Monday, July 18, 2011

Ignorance - Is It A Defence For Colonialism?

I'll start this by setting my stall out; I'm fundamentally against the principles of colonialism. To me, in this day and age, in just seems wrong.

I've also witnessed, mostly in the last few years it seems, an increasing degree of animosity and antagonism towards the British and their colonisation of Sri Lanka from 1802 to 1948. Truly, I question the motivation behind some of this animosity.

My questioning comes from the fact that I just don't hear much said against the Dutch and the Portugese, both of whom, as I'm sure you're aware, also colonised Sri Lanka. The Portugeezers were there for around one hundred and fifty years, the Dutch then for about one hundred and forty years followed by us Brits for about one hundred and fifty years.

It remains to be seen how long the Chinese will be in occupation for, but it's fair to say that in previous times each occupier was there for about the same time. But these days it's the Brits who get all the flak. Call me naive, which you probably will, but I don't hear much anti Dutch talk or sentiments about the harm that the Portugese did, yet from all I can find out they raped the land, the people and the resources as much as anyone. Though of course the Dutch left lamprais and the Portugese left the baila.

Of course there is one thing that has hit me; the fact that these days the Dutch and the Portugese aren't that vociferous on their calls for investigations and inquiries into things that may or may not have happened in Sri Lanka. The Dutch are usually too stoned and the Portugese may be just too worried about their own place going bankrupt to be at all bothered about little old Sri Lanka.

A cynic might conclude that much of the anti British colonialism thing is actually a way of attacking the credibility of the British, rather than a real problem with the effects of colonialism.

The thing about colonising other countries is that it's a thing of the past, isn't it? Those days, from the fifteenth to the twentieth century, it was all the rage in Europe. It was the means by which many nations built prosperity, power and profit. It wasn't right, it was exploitation, but we know that now, which is why it's not up there along with surfing the net and getting my phone hacked by News International as one of the hobbies of most European leaders.

I compare it with smoking. Slightly.

You know when we see all those old adverts about smoking, the ones where a company says that most Doctors recommend Marlboro as the best fag to smoke, or where they extol the benefits of smoking Benson and Hedges. Well, in the cases where we've later found out that the tobacco companies actually knew about the evils and perils of smoking but ignored them or chose to lie, then that's downright despicable behaviour clearly.

But, in the cases where we just hadn't discovered the dangers, when people really thought smoking was good for you, then we don't actually get angry with those responsible do we? Sure, we would get angry with people if they tried to do the same now, with the knowledge we have.

And that's what I wonder about. Colonialism was the done thing. It's not now.

A wise friend told me something that has stuck; that every colony, once granted independence, goes back in its development to some point between when it was first colonised and the point at which independence happened, then continues to develop from there. It's a bit like a post divorce marriage. I reckon a country takes some years to get its bearings, to figure out where it wants to start from, and I think that's what Sri Lanka is doing at the moment, whilst dealing with all the other things going on as well.

It's no mean feat is it? Colonialism, for Sri Lanka, wasn't all bad. There were some positives as well as lots of negatives. It's going to take time to figure out the negatives, let alone get rid of them.

So shouldn't we, Sri Lankans, in which I include myself, be more angry, concerned and worried about China's behaviour which is actually happening today and now, than towards what the British did over a hundred years ago when I'm not sure that they knew any better?

I don't know the answer, just thinking aloud really. What do you think?


GG said...

First to lay out what we know,.. although the Portugese and Dutch ruled old Ceylon for a long time, they only had control over a limited geographical area, whereas the Brits had full control, where they exercised their ability to impose laws and their way of life to influence the governance, societal structure and cultural aspects to achieve their commercial objectives. In contrast the Portugese and Dutch could not influence the central governance to make a society-wide impact.

Yes the Brits left some positives behind, but overall my opinion is that the societal impact they imposed on top of what was already present, left a 'confused' bunch of people in the wake of 'independence', and we are still struggling to figure out what's best for this country and society.

But we should also stop cultivating animosity towards the past and just move on!

Magerata said...

colonialism? One of your Princely couples visited your former colony and was received well, at least in Hollywood :)
I think Sri Lankans think, assumes, that British still considering SL as a colony (some of UK politicos act that way too) and get worked up and enhance the history books. But it is not wrong to say British fucked up countries like India, Sri Lanka. History is very interesting subject. We all should know a bit or more of it so that we can recognize it when the repetition comes.
As far as the Chinese go, take it but you can't leave it. The notebook I am typing this was made it China and most likely, also the computer you will be reading this on. They have creped up slowly without anyone noticing it and they are all over us.
Chinese might be looking to colonize SL but I doubt they can rape it like Brits, Dutch or Portuguese did, or may be they can. My thinking is that Chinese have the similar intentions, desires that British have on, say like Iraq and Libya, to liberate the people and make their lives better.

Jack Point said...

I have been thinking about the impact of colonisation. I need to do some reading on this but was it as bad as claimed?

The story that is told is that the rapacious colonials exploited all the wealth for their own benefit.

They came here to trade. looking for the source of the spice trade to cut out the Arab middlemen, who were taking the fattest part of the profits. They set up trading posts to buy produce (which other traders were doing anyway) but may also have set done a certain amount of cultivation.

They then got involved in local feuds and had military and administrative control but did they actually steal produce or compulsorily buy at artificially low prices? If they did not they were simply replacing one set of traders with another and what accrued to them was the normal profits of any trader/planter.

Looking at the same issue from a different angle, at independence in 1948 the principal produce was tea, rubber and coconut. Coconut was mainly in local hands tea and rubber were controlled by the rapacious colonials. Things had not changed much by the 1960's and 1970's when all the tea and rubber was nationalised. Yet we did not grow rich. Why? Was there really as much rapacious plunder as they claimed or was it simply the normal profit that any entrepreneur could earn? Under state control the industry went into steep decline.

DDadman said...

More than the Dutch or the Portuguese, the British raped our 2500 year old culture and virtually destroyed the ancient kingdoms of Pollonaruwa and Anuradhapura. We were a flourishing agriculture economy, they destroyed that.
The Chinese beyond instilling a strong work ethic in our people will educate us on how they have overtaken the Japanese and are now the second biggest economy in the world.
As in any country the Chinese were always in SL. Colombo's red light trade in still 99% Chinese.
With the Dutch, Portuguese and British, it was more acts of war and Sri Lanka was plundered for spoils.
I seriously don't really see anything for China to plunder from us, eh?
SL's politics always leant towards socialism. The JVP's success and past SL communist leaders reflect this in our recent history.
If China want to help us while helping themselves, why not?
The British recently signed over £2 Billion of trade with them!!! No question of human rights their eh?
Oh and Germany's quick turnaround from the recession was that they successfully marketed their industries, mainly car, to the Chinese. Over 50% of Porsche's sales now come from the Orient.
We learnt English from the English, so why not spread our wings and learn Chinese from the Chinese. :)~

DD said...

Either way someone's going to knock SL over the head with a stick. The west is keen on caning us. Which really they have been all along. If we adopt their economic policies alike Singapore, why not? Like the blue eyed SL amongst us, why not in the future have some slant eyed SL too, eh?
Singapore has no diplomatic ties with UK due to human rights violations. Did you know that about nine people a year in Singapore are convicted and die by hanging.
Look where there are today.

dramaqueen said...

I don't like the Chinese. They eat dogs.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

DQ - to be fair, dogs eat Chinese too. I know, I saw a dog eating some noodles only the other day.

rajivmw said...

Hi RD,

Colonialism leaves a complex legacy. Some people say we should be grateful to the British for bringing us tea and rubber and missionary schools and such like. Maybe so, but we had no say in these matters.

It's as if your parents forced you to become a book-keeper when what you really wanted to do was be a drummer. 60 years later, would you be grateful to them for a relatively stable but soul-destroying career? Or would you be haunted by thoughts of what could have been?

As for China, I don't know of many people here who seriously think they are living under Chinese occupation. If building a port counts as colonialism these days, then we're in much the same predicament as, say, San Francisco. After all, the Chinese are helping build their new Bay Bridge. (Crazy hyperbole is a fun game that everyone can play!)

Anyway, I don't think the current animus that many Sri Lankans feel towards Britain has much to do with colonialism. It has more to do with the perception that Britain barely lifted a finger to help during our 30 years of war, and let the LTTE operate freely on its territory. It has more to do with the fact that Britain helped cause chaos and bloodshed on a mind-boggling scale in Iraq and Afghanistan, all in the name of fighting terror, and now actually reckons it has the moral authority to interfere in Sri Lankan affairs.

That's happening today and now, when they should know better. Not a century ago.

DD said...

French eat frogs.
and snails.
Men eat pussy.
Some rugby team ate themselves.
nuff said.

DDadman said...

You write so well! It was not top of mind. Now it is! If you were close by, a big hug and bite would have been completely in order.

RD sorry for publicly masturbating on your post BTW.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Rajiv - It's funny that you use the analogy about my parents as it's very similar to my reality. The answer is that I feel there are positives and negatives to the paths that my parents pushed me into. You've heard me play the drums, so perhaps you're more wise than others!

You talk about the perception that Britain barely lifted a finger during the conflict and I'm both concerned and worried by the opinion, which I hear from many people in Sri Lanka, as well as the perception that there is one "Britain" that behaved like this.

I think that the comments here show the degree of differing opinion on the question I asked, but surely you can see why some people (like me!) talk about the "poor little Sri Lanka" mindset, when you read commments like DD's!

Thank you all for the input.

Jack Point said...


Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were long gone by the time the colonials arrived. Those civilisations were destroyed by Malaria. Invaders from India may have played a role as well.

It was the Kotte and Kandyan Kingdoms that were around when the Portuguese landed. I think there was one in Jaffna as well.

David Blacker said...

I think the main reason that Britain is mostly focused on when it comes to SL and colonialism is partly because it was the most recent coloniser, and left within living memory. Both my parents, for instance, were born as British subjects. Portuguese and Dutch occupation was centuries ago in comparison.

The other reason is that Britain was the only coloniser who completely usurped all local power. The Portuguese and Dutch never managed to conquer the entire island, and so local power and culture remained wholly intact if removed from certain areas. Britain was able to change the country's culture and path in a way that the previous two never could in spite of their bringing of Christianity, baila, and lampreis.

I disagree with DD's claim that the Brits destroyed Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa; those cities had been long abandoned to the jungle before the Brits arrived, and it was actually during the Brit period that they were rediscovered by European explorers. Also, I've no idea why he thinks the Brits destroyed the agricultural livelihood. It must also not be forgotten that Buddhism received its SL transformation also during the Brit period, albeit via a Yank.

I also think that the arrival of the industrial era and a larger world awareness in the 20th century, made the Ceylonese and later Sri Lankans really notice just what the Brits had taken away from them; whereas life for the common man under the Portuguese and Dutch probably went on unchanged.

Totally agree with you about a nation's natural progress going into a sort of coma under colonisation. It's the reason why SL isn't as socially developed as it should be in relation to the west as it should be in the 21st century.

DD said...

“poor little Dhammika mind-set” I would have smiled and accepted for it was my choice to engage in a public forum through comment. “poor little Sri Lankan mind set” I strongly object to and take great offence. So will many other Sri Lankans, especially the Diasporas.

DD said...

“poor little Dhammika mind-set” I would have smiled and accepted for it was my choice to engage in a public forum through comment. “poor little Sri Lankan mind set” I strongly object to and take great offence. So will many other Sri Lankans, especially the Diasporas.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

DD - seriously mate what on Earth are you going on about??

You say "either way someone's going to knock SL over the head with a stick" and yes, I criticise your "poor little Sri Lanka words and mind set.

It would have made no sense whatsoever if I'd criticised your "poor little Dhammika mind set" as you never said anything to make me think that. For what it's worth I do think there are some who talk about Sri Lanka as if it's being picked on undeservedly by the west and it's a view that I don't share. Taking great offence because I didn't slag you off personally is frankly just weird in my eyes. Your choice though.

Dhammika Dharmawardhane said...

"I think that the comments here show the degree of differing opinion on the question I asked, but surely you can see why some people (like me!) talk about the "poor little Sri Lanka" mindset, when you read commments like DD's!"

RD I just don't like anyone insulting SL, which to me with my limited English was what I inferred from the line above. You are very welcome to heap as many as adjectives you like in front of my name, but please don't generalise or suddenly become pundit of Sri Lanka, and blame Sri Lankans as a whole for having poor little mindsets.

Dude that is my motherland and many of us are bloody proud to have been born and bred in Sri Lanka.

So the poor little Sri Lanka mindset from anybody must definitely go. Especially from anybody who finally has Sri Lanka truly in their heart.

After all when the visa requirements are announced in December it is never going to limit many Diaspora visits to SL is it?

But maybe it will limit Diaspora who think in the 'poor little SL mindset' and find acts of war acceptable.

Brave post RD. Brave and grave.

David Blacker said...

Er... I don't think pointing out that many Sri Lankans have a "poor little Sri Lanka" mentality on the call for investigations is an insult to SL, Dhammika, anymore than pointing out that a skinhead has a "white is right" mentality is an insult to Britain.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

DD - First of all, it's not my intention to insult you or Sri Lanka. Secondly though, as DB points out, I'm not insulting Sri Lankans.

I'm criticising, negatively I admit, the specific opinion of those who believe Sri Lanka is being picked on by the West.

I wasn't born in Sri Lanka, I wasn't bred there, but I'm hugely proud of my blood and my heritage.

The whole George W "if you're not with us you're against us" thing looks to have affected you. There is a big difference between disagreeing with an opinion or a view and not being proud of one's motherland.