Is Modern Society Finally Getting Sick of Talking about Colonialism?

In comments made in 2018 and leaked in September 2021, Kemi Badenoch, now British minister for equalities, remarked, "I don't care about colonialism because I know what we were doing before colonialism got there.  They came in and just made a different bunch of winners and losers."  It is not exactly clear how to interpret this message by a politician, born in 1980 in London of Nigerian parents, who grew up in Nigeria and has been a Conservative member of the British parliament since 2017.  However, it suggests a view of "colonialism" different from the woke version, or from the vision of those who have criticized her.

Badenoch had already entered the partisan controversy over the report of the British Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, BCRED, published on March 31, 2021.  She defended the report and pointed out the complex picture it presented which differed from the way that issues of race in Britain, as in the U.S., are often presented.  The report indicated that racism and discrimination remain a factor in Britain, but also that factors other than racism may account for disparities among ethnic groups.  What is important in this analysis is that it does not deny that institutional racism exists in the U.K., but it holds that the term should be used more carefully, and always based on evidence.

Conclusions of the BCRED report challenge general views and imply that there is room for legitimate disagreement and debate on issues of racism and discrimination.  And Badenoch's remark recalls that colonialism was not confined to Europeans — and, even with them, lasted only a relatively short time.  Colonialism was not invented as a result of the consequences of voyages of Columbus to the Americas, which involved Portugal, Spain, Britain, and the Dutch.  Long before Europeans arrived in areas outside Europe, Africans were enslaving other Africans, capturing them by war and raids, and selling them. 

Colonization, and racism, which is associated with it in a logical way, go back at least 2,000 years among all manner of peoples.  The Passover service commemorates the biblical story of Exodus, which relates the freeing of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  Greece colonized Cyrenaica and part of Egypt.  Phoenicians established colonies along the coast of North Africa.  Carthaginians set up colonies along the Atlantic coast of Africa.  Goths, Vandals, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans were also involved in colonial activities, some in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf Coast areas.  Muhammad, the self-proclaimed "messenger of god," conquered the Arabism peninsula, which led to the invasion of Africa and the Levant, creating a dominant colonial power that extended from the Iberian Peninsula to Pakistan until the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258.

Bernard Lewis in his 1994 book, Race and Slavery in the Middle East, makes clear that in the ancient Middle East, slavery was present among the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and other ancient peoples.  The Koran assumed the existence of slavery, and Arabs practiced a form of slavery similar to that in other parts of the world.  Lewis points out that slaves under Islamic rule could rise, gaining places in the military and even government.

African societies had forms of government that kept and sold slaves.  For example, in the early 18th century, Dahomey, on the west coast of Africa, now called Benin, was a colonial power, grown rich by conquest, war, trading prisoners for goods, and slave labor.  In the Islamic world, most slaves came from whites from Europe and the Eurasian steppes and blacks from sub-Saharan Africa.  The Ottoman Empire obtained its slaves by conquest and capture, mainly from Africa.  Slavery existed for centuries in Ethiopia.  The abolition of slavery was put into law only in 1935–6 by the Italian occupiers of the country.

On this controversial and emotional subject of colonialism, three things may be said, perhaps to lower the temperature.

First, the European colonial ventures varied considerably.  Probably the worst was Leopold II of Belgium, who ruled the Belgian Congo as his personal property, 1885–1908, and used forced labor, resulting in 8 million of the 16 million-strong population killed.

One can be amused at but reject the jibe of Sir John Seeley said, that the British Empire was acquired in a fit of absence of mind.  The Crusaders sought to reclaim Christian lands.  The Conquistadors set up commercial colonies in Mexico and Peru and trade routes but also wanted to convert the natives to Catholicism.  Reformers and those with a "civilizing mission" wanted to bring progress and economic modernization to backward people.  Portugal created trading posts that lasted as in Macau, in the south coast of China, the Las Vegas of Asia, until 1999 when the area was transferred to China.  A number of European countries sought land not only to settle but to produce single-crop products by using slaves or to obtain raw materials.  Sugar was a major part of the economy of Caribbean islands, and the plantations produced about 90% of the sugar consumed in Western Europe.

Secondly, Western European countries, if some belatedly, did abolish slavery and the slave trade, or argue against it, as in Britain from the late 18th century, starting with the Dissenters, the Quakers, John Wesley, the evangelist wing of the Church of England: "The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground."  Britain, particularly the Royal Navy, was active around the world from 1807 in suppressing the slave trade.

Thirdly, it is disquieting that non-European colonialism and slavery are rarely mentioned or subject to criticism.  The reality is that Africans were involved in slavery, centuries before Europeans were present in Africa.  The Barbary Coast slave trade, on the coast of north Africa, was associated with slave markets in Ottoman states, Algeria, Tunisia, Tripolitania, and Morocco.  The best-known person captured by the pirates was Miguel Cervantes, in 1575, who was a slave in Algiers for five years.  His interest in the question of madness in his Don Quixote probably stems from his experiences as a captive.

The pirate slave traders enslaved more than one million Europeans in North Africa in the 16th to the 18th centuries.  The U.S. and other countries paid tribute to prevent raids — until President Thomas Jefferson refused to do so.  It is memorable and symbolic for American foreign policy today that the U.S. navy expedition fought gunboats and fortifications in the Tripolitan War, 1801–1805, and ended the tribute payment.

Image via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

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