Evil imperialism’s legacy of democracy in former British colonies

Evil imperialism’s legacy of democracy in former British colonies

A British colonial official arrives at Simla, the summer capital of the Raj. (Getty Images)

This week’s election in Israel was just the first of several major votes across the globe in 2019 that highlight a positive legacy of the British Empire. Most notably, India began a national election on Thursday, Australia will hold federal elections next month and Canada will do the same in October. While European colonialism and imperialism scarred large portions of the world’s population, mostly from the 15th to the 20th centuries, these elections mark the bright spot in the legacy of British expansionism. Sometimes a positive comes out of a negative.
As we are reminded this weekend with the 100th anniversary of the atrocity at Amritsar, European imperialism was a scourge on much of the planet, subjugating native peoples and often killing hundreds of thousands through war and disease. Through imperialism, European powers stole natural resources and forcefully altered cultures and proselytized Christianity. Hundreds of millions suffered.
Sometimes it was driven purely by monetary gain — the Dutch East India Company and British East India Company led their countries’ efforts as two of the biggest economic powers of their time. The British East India Company controlled a private army of 260,000 at its peak, all based on creating profit. At other times the motivation for imperialism was a desire to convert more people to Christianity and “civilize” them. And sometimes it was driven by a pursuit of glory. Often all three motivations played a role.
India first felt the force of European power at the turn of the 16th century, when Portugal established colonies on its western coast. The French, Dutch and British would follow, culminating in the British Raj, which was the name of Britain’s direct rule over South Asia that lasted nearly 100 years.
Britain began controlling Australia at the end of the 18th century, establishing penal and free colonies. British, French, German, Belgian and Italian forces colonized large segments of Africa beginning in the 19th century. In the 20th century, several countries tried to exert influence over spheres within China. Non-European countries also became imperialist, expanding their reach far from their own borders, with the Ottoman and Japanese empires being the most successful.

Sometimes a positive comes out of a negative.

Ellen R. Wald

European control over sections of the Middle East came later, mostly after the First World War and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire (an exception being Kuwait, which requested protectorate status from the British in 1899).
By the start of the First World War, Britain was unquestionably the largest empire. It is said that the British flag flew over almost a quarter of the Earth and a similar proportion of the world’s population lived under British rule. Britain had long since lost control of the US, and Australia became independent in 1901, but most of the Empire remained intact. That changed through the 20th century, as slowly Canada, India, and countries in Africa and the Caribbean obtained their independence from the British crown. Yet they all maintained certain characteristics and legacies that they gained from Britain.
The UK and most of the former British colonies, a total of 53 countries, are now members of the Commonwealth of Nations. The Commonwealth Secretariat “believes that the best democracies are achieved through partnerships — of governments, business, and civil society.” The Commonwealth nations are bound by a shared history, language and commitment to democracy. The type of democracy generally used by these governments is a parliamentary system like the one used in London.
Australia became independent 118 years ago, Canada was granted control of its own government in 1931 and India won “home rule” in 1947. Each time, the people decided to form their new government in the image of the British democracy. Commonwealth countries also recognize the British Queen Elizabeth II as the head of the Commonwealth, though she has no powers.
The British Empire brought war and exploitation to every colony. It is said that the aboriginal population of Australia declined in numbers for a century and a half after the British arrived. In Canada, the native tribes, or First Nations, suffered a population decrease of up to 80 percent after the arrival of the French and British. In India, the Europeans took over the spice trade and exploited every other resource they could. Mahatma Gandhi famously led protests when some Indian farmers were forced to grow non-food crops.
However, the British also left behind ideas of freedom, representative government and opportunity. The Commonwealth countries and others with a long history of British imperialism have had remarkable success in instituting and maintaining their own governments that guarantee citizens the chance to determine their own futures. Political rights and economic success have followed almost everywhere that the British flag flew for a significant duration. Imperialism is evil, but the descendants of the British Empire’s victims are free. The coming elections in many of these countries reflect that legacy.

  • Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy
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