Colonial legacy

May 14, 2023

The European civilisation has conquered the rest of the world in the past 500 years

Colonial legacy


he recently-held coronation in the United Kingdom has again brought to the fore the issue of what belongs to whom. The display of some of the diamonds and the jewels that form the trove of the royal splendour was too much for some to digest and they have started yelling once again for the return of the precious stones and metal to where they we taken from. At the same time questions are being asked about the role of the British royal family in the slavery or the slave trade that was rampant in the past and formed part of the international economic relations yielding great profits.

If one looks at history, conquest, occupation, acquisition of wealth, accumulation of resources, the transfer of goods from one part to the other has been a continuous process. It is happening even now and as blatantly as ever. All civilisations, except in the last hundred odd years, were slave societies. Great empires flourished in transferring resources to their advantage, especially from the territories that were captured and annexed. This was always carried out in the name of some high value like religion, civilising the natives and spreading enlightenment. The locals were not deemed capable of retaining these or some other foundation that the empire stood on. The voracious imperial appetite was never stated as the principal reason for justifying the victory of one and the defeat of another. Others knew the significance of building a resource base.

The focus in the current phase has been on the European civilisation that has conquered the rest of the world over the last five hundred years or so. This may be because it is the most recent one. The demand has been increasing recently for the return of treasures stolen from the colonies to the mother countries. However, if one looks at the entire span of civilisations, the appropriation has been going on forever. The stress these days is on this phase because it is recent and can be identified unlike the more ancient past where the evidence does not stand out so clearly.

In our part of the world, the northern part of the subcontinent has seen many wars, acquisitions, conquests and destruction. Large swathes of population have migrated and settled here. The region has been looted multiple times and its treasures taken away before the onset of the colonial Europeans phase. The rulers here had accumulated wealth and treasures from all over, especially other parts of the subcontinent and shored their profile by lavish displays and circumstance.

In many parts of the world, local populations were either decimated or subjugated by the outsiders and the land and resources taken over. Cultural superstructures were imposed and the local languages and cultural practices were held inferior or too low brow to matter.

These conquerors also carried the banner of religion, race or ethnicity as the justification of their raids, attacks and wars and took great pride in demolition and destruction of religious and political structures. This was thought to be the way of establishing the veracity of one’s authority and legitimising the use of violence.

In many parts of the world local populations were decimated or subjugated by the outsiders and the land and resources taken over. Cultural superstructures were imposed and the local languages and cultural practices held inferior or considered too low brow to matter.

The fact is that the entire country – particularly the ruling classes - benefitted from this transfer of resources and the accumulation of wealth provided the space for intellectual innovations, scientific breakthroughs and the establishment of the institutions that facilitated these thoughts and acts. The inflows were not restricted to the few; they created new classes and power structures including some that questioned the accumulation of wealth in a very few hands and thus brought about the germination of the idea of democracy.

Mere pulling down of sculptures and landmarks cannot cleanse the history of the world. A region cannot prove itself consciously purged of the past because each society owes its present to its past and the benefits that it drew from it. The chests of wealth and the production of knowledge were in a way dependent upon each other; the two cannot be clinically separated. Nor can the present be gleaned clean from the past. The easiest way out, without paying a cent, is to make apologies and put one’s conscience at rest.

In our case, as in some other cases, the history is much more complicated and meshed together and the ruler and the ruled cannot be separated. Some societies are trying to do this but it is seen as a cleansing of history and establishing some puritanically imagined past. If one goes about unraveling the past, the entire enterprise will look engineered and sanitised but it will not be the way it happened. It will only result in the past being fashioned in the light of the present and that would be the biggest censorship of all times. It is better to think of the present and construct an equitable order, if that is no more than a pipe dream also.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

Colonial legacy