"I have been reading history for 60 years now and one of the things I have realised is that the human urge for conquest and the instinct to dominate others transcends geography, ethnicity, language and culture" - Chris Overland
ADELAIDE - The death of Queen Elizabeth II has led to some reflection upon the British Empire and its legacy.
Commentary has ranged from the vile and tasteless to thoughtful consideration upon what is undeniably a very mixed British imperial legacy.
I have been reading history for 60 years now and one of the things I have realised is that the human urge for conquest and the instinct to dominate others transcends geography, ethnicity, language and culture.
It’s an instinct that has resulted in the creation of many different kingdoms, realms and empires across the world for the whole of recorded history.
In what we call the Middle East one of the earliest known empires was that of the Assyrians (2025-605 BCE) which encompassed modern Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran.
The Assyrians created the world’s first written language, invented the 360 degree circle and established the first known codified set of laws.
Assyrian domination in the Middle East was eventually replaced by the Achaemendid or Persian Empire with its capital being located in Babylon, now in modern Iraq.
The Persian Empire, amongst many other things, devised the first national postal service, engaged in systematic road building and developed very elaborate and extensive irrigation systems.
The Persian Empire flourished from 550-330 BCE before it fell victim to Alexander the Great, King of the Macedonians and All of Ancient Greece, who was perhaps the most successful empire builder of all time.
No army he led was ever defeated in battle.
During his short lifetime (356-323 BCE) Alexander created an empire covering over two million square kilometres, extending from Greece into modern Pakistan.
This staggering achievement reflected the complete military dominance of his armies, with their mastery of warfare using the formidable phalanx formation of massed heavy infantry wielding spears upon which the opposition troops were impaled.
Alexander’s principal legacy was to spread the Greek scientific and liberal method of thinking across much of the ancient world.
This was important because the origins of what might be described as the ‘Western’ way of thinking, with its emphasis on logic, reason, rationality and the importance of empirical evidence can be traced back to this time.
The importance of Alexander’s legacy for the modern world can hardly be overstated.
With Alexander’s death his empire was split into three parts, each ruled by one of his subordinate commanders. One of these, Ptolemy (367-283 BCE), established the Ptolemaic Egyptian Empire (305-30 BCE) which eventually was absorbed into the Roman Empire with the death of its final ruler, Cleopatra, whose fame persists to this day.
The Roman Empire is perhaps the most closely studied and romanticised of all the early empires.
The City of Rome was established in 625 BCE as one of many small kingdoms located in modern Italy before becoming a republic in 510 BCE. Much of its early territorial expansion in Italy took place before it eventually became an empire under the rule of Augustus Caesar in 31 BCE.
The Roman Empire formally lasted until 476 AD, although many historians consider that what had been regarded as the Eastern Empire controlled from Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) was still, technically speaking, the Roman Empire until 1453 AD, when that city fell under the control of the Ottoman Empire.
The legacies of the Roman Empire are many. Not the least of them being the various Latinate languages including modern French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and, of course, Italian.
Also, the development of English, now the world’s most widely spoken language, was profoundly influenced by Latin.
Perhaps half of all English words have Latin roots and the modern English alphabet is an amalgamation of the Latin and Old English alphabets.
Rome’s many other legacies include the basic organisational structure of all modern armies, the invention of concrete, the basic construction methods used for all modern roads, the widespread use of the arch and many other construction techniques, the invention of modern plumbing and sewerage systems, the extension of writing and literacy across most of what is now modern Europe and the devising of many legal ideas and principles that are firmly embedded in modern laws.
On the negative side, the Roman Empire’s economic system was based upon the use of slave labour. Its armies were exceptionally efficient killing machines. And its most popular entertainments involved a great deal of deliberate cruelty and death for humans and animals alike.
Meanwhile, in Asia, the Chinese imperial system had been in place since at least 2070 BCE when the Xia dynasty first emerged (the exact date is still debated).
The Chinese empire persisted, albeit under the control of various different dynasties, until the final collapse of imperial China in 1912 AD.
Chinese imperial dynasties waxed and waned but Chinese culture continued to develop.
The achievements of the Chinese were many and diverse, including the invention of gun powder, devising an elaborate system of writing, the making of paper and the invention of moveable type printing.
They also invented methods for making porcelain and ceramics, smelting and casting metal and, most famously, the production and weaving of silk.
The knowledge and skill of Chinese intellectuals, artists and artisans probably exceeded that of any other empire in the world until at least the 15th or 16th centuries.
At this time, inexplicably, China turned its back upon the rest of the world and entered a period of economic, military and cultural isolation.
This was to profoundly influence its future when it eventually collided with the more technologically advanced and expansionist European imperial powers during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The history of the various European powers is one in which they devised and exploited scientific thinking and technological innovations to produce war machines capable of imposing their will upon other, less developed nations.
They typically did so with the same ruthlessness, persistence and discipline displayed by earlier imperial powers.
Spain initially was foremost amongst the European imperial powers. Its conquests were mostly in South America, where its empire lasted from 1492, when Christopher Columbus discovered (or, more accurately, rediscovered) the American continent, to 1898 when Spain lost Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam to the United States in the Spanish-American War of that same year.
The Spanish conquistadores were ruthless in their pursuit of riches and land.
They crushed the indigenous Inca and Aztec Empires with comparative ease, greatly assisted by the various highly infectious and lethal diseases they brought with them, notably smallpox, measles, cholera and typhus.
Spanish rule was characterised by the use of conquered peoples as slaves and considerable cruelty towards anyone who refused to comply with their efforts to impose Christianity or sought to cling onto their traditional beliefs.
This was a pattern that was to be repeated to varying degrees by other European imperial powers.
The main Spanish legacies to its former colonies include the Spanish language, Catholicism, some splendid architecture and the introduction of the horse.
This brings us to what became the largest and most influential of all the European imperial powers, Britain.
The nominal starting date for the British Empire is 1497 when John Cabot discovered Newfoundland and claimed it for England.
At that time England was a very small and unimportant island nation, notable mainly for its wool exports.
Its military and economic power was dwarfed by that of the major European powers, notably Spain, France and the Netherlands.
However, a few rather important things were happening in England, notably its ending of medieval serfdom long before most of Europe.
This led to an associated rapid acceleration of intensive agriculture and the emergence of an ambitious and entrepreneurial merchant class whose gaze had turned to the trading opportunities beyond England’s shores.
The development of its empire started to accelerate when English settlers gained a toehold on the North American continent, beginning in 1607.
The first English merchants arrived in India in the following year.
By the 1620’s, the American colonies were firmly established and English settlements had appeared in Barbados and St Kitts in the Caribbean.
Over the following decades the English influence in the Americas and in India grew steadily.
Even the loss of the American colonies in the Revolutionary War (1776-1783) did no lasting damage to what really mattered to Britain, its international trade.
There subsequently followed a steady expansion of Britain’s imperial interests into Australia, Africa, South East Asia and even the remote Falkland Islands.
In Africa, the British came into conflict with the Zulu Kingdom established in 1816 under the intelligent, resourceful and ruthless King Shaka.
It is not commonly understood that the Zulu nation was busily engaged in building its own empire in Africa at that time and had crushed several other tribal powers whilst doing so.
Contemporaneously, another African kingdom was emerging as the Matabele tribe established their dominance on the high veld of Africa and over what is now Zimbabwe.
The Matabele kingdom was larger than that of the Zulu and it too would have to be subdued by the British as they sought to consolidate their hold on most of southern Africa.
In India, the English were able to exploit rivalries between local rulers to extend their influence and, over time, to seize control of more and more of the country.
William Dalrymple’s superb book, ‘The Anarchy’, explains how it was possible for such a tiny island country in Europe to eventually control the whole of the Indian sub-continent.
The British Empire reached its zenith in the early part of the 20th century.
By 1913, 412 million people lived under the control of the British Empire, 23% of the world's population at that time.
It remains the largest empire the world has ever seen and at the peak of its power in 1920 it covered close to a quarter of the world's land area.
But, as was the case with all empires, the British left a mixed legacy for those peoples who had been colonised.
On the debit side of the ledger is the degree of suffering endured during the various wars fought to either wrest control of colonised lands from local leaders or eject European imperial competitors.
Also, in the first nearly three centuries of its existence the British Empire played an active role in the international slave trade.
There was much racism, arrogance and patronising behaviour directed towards the colonised peoples.
On the credit side, the British were keen to introduce to their colonies many features of their more technologically advanced civilisation.
To this end they established schools, universities and hospitals, introduced modern agricultural methods and constructed modern transportation and communication networks.
The British legal system was implemented in all colonies and literacy and numeracy were encouraged. The English language was extensively taught and spoken.
Perhaps most importantly, the British government eventually became convinced that the slave trade over which it had long presided was uncivilised, cruel and immoral and should be abolished, both within its empire and across the world.
The importance of this decision can hardly be overstated as it literally changed the course of history for millions of people.
The trade was formally abolished throughout the empire in 1807 and slavery as an institution was abolished in 1834.
Significantly, the Royal Navy was used extensively to hunt down slave traders and suppress the trade even while incurring the wrath of other countries that had not yet abolished it.
I hope this brief overview of the history of empires and colonisation has provided you with some important contextual information by which to better understand that colonisation and empire building is a constant feature of human history, not something only associated with European nations.
This is important in our modern world where people are encouraged to believe that it was Europeans alone who inflicted the evils of colonisation upon the world.
This is a sometimes convenient distortion of history for those whose sense of outrage about the very real injustices associated with European colonialism blinds them to, for example, the active complicity of Arab and African rulers in supplying slaves.
Any objective and comprehensive reading of history rapidly reveals that human nature is neither fully benign nor totally malignant. This is reflected in the colonial experience throughout history extending back into the distant past, both for the coloniser and the colonised.
It is fashionable today to call for reparations for things done during the European imperial era or to demand the return of artefacts regarded as stolen.
Taken to its logical conclusion this notion makes as much sense as the descendants of the ancient Britons demanding that the Italian descendants of the ancient Romans make restitution for the losses and depredations the Britons suffered at the hands of the Roman legions.
This is not to deny that the distress and anguish felt by those who survived the very worst of recent colonial experiences is entirely justifiable.
Many bad things were said and done for which no excuse or mitigating factors can reasonably be offered. This is a sad and painful truth that must be acknowledged by the former colonial powers.
That said, we should also acknowledge that many good and worthwhile things were done too.
This does not balance the historic ledger but it does show that the better side of humanity was not utterly absent.
As I have written many times before, and as I hope is evident from this discussion, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific nations more broadly, greatly benefitted from being colonised at the very end of the European colonial era.
By then, with the ugly exception of Australia’s brief tolerance of the use of kidnapped Pacific ‘Kanaka’ islanders in the Queensland canefields, the great evil of slavery had been largely suppressed.
There was now a new notion that had firmly gripped the minds of British colonial administrators: that their great Empire had an altruistic ‘civilising mission’ over their colonial possessions.
Perversely, the situation for the Indigenous peoples of Australia was much worse than it was for the peoples of Papua New Guinea.
The Indigenous people of the Australian colony had been murdered, dispossessed and displaced whilst the Melanesian people of PNG largely retained their traditional lands and their customs and traditions were mostly tolerated provided others were not harmed.
One arc of history was to unite the 850 tribes of PNG and to give them their own nation state. A different arc was to suppress and attempt to dismantle the world’s oldest existing culture, and the Indigenous people of Australia –victims of Empire – struggle for a voice in their own traditional lands.
And still, in 2022, the colonising or imperial impulse unhappily remains alive as the Russian rationale for its war against Ukraine vividly shows.
The same distorted and malignant views of history that were used to justify Nazi aggression in World War II have resurfaced.
They continue to appeal to some people even though they have been repeatedly and comprehensively discredited.
We can only hope that Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine is rewarded with catastrophic defeat.
Perhaps then the last vestiges of the colonial impulse will finally be consigned to the past. If that be so, we will all be better off for it.
Too many people today fondly imagine that the human ambitions, desires and impulses that drove our history in ancient times are now somehow either gone or controlled by the structures and processes of what we call ‘modern civilisation’.
This is an erroneous view. It is neither supported by observable fact nor the lived experience of most, if not all, people.
Human history, viewed objectively, shows that we have collectively made huge technological and material progress.
But it also shows that our ways of thinking about the world and our place in it have not progressed to the same degree.
All too often, we see evidence of medieval minds applying modern technologies to achieve malignant ends.
That the idea of empire is still alluring to some is just one manifestation of this process at work.