When Britain Intervened

David Brooks

"A Kinder, Gentler Colonialism," The Wall Street Journal, January 15, 1993.

One of the problems [with American colonialism in Somalia and Bosnia] is that much of what we know about colonialism we have learned from left-wing British screenwriters. They have given us images of greedy land grabs, yellow journalists whipping up jingoistic hysteria, and bloated old blimps flogging civilization into the natives. In fact, taking up 'the white man's burden' was a popular cause in Britain for only a few years in the 1890s, by which time most of the colonies were already a fait accompli. When the British expanded their empire in the middle of the 19th century, the taxpayers were unwilling to fund it, the colonial office discouraged it, and most politicians considered it immoral. Generally, Britain intervened only where a local government or Ottoman rule had collapsed, causing problems for British trade, and only after much griping and cold calculation.

Because the British went in so reluctantly, their 19th-century expeditions had modest goals. The government had little interest in developing or 'civilizing' most places. The British politicians invented rhetorical formulations to minimize their responsibility, calling the territories 'protectorates' or 'spheres of influence' rather than colonies. For the most part, the aim was merely to establish a sufficient degree of law and order to make commerce possible.

In this respect, the British empire was successful. George Orwell, who served in India and hated colonialism, wrote: "The empire was peaceful as no area of comparable size has ever been. Throughout its vast extent, nearly a quarter of the earth, there were fewer armed men than would be found necessary by a minor Balkan state." Partly this is because you don't need many soldiers with Gatling guns when your enemies possess little more than spears. Nevertheless, in comparison to those same territories in the postcolonial era, the British empire was an orderly place.

Postcolonial OV discourseov Bibliography

Last Modified: 18 March, 2002