The Lost Legacy of European Colonialism

October 27, 2017

 Punjab. Kurukshetra. A refugee camp for 300.000 people. Autumn 1947. Henri Cartier-Bresson.


Nothing is a coincidence. The butterfly effect is real, even if it is felt miles away and centuries later. The world we live in is a living, breathing, struggling proof of this. The Sykes-Picot agreement has triggered lasting effects in the MENA region- the most recent Kurdish referendum spurred out of the region’s most prominent source of conflict- the borders, drawn by colonial powers, that barely took into account the pre-existing order of the region. The rushed partition and independence processes of 1947 between India and Pakistan have resulted in one of the longest standing territorial conflicts the world has known- Kashmir. Almost every region that was colonized by western (mostly European) powers has seen, or is amid some form of conflict- whether it is military, political or cultural. We’re witnessing unparalleled migration and immigration patterns along with a seemingly unresolvable refugee crises. But much of what we see today can be traced back to the colonizing and decolonizing processes of the late 20th century.



Most of what we know about developing countries is based on the post-colonial period of history. This can be better understood through the lens of the dependency theory, that clearly suggests that Third World nations (i.e., countries with colonial pasts) make up the periphery of the global economy[1]. As resources flowed from the periphery to the “core” of wealthy nations, the latter developed much faster than the former. Thus, it is no secret that London and Paris are cities built on the resources derived from British and French colonies, respectively. This left the third world countries with little wealth to build on. Dadabhai Naoroji, an Indian politician and advocate for independence under the British Raj, initiated a similar theory of “Drain of wealth”- the systematic flow of wealth and resources from India to England, under which India did not get any adequate returns, leading to widespread impoverishment. One of the primary examples of the effects of this was the Bengal Famine. Furthermore, the Trade system imposed upon the colonies led to the disintegration of the local textile and agricultural industries- the British imposed an unequal tariff policy, exporting raw materials from colonies at low costs, producing manufactured goods in England and selling them back in the colonies at high prices. Local farmers for many agricultural crops such as Indigo and cotton were exploited due to this system[2].


Another major effect of colonialism on third world countries is much more inceptive. When the process of decolonization began in the 20th Century, specifically in the MENA region and African sub-continent, colonialists did not consider the already existing geographical, and cultural barriers. The infamous Sykes Picot agreement of 1916 was dominated by the interests of the two largest imperial powers of the time, the French and the British, dividing region that was under the Ottoman Empire into ‘spheres of influence’ that would fall under either of the two powers. The agreement was a well-kept secret from the Arabs- borders were drawn, leaderships established, all without any regard for cultural, religious and ethnic distinctions in the region. We have witnessed the repercussions of this agreement- Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, leader of the militant group ISIL, states that one of the main goals of the group is to rectify the borders put forth by the agreement to establish the Caliphate. By questioning the political legitimacy of the states created as a result of the agreement, it has shown the extent of the resentment certain groups have developed (although these groups may not always be an apt representation of the people they claim to stand for, ISIL being a prominent example) as a result of Western domination in the region[3]. Certain groups, such as the Kurds, were concentrated in a region but are now spread over multiple countries. Today, the Kurds comprise the largest ethnic group without a state. In September 2017, they voted for an independent Kurdistan- surely, this will add to the turmoil that already exists in the region[4].


When viewed through the lens of postcolonialism, new challenges are brought up in the realm of international development. Whether countries in the third world are still developing or underdeveloped, if they were colonized, then poverty was actively created through plunder, loot and slavery. When European colonialists arrived in Latin America in 1492, the region was inhabited with over 50 million indigenous persons- but because of slavery, starvation and diseases, the population was brought down to 3.5 million by the mid 1600s. 29 million Indians died under the British Raj due to British interventionist policies. When the East India company arrived in India, the subcontinent contributed to 27% of the world’s GDP. It was brought down to 3% by 1947- not only because of the explosion of the GDP of European countries, but also because of the systematic exploitation of the region’s resources.[5]. And yet, when we speak of development, we tend to focus on the charity of the west towards the third world, rather than acknowledging the massive negative impact colonization has had on these countries. To what do we attribute the poverty, the conflict and challenges that these countries are facing?


During the late 20th century, western attitudes towards Human Rights were often hypocritical. Championed by many western leaders, it was better understood as Citizen Rights.  Churchill, supposedly one of the ideological fathers of Human Rights, had little regard for the 4.3 million people who died in the Bengal Famine of 1943- when Lord Wavell, Viceroy of British India telegrammed Churchill, telling him about the millions who were dying in India and requesting that extra food supplies be sent to relieve the grievances of the people, Churchill replied asking Wavell ‘why Gandhi hadn’t died yet!’. He declared that it was the Indians’ fault for “breeding like rabbits”- and that the famine, the ‘plague’, was “merrily” culling the population. “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” While many attribute the freedom of colonies to the rising importance of Human Rights, few take note of the fact that human rights were “given” to colonies. This debate has re-surfaced today with the refugee crises, and asks us to re-evaluate the inception of Human rights[6].


The psychological and cultural effects these attitudes have had on the psyche of the colonized must not be underestimated. There are still those who believe that the colonies owe their colonizers and not vice-versa. Marine Le Pen claimed that French colonialism had positive impacts[7] as do 44% of the British citizens who participated in a poll carried out by the research firm YouGov, who viewed the British Empire as something to be proud of[8]. These attitudes deny the long, arduous years of conflict and struggle the subjects of colonialism witnessed. Furthermore, while the French Educational Curriculum discusses the effects of French colonialism, the British education system does not.


Nothing is a coincidence. We have felt the effects of colonialism till date. And while guilt cannot be inherited and it would be unfair to blame all the shortcomings of the developing countries on the West, it is just as unjust to avoid discourse about it at all- particularly around topics such as the development of the third world countries. One may claim that neocolonialism still contributes to this inequality- current powers “exploit” the former colonies through ‘soft’ economic, political and cultural tools. In doing so, they contribute to the third world countries’ underdevelopment.

 In an ideal world, developed and developing countries co-operate and work together for mutual gain- but there is no possibility of overcoming the problem of inequality unless the causes of it are properly addressed.



   Henri Cartier-Bresson Nehru Announces Gandhi’s Death, Birla House, Delhi (30 Jan 1948)
























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