The legacy of European colonial empires

What was the legacy of colonialism? In British Malaya, now Malaysia and Singapore, the positive gains were: the English language, now the language of international rela­tions; Western democracy (for what that is worth); respect for law and order in the British way (but needing some serious improvements to deliver justice); and a form of mul­ticulturalism which is potentially more equitable than the traditional forms.

Colonialism, allied to slavery, ‘blackbirding,’ contract transfer of labour from one colony to another, and free immigration entry as needed, contributed to the juxtaposi­tion (and some intermingling of genes) of diverse popula­tions and cultures. This did enhance inter-cultural contacts and relations between the peoples affected. Did the colo­nies of the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Belgian, French and Germans benefit in a similar manner? They were known to be more brutal than the British. Certainly, Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the communist revolution which drove the French out of Indo-China, learned about obtaining independence through revolution during his studies in France.

A cursory scan of some of the better-known empires to see if they offered durable benefits either to the subject peoples or to mankind in general might be of some casual interest. The difficulty inherent in this endeavour is in separating civilisation from empire, the former generally localised but often making a contribution to the future of mankind, the latter often generalised geographically but soon not worthy of remembrance. Civilisations endure. Yet, apart from those of China and India, has there been any substantial long-term continuity of civilisations?

China’s contribution to mankind is the emphasis on good governance, with a passing reference to the Void of the Cosmos. India’s contribution? Metaphysical speculations about the meaning of human existence and its relationship with the Cosmos. The contributions, both artistic and techno­logical, by the empires of old pale into insignificance against the wide range of the contributions of China and India (their current deplorable human rights record notwithstanding).

These are extracts from my book ‘Musings at death’s door: an ancient bicultural Asian-Australian ponders about Australian society’

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