this chapter, and it convinced me not to use any more of the text in my Decolonization class. I also ranted about it into a microphone in case you want to listen to it. It’s a 9-minute segment of my new podcast History in 5-or-so Minutes:
Change in the colonial status in both directions (colonization and then decolonization, whether contested or not) brought about significant changes in not only the social situations and cultures of colonized regions, but their economies. The authors list issues like new infrastructure, new spaces for trade and migration, new jobs and commercial opportunities (the less positive way of describing this might be new opportunities for forced labor or slavery), renegotiation of gender roles (were any of these improvements for women? Okay, partial elimination of sati, but an attempt to completely remove of women from their central position in Southeast Asian trade networks), changing work practices, exposure to modern currency and investment regimes, environmental changes, and “redistribution” of wealth and poverty (which seems like a euphemism for the enrichment of the metropolitan center or its colonial agents at the expense of the colonized masses).
I think it’s fair to ask why the heavy positive spin on this chapter? Colonization was no more an economic triumph for the people of the world than it was a way of bringing them to “civilization”. Is this just a latter-day expression of the White Man’s Burden?
The authors DO note that “modern” infrastructure was often neglected during the decolonization process and “specialized export production shrank in favor of subsistence economy.” But they assume this was an unanticipated negative consequence of the struggle. It’s only in the last paragraph of the chapter they mention Gandhi’s efforts to remove the market focus and consumerism from the independent Indian culture he was trying to create. Throughout most o the chapter they assume “The independent governments wanted to follow up on the colonial era’s modernization gains” but they unfortunately sometimes failed. (120)
Even if the elites of these new nation-states were hell-bent on continuing the commercial relationships that had helped MAKE them elites, that does not suggest most of the people who supported (and often fought for) independence felt the same way. The authors mention an exception, where these elites pursued socialist programs of (usually) agrarian reform or (occasionally) state-run industrialism. This seems to be acceptable, because the impetus comes from an elite intellectual source: socialist or communist theory. Any other motivation or rationale for community control or ownership seems to be lumped into what they call “retrograde dreams of bucolic innocence.” (120)
Nor do the authors spend a lot of time considering resource extraction or the development of consumer markets as “colonial” motivators. “Only rarely,” they say, “in the nineteenth and twentieth century, did colonies arise primarily out of economic motives, such as ‘mercantilist’ considerations to obtain direct access to raw materials, or to acquire protected and favored outlets for the products of the home economy.” (121) REALLY? British colonialism in India was operated by the British East India Company for over a century until they bungled things so badly that the Indians rebelled in 1857. What was that if not an economic motivation? Eliminating the Indian textile industry, making India a market for British textiles, and securing a supply of not only raw cotton, but tea and opium, was the whole point. The authors seem to believe that “geostrategic considerations” and “prestige” were the only reasons Western nations tried to build empires. This seems naïve and overly dependent on explanations derived solely from political historians.
They also say they “do not find many examples of governments acting under direct pressure from colonial private interests.” I’m not 100% sure what they mean by this, and I think it has to be very narrowly defined in order to be valid. What about private interests operating in the colonies but owned and controlled in the centers? The British railroad builders in India (who also built extensively in Latin America, which was nominally free but I would argue effectively still colonial in many ways) seem to have had some influence on government policies.
And getting back to natural resources, they aren’t all that modern when you really start looking into it. Silver in colonial Latin America. Quinine, rubber, sugar. And then in the 19th and 20th centuries (which this book is supposed to be about, isn’t it?) there’s guano, nitrate, and copper – and that’s just in Chile! Yes, nominally independent; but very much economically and culturally dependent on Britain.
The authors later suggest that economic considerations couldn’t have been paramount because many colonies “were of little relevance at the macroeconomic level—some were not much more than a piece of desert or jungle.” (123) Although this may seem intuitively true to white Europeans, I don’t think it’s accurate. If we make a list of colonized regions, I think it’s fair to say that the number of economically “worthless” colonies is rare almost to the point of nonexistence. Even someplace like Australia, which wasn’t necessarily valued at first for an abundant resource like silver, was economically valuable as a “dump” for England’s surplus and criminal population. It might be possible to subdivide colonized regions to the point that some of them are unproductive, but no one went out looking for those regions. They came along with other valuable places as part of the land grab.
The authors DO mention that many later colonies were “nearly settler-free.” (123) This strikes me as the best evidence for a shift from social colonialism to economic imperialism. It is interesting that often the most obviously vocal and violent opponents of decolonization are the settlers such as the pieds noirs in Algeria. But being obvious does not equal being the only opponents of regional independence movements. It may be true that “settlers saw themselves as victims of decolonization”, but if we’re going to say that we also need to acknowledge that those “victims” pretty much failed to see the people who wanted their land as the previous owners, if they saw them as human at all. (124)
The authors briefly mention that some newly independent colonized people reacquire their patrimonial resources. They show their bias when they say “expropriate’, and then they give examples of Burma “expropriat[ing] foreign interests in teak forests” and the Mossadegh government nationalizing oil production in 1951. (126) They conveniently fail to mention that MI-6 and the CIA acted in the interest of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP) to overthrow the Iranian government and install the Shah in August 1953.
The authors conclude by mentioning that newly independent nations try very hard to honor their debts to international creditors and to avoid an “unthinkable…renunciation of debt like that following the 1917 Russian and 1949 Chinese revolutions.” (128) Is this really evidence of a desire to jump into economic modernization? Or of a deathly fear of being cut off by the international financial community? Seems like a little historical review of international banking might be valuable here.