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The Cost of Colonialism

How colonial violence came home, a long piece by Pankaj Mishra, is a fine read:

In this new history, Europe’s long peace is revealed as a time of unlimited wars in Asia, Africa and the Americas. These colonies emerge as the crucible where the sinister tactics of Europe’s brutal 20th-century wars—racial extermination, forced population transfers, contempt for civilian lives—were first forged.

But so much of it seems so familiar to anyone born and raised in an ex-colony that it’s slightly staggering to think how much it’s been forgotten in an ex-power like Britain. There are Brexiteers, right now, tweeting about how Britain did just fine in the years of Empire and can do the same again, displaying a breathtaking (wilful?) ignorance of the oppression of other peoples that its prosperity was built on, and total self-delusion about how willing such people would be to put themselves in anything like the same position again. Many Brexiteers are old enough to remember the collapse of British colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s, or to have heard about it growing up—surely they don’t think the Mau Mau were in it for sport?

One phrase I’d take issue with in the quotation above is “first forged”: Europe had a centuries-long internal history of racial extermination, forced population transfers and contempt for civilian lives. In the second half of the nineteenth century, as Mishra suggests, emigration to colonies and the riches flowing back from them had become enough of a relief valve for domestic pressures that those old internal enmities quietened down for a bit while violence was outsourced. From this distance it seems a brief window of European peace, maybe 50-60 years. We may end up looking back on the 60-ish years post-World War II as another.

21 November 2017 · Politics


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