Monday, June 23, 2008

The Colonialism of Yesterday and Today

This BBC review of Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies got me thinking about colonialism and its legacies.

Colonialism has always been about economics. Whether it was Christopher Columbus bragging about slaves and gold for the taking or the brutality of the French sugar production systems in Haiti or even Israel's use of the West Bank's water reserves to promote their agricultural sector, it's all about the money.

The story of the British devastation of Indian agriculture and the story of the Opium wars - British export of Opium to China to fuel addiction and then to make masses of money - are usually thought of as independent stories. The first is thought to have involved a process of de-industrialization [pdf] to force India to produce cheap cotton to be exported and manufactured in British factories and ultimately re-imported as finished goods. The latter, Britain's involvement in the Chinese opium trade, is thought to be one of the most scandalous events in colonial history, with a colonial power doing its best to turn an entire population into opium addicts and then starting a war when the Chinese government began to regulate the trade.

Amitav Ghosh's book argues that there is a strong connection between the two, as cotton was not the only agricultural product that the British forced Indians to grow. Poppy production and the opium trade accounted for well over 20% of the Indian economy in the years prior to the Opium War, and Ghosh claims that it is not a coincidence that the British Raj fell apart about 20 years after the end of the opium trade.

All this has me thinking not about British imperial history but about imperialism in the United States of America. Here as Walter Nugent points out, U.S. imperialism has come in three phases: Expansion within the North American continent, expansion through gains in the Spanish American war (Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, Cuba) and the post World War II phase of unlimited expansion wherever possible (Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 70s, Central America in the 1980s, West Asia and the Middle East today).

All of this expansion has some economic motivation behind it. But in the case of the ongoing Iraq war, I have a feeling that this is such a botched colonial venture that we may see its end soon. Then again, it certainly has made money for some folks...


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