Thursday, 3 January 2008

More on Imperialism and Culture

The natural conclusion regarding the ruling idea of the British Empire, and any empire is a supremacist racial or nationalist sense in the host country, which axiomatically justifies one's political expansionism. That this bigotry was the very mental atmosphere that ordinary citizens breathed was exemplified in Charles Dickens' reaction to the Indian Mutiny, where he wrote he would “do my utmost to exterminate the [Indian] Race” and “with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution…blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth.”
Peter Ackroyd, Dickens (1991: Mineva), p. 844

The Indian Rebellion of 1857 was a period of armed uprising against the expansion of the British East India Company control in India between early 1857 and mid 1858.
That the East India Company was the main beneficiary of the subjugation of the east is obvious, though imperialism is always masked with claims of loving cultural benevolence. As Aldous Huxley wrote "Idealsim is the noble toga political gentlemen drape over their will to power" and so foreign aggression becomes educating the natives, spreading democracy and the like.
In 1854, three years before the rebellion, Sir Arthur Cotton writing in "Public Works in India" noted: "Public works have been almost entirely neglected throughout India... The motto hitherto has been: 'Do nothing, have nothing done, let nobody do anything....." Adding that the Company was unconcerned if people died of famine, or if they lacked roads and water.
John Bright in the House of Commons on June 24, 1858, said "The single city of Manchester, in the supply of its inhabitants with the single article of water, has spent a larger sum of money than the East India Company has spent in the fourteen years from 1834 to 1848 in public works of every kind throughout the whole of its vast dominions."
W. Digby, noted in "Prosperous British India" in 1901 that "stated roughly, famines and scarcities have been four times as numerous, during the last thirty years of the 19th century as they were one hundred years ago, and four times as widespread." In Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis points out that here were 31 serious famines in 120 years of British rule compared to 17 in the 2000 years before British rule; this naturally coinciding with the massive exportation of foods that would have fed the native populations. The same occured as in Ireland where even during famine years British colonial rulers continued to export foodgrains to Britain ensuring genocidal results. One third of the Bengal population was lost through famine and the Irish population halved in 50 years, during which time the English population nearly doubled. A 1927-28 report noted that "all but the most highly skilled workmen in India receive wages which are barely sufficient to feed and clothe them. Everywhere will be seen overcrowding, dirt and squalid misery..." and the Whitley Report found children as young as five - working a 12 hour day.

Roger Scruton writes in his apparently unironically titled The Glory of the West is that life is an open book, "Unlike Islamic culture, western culture has gone out to the stranger, has tried to understand, to sympathise, to learn, in every arena where learning is available." This champion of Empire amongst the wealth of information with which to provide a reasonably accurate depiction of attitude to the colonised peoples and cultures, chooses to highlight "at the moment in the 18th century when ’Abd al-Wahhab was founding his particularly obnoxious form of Islam in the Arabian peninsula, burning books and beheading “heretics”, Sir William Jones was collecting and translating all that he could find of Persian and Arabic poetry and preparing to sail to Calcutta, where he was to serve as a judge and to pioneer the study of Indian languages and culture." And this is apparently sufficient to Scruton to have proven the case of the defence or prosecution as the case may be.

Strangely, this completely at odds with the Irish experience where to mention but one aspect of this sympathising understanding attitude, the language was killed off in an obvious process of cultural sabotage, and under things like The Penal Laws the people forbidden to practice their religion or receive education. Was India's cultural heritage, however, appreciated and fostered?
The architect of Colonial Britain's Educational Policy in India, Thomas Macaulay, wrote that he had "never found one among them (speaking of Orientalists, an opposing political faction) who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia". "It is no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England".
Strangely at odds with Scruton's summation of reaching out, understanding, etc.

Part of a successful colonization process is the colonization of the natives' minds, thus the killing off of the Irish language. The masses are kept or made uneducated and illiterate, but there is more to a successful colonisation of the subjugated mind than that. From History of British Rule and Colonization in India:

In India, Britain needed a class of intellectuals meek and docile in their attitude towards the British, but full of hatred towards their fellow citizens. It was thus important to emphasize the negative aspects of the Indian tradition, and obliterate or obscure the positive. Indians were to be taught that they were a deeply conservative and fatalist people - genetically predisposed to irrational superstitions and mystic belief systems. That they had no concept of nation, national feelings or a history. If they had any culture, it had been brought to them by invaders - that they themselves lacked the creative energy to achieve anything by themselves. But the British, on the other hand epitomized modernity - they were the harbingers of all that was rational and scientific in the world. With their unique organizational skills and energetic zeal, they would raise India from the morass of casteism and religious bigotry. These and other such ideas were repeatedly filled in the minds of the young Indians who received instruction in the British schools.

In 1835, Macaulay wrote "We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, words and intellect."
J.N Farquhar (a contemporary of Macaulay) was to write: "The new educational policy of the Government created during these years the modern educated class of India. These are men who think and speak in English habitually, who are proud of their citizenship in the British Empire, who are devoted to English literature, and whose intellectual life has been almost entirely formed by the thought of the West, large numbers of them enter government services, while the rest practice law, medicine or teaching, or take to journalism or business."
Charles Trevelyan in his testimony before the Select Committee of the House of Lords on the Government of Indian Territories on 23rd June, 1853: "..... the effect of training in European learning is to give an entirely new turn to the native mind. The young men educated in this way cease to strive after independence...They cease to regard us as enemies and usurpers, and they look upon us as friends and patrons, and powerful beneficent persons, under whose protection the regeneration of their country will gradually be worked out..."

An aberration in the 'correct' indoctrination of the subjugated mind explains the annoyance of Roger Scruton where he counters Edward Said's Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. "Yet Said was born of Christian parents in Jerusalem before the war; he was educated in English-language private schools in Egypt and America and at Harvard University; he was brought up to love western music, western literature and western art. He was a cosmopolitan in the mould of Conrad, Turgenev and Lawrence Durrell, and his attack on the culture that formed him was an act of repudiation towards a legacy that he nevertheless gladly inherited and manifestly enjoyed."
It is incomprehensible to Scruton that such an ungrateful beneficiary of western imperialism and its culture could exist, and he wholly fails to mention anything of the cultural erasure which occured to the orient as a matter of policy. And that one of their number should bite the hand that fed... Scruton writes with belittling sense of those to whom might appeal Said's anti-imperialsist sentiments: "intellectuals in those incendiary areas like the Middle East where grievances against the “West” gain an easy hearing." The tone being that any such sense of grievance is a further manifestation of these people's ill-bred and lowly nature, rather than the natural reaction they might feel for the rape of their countries economically, and the parallel process of cultural disinheritance. This echoing Disraeli's "The Irish hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion...etc." Ingratitude towards one's cultural or racial betters further proof of one's inferiority.
Below again from British Education in India:

Similarly, Charles Grant, who exercised tremendous influence in colonial evangelical circles, published his "Observations" in 1797 in which he attacked almost every aspect of Indian society and religion, describing Indians as morally depraved, "lacking in truth, honesty and good faith". British Governor General Cornwallis asserted "Every native of Hindostan, I verily believe, is corrupt".
As a result of the cultural assault on the Indian consciousness, British-educated Indians grew up learning about Pythagoras, Archimedes, Galileo and Newton without ever learning about Panini, Aryabhatta, Bhaskar or Bhaskaracharya. The logic and epistemology of the Nyaya Sutras, the rationality of the early Buddhists or the intriguing philosophical systems of the Jains were generally unknown to the them. Schooled in the aesthetic and literary theories of the West, many felt embarrassed in acknowledging Indian contributions in the arts and literature. What was important to Western civilization was deemed universal, but everything Indian was dismissed as either backward and anachronistic, or at best tolerated as idiosyncratic oddity."
Elaborating on the phenomenon of cultural colonization, Priya Joshi (Culture and Consumption: Fiction, the Reading Public, and the British Novel in Colonial India) writes: "Often, the implementation of a new education system leaves those who are colonized with a lack of identity and a limited sense of their past. The indigenous history and customs once practiced and observed slowly slip away. The colonized become hybrids of two vastly different cultural systems. Colonial education creates a blurring that makes it difficult to differentiate between the new, enforced ideas of the colonizers and the formerly accepted native practices."

It is easy to see champions of the British Empire transmuting their loyalty to what is a veritable extension of said Empire, ie the current American Empire, which tends to be arm in arm with the British. What was all that fuss about the Americans gaining freedom in the War of Independence from Britain again? The two political regimes still share the most incestuous of relationships. There are endless examples of this transmutation of loyalty and faith in the modern day from Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen to Scruton and a continuous army of others; this being inevitable due to the admittedly diluted but onflowing strains of the supremacist strains of the earlier intellectual atmosphere shown by the likes of Dickens and Charles "White Chimpanzees" Kingsley. To pick one rather harmless but obvious portrayal of this transmutation- from Bryan Appleyard's short piece New Jersey's Death Penalty:

I have always been intuitively against the death penalty. But, I reasoned, this was little more than a visceral reaction and the Americans in particular have their reasons and their traditions.

The Americans in particular have their reasons and traditions. Why is it that this particular body of humans are intrinsically more justified? Why else but they are of a superior strain, however fuzzy such logic might be.


Anonymous said...

this link gives a breif outline of how the british bankers brought poverty to their american colonies, which had been prosperous before their intervention

you will probably find more detailed links elsewhere

Neil Forsyth said...

Whoever has the biggest stick makes the rules. Nothing has changed since the time you speak of and it never will. We are a predatory and ruthlessly selfish animal. That is our nature. No amount of "civilisation" is going to change that. Good post by the way. Have to go - the kids are baying for blood if they are not fed immediately. Littel tyrants have ruined my life.

Andrew K said...

It sounds like you're breeding a savage species there, Neil. I'd disagree that we are necessarily a predatory, selfish animal but it's certainly an integral possibility, & as a simple matter of applied psychology those who rise to the top of a power ladder such as politics will almost certainly be such a psychological type. Also why no need to fall for racial stereotypes as if history went differently we could be talking about Irish vicious political leaders. But the idea of falling for the claims of imperialist bollocks regarding vicious, greedy manipulations is something I'd hope people might start to get over. "Spreading democracy in Iraq" and all that.