I get called an imperialist quite a lot. This has a lot to do with being a white Englishman with links to the mining sector who regularly travels on business to West Africa and South East Asia. Also, I get mistaken for a gringo when we are in my wife’s homeland of Venezuela, where Americans were referred to by Hugo Chavez as “Yankee mierda” and are now labelled by the current president, Nicolas Maduro, as an “imperialist elite” intent on a coup. The other day, on a shopping trip to Maturin, the capital of Venezuela’s Monagas State, I was asked by a local how I felt coming from the country of Hitler – in a land where the sane and insane are all armed, I decided to pass on delivering any history lectures.
I have a thick skin. I tend to reply with smiles, even though I was born in the last days of 1972, way after the sun set on the British Empire which, granted, my forefathers helped build on the back of buccaneering and slave trading; then in a new wave of nineteenth century imperial zeal, which saw the British Empire become the biggest the world has ever known.
How are we white men (my surname endears me ask this question more than most) to respond to these imperialist-shouters who blame the state of their countries in 2017 on the empires of white men who have long since departed?
The paradox of these lands to which I voyage is galling: immense mineral wealth yet inexorably mired in steaming squalor and deprivation. A few countries in Asia have escaped the third world tag but overall economic performance remains abysmal, lagging behind those of other regions. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has warned that at the prevailing rates black Africa would take another 150 years to reach some of the development targets agreed by UN members for 2015. (Financial Times, July 9, 2003; p.1). Who ruined Africa?
The Marxist hangovers attached to so many of today’s NGO’s and bodies like the UN – dependency theorists and world systems’ theorists – happily exploit the crowd backed by readily-available statistics, which they can cherry-pick to blacken capitalism and associate capitalist strategies with the worst of colonialism and their beloved economic imperialism. They have an exploded world population as an audience and their statue-felling, cultural cannibalistic converts are numerous. Once staid NGO’s like Oxfam now regularly tweet their followers with messages like, “Fight against extreme #inequality + fight against #climatechange joint struggles against same foe: destructive economic system #gdilaunch”
Of course, the actual statistics of imperialism don’t help the economic imperialism lobby at all: two of the most outspokenly imperialist powers of the Second World War, Japan and Italy, were both nations poor in capital. Whatever the urge that drove them to expansion, it couldn’t be the need for the export of capital – thus directly challenging the thesis of Hobson and Lenin that vast amounts of capital needed to flow into the founding of colonies. Likewise, Africa provided little trade, less revenue, and few local collaborators, and Britain supplied little capital and few settlers. The Marxists’ economic imperialism – coined by Virginia Woolf’s husband Leonard, never by Marx himself – has been blown out of the water as a workable theory for imperialism. Just as dependency theories are used as shields of excuse by the corrupt apparatchiks of Third World governments.
It’s not just the inhabitants of the Commonwealth who give us Brits a hard time. Take this eloquent communication on a message board from an American a few years back: “a genocidal, imperialistic Empire which murdered millions and enslaved ten times that for cheap tea and sugar shouldn’t have an article about how quaint and funny they are. People will debate about things like the Armenian Genocide, the Holodomor and the Holocaust until the sun burns out, yet when someone dares to even mention the British and their terrible misdeeds throughout history, it is perpetually ignored. Are you all that big of suckers for the accent, or is it just not worth talking about when it’s swarthy heathens dying?”
The triumphs, the humiliations, the good that it brought and the bad that it inflicted – for better or worse the British Empire had a massive impact on the history of the world. A popular combination of factors gave rise to the British Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth Centuries based on prior mercantilism, on superior technologies and seafaring, industrial superiority and the concept of informal empire. Or, as Sir John Seeley once stated, that the British Empire was acquired in a ‘fit of absent-mindedness’.
Whatever the reasons, the British Empire was the consequence of an imperial race that many peoples of the world were engaged in (and many were not). It just so happened that my forefathers won. That seems to hurt many people today as they look at Britain’s wealth, its palatial properties built by slave traders and at the ignominy of so many of their own lands. Blaming me is quite wrong – China and India are showing the others the way out of being mere subjects, Australia and New Zealand have surpassed all original British concepts of jails, and, dare I say, the chips in Dublin as are good as in Brussels.
As we look forward to a more amalgamated planet in which transnational threats turn History to Palmyra, nation states must cooperate more together, not less. As the German grandchildren of Nazis must be forgiven for their forefathers’ wrongs rather than self-flagellating themselves into a state of weakness before migratory waves of hostile invaders, so the planet should work with us Brits for our good bits; whine less and focus on building a better tomorrow.
Those who see Brexit as Britain turning in on itself as the final act of karma for manifesting past imperial pain, please think again. Travel the world and wherever you go you’ll find an Englishman and a Dutchman – watch the world light up like a Christmas tree as Britain escapes the shackles of the EU and gets down and dirty in global trade.