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Saturday, December 29, 2012

In Praise Of Colonialism

The City Museum in Amsterdam has just opened a new exhibit called ‘The Golden Age’, celebrating the Dutch colonial era of the late 16th and early 17th Century.  In an article in The Guardian (12.28.12) Martin Kettle reflects on this history and considers that of Great Britain:
In a few short years at the end of the 16th and the start of the 17th century, the Dutch republic made itself the hub of the world. State of the art shipping, weapons and science enabled them to capture and dominate the lucrative spice trade with the East Indies. Back in the Netherlands, the wealth and freedom fuelled by this trade brought a glittering age of writing, painting and technological invention. Their freedom of press and religion was a magnet to the rest of Europe. Its primary monument remains Amsterdam itself, so it is easy to feel the connection to this day.
In his modern classic, Vermeer's Hat, Timothy Brook says simply that 17th-century Netherlands raised the curtain on the global world – which is our world. The Dutch bought and sold wherever they could find anything to trade. They wrote the fundamentals of international law to suit their needs. They mapped the globe and the heavens. Their way of life became multicultural. When Vermeer painted a geographer in 1669, he dressed him in a Japanese kimono and gave him a globe depicting the Indian Ocean.
The Dutch opened the world to goods and ideas; and while they certainly took much in return, they are right to celebrate the enlightenment that their trade and investments made possible:
The Amsterdam exhibition tracks all these aspects of globalization's first wave. The Dutch established colonies in modern-day Brazil, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Java – and on Manhattan, too. Theirs was a connected world. In a 1656 picture of the center of Amsterdam, Ottoman merchants are shown negotiating a deal just round the corner from where the picture itself now hangs. A Dutch translation of the Qur'an was printed there in 1696.
 Image result for images 17th century dutch in new world

The Dutch – like all other European nations of the time – participated in practices that today would be considered wrong and distinctly unenlightened. 
But this was a time of slavery and war too. Slavery was illegal in the Netherlands, but Dutch ships carried and sold slaves in Africa and Surinam, and Dutch fortunes waxed rich from the profits of the trade. The Dutch were renowned in China for their violence, and their arms industry – still the sixth-largest in the world today – was formidable. By modern standards, Dutch justice was anything but enlightened. Two ghoulish Rembrandt drawings of the public strangulation of a female murderer depict one of the many dark sides of the golden age.
There are many ‘progressive’ historians and political scientists who continue to blame colonization for a host of the world’s ills.  The Spanish brought diseases to the New World which decimated indigenous Indian tribes.  They raped and plundered the Americas in their search for silver and gold to finance their European wars.  The British exploited their Empire for its wealth and subjugated local populations to maintain control over restive populations.  The consignment of colonized populations to an inferior and powerless status enabled corrupt and brutal dictatorships to emerge from the European period, and Cold War political alliances and competition thwarted nationalist movements in Southeast Asia and Africa.

Yet most colonization brought benefits to the world.  India’s development into a modern democracy was at least partly due to the infrastructure, administration, and bureaucracy built and established by the British.  The French brought European ideas, values, art and culture to Africa.  Centuries before, the Romans brought sophisticated concepts of governance, administration, laws, literature and discourse to the lands of their Empire.  The early Persians spread a culture of science, writing, literature, mathematics and architecture throughout the known world.  The Arabs under Mohammed spread monotheism and, like Persia and Rome, ideas, science, and culture.

Image result for images medieval islamic science

If one were to create a balance sheet with colonial pluses and minuses, the advantages would far outweigh the disadvantages.  The value of this early colonial globalization cannot be underestimated for it opened the doors to areas of the world which had been closed and isolated.

Perhaps more importantly, colonialism – or expansionism – is as human an enterprise as any.  From the earliest glimmers of human society, men were driven to protect and expand their perimeters.  The more land and natural resources one controlled, the greater chance for survival.  As societies developed and became more complex and powerful, this expansion took on a whole new dimension and kingdoms and empires emerged.

Those who argue that the Spanish were only after New World riches to fund unnecessary wars at home; and that colonialism’s benefits were only marginal and peripheral to the real, venal reasons for outward expansion, are misguided.  All civilizations act in the same, predictable way.  No sooner did the Puritans and the Cavaliers establish colonies in America did they look to expand their territories.  Within the short space of 250 years, we had driven from east to west, north to south, letting little stand in our way.

The author wonders why the British have not celebrated their colonial history as the Dutch have:
Eventually, however, Britain became richer and more powerful, while the Netherlands dwindled in influence. London became the global city that Amsterdam had once been. The British empire was larger and lasted longer. The English language created a network of soft power that nowadays extends even into every corner of Anglophone Amsterdam itself.
Perhaps the explanation is only that Dutch prowess began to dwindle so long ago compared with Britain's more recent decline. Certainly, modern-day Netherlands is extremely conscious that it is now a small country, dependent on European alliances in a way that is manifestly not mirrored in increasingly Eurosceptic Britain. Perhaps a small country feels permitted to dwell on a distant golden age in a way that a bigger one does not.
In this modern world that ‘celebrates diversity’ but at the same time fears it, praising a colonial past might seem inappropriate or untoward.  Britain is reluctant to talk of the Indian Raj when so many South Asians reside in the UK.  The Musée du Quai Branly in Paris celebrates the indigenous cultures of former French colonies, not the ‘mission civilatrice’ of French colonialism.  America treads lightly over its period of Manifest Destiny and the opening of the West.  Despite the fact that The Louisiana Purchase was one of the most important events of the early American period, it is not touted as the seminal historical event that it was. 
Image result for images of louisiana purchase

We live in an age of ‘victims’ who are always on the right side of moral opinion.  Whether the predators are colonialists or multi-national corporations, their achievements in spreading or creating wealth, disseminating new ideas and technology, their contributions to culture and society are overlooked or underestimated compared to the havoc they are said to have wrought on innocent victims.

History is and always has been an ebb and flow of power.  Since time immemorial human societies have aggregated wealth and sought to expand territory, power, and influence.  In most cases this expansion has brought enlightenment.  In others, such as the violent depredations of the Mongols who spread more mayhem than civilization, there was very little.  There is no guarantee that satisfying the imperatives of human nature will always turn out well, but there is no stopping the fundamental, hard-wired, human desire for wealth, conquest, and power.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. It shows how rich could a literature be in terms of translation.Through translating shows the rich blend of knowledge and culture in a society.Whether in Dutch translation or in any foreign language translation helps one to get acquainted with the thoughts, traditions, principles and actions of the people from the region.. Especially in the ever faster moving world of globalized business, successful information and technology transfer within multinational businesses can make the difference between win or lose.


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