Ideas Empires

Beyond the Good and Evil of Colonisation

he Reception of the Macartney Mission at the Qing Court 1792 by James Gillray
Written by Paul Moon

Have the historical and moral arguments over colonisation reached an impasse? Paul Moon thinks so, and he offers instead a dynamic model of empire as an inevitable and organic process leading to global equilibrium.

At times it feels as though the arguments about colonialism have reached a stalemate. Those who regard Europe’s colonisation of the non-European world as fundamentally evil are just as entrenched in their position as those who see it as a generally beneficial process. There is still skirmishing on the frontlines between these two groups, but we seem to have got to a point where very little territory is now being gained by either side.  Instead, the academic bombardment continues, with no idea where or when it will end, and with little illumination being cast on the nature of colonisation beyond descriptions of its occurrence and consequences.

It was not always this way. Until the late nineteenth century, colonisation (particularly the British variant) was seen by Europeans as a virtue: a way to ‘implant – slowly, prudently, judiciously – those ideas of justice, law, humanity, which are the foundation of our own civilization’, as the newspaper editor, biographer of William Gladstone, and British Liberal statesman, John Morley put it. However, even as such exultant pronouncements were being made, the sun was already setting on this empire – it was just that most Britons were facing the other direction, still relishing the glow of past triumphs. And as subsequent generations of historians explored this terrain in a harsher and more critical light, the imperial age came to be regarded much more as a vice. By the 1970s, colonisation had almost become a byword for transgressions committed by the British in their former colonial possessions, ranging from the misappropriation of land and resources, and the destruction of cultures and languages, to claims of genocide against indigenous peoples.

More recently, though, there has been a small but determined revival in justifications for the British Empire, and those in this camp have found themselves in direct conflict with opponents of the British imperial project. But rather than there being any resolution (or even a ceasefire) in sight, the combatants seem convinced that rectitude is on their side. The battle lines are familiar even to casual observers of historical debates on colonisation: uncritical admiration or perfunctory disdain – choose your side! The cause of this impasse is as much a moral issue as a historical one.  Notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are not only subjective in this area, but also shift over time.  What the Victorians thought about the morality of British colonisation, for example, is bound to be radically at odds with how it is perceived in the current Carolean era.

It is how history grapples with this moral question that is in many ways responsible for the twain in this argument about colonisation never meeting. The debate about the evil or beneficence of colonisation is inevitably reduced to a sort of accounting exercise, in which historians add up the inventories of transgressions and benefits as part of some moral stock-take. This calculus will be influenced to an extent by the writer’s own moral calibrations, along with those of the societies and periods in which they live. Yet, despite the shortcomings in making moral assessments of colonialism, the practice has continued for at least two centuries. It is only the verdicts that have varied.

Yes, colonisation was frequently aggressive, covetous, and often involved the usurpation and destruction of indigenous cultures and systems of government. At the same time, though, it could bring about substantial improvements in the technological, social, educational, cultural, and economic life of colonies. Does issuing moral verdicts in such a complex area risk obscuring more than enlightening the subject?

One way of cutting through the heavily-entangled nature of this contested morality is to appreciate colonisation for what it is rather than what it seems to be. Colonisation can appear in every moral hue that the viewer beholds, but the shortcomings of this – as alluded to above – are readily apparent. Colonisation is perhaps better understood for what it actually was: essentially a consequence of a Newtonian-type natural law, driven by a need to establish social, cultural, technological, and other equilibria between the imperial power and the constituent peoples of its empire – and therefore without any other overarching motive or cause.

Colonisation, at least in the form carried out by Britain during much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was inevitable – not just for the usual reasons of the convergence of policies, personnel and circumstances, but because just as nature abhors a vacuum, so too are cultural, technological, economic, social, and other disequilibria between peoples ultimately untenable.  The fact that they existed in the first place is attributable principally to the tyranny of isolation before the Age of Discovery.  Once global exploration commenced, these incongruities between territories were bound to be resolved. This organic need to establish an equilibrium between two different peoples is the irreducible organising principle of all colonisation. This orientation towards an equilibrium is a natural process – unwilled, unplanned, and possessing an inner determination that is independent of the best-laid schemes of every form of coloniser.

There is no question that great harm was inflicted on numerous nations and peoples as a consequence of colonisation. However, the historian who appoints themselves the arbiter of the British Empire’s moral character will be engaged in a perpetually futile exercise, not only because of the continual shifts in moral views over time, and the absence of moral uniformity between cultures, but also because of the conundrum of something being simultaneously good for one party and bad for another – which was a frequent feature of colonial activity.

The other risk in making moral assessments about colonisation is that if an action is deemed bad, more often than not this leads to a search for someone to blame. Consequently, motives end up being ascribed to individuals and institutions even when no such motives were present at the time. The recent fetish to condemn James Cook for a host of imagined crimes, which has been covered by History Reclaimed, is an example of how what is judged by some to be a moral breach necessarily leads to the demand for a perpetrator to be identified, which in turn leads to events being interpreted in a way that confirms the ‘original sin’ of that perpetrator. It is a case not only of ‘presentism’, but also of reading history wrongly in the process.

Finally, seeing all colonial history in the context of an amoral, organic drive towards a global equilibrium does not so much subvert existing historiography and other scholarship on colonisation as it offers an architecture for such work to inhabit. It liberates the examination of colonialism from any prevailing moral environment, and offers a way – perhaps finally – for an end of the particular hostilities that are still dragging on between imperial flag-bearers and their detractors.

Paul Moon is Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand.

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Paul Moon