|You are in: Talking Point: South Asian Debates|
Thursday, 16 January, 2003, 16:25 GMT
Was British imperialism a force for good?
The mention of British imperialism conjures images of a brutal slave trade and obscene profits gained through the imposition of British rule.
To add insult to injury, the colonisers saw themselves as superior to those they colonised.
India was the jewel in Britain's imperial crown and by plundering its rich resources Britain went from piracy to power, eventually holding sway over vast tracts of the globe.
But despite the indisputable causes for shame, the historian Niall Ferguson argues in his new book, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, that British imperialism had its virtues, and its shortcomings were outweighed by its benefits.
It promoted the free movement of goods, capital and labour, he says, and introduced Western norms of law, order and governance, catapulting the world into the modern era.
So, was British imperialism a great historic achievement? Or did it leave nothing more than a crippling legacy that would haunt its former colonies to this day?
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
The British Empire grew at a time when European countries were all competing for world domination. Comparing present day countries that were formerly part of the British Empire with those that used to be ruled by Spain, Portugal, France, or Italy, it does appear that in most instances, the legacy of the British has been better, or at least not as bad, as that of other European imperial powers.
The main drawback of British rule on India is we have to study that history for almost 3 years in school. It really is a pain to remember all the names of the governor generals and lords.
Consider many of the current conflicts in the world: India-Pakistan, Israel-Palestine, Sinhalese-Tamil, Fijian-Indian. The common element behind them all is British rule. Draw your own conclusion from that.
The colonisation of India & the whole of South East Asia was an ongoing process by the Persians, Arabs, Moguls etc. Was the British colonisation more good than bad? certainly it was more benign than all past ones & had the positive effect of uniting India into a modern state. Any traveller to India without knowledge of the past can marvel at the great infrastructure & architecture left behind by those alien cultures, it is my opinion that modern medicine alone was a fair price to pay for the ills suffered.
Rajesh Guha, United States
The Great British Empire of yesteryears is indeed a lesson in history. One can learn from what they did right and what they did wrong. The question, then, is, does the good outweigh the bad? I cannot speak for all the former colonies. I come from Pakistan, and believe that the imperialism was a blessing in disguise. Sure, the conflict and turmoil is forever written in the history books, but the good was really good.
The British came when the Mogul Empire was on its declination path. They brought law and order, and most importantly, technology with them. I do not believe that the vast lengths of Railway lines in the Indian subcontinent would have been possible without the colonization. This is just one of the many reasons why the British Empire did more good than bad.
The British empire was, like all empires, a product of its time and place; its modus operandi today seems abhorrent in the light of accepted western liberal thought and norms of today. That said, the western concepts of civilization that have matured into what they are today (at minimum in theory, if not in practice) are far more benevolent than anyone 150 years ago might have dreamed of. Critics of history are harsh; rightly so. It should be remembered though that applying todays standards to events and regimes of the past result in an unbalanced, chrono-centric position; civilizations, whether influenced by European empires or not, are evolutionary, and develop still.
If the wealth of the West had been solely based on robbing the rest of the world, one would expect the standard of living in Britain to have declined with the loss of its empire. The standard of living in Britain seems to have been improving since it divested itself of its empire, and the former empire has voluntarily retained economic affiliation through the Commonwealth.
I conclude that the effect of the empire was positive for both the rulers and the ruled.
Britain was no different to other imperialist nations, in that it sought to conquer other nations and thereby gain access to their resources. While it is easy to blame the British, the fact remains that most, if not all, other nations would have established an imperialist hegemony had they been able to do so. Many tried. After all, it appears to be an instinctive human desire to dominate others. If the British hadn't done it, then others would have - and arguably done a worse job! One of the biggest downsides of British imperialism is that it disturbed the state of equilibrium between different ethnic groups by redefining their territories, thereby laying the seeds for future civil wars.
British Imperialism was a curates egg - mainly bad but good in parts. Imperialists were there to fill their pockets, along the way a few good things happened with the construction of infrastructure. Christian Indians say that Britain united a disparate country, Moslem Indians say Britain stopped them taking over the whole of Africa and South Asia. Too simplistic a view, but the empire is history, its time to move on.
Britain was the biggest robber of the 18th century. Reducing the once prosperous and rich India to a third world country and making itself very rich in the end. And now it is preaching to the world the morals and ethics as if it were a saint. The Kohinoor diamond is still with UK which was robbed from India. UK is still earning from its plundering by putting the diamond in a museum and earning the visitor fees. Shame on its part. Now it is acting as USA's poodle shamelessly obeying its master (US) for every action without having any individual opinion of its own.
The success of 'Empire' was the success of systemic forces of global capitalism across the world. The colonization over rode a way of life which had sustained and prospered for centuries. Further, it redefined the social and economic attitudes of the colonized and it will be a long time before they would be able shed it to realize the uniqueness of their social, cultural and economic standing.
In ancient days the economies were self-sufficient and prosperous. The paddy production in Sri Lanka reached a stage where it could satisfy its own demands pre-British ruling. When the British came to power they forced farmers out and planted tea for their needs. And further, Brits very often used the tactic "divisionalisation". In India the Hindu/Muslim problem originated because of British tactics to weaken the freedom struggle. Again in Sri Lanka bloody ethnic war is the result of British cheap tactics and caused more than 65,000 deaths and enormous humanitarian disaster.
Rajiv Sinha, USA
To say that the imperialism had benefits that outweighed the problems is like saying that the silver lining outweighs the vast tracts of dark cloud. Especially since England received the silver lining, the dark cloud was spread over rest of the world.
The UK was a terrorist of the 18th century who wielded the biggest gun. The majority of Asian economies were ready to enter industrialisation stage of their economy, right before the UK entered the picture. What happened was majority of the world under UK rule stopped developing economically with 0% economic growth. How can any idiot presumably think UK added any value by destroying these economies?
Igonikon Jack, USA
British imperialism will only be remembered as a dark period in world history. It destroyed societies that had lived peacefully and successfully for hundreds of years, it created false boundaries between people that had been united. It stole and plundered the wealth that drove ancient civilisations and above all when it was finally defeated, it left behind a legacy of deprivation, conflict and the seeds of future wars.
Let's get things straight first; the British did not establish an empire for "charity". The driving force behind it was an economic one. But the colonised people derived great benefit from it. The British gave India the most extensive railway, irrigation and telegraph networks in the world, the best legal system, the most efficient civil service, the English language, cricket... the list is endless. Despite fulminating against the "vestiges" of colonialism, nationalistic politicians have not been able to replace it with anything better.
Arun Chawla, India/USA
The Empire left in its wake most of today's problems and conflicts... it sowed the seeds of poverty and war in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Britain is prosperous today because it stole and will not return the wealth of these lands.
Britain and the other European (and American) empires have done more damage than can be calculated. The indigenous peoples of the world from Africa to the American natives have been brutalised. The economic, sociological and psychological damage to these peoples continues to resonate.
I visited Sri Lanka in November of last year and saw and learnt of the effects of British rule (as well as Dutch and Portuguese rule) over the centuries. The Tamil Tiger situation, I feel, directly stems from the British desire to bring in a huge workforce from southern India into the country to be used as cheap labour for the tea plantations, effectively evicting the local Sri Lankan people from the hill country and completely destroying vast areas.
Both the Tamils and the Sri Lankans were badly treated in all this. Poverty is still a major problem in Sri Lanka. However, I have never met such warm welcoming and tolerant people who taught and showed me so much.
15 Nov 02 | Europe
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites
Top South Asian Debates stories now:
Links to more South Asian Debates stories are at the foot of the page.
|E-mail this story to a friend|
Links to more South Asian Debates stories
To BBC Sport>> | To BBC Weather>> | To BBC World Service>>
© MMIII | News Sources | Privacy