“The history of mankind shows that from the beginning of the world, the rich of all countries have been in a permanent state of conspiracy to keep down the poor of all countries, and for this plain reason – because the poverty of the poor man is essential to the riches of the rich man. No matter by what means they may disguise their operations, the rich are everlastingly plundering, debasing and brutalising the poor. All the crimes and superstitions of human nature have their origin in this cannibal warfare of riches against poverty. The desire of one man to live on the fruits of another’s labour is the original sin of the world. It is this which fills the world with fiction and hypocrisy and has made all past history to be what Gibbon so justly described ‘a record of the crimes, absurdities and calamities of mankind’. It is the parent injustice from which all injustice springs.” Bronterre O’Brien, the British Chartist Movement, 1835. 1
The history of mankind shows us that throughout the world, many different nations and empires have come and gone over time, having been both usurped and been usurpers of others peoples, kingdoms, empires and nations. Before briefly exploring the legacy of the European and Judeo-Christian civilisation and the Imperialism of colonising countries of Western Europe leading right up to today and how new empires have consolidated their domination in the modern age, since this analysis chiefly configures the colonialism process in Africa, it is best to first be mindful of the fact that African enslavement predated by a millennium the European encounter. As S.I. Martin outlines in his book “The British Slave Trade”, quoting Dr Akosu Perbi, a lecturer at the University of Ghana: “In the 4th century AD, Ghana became part of what we know as the trans-Saharan network of trade, which covered the whole of West Africa. There’s also evidence that Ghana was receiving slaves along the trans-Saharan route into the country, as well as some evidence that from about the 1st century to the 15th, Ghana was trading with its African neighbours, from Senegal right down to Nigeria.”2
In the words of B F Bankie:
“Internationally, it is generally accepted that there exists within the African continent two nations – the Arab Nation and the African Nation. Certainly, the Arabs as a people, be they in the Middle-East or within continental Africa, distinguish themselves from the blacks who are, in general, found south of the Sahara. That was why they created their Arab League in the 1940s, to bring the Arab Nation together within one structure. War in the Afro-Arab Borderlands, stretching from Mauritania on the Atlantic Coast, through Mali, Niger and Tchad to Sudan on the Red Sea, has been going on since time immemorial. Cheik Anta Diop, the Senegalese nuclear physicist and Egyptologist, established in western scholarship that Egypt was originally populated by Africans. Africans originally populated present day Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco. The Arabs came to Sudan through the Nile Valley after conquering Egypt, passing through the desert from Libya and Maghreb.” 3
Africans were, and continue to be, pushed southward in the Borderlands. In Sudan, the battleground today is Darfur, where an Arab militia known as the Janjaweed hailing from Libya and northern Tchad, have been armed by the government of Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan, to push the African farmers off their lands. Only 39% of Sudanese regard themselves as Arabs. Yet, regarding the current conflict in Sudan, there is suspicion of western commentators expose’ of Arab or Muslim oppression in Africa whilst obscuring the west’s own current and historical involvement in the looting Africa of its resources, both human and material.
The colonial period:
Following the path of the original explorer Colombus from as early as the mid 16th century onwards, imperial powers colonised areas both through use of both naked force and the cooperation of tribal warlords and kings, whom they traded with. The colonial powers’ primary motivation was always the appropriation of minerals and commodities from the new colonies. Gold and silver were exploited from the colonies of Latin America from the 16th century onwards. Trade in gold from the Gold Coast of Ghana started with the Portuguese who arrived there in 1471, and who soon took part in the trading of slaves from Senegal and Nigeria for gold.4
Power vested in the monarch of the ruling imperial powers established new hierarchical systems/structures of governance, either through usurping power over or sometimes even completely replacing previous principalities and kingdoms. For instance, the British Empire was simply an extension abroad of the exploitation of the British people by royalty and the privileged few which had been going on in England systematically since the time of William the Conqueror.
The colonial phase of imperialism involved the utilisation of Royal Charters of monopoly which gave license to mercantile capitalists to appropriate commodities from the colonies abroad, a process which originally commenced the establishment of particular imperial outposts throughout the New World in the original colonial expeditions of the imperial powers, beginning with the English East India Company in 1600; the Royal Afrikan Company monopoly ended in 1698, when transatlantic traffic became ‘opened up’ to ‘private traders’. The East India Trading Company became officially annexed from the Crown in 1859. Imperial protection of colonial trade routes transformed into outright colonial occupation of more and more territory of the New World, most notably amongst the islands of the Caribbean, such as Jamaica which was captured by Britain in 1656 under the rule of Oliver Cromwell. In Africa, Bence Island, in an estuary of the River Sierra Leone, had been occupied by the British since the 1670s, when it had come under the ownership of the Royal Africa Company. 5
Walter Rodney from his book “HOW EUROPE UNDERDEVELOPED AFRICA”: “When Europeans reached the Americas, they recognised its enormous potential in gold and silver and tropical produce. But that potential could not be made a reality without adequate labour supplies. The indigenous Indian population could not withstand new European diseases such as smallpox, nor could they bear the organised toil of slave plantations and slave mines, having barely emerged from the hunting stage. …At the same time, Europe itself had a very small population and could not afford to release the labour required to tap the wealth of the Americas. Therefore, they turned to the nearest continent, Africa, which incidentally had a population accustomed to settled agriculture and disciplined labour in many spheres. Those were the objective conditions lying behind the start of the European slave trade, and those are the reasons why the capitalist class in Europe used their control of international trade to insure that Africa specialised in exporting captives.” 6
The triangular slave trade really took off by the 18th century (in the UK, by the 1780s, enslavement reached it’s peak as one slave ship was estimated to have left Britain every other day). On the Gold Coast, the transition from activities such as mining becoming the main economic activity was rapid within a period of a few years between 1700 and 1710 (7(Rodney)), a trade which spread to many other parts of the African continent, including West and Central Africa, such as eastern Nigeria, the Congo, northern Angola, Dahomey and Senegal. The transition from activities such as mining to procuring slaves provided the platform for Africa’s long-term underdevelopment as violent upheaval and kidnapping became the mainstay of new economic activity (causing major social upheavals across the continent) whilst labour supply for agriculture and other economic activities was reduced.
The triangular slave trade involved the shipping of slaves from Africa to the Caribbean and America to work on the cash-crop plantation systems there (only a proportion of slaves transported across the ocean ever survived the journey), the transport of commodities such as sugar, cocoa and tobacco from the Caribbean and America back to Britain, and the return of the ships to Africa with precious metals and other gifts such as chocolate for tribal warlords in exchange for more slaves. It is estimated that between the middle of the 16th century and the abolition of the slave trade in 1808, upwards of 10 million Africans were traded to ships slaving to the New World. 8
The use of human slave labour in plantation agriculture was abolished in the early 19th century after the campaigning crusade of campaigners spearheaded by William Wilberforce, but which in any case was a system whose abject horror was also one which in purely capitalist terms had been overtaken by the simple principle of cheap labour exploitation as opposed to the continued running cost of maintaining the slave gang. The abrupt end of the trade was actually damaging to the economies of African societies at the time, who had substantially geared their productive base to supplying the trade. Alternatives to the trade were rapidly sought after. Rodney: “As soon as inhabitants of any region found that they had a product which Europeans were accepting in place of the former slave trade, those inhabitants put tremendous effort into organising the alternatives: namely ivory, rubber, palm products, groundnuts.”9 Desire for acceptance was driven by desire to continue overseas trade in order to continue receiving European goods. The trade in ivory – a product not demanded to any extent within African society – thrived in several East African societies in particular. Rodney argues how dependence on overseas markets for trade in ivory became pronounced since ivory was a product derived through elephant hunting which rapidly exhausted in any given region on a large-scale, leading to a continuous struggle to secure new supplies. Rodney argued that with the rise in the volume of trade, “there was a decrease in the capacity to achieve economic independence and self-sustaining social progress” because the ivory trade required any African society which took this export trade seriously to “restructure it’s economy to make the ivory trade successful”10
As Rodney also says, the British, having resolved to end slave-trading, gained imperial advantage in using this outward stance to “justify deposing rulers on the grounds that they were slave traders, such as Arab rulers still engaged in slave trading”. The British, meanwhile, were also crushing political leaders in place such as Nigeria, like Jaja and Nana “who had by then ceased the export of slaves and were concentrating instead on products like palm oil and rubber”11
European monopoly firms, and later, North American and Japanese capitalists, inextricably working in tandem with the naval and financial support of their respective nation states, “forced by the internal logic of their competitive system”12 competed against eachother to secure control over the supply of raw materials crucially important for their continued economic growth and market development, as well as gaining greater access to foreign markets and profitable fields of investment. In terms of the latter, as the scope for expansion became limited inside their national economies, “attention turned to less-developed economies where it was anticipated there would be minor opposition to the penetration of foreign capitalism”,13 where centuries of concerted underdevelopment owing to the slave trade and initial unequal trading patterns with imperial nations had prepared the ground for this market penetration and the next stage in the growth of world capitalism. For instance, 4 centuries of unequal trade with Africa, principally the slave trade, established Africa’s state of underdevelopment.14
Each of the European powers embarked upon direct political control or colonisation whereby each of the different European powers targeted their own well-established spheres of influence on the continent, which they’dd developed by virtue of centuries of trade. These monopoly firms fought against eachother to be the first to invest in new profitable ventures inside or outside their countries. The need for raw-materials by the European capitalist powers intensified as Europe’s economic capacity expanded. The new movement towards direct occupation, ratified at the Berlin Conference 1885, started as soon as one European power declared an area a protectorate, raising tariffs against competing European powers, and so, generating a competitive battle between the imperial powers for territory.
The colonial state was simply an extension of the imperialist empire, responsible for the administration and exploitation of the colonies. Walter Rodney on the Congo: “In the five years preceding independence, the net outflow of capital from Congo to Belgium reached massive proportions. Most of the expatriation of surplus was handled by a major European finance monopoly, the Societe Generale. The Societe Generale had as its most important subsidiary the Union Miniere de Haute-Katanga, which has monopolised Congolese copper production since 1889 (when it was known as the Compagnie de Katanga). Union Miniere was known to have made a profit of £27 million in a single year”.15
Imperial nation’s economic growth through colonial expansion, specifically their colonial expropriation, which in tandem over time caused Africa’s long-term underdevelopment, came about due to one main trend – namely unequal exchange, which continues to a smaller extent to this day. Unequal exchange is the difference between the massively deflated low price of African primary exports and the much higher price of imported manufactured goods from the Imperial nations, whereby the buying and selling prices were set by a relatively small number of capitalists who had either monopolistic power or were part of an oligopoly in regard to particular trade routes. This is illustrated by the example of cotton, which was one of the most widespread cash-crops in Africa. Walter Rodney: “The Ugandan farmer grew cotton which ultimately made it’s way into an English factory in Lancashire or a British-owned factory in India. The Lancashire factory owner paid his workers as little as possible, but his exploitation of their labour was limited by several factors. His explanation of the labour of the Ugandan peasant was unlimited because of his power in the colonial state, which insured that Ugandans worked long hours for very little. Besides, the price of the finished cotton shirt was so high that when re-imported into Uganda, cotton in the form of the shirt was beyond the purchasing power of the peasant who grew the cotton”16
Extension of colonial territories abroad remained and were further extended upon the culmination of the Berlin Conference in 1885. The colonial powers justified their occupation of the colonies as a long-term policy to ‘civilise’ native populations, which they considered needed “civilising”. “Civilisation” meant the spread of values accustomed to the traditions and main tenets upon which western society rested – in particular, the rule of law, property rights, and securing alignment of particular (wealthy) class interests in positions of power and influence to manage the use and distribution of resources. Throughout all of the colonies, the means of brokering these values across the perceived cultural void of these colony-subjects was through the spread of Christianity, grounded in a mindset of respectability, altruism and honour, rooted in the patriarchal culture of the last few thousand years which is based upon male domination and competition, power and domination over other people. The application of Christian doctrine combined with this cultural ethos gave moral justification to the colonisers for what was perceived as a civilising process for those viewed not as human as the white anglo-saxon race, (in effect, the native races were viewed as subhuman). In the colonies, the colonial powers simply stole the land from tribal communities. For instance, on the island that became known as Jamaica, the original Irakki Indians were wiped out by the British. “The process of enclosure, including control of population movement and the guarantee of exclusive possessory title (first started in the British Isles in the 17th century onwards), were transferred to Britain’s overseas colonies, with the dual mandate system maintaining individual settler rights alongside residual tribal or customary rights for the indigenous or ‘native’ peoples”(quote from: Robert Home & Hilary Lim, “Demystifying the History of Capital”).17
All of the imperial/colonial powers saw the continents and their peoples as extensions of the Mother country, both politically and culturally. The assertion of dominion over parts of the African continent was formally brokered between the colonial powers in the infamous Berlin Conference of 1885. By 1885, however, the British Empire had already consolidated the northern half of Sudan, which fell under the management of Egypt as part of Britain’s North African Empire, while the south of Sudan was comprised within their East African (Uganda, Tanganyika, Kenya) Empire.
In 1889, a Royal Charter was granted to the British South Africa Company to settle and administer what was to become Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). This occurred after Cecil Rhodes, assisted by a missionary Charles Helms, deceived Chief Lobengula into signing away mineral rights of his country, in what was known as the ‘Rudd Concession’ (30 Oct 1888).18 Lobengula relied on Helms to translate what had been agreed, and Helms wrote the agreement in so abstract a way as to it being easily misintepreted to mean that all mining concessions be given to Rhodes. The company granted large tracts of land to the pioneer white settlers with no regard to the distribution of the native African population. As early as 1894, the Company started setting aside land in Matabaleland for exclusive occupation of Africans in areas that were dry and previously uninhabitated. The official view was that land of inferior quality was more suited to native than to European occupation. The policy marked the beginning of the setting up of ‘reserves’ for the exclusive occupation of Africans. By 1925, a Land Commission chaired by Morris Carter concluded that “until the native had advanced very much further on the paths of civilisation, it is better that the points of contact …should be reduced” (Land Commission Report, 1925, p-4-5). The Commission’s recommendations were given legal effect by the Land Apportionment Act (1930). The Act was to become the most contentious piece of legislation ever passed by a Rhodesian Government. The right of an African to land ownership anywhere in the country was rescinded. Under the provisions of the Act, no African could hold or occupy land in the designated European Area.19
The following extract inserted into this section is taken from “Whose Common Future? – Development as Enclosure”, The Ecologist, 1992:
But in order to create an international constituency of eager consumers, the colonialists first had to build up a labour force with access to cash – and to achieve this they first had to commandeer land. This they did by dispossessing indigenous communities of the greater part of their traditional territories: in effect, by enclosing the commons. Throughout the colonies, it became standard practice to declare all “uncultivated” land to be the property of the colonial administration. At a stroke, local communities were denied legal title to lands they had traditionally set aside as fallow and to the forests, grazing lands and streams they relied upon for hunting, gathering, fishing and herding.
Where, as was frequently the case, the colonial authorities found that the lands they sought to exploit were already “cultivated”, the problem was remedied by restricting the indigenous population to tracts of low quality land deemed unsuitable for European settlement. In Kenya, such “reserves” were “structured to allow Europeans, who accounted for less than 1% of the population, to have full access to the agriculturally rich uplands that constituted 20% of the country.”23 In Southern Rhodesia, white colonists who constituted just 5% of the population, became the new owners of two-thirds of the land. In Northern Rhodesia, the policy of reserving the best land for European agriculture was explicit, the 1932 Agricultural Survey Commission stating:
“Any land that had poor soils, inadequate water supplies, low nutrition grasses unsuitable for European cattle or [was] overgrown with impenetrable bush, was not suitable for Europeans and should be allocated to Africans.”
Once secured, the commons appropriated by the colonial administration were typically leased out to commercial concerns for plantations, mining and logging, or sold to white settlers. In India, the British designated vast tracts of forest as “reserve forests”. The rights of access which villagers had traditionally enjoyed were curtailed and large areas were logged to supply timber for ship-building and sleepers for the expanding railway system. In French Equatorial Africa, the granting of commercial concessions proceeded at such a pace that by 1899, 70% of the country had been leased to just 40 such companies, with one company receiving 140,000 square kilometres.24
Afforded little protection under the law, local peoples found themselves liable to eviction even from “the cultivated” land that was, in theory, theirs. Boer settlers in South Africa regularly drove local farmers off their tribal lands on the grounds that the “natives were merely subsistence farmers and deserved to be treated as squatters since they were not engaged in any systematic forms of agriculture.” Even where “reserves” had been set up, the indigenous population were without legal security of tenure. In Kenya, the Crown Lands Ordinance of 1915 which supposedly “guaranteed” tribal land rights, made explicit provision for nay part of a reserve to be cancelled if it were decided that the land was “needed” for railroads and highways or any public purpose.
Not content with dispossessing the indigenous population of vast areas of land, the colonial authorities also sought to break up communal systems of tenure and to substitute private ownership. In the Philippines, Malaysia, India and parts of Africa, land laws were passed actively encouraging individuals to register their plots as private holdings. In North Africa, the French deliberately set about breaking up the collectively owned lands of local nomadic herders by decreeing in 1873 that families would not enjoy any land rights under French law unless they established and registered their own individual holdings. Under the new law, “individualisation” of the entire group holding was mandatory if any one individual in the group desired registration, regardless of the wishes of the other collective owners. The new laws were exploited by both French colonists and indigenous urban elites to acquire large tracts of the best land, the number of French landholdings in Algeria alone doubling between 1870 and 1890.
If dispossession was the favoured means of securing land for the colonial economy, finding labour presented a more intractable problem. Where elements of the commons remained, local peoples were still largely self-reliant and had little incentive to grow crops for export to London, Paris or Amsterdam, nor any incentive to indulge in backbreaking labour down mines, on plantations or building roads and government offices. As an editorial in the Rabaul Times noted of New Guinea in the mid 1930s:
“One of the greatest contributing factors to the unsatisfactory services rendered by native labourers in this country is their economic independence. For it must not be forgotten that every native is a landed proprietor, and nature has endowed New Guinea with a prolific soil, which provides adequate sustenance for a minimum of labour. Dismissal from employment, if he fails to carry out his duties, holds no terrors for the New Guinean native…..Unless and until our natives reach such a stage of development that they must work to obtain sustenance or a livelihood, they will never make suitable indentured labour for the average white resident.”25
Typically, in the early years of colonial rule, indigenous labour could only be recruited by force. Throughout the Americas, for example, the violent subjugation of the Indians was integral to the imposition of the export-orientated economy that the Spanish colonists required. Resistance to enforced assimilation has been continuous. In Guatemala alone there has been an average of one Indian rebellion every sixteen years since the Conquest in 1524. 26
Taxed into the Market
But the colonial “mission” went beyond simply the expropriation of land and the coercion of local people into the labour force. Central to colonial enterprise was the drive to build up a cash economy and with it, a market for goods from the industrial North. To achieve that task, the colonial authorities set about the systematic dismantling of those elements of the commons that stood in the way of market penetration. To that end, widespread use was made of such economic instruments as taxation – “a strategy that not only introduced the need to earn cash but which also (by requiring village elders to collect it) undermined the balance of power that is central to the maintenance of the commons.”27
Taxes were levied on whatever the colonial authorities deemed most vital to villagers. In Vietnam, a poll-tax was imposed followed by a tax on salt, opium and alcohol, with a minimum consumption level being set for each region and village leaders rewarded for exceeding the quota. In the Sudan, crops, animals, houses and households were singled out for taxation.28 To meet their tax obligations, rural people throughout the colonies had little option but to sell their labour or to grow crops for sale. In French colonial West Africa, punishments for “tax evasion” included “holding women and children hostage until the dues had been paid, burning huts, whipping and tying up people and leaving them without food for several days.29
Similarly, a combination of force and taxation was used to destroy indigenous craft industries, particularly textiles and to harness traditional trading patterns to the needs and interests of Western Europe. In South Asia, elaborate regional trading patterns, developed over at least two millenia, were ruthlessly commandeered as the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British carved out their own areas of control through military force and subsequently, by imposing a system of monopolies. Thousands of native traders and seafarers, deprived of their livelihoods, resisted by turning to piracy, giving the imperial powers an excuse for further intervention. In French West Africa, the authorities deliberately set out to dismantle traditional inter-regional trading patterns by imposing, in 1905, special levies on all goods which did not come from France or a region under French control, thus forcing up the price of local products to the ruin of local artisans and traders. Within five years, nearly half of the goods imported into France’s West African colonies came from France.
In Sudan, the British used similar tactics. “Along the middle reaches of the Rahad River, for example, peasants preferred the cloth produced by their traditional methods from cotton they grew themselves to the more expensive Manchester cloth. As a result, the British banned private cotton cultivation in Blue Nile Province (and others nearby) and when the peasants persisted by moving their cotton plants inside their fenced compounds, the police searched them out and burned them. In either case, the result was the substitution of a regular cash need for a key indigenous handicraft industry.”30
Click here for King Cotton and the Enclosure of Markets
During the first few decades of the 20th century, with the exception of Southern Rhodesia, Uganda and parts of Kenya where rebellions of the Mau-Mau had to be faced down, the British continued to administer through indirect rule; in other words, through intermediaries. These intermediaries were comprised of either large numbers of locals or small numbers of powerful ambitious Africans, who thought their interests would be best served being ruled by colonial powers and co-operating with that power. Over time, the rulers and bureaucracy in colonial states were products of the education system of these imperialist nations, such as the private schools of Eton and Harrow and the universities of Oxbridge (which still serve a socio-economic international elite). The exceptions within this wave of colonisation were in Liberia, which was never colonised and was where free African Americans migrated to, supported by the American Colonisation Society who supported the migration of free African Americans to the continent of Africa, and Sudan – where the British were driven out by popular resistance. African territories under French, German, Dutch, Portuguese and Belgium authority were subject to more direct forms of administration.
The stark reality is that the overall colonisation process was one which entrenched inherently economically exploitative endeavours, largely for the benefit of the wealthy investors and speculators of the rich colonising nations. Rodney identifies several reasons why the African labourer was more crudely exploited than a European worker: “Firstly, the alien colonial state had a monopoly of political power after crushing all opposition by superior armed force. Secondly, the African working class was small, very dispersed and very unstable owing to migratory practices. Thirdly, while capitalists were willing to exploit all workers everywhere, European capitalists in Africa had additional racial justifications for dealing unjustly with the African worker; the racist theory that the black man was inferior led to the conclusion that he deserved lower wages, and interestingly enough, the light-skinned Arab and Berber populations of North Africa were treated as “blacks” by the white racist French”. Rodney: “Wages paid to workers in Europe and North America were much higher than wages paid to African workers in comparable categories. [For instance], a Nigerian coal miner at Enugu earned 1 shilling per day for working underground and 9 pence per day for jobs on the surface. Such a miserable wage would be beyond the comprehension of a Scottish or German coal miner who would virtually earn in an hour what the Enugu miner was paid for a 6-day week”.20 “Black South-African workers recovered gold from deposits which elsewhere would be regarded as ‘non-commercial’. And yet, it is the white section of the working-class which received whatever benefits were available in terms of wages and salaries”21
Rodney continues: “In the final analysis, the shareholders of the mining companies were the ones who benefited most of all. They remained in Europe and North America and collected fabulous dividends every year, from the gold, diamonds, manganese, uranium ..etc, which were brought out of South African subsoil by African labour” Significant mining operations across Africa during the colonial period included regions such as: South Africa, Rhodesia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia (all gold, diamonds, iron ore & bauxite), Nigeria (tin), Ghana (gold & manganese), Tanyanyika (gold & diamonds) and Uganda and Congo Brazzaville (copper).22
In Africa, peasants growing cash crops were exploited down a long-chain of middlemen and commodity-exporting foreign traders, starting with local businessmen who were usually of a different ethnic group, e.g in West Africa, Lebanese and Syrians took this role, whilst in East Africa, it was the Indians and Arabs in Zanzibar. However, it was colonial trading companies who extracted the most profit along this chain from producer to consumer. Forced labour of cash crops occurred under French rule in Algeria, Equatorial Africa and French Sudan in the 1930s, Tanganyika under German rule and in Portuguese colonies.
In the 19th century, after the “war of the Pacific” when both Peru and Bolivia lost territory to Chile, it was the British businessman John Thomas North who acquired the lands where vast reserves of saltpetre – highly in demand as fertiliser for the tired fields of Europe – underlaid the sub-strata.31 Meanwhile, in the East, entrepreneurs made a fortune smuggling opium grown in British India into the ancient civilisation of China. When Imperial China launched a vigorous anti-narcotics campaign, the Royal Navy served as ‘muscle’ to protect the British drugs barons in what became famously known as the ‘Opium Wars’.
In it’s hey-day, the British Empire extended more across the globe than any previous empire ever has, under the dominion of the crown, with the United Kingdom at it’s centre. It depended upon seamanship, shipbuilding and the British Navy, as well as official tyrannies of landed and mercantile elites in the colony protectorates. At a superficial level, the Empire did provide peace and security amongst all the colony subjects (after systematically exploiting them and enclosing their economic survival within the machinations of colonial rule). At the turn of the 20th century, the Empire ranged from the crowned republics of Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa – all practically independent and self-governing states in alliance with Great Britain – to the Indian Empire and it’s own network of protected states including Burma and Nepal – to the partially self-governing communities (some British in origin) such as Malta, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Bermuda – to the crown colonies where the British had autocratic dominion, such as in Ceylon, Trinidad, Figi and Gibraltar – to tropical areas in Africa which were nominally protectorates with command and control over native chiefs through either a High commissioner (as in Kenya) or a chartered company (as in Rhodesia) – to the ambiguous possession of Egypt, still nominally part of the Turkish Empire, but whose monarch was under despotic British rule.32 *[Note: Nowadays, what is known as the Commonwealth holds together a united fraternity of republics, independent nations past associated with the British Empire, and self-governed dependent islands such as the Falkland Islands, Montserrat and Anguilla].
South Africa was one of the places where the political formula of the Anglo-Saxonists – federation and dominion status, as the new beacon of the latter days of British hegemony – was first applied, producing the Union of South Africa. The political basis of the Union of South Africa was the Anglo-Boer class alliance, founded on the harsher terms for the African population than those of the Boer Republics, as evidenced by the constitution and legislation such as the Land Act. “By the Land Act of 1913 about 7% of the land area was reserved for future land purchases by natives and the other 93% for purchase by whites. At the time, the native population exceeded the whites by at least fourfold.” (Quigley)33 This established the basis for Afrikaner racial Nationalism, supported by the British State right up to the late 1980s, when it was finally overturned.
The Middle East
In the Middle East, with the outbreak of World War I (which was a war between rival capitalist empires – Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empires, against the British, French and Russian imperial entente), the British, through their agent T.E. Lawrence, promised Arab leaders that if they fought with Britain against their Turkish rulers, the British would support the creation of an independent Arab state after the war. At the same time, the British, French and Russian foreign ministries were secretly signing the Sykes-Picot agreement.34 The colonial powers created Arab protectorates and outright territories, drawing the borders of states in such a manner as to ensure that there were oil-rich territorial states with small populations and oil-scarce states with large populations.35 Rebellions against the British in the new state of Iraq were brutally suppressed when Bomber Harris dropped poison gas on the Kurdish town of Sulaimaniya in 1925.
In Palestine, Theodor Herzl persuaded the British that a Jewish presence in the region would help to protect British interests in the Suez Canal, setting forth a plan for inducing the Ottoman Empire to grant Palestine to the Zionists: “Supposing his Majesty the Sultan were to give us Palestine, we could, in return, undertake to regulate the finances of Turkey. We should there form an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism”.36 The Suez Canal was opened in 1869 and by the early 1880s, Rothchild banking interests, based since the 17th century in Germany, France and Britain, had acquired effective control of the Suez Canal. “Starting in 1882 [the Rothchilds] also began sponsoring Jewish colonisation schemes in Palestine. This was launched at the very moment Britain occupied Egypt (including Cairo and the Nile as far as the Sudan) – banishing the Egyptian nationalist leader Arabi Pasha to Ceylon after suppressing the rebellion he led against the British in Alexandria – to secure their control of the canal. British concern to control such a vital link to its empire in India is seen in the rise of English shipping tonnage through its locks almost 10 times between 1870 and 1880, from 309,560 to 3,040,800 tons. A large and growing portion of this traffic was oil being brought in tankers from the Dutch East Indies, by Shell Oil, controlled by the Samuel brothers from a prominent London Jewish banking family”.37 It led to the Balfour Declaration of 1917 – which first began the process towards the setting up of the creation of the state of Israel.38 Herzl was not alone in his understanding that European Jews were indeed Europeans embarking on a colonial venture. Zionist leader and later Israel’s first President Chaim Weizmann did not mince words when in 1930 he explained what Zionism sought: “[we] wish to spare the Arabs as much as we can of the sufferings which every backward race has gone through on the coming of another, more advanced nation”.39 Such views – typifying the Zionist and Israeli outlook about Palestinians to the present – were expressions of a racism integral within colonialism and imperialism.
United Fruit & Yankee Imperialism
As European countries furthered their economic penetration of Africa and Asia during the 19th century, the United States continued its westward expansion, extending its borders to the Pacific. While the United States had had an interest in the Western Hemisphere since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, it was only after the Spanish-American War in 1898 that this nation began to exploit the economic potential in Central American countries. The introduction of the banana into the United States in 1870 started businessmen and companies thinking about profits they could make in Central America. For economic as well as political reasons, President Theodore Roosevelt became interested in areas south of the border and instituted the “Big Stick” policy. Later, President Taft, stressing the areas’ economic importance, pursued a policy of “dollar diplomacy.” With governmental approval, the stage was set for U.S. businesses to enter underdeveloped nations. United Fruit was one such corporation. It set out to make it mark in Central America and establish a monopoly in the banana trade.
Although United Fruit was not the only company to produce and trade in Central America, it was by far the largest and by its very name came to be associated with “Yankee Imperialism.” From its inception in 1899 — an amalgam of several other companies — it grew to such proportions that it accounted for 65% of banana exports to the United States before World War I. How this came about says much about the history of so called “banana republics” — nations whose internal affairs were heavily influenced, or even taken over, by foreign business interests. It is a study of brilliant organization and initiative in seizing control of a profitable market. However, United Fruit’s success was not only due to hard-nosed entrepreneurship. It was also characterized by destructive tactics toward competition, illegal activities and clout with local politicians. One key factor, though, that made all the others work: control over natural resources. For United Fruit was a giant not only in the business of agriculture but also in the role of landowner, and that was how the company secured its dominance.
United Fruit’s growth in the banana republics went hand in hand with its acquisition of natural resources. The company owned vast areas in countries such as Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, and Cuba. In Honduras, United Fruit controlled over 400,000 acres, 40% obtained free due to grants. In country after country, this firm was a leading real estate holder, owning or leasing over three million acres before World War II. Control of these lands made United Fruit the most successful corporation in Central America.
To sell huge quantities of bananas to American consumers, it was necessary to transport them quickly from the interiors of the jungles to the ports. It was expeditious, therefore, that United Fruit get control of the railroads and also engage in railroad construction, through its various subsidiaries. As an inducement, local governments granted the company from 250 to 500 acres for each: miles of railroad construction. United Fruit received alternate blocks of land, with each other section going to the people of the nation where track was being laid (similar to the railroad land grant system in the United States). However, since large areas are required for banana cultivation, the company had intermediaries lease the land back from native landholders. This enabled the company to obtain vast acreage with a minimal investment. United Fruit was thus able to use much of each nation’s agricultural land and at the same time reap high profits for its stockholders. Other American companies, too, gained control of natural resources and thus monopolized trade. This monopoly of land created an atmosphere where many landless peasants had little choice but to work for American companies. Controlling natural resources was an important step in monopolising other stages of the banana trade, which United Fruit accomplished with tremendous success.
For the Imperial powers in general, then, pre-war colonial occupation was a period characterised by conquest, plunder and brutal repression. The Inter-war period saw a period of stability in many of the colonies, while post-WWII was a period of reform. Along with the criticisms of exploitation and slavery and the associated sea of human misery for which former colonial powers have still yet to apologise for, the widely accepted notion that the historic legacy of colonial empire has been how it provided a political-cultural foundation for the continuity and stability of colonised communities, later transformed into nation states, has had questionable credibility with the frequency with which elites and dictators seized power in nation after nation after the swift, and in many cases rushed handover of governance in many of the former colonies with the wave of independence after World War II.
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