ADELAIDE - I recently read a book by the late Professor John Bowle entitled The Imperial Achievement: The Rise and Transformation of the British Empire (Book Club Associates, 1974).
The book represents a conscious attempt by Bowle to place on record a scholarly and dispassionate reassessment of the British Empire, where the very real and often remarkable achievements of the those he calls the Anglo-Saxon colonisers are given more consideration than is now deemed politically correct.
In essence, Bowles argues that it suited both the formerly colonised and those who, broadly speaking, come from the left of the political spectrum, to characterise the imperial era as entirely racist, exploitative and destructive.
The facts, he argues, do not support this simplistic and frequently self-serving notion and he proceeds to compile a formidable case to justify his position.
I am not going to discuss Bowle’s central thesis here. He has devoted some 460 pages of densely argued and sometimes difficult scholarship to do that.
My interest lies in trying to understand how what was for millennia a small, obscure and relatively poor island off the coast of Europe could somehow contrive to acquire the largest maritime empire in human history.
Also, in doing so, I am trying to understand what relevance this may have to the world today which, while ostensibly decolonised, may in fact be ushering in a new era of insidious economic colonisation.
This latter point is relevant to Papua New Guinea’s post-colonial experience and, I think, across the wider developing world as well.
The first point that becomes apparent from Bowle’s book is that the British government rarely had any overt policy of seizing colonial possessions. In essence, its policy was to expand British trade wherever and whenever possible across the globe. It aimed to do this by dealing with the ruling regimes in place in other countries, not taking them over.
The British government did not like assuming responsibility for distant colonies. This was almost universally regarded as damnably expensive and as introducing a whole set of remote governance problems that the government didn’t want.
This, for example, was the thinking that underlay the establishment of the British East India Company, to which the British government effectively “outsourced” the business of trade with India. If the company made money, then all well and good. If it didn’t then it wasn’t the government’s problem.
Similarly, the early settlements in America were not state sponsored. Rather, they were the result of the actions of individuals who saw an opportunity to either make a profit or, in some instances, find the freedom to pursue their own political or religious interests. Certainly, they occurred with the knowledge and consent of the British government but such consent was not the product of a consciously imperialist policy.
So it seems that trade and profit were the driving force behind the initial creation of what might be termed imperial beachheads in places like India, North America and the Caribbean Islands.
There was a second driver and this was the need to have a strategic presence in certain places so as to maintain trade routes across the globe. This is why the British ended up taking over places like Gibraltar, Cape Town (South Africa), the Falkland Islands and, eventually, places like Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
The expansion of the empire was driven largely by the problems that arose when dealing with the indigenous ruling elites or if competitor European nations showed an unhealthy interest in establishing themselves in what British trading interests saw as “their patch”.
If, for example, the local ruling elite proved incapable of providing a reasonably safe and stable environment for trading or became far too greedy and exploitative in the management of the trading relationship or simply sought to expel the foreigners, then British trading interests often would unilaterally move to effect either regime change or take over an area of territory which they would directly rule.
Because the British government, however reluctantly, conceded that it had a duty to protect its citizens overseas, it felt compelled to sanction and support such actions most of the time.
By this mechanism, the British East India Company ended up seizing control of most of the Indian sub-continent
The other mechanism for the acquisition of territory was as a consequence of the frequent warfare over trade amongst the European powers that was a feature of the 17th and 18th centuries. Britain emerged from this period with many colonial possessions that had been established by other nations, notably most of those existing in North America and all of the trading centres on the Indian sub-continent.
Thus what Bowle calls the first British Empire was primarily the product of Britain’s mercantile interests. This stage of British imperial expansion ended with the loss of the American colonies in the revolutionary war of 1775-83.
The second stage saw the British begin to expand their interests in places like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Africa. There were diverse reasons for this in each case but the fundamental drivers were the insatiable desire of Britain’s emergent mercantile elites for more opportunities for profitable trading and the government’s anxiety to ensure than it could secure the oceanic trade routes that were now increasingly vital to the health and growth of the British economy.
There was still no overt will or policy to create an empire but the demands of trade, combined with the competition with other European powers for strategic influence, resulted in the steady accumulation of colonial possessions.
In fact, it was not until a relatively brief period in the last quarter of the 19th century, during the so-called “scramble for Africa”, that Britain had a declared policy of seizing territory, mostly to forestall similar actions by competing European powers, especially Germany.
This brings us at last to Papua New Guinea.
As many readers will know, the British government had no wish at all to rule Papua. It was a very long way from London; it was, for Europeans at least, a disease ridden environment like much of tropical Africa; and there was nothing there that much excited the interests of British traders.
It was therefore both very surprised and annoyed when the colonial government of Queensland saw fit to annex Papua on its behalf.
The reason Queensland did so was to forestall the expansion of German imperial interests outside of what was then German New Guinea and, eventually, the British government gave its reluctant endorsement to what the colonial upstarts had done.
The proviso was that the soon to be established Commonwealth Government of Australia had to assume responsibility for governing Papua and meeting the costs thereof.
Barely 20 years later, as a consequence of World War I, Australia found itself assuming responsibility for New Guinea as well.
In this way, at the very tail end of the era of European imperial expansion, Papua New Guinea found itself a part of the British Empire. Although PNG was and remains strategically insignificant in a global sense, it is far from insignificant in a regional sense, being the largest, most populous and, potentially at least, wealthiest Pacific nation.
It is for these reasons, as well as geographic proximity, that PNG should remain of central concern to Australia. We have many important historic, economic and strategic interests in PNG which, although currently distorted by the controversy surrounding the Manus detention centre, should remain a strong focus for our diplomacy.
This is all the more the case because there appear to be signs that PNG is being covertly re-colonised by other powers.
The age of European imperialism is now dead and gone but I think that there is growing evidence that we are entering a new era of imperialism, the main drivers of which remain largely unchanged from those described by Bowle. The difference is that the new imperialism does not require the physical acquisition of territory.
The new imperialists know that it generally is sufficient to capture the wallets of those they seek to rule, if not their hearts and minds as well.
As the imperialists of old well knew, by ensnaring the ruling elites of a country in a web of money and influence, you could then enhance and protect your mercantile and strategic interests. If those ruling elites were frequently corrupt and incompetent then so much the better because their venality and self interest made them easier prey.
The rising imperial power in our region is, of course, China. Under the quasi-imperial leadership of President Xi Jinping, it is using its massive financial resources to buy influence and secure an economic foothold in many small countries across what it sees as its sphere of influence, which includes PNG.
It is also seeking to project its military power (if necessary, in ways that directly conflict with international law) because, like the European imperialists of the past, it aims to dominate the trade routes upon which it has come to rely.
In doing so, it is acting in a manner both consistent with its own imperial traditions as well as those of the hated British and other European imperialists who inflicted upon it what it describes as a century of humiliations.
My great concern is that as PNG borrows more and more money from Chinese interests, so it becomes progressively more enmeshed in an economic trap from which it cannot easily escape. Make no mistake; China is neither an altruistic nor magnanimous power. It is every bit as ambitious, subtle and devious as were the architects of the British Empire.
In this context, those in positions of power and influence in PNG might do well to read The Imperial Achievement. It contains many lessons for the unwary post-colonial politician.
The main drivers of imperialism are, I think, made very explicit by Bowle and they still exist today. It was not Bowle’s intention to warn that imperialism might be resurrected in a new and more subtle form yet, by inference at least, this is what he has done.
With the collapse of communism and, now, the collapse in the moral power and influence of the USA under the appalling leadership of Donald Trump, the world has returned to the multi-polar, highly nationalistic and belligerent state that existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Even worse, the world’s democracies are riven by social division, policy confusion and doubt at absolutely the wrong moment in history.
This is a very ominous development.
Increasingly, the world’s authoritarian powers are becoming bolder and their ambitions to secure more power and influence are becoming ever more obvious. Regional proxy wars provide a vehicle by which they seek to do this. Enemies within and without are neutralized with increasing impunity, as the recent murders of Russian émigrés in London vividly attest. None of this bodes well for a stable and peaceful future.
If we have indeed lurched Back to the Future, then, in such a world, PNG may find that it has swapped one relatively benign colonial master for a much more demanding one.