Feb 052014

There is currently a spike going on in the traffic here, with a lot of people looking for my page on Macaulay. He is regularly accounted an imperialist: it would have been news to him.

So, my main question today is: what is imperialism? Or put another way, what is so distinctive about this thing called imperialism that the British were supposed to be pursuing in India? Or, to be really precise, what is so modern about what the British were supposed to be pursuing in India? This is a naïve question in some ways, but it needs to be asked, because everyone seems to have stopped asking it a long time ago.

It can’t be capitalism, because that existed in Europe for a long time before any Indian soil was ruled by anyone British. Capitalism without imperialism later existed in places like Argentina. Capitalism need not imply imperialism.

It can’t be cultural arrogance either, because that existed, and exists, all over the world to this day. Can anyone tell me that the Chinese did not consider themselves utterly superior to the long-nosed barbarians that came to treat with the Emperor in the late eighteenth century? Or that the Spanish, who were not capitalists, did not feel superior in South America? Or that Brahmins did not look down on the sweaty, red-faced goras that wanted to trade opium and cotton goods? Arrogance is born of victory; history is full of winners.

Or was it racism? Were the British the first to feel themselves superior, different or separate, and chosen to some degree, as a ‘race’? See the last paragraph. And add a very long list of groups who, since antiquity, have believed in their natural superiority. Were the Spartans imperialists because they despised and bullied helots?

Well, if it’s not capitalism, arrogance, or racism – what is distinctive about imperialism? What makes it truly different from Persian, Roman, Aztec, Inca, Ottoman or Mughal attempts to build empires? Is it simply that it was the latest mixture of old familiar qualities, carried round the world in iron ships? If so, then it is an astonishingly weak word, that refers to nothing new except at best a mode of transport, or at worst a narrow window in which exploitation (again, not new) was packaged by a particular band of exploiters.

‘Imperialists’ themselves did not use the word when imperialism was supposed to be at its most vigourous, that is, when it was actually taking India in hand, from 1756 to 1849. Neither Clive nor Dalhousie would have recognised the word, or the idea as fleshed out by Hobson, Lenin et al in the twentieth century. As the British put down the revolt of 1857, what did they replace the EIC with? With a cabinet minister responsible to Parliament. Had the chartered company been an imperialist body? Or was the new Indian administration an imperial creation? No, and no. The EIC was a late medieval corporate body, and the new India Office was no different from the government departments that ran contemporary Britain.

So much for the negatives. But I cannot be allowed to ask this many questions without giving some answers. Positives will soon follow.


 Posted by at 1:12 pm