I have sympathy for Kemi Badenoch , the equalities minister lambasted this week after a leaked message revealed that she once claimed not to "care about colonialism".
The woke view is that anything that can be labelled as 'colonialism' is inherently bad. But what is colonialism? Its critics never define the term, though they evidently mean European empires established across the world since the fifteenth century, beginning with the Portuguese and the Spaniards, continuing with the Dutch and the English (the worst malefactors, in their view), and including surprising imitators such as Latvian peasants settling in Tobago.
Yet each of these episodes of colonisation had a distinctive character. The Portuguese long concentrated on creating trading stations – the last one, Macau, was only abandoned in 1999. Spain concentrated on land empires not just in vast swathes of the Americas but in the Philippines, Italy and the Netherlands, so that there was enormous variety within this vast assortment of territories.
Woke historians love to deploy -isms: not just colonialism but imperialism, racism, capitalism, all said to be part of a single mind-set. The assumption is that these -isms were all of European creation and hark back to Columbus's voyages to the Americas – not that the literally misguided admiral intended to get there. His aim was to establish trading stations in China, not start an empire building mission in Mexico and Peru.
At any rate, the Aztecs and Incas were themselves conquerors who subjugated other peoples and exploited their labour. The Aztecs sacrificed huge numbers of war captives. We can add to the list of empires the Ottoman Turks, who conquered south-eastern Europe and the Middle East, and made heavy demands such as forced conscription. But they also lowered taxes, reined in local warlords, and protected ethnic and religious minorities. The balance sheet of empire is not all red. British rule brought tea plantations (and railways to transport the tea) to the uplands of India and introduced rubber plantations to Malaya; all this provided work, though often in menial conditions that cannot be ignored either.
Kemi Badenoch is right to mention African empires. In the fourteenth century Mansa Musa, king of Mali, was reputed to be the richest person on the planet, and was said to tether his horse to a pillar of gold. Later, rivalries among African rulers fuelled the slave trade once the Portuguese discovered that it was easier to buy war captives from African kings than to find the sources of Musa's gold.
Empires were not all created as the result of a grand master-plan organised by white male Europeans. The historian Sir John Seeley opined that the British Empire was acquired 'in a fit of absence of mind'. Cromwell never intended to capture Spanish Jamaica. The East India Company, not the British government, laid the higgledy-piggledy foundations of British India. Kemi Badenoch is right that it is time to stop generalising about 'colonialism' and to recognise the complexity of the past.
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