There are different categories of imperialism which emerged, according to the need of the time. In the first category was commercial imperialism, whose interest was to get as much profit as possible by establishing commercial relations with Asian and African countries.
In the second stage, the imperialism became political, which led to the conquest and occupation of countries, and used military power to extract the resources of the colonies. The base of political imperialism was to civilise and modernise colonies, which provided an opportunity to exploit while in the garb of moral values. After the Second World War, colonies gradually got liberated from European imperialism and became independent countries. However, the performance of most of these countries was poor and dismal. Their leadership enjoyed all privileges and consumed the resources of the countries which left common people in a state of misery and poverty.
Keeping in view the political, social and economic condition of the formal colonies, a group of English historians have been discussing that the efforts of British imperialism to promote civilisational values to its formal colonies have failed, and they have reversed to backwardness and disorder. They have even failed to maintain the imperial system which established the supremacy of law, higher educational institutions and led to the introduction of new political and social thoughts which erased conservative traditions and superstitions.
Historians have argued that again it is the responsibility of Britain and other European countries to take over the rule of those Asian and African countries that are not in a position to improve their condition, so that their resources can be used for the development of their societies.
However, there is also a group of historians who oppose this approach and argue that European imperialism was not beneficial to its colonies. They point out the crimes committed by the colonisers, including crushing rebellion brutally, massacring people whenever they resisted and silencing all opposition to their rule by imposing censorship and surveillance by intelligent agencies. They also point out that European countries, including Britain, fully participated in the African slave trade and earned huge profits by these ugly commercial activities. These slaves were then shipped and sold in the markets of South and North America and the Caribbean Islands. In these islands, the slaves were engaged in hard labour to cultivate sugarcane and produce sugar, which was a high-priced item for the elite classes of Europe.
These historians question pro-imperialist historians on how the colonial powers smuggled opium to China and addicted its population, something that brought not only profit to them but which also engaged them with China in a number of wars. Consequently, forced by treaties, the Chinese government had to hand over their ports and territories to the colonial powers. Whatever the British imperialism did in India, the detail of its plunder and loot is described in detail by Dadabhai Naoroji (d1917), R C Dutt (d1909) and Rajani Palme Dutt (d1974). After Independence, Indian historians started researching and writing the impact of colonialism on Indian society.
The reason Britain is remembering the old colonial days of its glory, grandeur, power and diplomatic success is because after losing the colonies, it returned to its small island – losing all economic and political benefits and advantages. Britain is also acting like those powers of the past, who, after their decline remember the golden days of their rise and construct a golden period of their history. This provides them a refuge against the present miseries and helplessness. In Britain, historians, writers, filmmakers etc make efforts to make the colonial past a golden period of their history. In school textbooks, the heroes who conquered the colonies and exploited their resources are highly admired.
Some historians still demand that Britain again play a role to civilise its former colonies by removing corrupt rulers and reviving the old imperial rule. This is a dream; neither does Britain have the same military and naval power nor a competent bureaucracy nor economic resources nor nationalist and patriotic spirits among its younger generation nor any ambition to become a colonial power again.
Moreover, there is a change in the newly independent countries. Now Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong are economically highly developed and politically well established. In India, the size of the middle class is increasing and Indian intellectuals are contributing to scientific subjects and social sciences. Those countries whose rulers are corrupt are stabilised by the IMF and World Bank by providing them debt which consequently deteriorates the condition of the common people because they have to pay all kinds of taxes.
And American imperialism interferes in the internal affairs of these countries and uses their leaders for its political interests. The progress and prosperity of third-world countries, especially those in the grip of the IMF and CIA. depends on people not only liberating themselves from their own corrupt and incompetent leadership but also from world institutions that are keeping them backward.
The dream of those historians who are in favour of imperialism and past glory cannot be realised under the present conditions which have changed the world. There is no space for colonialism.
The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.