Defending colonialism is a difficult thing to do. But no matter where I travel in the world it seems that people want to extol the virtues of the legacy that we – meaning us noble Europeans – left behind.
As a Brit whose forefathers helped conquer much of the world, any defence of what we might have achieved sounds painfully shrill against the historical memories of all that blood that was spilled.
And yet still people – mainly the natives of these countries that we conquered – are prepared to justify what we did in the name of progress.
We gave these uncivilised barbarians human rights, the rule of law, capitalism, electricity. And on the list goes.
Nowhere does the defence of European colonialism seem more obvious than in Hong Kong.
My Cantonese teacher – a flamboyant fellow with a deep dislike of the mainland Chinese – likes to thank and blame the British, in equal measure, for what they have done for the territory.
He thinks that colonialism was the best thing that could have happened to the country, and helped propel the region forwards from a collection of sleepy fishing hamlets to what you see today. I see skyscrapers and an unhealthy worship of money. But he probably sees more.
But he is also angry with the British – angry for leaving in 1997, and angry for not doing more to keep the territory out of the clutches of Beijing.
“You guys should never have left,” he complained to me over dinner.
Which sparked an intense debate as to the virtues or otherwise of colonialism – with me saying that the so-called “progress” the British heralded in could in no way justify the suppression of the natives (although I am aware that Hong Kong, important mostly as port for trading with China rather than anything grander, had a far less bloody history than other colonial outposts) and him claiming that the rewards future generations would enjoy more than made up for the grim history of colonialism.
But I could not see it like that. For me, colonialism was a self-serving evil that sought only to benefit the colonialists and not the colonised – and we got far more out of it than our colonies ever did.
Our conversation ended as the dessert arrived, with him summising that my views are founded upon some kind of colonial guilt that is forced upon us Europeans from birth. I certainly don’t feel guilty, but he’s probably right in some way: we Europeans do collectively believe that we bear some responsibility for the sorry state that many countries are in, which is why we are so keen to try and put things right (queue a brief discussion about the immigration dilemma Europe). Just as, of course, his background and regional context has shaped his positive view of British presence over here.
It reminded me of a scene out of George Orwell’s Burmese Days.
In this stunningly good book, the main protagonist John Flory, the only member of the colonialist elite that feels in some way embarrassed with what Britain is doing to the country, is forever trying to convince his Indian doctor friend, Veraswami, about the evils of empire. He consistently fails, with Veraswami’s rose-tinted eyes constantly admiring the culture, progress and refinement that Her Majesty’s subjects were bringing the Asian outpost.
I was playing John Florry, my Cantonese teacher the good doctor. Two people from different backgrounds and different cultures whose very different view of the world was coloured by their upbringing.
I am now reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, which charts the development of humankind through the ages. Whilst Harari certainly is not an apologist for colonialism, there is a very fine subtext running through the chapters where he talks about imperialism: and that is, despite all the horrific bloodshed and evil-doing, the benefits of colonialism to future generations have always been significant.
It happened with the expansion of the Romans. It happened with the expansion of the Arabs. And it happened with the Europeans, too.
Bath tubs, numbers, human rights. These people all left something valuable behind.
But I still feel squeamish when I hear, a mere half a century after our empire unravelled, people speaking favourably about what we did.