How do you report on a story that began hundreds of years ago, or cover a global phenomenon that spans continents and centuries? How does understanding the past help us make sense of the present?
Despite several hundred years of imperialism and colonialism, the mid-20th Century marked a period when many countries in Asia and Africa freed themselves from formal colonial rule. As a result, it is often thought – in both former colonising and colonised nations – that colonialism is a thing of the past.
In reality, it remains a powerful force in today’s world. From Kashmir to Palestine, Western Sahara to Crimea and South Ossetia, many parts of the world remain under direct military occupation.
Countries such as Britain and the USA also retain control over colonial territories. And let’s not forget the settler colonial countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, where the colonisation of indigenous lands has been entrenched and institutionalised in the long-term.
Colonial domination not only shapes our ideas about race, but also strongly influences how people think about class, culture, gender, and sexuality
Growing up in Malawi in the 1990s, I witnessed the enduring impact of colonialism for myself. I saw how the southern African country struggled to free itself from an oppressive one-party regime, one that had weaponised many of the structures inherited from the British colonial system.
Even through the layers of privilege that swaddled me as a wee white Scottish boy, I could see that life in Malawi during those years was a kind of informal apartheid. Entrenched hierarchies of race, class and gender were unmistakable and entirely normalised. If the colonial roots of this social order lay below the surface, it took only the merest brush to expose them.
Ever since then, I’ve been preoccupied with understanding how colonialism continues to blight people’s lives, helping create a shared understanding of what the word continues to mean.
Colonialism, as I understand it now, is the structure or structures through which one group of people (typically a nation) subordinates and exploits another, then justifies this subordination and exploitation by claiming to be the intrinsically superior group. Colonial domination not only shapes our ideas about race, but also strongly influences how people think about class, culture, gender, and sexuality.
Think of the so-called “anti-sodomy” laws from the colonial era that criminalised homosexuality in dozens of countries around the world – from Bhutan to the Maldives, Gambia to Zimbabwe. In many cases these laws have never been repealed. Human Rights Watch reported in 2015 that over half of the 80 countries worldwide where homosexuality is illegal were once British colonies. The LGBTQ activists who have been fighting hard overturn the law in Kenya against gay sex are literally struggling against a colonial rule.
Over the next three months, working as the Everyday Colonialism correspondent, I want to rewrite histories of colonialism in a clear, nuanced and accessible way that equips us all to understand the complex forms it takes as it lives on in our everyday realities.
The concept of the everyday is not meant to trivialise my approach. “Everyday” can mean banal or ordinary; but great injustices can also seem banal when people have grown used to them as permanent features of day-to-day life.
The enduring presence of colonialism
Colonialism blights the cultures of the colonisers as well as the colonised. The Martiniquais poet Aimé Césaire wrote that a basic feature of colonialism is the way it “decivilises” those responsible. In Césaire’s view, colonialism operates through extreme violence against colonised peoples. When this violence was justified and normalised by European beneficiaries of colonial rule, Césaire thought, “a poison [was] distilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceed[ed] towards savagery.”
Yet the poison continues to be felt most acutely in the more insidious forms of violence that once-colonised peoples still experience today. The laws, economic structures and cultural basis for European colonialism didn’t disappear when nations gained independence in the mid-20th century.
The legacies of these empires continue to infest many aspects of our world, from borders, migration, and unequal citizenship, to prisons, labour conditions, supply lines, healthcare, trade agreements, international development aid, education, diplomacy, tourism, art, and sport.
The roots of autocracy and corrupt government run deep
In some cases, such as the Windrush scandal, the legacy of the past is all too clear. Since 2017, The Guardian has been reporting on how the British government erroneously deported at least 83 people of Caribbean origin who had settled in the country between 1948 and 1973, and has harassed and detained hundreds more as part of the official policy of creating a “hostile environment” for so-called “illegal immigrants.”
Many of these people had arrived in Britain as small children, part of the “Windrush generation” , named after the ship that brought over 1,000 people from Jamaica in 1948. They helped to rebuild a country and society devastated by the second world war, made lives for themselves, raised British children and grandchildren, and were rewarded with a litany of threats and humiliations.
Reports showed that the UK government pursued people who had been born as British subjects in countries under colonial rule, and who therefore had full British citizenship rights under a law passed in 1948. Others persecuted had come to live in the UK perfectly legally under the terms of the shifting legal framework around British citizenship and immigration during the period of decolonisation up to 1973.
In this case the relevant history was reported in some depth, since the UK government’s ignorance of its own history of colonial citizenship was fundamental to the story. It was even shown that the UK Home Office had destroyed the landing cards that would have provided crucial evidence in favour of those threatened with deportation; the extent of official malfeasance was profound.
An invisible past
Examples such as the Windrush scandal aside, when connections between colonial history and present crises are explicitly made in daily news reporting, these links are often mentioned only in passing. Reports typically include few concrete details of the context, because what counts as “relevant” is often limited to events of, at most, the last few years.
The roots of autocracy and corrupt government run deep. Purely cultural, ahistorical explanations not only risk reproducing racist tropes, they mask the role of powerful international corporate interests in sustaining systems of resource extraction, profiteering, exploitation and rent-seeking that sustain the underlying economic transactions that has always made colonialism financially profitable for colonisers.
Everyday Colonialism is also about probing my own status as a beneficiary of these long histories
I want my work to be meaningful to readers whose lived experience has been at the sharp end of colonialism; those readers for whom colonialism represents a violation and dispossession that can never fully be redressed. But I’m in Edinburgh, working from within Europe as a white man. The world I describe above is not one in which I am positioned myself.
As such, this beat is also about probing how to negotiate my own status as a beneficiary of these long histories. Like many readers of The Correspondent, I didn’t choose to inherit my colonial complicity, this sense I have of my life being inescapably folded into lives and events that are decades, even centuries old.
Those of us who come from coloniser societies have been failed not only by our education systems – which have tended to celebrate or simply ignore colonial histories – but also by dominant cultural narratives that claim to explain our colonial entanglements and connections without ever really taking them seriously.
Every time we learn about some new facet of colonialism, these lessons possess an especially strong clarifying power. Without such knowledge, many complex realities in a place like Edinburgh today (or in many other parts of the global north) are simply inexplicable.
Where we’re ignorant, it’s easier to lean on complacent ideas that naturalise the existing social and economic order – who gets marginalised, who gets privileged – as not only the way things have always been, but the way things ought to be.
We’re not responsible for what happened in the past. That doesn’t mean we have no responsibility now.