BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN
I get called an imperialist quite a lot. This has much to do with being a white-skinned, green-eyed Englishman with links to the mining sector, who regularly travels on business to West Africa and South-East Asia. Unfairly, I get mistaken for a gringo when we are in my wife’s homeland of Venezuela, where Americans were referred to by the late Hugo Chávez as ‘yankee mierda’ and are now branded by the current president, Nicolás Maduro, as an ‘imperialist elite’ bent on a coup. The other day, on a supplies trip to Maturín, the capital of Venezuela’s eastern state of Monagas, 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 lessons.
How are we white men (my surname endears me to ask this question more than most) to respond to these imperialist-shouters who blame the parlous state of their countries in 2017 on the descendants of imperialist white men who have long since departed? If my double helix mirrors that of Cecil Rhodes’ DNA more than their’s, is that somehow my culpability?
I have developed 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, I admit, my forefathers helped build on the back of buccaneering and slave trading; then on an irresistible, new wave of nineteenth century imperial zeal, which saw the British Empire become the biggest the world has ever known.
The paradox of these lands to which I voyage is galling: they have immense mineral wealth yet are inexorably mired in steaming squalor and deprivation, while their best brains drain abroad. A few countries in Asia have fled the third world tag but overall economic performance in former lands of empire remains abysmal, lagging those of other regions. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has warned that, at prevailing rates, black Africa would take another 150 years to reach some of the development targets agreed by UN members for 2015.
The Marxist hangovers attached to so many of today’s NGOs and other unelected bodies like the UN – replete with dependency and world systems’ theorists – happily blame the old imperial movers and exploit the crowd backed by readily-available statistics, which they can cherry-pick to blacken the capitalist system they cynically claim is run by an imperialist clique. They associate capitalist strategies with the worst of colonialism and explain away the state of capital flows (including the aid money that often sustains them) as a perpetuation of their beloved theory of economic imperialism. They have an exploded world population as an audience and their statue-felling, culturally-cannibalistic converts are numerous. Once staid NGO’s like Oxfam now regularly tweet their followers with anti-capitalist messages like this one:
Of course, the actual statistics of imperialism don’t help the economic imperialism lobby at all: two of the most outspokenly imperialist nation states of the Second World War, Japan and Italy, were both states poor in capital. Whatever the impulse that drove them to expansion, it couldn’t be the requirement for the export of capital – thus directly challenging the notion 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, while 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 as the numbers just don’t add up. Just as dependency theories are used as shields of excuse for lacklustre economic performance by the corrupt, self-preserving legislators of Third World governments – dangerously implying that countries made independent of empire don’t have the strength to forge successful futures alone.
The successes, the humiliations, the good that its empire brought and the bad that it inflicted – for better or worse, the British Empire had a colossal impact on the history of the world. A blend of factors gave rise to the British Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries based on existing mercantilism, on superior technologies and seafaring advantage, on industrial power and the concept of informal empire. Or, as Sir John Seeley once muted, perhaps the British Empire was acquired in a ‘fit of absent-mindedness’. Without lost private testimony we’ll never really know.
Whatever the reasons, the British Empire was the consequence of an imperial race that many peoples of the world were engaged in (while many were not). It just so happened that my forefathers won that race – a fact of history that seems to hurt many people today as they look at Britain’s comparative wealth, its palatial properties built by slave traders and at the ignominy of so many of their own lands.
The anger they feel short-cut blinds them to the statistics of Empire. Take the statistics of slavery: Compared to the 12.5 Million slaves transported in the Transatlantic slave trade, Free the Slaves estimates that the number of people in slavery today is at least 27 million. While a slave in 1850 in the American South cost the equivalent of approximately $40,000, the cost of a slave nowadays averages around $90, contingent to the labour they are forced to carry out. Too often in their anger, the likes of Black Lives Matter disregard the fact that the owners of most slaves today are black Africans, that free black people have owned slaves in each of the thirteen original states of America and later in every state that countenanced slavery. It must be a double blow for Black Lives Matter activists that, inconveniently, in 1807 it was the British parliament who passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, effective throughout the British Empire, while less enlightened black slave traders carried on their slave-trading unchecked right through to the present day.
Blaming me for the state of the third world is quite wrong and utterly pointless. No reparations are to be had from me or other Brits, French, Germans, Belgians, Italians, Japanese or Americans in 2017 just as I seek no reparations from the descendants of Norman or Roman invaders for the plight that befell my subjugated ancestors.
Too many years and generations have already passed since the days of Empire. For complaining to persist as the default policy of some former colonies is increasingly risible as the years pass by. Especially when China and India are showing other so-called imperial victims the way out of being perennial subjects, Australia and New Zealand have far surpassed all their original British designs, and the old colony of the USA has made something of a recovery from its colonial past. Look at how, despite vicissitudes, Vietnam and Cambodia are now forging ahead.
As we look forward to a more amalgamated planet in which transnational threats can fast reduce History to Palmyra, nation states should cooperate more together, not less. It’s time to swallow pride and put aside hate. Sorry was for the perpetrators not their descendants. As the German grandchildren of Nazis should be forgiven for their forefathers’ wrongs rather than self-flagellating themselves into a state of feebleness and cultural suicide, so the planet should work with us new generations of descendants of imperialists too rather than seeking to somehow depend on us. To put aside the misdirection of economic imperialism, tone down the futile victim and reparations culture, and focus on building a better tomorrow for the whole human race rather than the go-getting few.