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Motive in the Madness: two works grappling with colonialism

Motive in the Madness
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Written by Paul Moon

Paul Moon reviews two new books on the history of European imperialism by Jeff Fynn-Paul and Lorenzo Veracini

Jeff Fynn-Paul, Not Stolen: The Truth About European Colonialism in the New World (New York: Bombardier Books, 2023). 

Lorenzo Veracini, Colonialism: A Global History (London: Routledge, 2022).

 

What is colonialism, what were its driving forces, and why does the mere mention of the term still provoke strong responses among so many people? Beyond the territorial nature of colonialism, which is easily mapped, and the chronology of imperial expansion, which is generally well-documented, certainty about the nature of colonialism begins to evaporate. The British Empire offers an instructive example of a colonial enterprise which has been subject to an enormously wide variety of interpretations, definitions, and perceptions.

In the nineteenth century, for example, the Empire was seen by Raffles as a ‘great commercial emporium’, as a force of global benevolence, implanting ‘slowly, prudently, judiciously – those ideas of justice, law, humanity, which are the foundation of our own civilization’ (in the words of the British Liberal statesman John Morley), and a unique entity that had emerged almost organically from an entangled web of political and economic connections spun over several centuries.

For some in that era, global imperialism was insinuated in the essence of what it meant to be British. In 1878, Gladstone unblushingly proclaimed that ‘[t]he sentiment of empire may be called innate in every Briton. If there are exceptions, they are like those of men blind or lame among us’. In only a slightly less jingoistic vein, Arnold Toynbee recalled the patriotic delirium when watching Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession as a child: ‘Well, here we are on top of the world, and we have arrived at this peak to stay there – forever! There is of course a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people.’

Of course, this notion of having ascended an imperial nirvana was illusory from the outset.  By the time that these pronouncements were being made, the sun was already setting on the British Empire – it was just that most Britons were facing the other direction, still relishing the glow of past triumphs. By the early twentieth century, an alternative understanding of British colonialism was beginning to appear on the horizon – one which illuminated the historical landscape in a much harsher and more critical light, and which put an end to the chest-thumping enthusiasm for Empire. Certainly, in the last sixty years, the pendulum has swung forcefully in favour of the view that British colonialism generally was little more than an inventory of war, territorial theft, the subjugation of indigenous peoples (along with the destruction of their languages and cultures), and even (according to a growing number of writers) genocide.

Given this multiplicity of ways of understanding just one nation’s colonial activities, how do we make sense of the phenomenon more generally? Despite the vast volume of books and articles dealing with almost all aspects of European colonialism, ironically, the more time that passes since the imperial era, the less uniformity in views there seems to be among those who study it.  Such a situation evokes the adroit response of the Chinese premier, Zhou En-Lai, who, when asked in the 1970s what he thought of the significance of the 1789 French Revolution, replied: ‘It’s too soon to tell’.

Two recent additions to the literature on this complex topic illustrate just how unsettled perceptions of colonialism remain. Jeff Fynn-Paul’s, Not Stolen is firmly positioned in the revisionist camp when it comes to trying to understand aspects of European colonialism, challenging the present orthodoxy that European imperialism of any form was fundamentally morally bad. Fynn-Paul, a history lecturer at the University of Leiden, launches his analysis from the present day, surveying the process by which once radical and marginal views of colonialism – often steeped in variants of Marxist thought – have, in just a few decades, become mainstream. The suggestion that colonialism was universally bad has become (with very few exceptions) entrenched in the academic world, and Fynn-Paul uses the example of America to expose how fundamentally flawed this position is. Some of the more egregious examples of the works of those historians under the spell of Critical Race Theory, for example, are held up for examination and found to be deficient. Indeed, the strong quantity of quoted material in Not Stolen is a salutary reminder just how far the discipline of history has sunk into the realm of political advocacy.

However, the value of this book is undermined, to some extent, by several factors. Too often it veers from being a conventional history into more of a polemic. The author sometimes addresses the reader directly when making arguments, almost as if insisting that there ought to be an affinity between them. It is also slightly disconcerting for a history to feature colloquialisms in the text.  While this is not a frequent occurrence, such examples of less formal language can have the effect of undermining the force of the prose.

In addition, there is occasionally a tendency to oversimplification, such as Flynn-Paul’s assertion that ‘[t]he problem with American history from their [the Marxists’] perspective was that it made capitalism look too good.’ Not only is this far too general and difficult to verify, but it potentially masks some of the more nuanced aspects of Marxist interpretations of history.

There is certainly room for more precision in the book. It is frustrating for example, to read the chapter on genocide in the New World without having a substantive definition of genocide provided. This potentially makes it harder for the reader to know what the author is arguing against. This challenge is compounded by Fynn-Paul’s efforts to revise downwards the population of the Americas at the time of its initial colonisation, as though this has some bearing on whether a genocide occurred there. Reference to the current accepted definitions of genocide would have been beneficial for the reader and would also have made redundant some of the detailed arguments in the book about population size and density in the New World, which the author implies (wrongly, in this case) have some bearing on the threshold for genocide.

A more deeply rooted flaw in Not Stolen is the way in which it depicts aspects of colonialism in a binary fashion. The title of chapter three for example, is ‘Were Europeans Racist?’ Fynn-Paul makes a concerted effort in this chapter to argue the case for the negative, but the issue is not one that can be confined to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. Issues such as the need to contextualise social values in the period being addressed, the diversity of views within Europe on this topic, and distinctions between racism and cultural chauvinism are largely unaddressed. Instead, much of this chapter tackles the deficiencies among those present-day academics who allege that racism was a fundamental operating principle of colonialism. As useful as some of these critiques are, the result is more of a literature review of current scholarship rather than a probe into the history of the period under review.

Fynn-Paul’s determination to apply a moral ruler over the colonisation of the Americas inevitably comes up against two fundamental problems. The first of these is which moral calibration is being used to provide the measurement? Assertions in the book, for example, that the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas were not strong environmentalists comes with the implicit view that environmentalism is a moral good. However, environmentalism barely registered as a moral value in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and is practically redundant, therefore, as a means of assessment. It ends up serving as a case study in the risks of presentism in history.

The other fundamental challenge with this particular moral interpretation of colonialism is that in practice, notions of morality have never been universal. What is a good action for one party may be in equal measure be bad for another.  The possibility of colonialism being simultaneously beneficial and harmful depending on which cultural perspective from which period is being applied is not really engaged with in sufficient detail in this work.

These criticisms are significant and represent shortcomings in Not Stolen. However, the author does attempt to provide a corrective to the increasing bias in accounts of Europe’s colonisation of the Americas, and his survey of much of the problematic contemporary literature in this area offers a useful starting point for other scholars to tackle these issues with, perhaps, more nuance, and certainly in greater depth.

One such example of problematic literature in this field is Lorenzo Veracini’s Colonialism. This work encompasses a much broader range of (predominately European) imperialism and depicts the entire phenomenon as one of deliberate attempts by colonial powers to subjugate the peoples in colonies, while appropriating their lands and resources. Colonialism, as Veracini portrays it, is some vast racist, sexist, capitalist conspiracy rooted in violence, with colonial powers determined to maintain an unequal exchange with their territorial possessions. This represents a pedestrian Marxist interpretation of the world, with echoes of Immanuel Wallerstein’s World-Systems Theory, in which core colonising states endlessly manipulate colonies on the periphery for their own enrichment. The author emphasises (and eventually overemphasises) the notion that colonial expansion during the Age of Empire was driven by a desire to exploit, yet never accounts for those instances where this was manifestly not the case.

Astonishingly, for a book striving to be a serious academic study of the topic, the author provides no critique whatsoever of the theoretical framework that he employs throughout the work. The reader is simply required to accept all the claims about the nature and motives of European colonialism, and the oppressor-oppressed dichotomy which is the primary concept used to interpret all the nuances and intricacies of colonialism. What makes this approach so concerning is the existence of a substantial body of literature that offers alternative interpretations, and that in some cases dismantles much of the basis of the settler-colonialism narrative which Veracini has doggedly adhered to. His failure to engage with this literature, or even to critique aspects of his theoretical approach, represent terminal flaws in the book.

If there is any doubt about the distance between the conceptual approach of this book and the history it purports to address, even a cursory survey of the bibliography reveals gaping chasms in source material. Take, as just one example, the deliberations of select committees of the House of Commons and House of Lords in the late 1830s on aspects of British colonial expansion. These amply confirm John Seeley’s famous suggestion that the Empire was acquired ‘in a fit of absence of mind’. And there are innumerable other examples illustrating that circumstance rather than design was responsible for much of Europe’s imperial expansion over several centuries. What Veracini has done, however, is to attribute generally malicious motives where practically none existed, and where on occasion, as the documentary record confirms (had he taken the time to consult it), intervention was driven by humanitarian impulses, with a desire to improve the condition of the populations in colonised territories.

Scrutiny is also sometimes needed of the smallest of statements within this book, such as the author’s claim that ‘[i]nevitably…colonial regimes steal the country of colonised peoples’. Again, it only takes a slight familiarity with the history of European colonialism to expose this claim as being untrue. However, readers relying on this work to inform their perception of European imperial activity would be unaware of the problematic nature of such statements, and assume they were accurate.

Even more frustrating is the way in which the book characterises the construct of colonialism as a one-size-fits-all model. When surveying aspects of the British Empire, for example, no distinction is made between residencies, protectorates, Crown colonies, dependencies, charter colonies, and so forth. Indeed, the wide variety in forms of colonial intervention are at odds with the uniform way colonialism is presented in Colonialism. British residencies, for example, represent in many of their features the complete opposite of the sort of avaricious, destructive intervention which Veracini casually attributes to all colonial activity.

In the end, Veracini drags the reader through an entire polemic about the supposed evils of colonialism, sidestepping in the process any evidence that seems to conflict with his thesis. The result is a predictably grim excursion into an ideological assessment of the phenomenon of colonialism, one which relies on theoretical constructs that offer little new insight into the topic, but which do shed some light on the possible motives of the author.

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

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Paul Moon