A Rational Look at Colonialism

It is an unfortunate fact that Australian black activists, always looking for props to support their unrelenting ethos of victimhood, have promoted the British colonisation of Australia as a primary reason to justify indigenous dysfunction. It is a convenient excuse to blame those events of two centuries past to explain the ills of some of today’s indigenous population. In this essay I am going to attempt to argue that colonisation of Australia was probably inevitable and that for the most part British colonisation has benefitted all of us (including the indigenous population) immeasurably.

Whether you like it or not, it is an indisputable fact that the history of the world has been largely shaped by the waxing and waning of civilisations. Our school curricula are diminished because such history is largely neglected in our schools today. But we used to learn about the expansionist Roman Empire, which spread its tentacles into Gaul, the British Isles and North Africa. We were taught about the exploits of the Macedonian King, Alexander the Great, who extended his empire from his Greek homeland all the way east as far as present day Pakistan. We learnt about Genghis Khan who led his Mongol hordes out of China to briefly rule most of modern-day Russia, China, Korea, Southeast Asia, Persia, India, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Then of course was the Saracen Empire which enabled Muslim militants to expand from their Middle Eastern homeland to conquer North Africa and much of the Iberian Peninsula.

By the fifteenth century however, in Western Europe borders had largely been determined and neighbouring nation-states had settled into an uneasy co-existence. With the distractions of border conflicts abated somewhat, the Europeans began to look further afield. Thus commenced the great era of maritime exploration. Led by the Portuguese and the Dutch but soon followed by the Spanish and the British and finally the French, sailing ships from Western Europe began to explore the globe.

In what we would now view as puny little wooden sailing ships, they initiated the European exploration of the Americas, Africa, the East Indies, Australasia and the Pacific. In doing so, some few of these courageous mariners ended up circumnavigating the world, which showed, as the ancient Greeks had long believed, that the earth approximated a sphere. This was not only a geographical statement but a sociological one as well. It cemented the concept of one humankind and led the way to the concept of Darwinian evolution.

These outrageous feats of maritime exploration led in due course to the outright, if temporary, European political and economic domination of the world.

Now this was not to say that there had been no previous explorers of note – it was just that the impact of this European exploration far exceeded events of the past.

The Chinese had once been assiduous explorers.

Historian J M Roberts wrote:

Long mysterious voyage in open canoes were made by the people of the South Pacific.

For centuries Chinese seamen had used much the same navigational aids as Europeans, some of them at an earlier date. The Ming emperors had skilful admirals, ocean-going junks which were probably the largest ships in the world of their time, and experienced crews. They sent expeditions round South-East Asia to India, the Persian Gulf and Arabia. One commander, Ching Ho, took a huge fleet as far as the East Africa coast, a major feat of long-distance navigation. Yet in 1480, the Ming court decided not to continue such maritime enterprise.

The Chinese subsequently withdrew into isolationism.

The Arabs too had been accomplished sailors. They had travelled to Canton and Java to sell slaves and trade in spices. But they too had never ventured too far away from their homelands.

But the European fleets ventured out to the far corners of the earth. This was no doubt facilitated by technical advances including the refinement of the compass and improved cartography. The European maritime project was also in some ways forced upon them by the domination of the Saracen Empire which closed land routes to Asia.

So the European expedition to explore the world was provoked by many stimulants and it was part of the more general transformation in European culture that we have come to know as the Renaissance.

Surprisingly this endeavour was initiated by one of Europe’s smallest nations – Portugal. Extending the exploration of the known world was initiated by Prince Henry, the Navigator. He sponsored expeditions to go further and further down the West coast of Africa. That inspired other European nations to expand their exploratory efforts. The history of this exploration is fascinating, but it is not the purpose of this essay to explore the bold endeavours of these courageous men. Our focus in this essay is to examine what these intrepid explorers found in these new lands.

Initially they sought treasure. The Portuguese found that on the Guinea Coast of West Africa there was gold. The Spanish found in Central America huge quantities of gold and silver. The Dutch found in the East Indies copious supplies of spices that were greatly valued in Europe.

These initial forays into foreign lands were temporarily ceased by the impact of the Napoleonic Wars which required European countries to again focus on internal struggles. But once these issues were settled, Europeans headed out into the world with renewed confidence.

What their explorers had found was that there many parts of these newly European discovered countries that were inhabited by primitive tribal societies. Such countries which were without a central government that provided a concerted national face to the external world were subject to colonisation without the likelihood of any consequential resistance. Unlike the initial grab for treasure, subsequent colonisers were more interested in settling in these remote territories and cultivating, pastoralizing and mining these new found lands.

In the case of Great Britain where farming and pastoral efforts were constrained by access to a small land mass, these far off countries offered a limitless opportunity to farm and raise livestock. Subsequent colonisers were more interested in settling in these remote territories and cultivating and pastoralizing these new found lands rather than just purloining their treasure. On top of that, in Britain, because of a particularly punitive legal system, jails were overflowing.  In Australia’s particular case, the sparsely populated land enabled convicts to be transported so that they might under supervision complete their sentences and be given an opportunity to start a new life.

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, European countries had established several hundred colonies all around the world. Some of these were tiny and some large. Some had already fought for .and obtained independence. Britain, largely because of its post Industrial Revolution wealth, had been the chief coloniser. Britain had about 120 colonies. The British Empire reached its peak around 1920 when the area of its governed territories exceeded 35 million km2. On the eve of World War ll, the inhabitants of Britain and her colonies totalled more than 500 million people.

Many who inhabited those colonies were comfortable with their British dependency. After all the colonial masters had brought to them education, rule of law, liberal tolerance, political representation, property rights and the security of borders which were not prevalent in their societies prior to colonisation.. In this way enlightenment ideas which were previously only the precinct of European countries were introduced more broadly into the world.

By and large the British colonies improved the welfare of their populations.

As Bruce Gilley has written:

The case for European colonisation is simple. It is the case for humanity itself, for the ways that humans have always acted rationally to better their situations in life, and those of their children. It is the case for having a teacher, a coach or a model. It is the case for having opportunity. It is the case for peace, progress, and running water. It is the case for living in a place where life is better and escaping from a place where life is worse. It is the case for human agency and freedom. In short, it is the case for humble submission to the facts of life rather than the worked up intellectual fantasies of the scholar class.

Now whilst there were some Nationalists that had always decried colonialism (e.g. Mahatma Ghandi), the anticolonialism movement didn’t gain particular momentum until after the Second World War, but the seeds of anti-colonialism had been sown much earlier.

It had its genesis in the dogma of the communist movement lead by Lenin. But it was soon joined by the far right. The Nazis had seen themselves freeing Germany from the “colonial: rule of the Treaty of Versailles.

After the Second World War, either through exhaustion or depleted resources many of the European colonialists granted their colonies autonomy.

Whilst this might have been applauded by the libertarians, the decolonisation of quite a few of the previous colonies was an unmitigated disaster. In Zanzibar, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Rwanda and Sri Lanka it led to genocides.

But by now left wing intellectuals were beginning to construct an ideology that was anti-Western and a major plank of this misguided ideology was a fervent anti-colonialism. These passionate anti-colonialists frequently posited that it was necessary for these previous colonies to eschew Western political and cultural beliefs in favour of Marxism or failing that an extreme version of socialism.

But again, in reviewing the progress of the countries that were once colonies, as Gilley (referenced above) writes:

It did not take a Ph.D. to realise that the countries which had preserved their colonial legal orders, economic systems, bureaucracies, and political pluralism were the ones that were doing better.

But let’s now remove ourselves from the debate about colonialism generally and consider the impacts of colonisation in Australia. The Australian colonies from which our states developed were a mix of penal colonies and Crown colonies. Each was headed by a Governor appointed by the British Government and was subject to British Law. In due course other useful institutions were established like schools and hospitals. The British brought with them their technology and thus steamships, railways motor vehicles, electricity, reticulated water systems and factories followed colonisation.

Initially Australian settlement was limited to coastal areas but inevitably pastoralists, farmers and miners gradually opened up Australia’s interior.

Now when we review the history of the European colonising powers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was not only the British that had designs on occupying Australia. At various times The Portuguese, the Dutch and the French sought to gain a foothold in the Great South Land. Therefore it was almost inevitable that Australia would be colonised by Europeans.

Consequently it is illogical for black activists to decry the impacts of British colonialism on indigenous people. Instead of pulling down statues of Captain Cook they could have been pulling down statues of Tasman or La Perouse. In any event Australia would have been colonised by one European country or another.

No doubt the displacement of indigenous peoples from their tribal lands by the European settlers was traumatic for some indigenous people. And it was no walk in the park for the settlers either having to eke out a living in an arid land very different from their homelands. But as we saw above, European settlement with its post-Enlightenment views and values also brought many benefits.

As Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price pointed out during the debate on the Voice Referendum, colonisation had brought benefits to all Australians including those of indigenous heritage. As she rightly said:

….if we keep telling Aboriginal people that they are victims, we are effectively removing their agency and giving them the expectation that someone else is responsible for their lives.

In truth, most indigenous people are prospering under the values, the technologies, the Rule of Law and the systems of governance we have developed which emanated from those British colonial settlements.

There is one indigenous demographic who have not benefitted so much because they have largely withdrawn from mainstream society, not abiding by its laws nor participating in its economy. They have not assimilated into our society but have taken the route of separatism. This was the route championed by “Nugget” Coombs.

Herbert Cole “Nugget” Coombs was a very distinguished Australian. In 1949, Labor Prime Minister, Ben Chifley appointed Coombs to be Governor of the Commonwealth Bank.  When later that year Menzies led the conservatives to power, to the surprise of many, he kept Coombs on. In 1960, when the Reserve Bank was created to take on the central banking functions, Menzies appointed Coombs as its first Governor.

Coombs retired from the Public Service in 1968 but maintained an active interest in the Arts and more particularly in Aboriginal Affairs.

Coombs’ early life was in Western Australia where he had engaged with the Aboriginal community and became concerned for their welfare. This developed into a lifelong passion for him.

In 1968 he was appointed the Chairman of the Australian Council for Aboriginal Affairs which was set up essentially to prosecute the changes which were brought about by the 1967 Referendum. He subsequently became a close advisor to Gough Whitlam who was then leading the Labor Party. It is said that he essentially wrote the Labor Party’s policy on Aboriginal Affairs which it took to the 1972 election which it won, ensconcing Whitlam as Prime Minister.

Coombs opened the 1968 Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. In his speech he assured those present that the Council he chaired would “strengthen the sense of Aboriginal Australians as a distinctive group within our society, with a distinctive contribution to make to the quality of our national life.” This, obviously, was at odds with the views of the Liberal Country Party Government that was espousing assimilation. Coombs also championed the proposition that indigenous people should be able to be repatriated to their traditional tribal lands. He supported the establishment of remote aboriginal communities and had a romantic notion that they would thrive if allowed to take up more traditional lifestyles.

As a consequence of Coomb’s recommendations, the Government of the day facilitated the establishment of remote Aboriginal communities, ostensibly to return indigenous people to their homelands where they were expected to hone a living from traditional foraging and hunting augmented by commerce associated with traditional art and culture and hopefully tourism. The Government provided generous economic support of such communities in anticipation that they would eventually become self-sufficient.

Nugget Coombs championed these remote communities as a vehicle for enabling Indigenous self-determination. Self-determination might be defined as the right of a group of people to determine their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural development. Unfortunately, most of these communities are not sustainable because they don’t provide reasonable economic opportunities. Consequently they contain large numbers of Indigenous people who are doomed to exist on welfare. What’s more, their social and cultural mores have declined (as the appalling statistics regarding unemployment, the incidence of domestic violence, the abuse of drugs and alcohol, educational outcomes, rates of suicide and the burgeoning rates of foetal alcohol syndrome will attest). It seems therefore unlikely their circumstances can be improved without again some paternalistic intervention.

In an Australian University working paper in 1979, Coombs proclaimed that the so-called homeland settlements would be “autonomous and self-sufficient economic units”. He asserted that “production, including hunting and gathering will be directed to home consumption and the reduction of dependence on imported goods”. Of course he was gravely mistaken and the remote indigenous settlements have continued to be a drain on the resources of the Federal Government, and what’s more they have become dysfunctional enclaves which have caused great suffering to indigenous peoples and created many barriers which have prevented them from partaking in the normal lives enjoyed by other Australians.

The separationist philosophy of Coombs was highlighted by his recommendation that the curriculum of the indigenous schools in the remote communities should be restricted to basic literacy and numeracy “to minimise assimilationist influences.”

In the last half century, following these events, a huge “Aboriginal industry” has been set up comprising government departments, welfare agencies, not-for-profit organisations, consultants, academics and left-wing opinion leaders all supposedly devoted to aiding indigenous Australians overcome their disadvantage. The most insidious effect of all of this has been to convince many indigenous people that they are victims and that it is somebody else’s (generally the state’s) responsibility to “save”  them. The growing acceptance by so many of our indigenous fellows that they are passive recipients of their own fates with no sense of an internal locus of control has made it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And of course the Aboriginal industry has no incentive whatsoever to try to cultivate a sense of agency amongst indigenous folk because their continued influence, not to mention their continued funding, is largely dependent on the sense of indigenous victimhood.

The romantic vision of Coombs has proven to be flawed. His desire was that within “the security of the homeland context, the young would grow up capable of making use of what white society offers but remaining essentially uncorrupted by it.” Reality, in fact, has displayed just the opposite of this in the remote communities. The young are in fact corrupted by the worst of white society, (alcohol, drugs, pornography, indolence and irresponsibility) without assuming the best (industry, ambition, and social responsibility).

All this has been facilitated by a particularly flawed ideology. As I have written previously:

It is the notion that prior to colonisation, Australia’s indigenous peoples lived in an idyllic paradise. It has become almost a secular version of “Paradise Lost”. This myth is perpetuated by the black activists who are keen to accentuate the notion that all the difficulties and dysfunction experienced by indigenous peoples are due to colonisation. This grossly distorted point of view is actively promulgated because it supports the activist’s crutch of indigenous victimhood.

French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau first proposed that the “noble savage” lived an idyllic life uncorrupted by civilisation. This concept struck a chord with many romanticists then and since.

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes took a contrary view. He postulated that life without civilisation as we know it was likely to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

With respect to the indigenous population of Australia, I suspect that Hobbes’ view was more accurate than Rousseau’s. Except for the most fertile areas where water was abundant and sources of game and edible plants reliable, providing basic sustenance would have proved difficult. We know that traditional culture in most Aboriginal tribes had problematic aspects. They were violent and predominantly paternalistic. Payback and belief in sorcery encroached on everyday life. Violence against women was endemic and infanticide widely practised. All this doesn’t sound too “noble” to me!

We can’t change our history so we must try and make the most of the circumstances that our history has provided for us.

As the Persian polymath, Omar Khayyam told us:

The moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half. A line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.

Surely the lessons here for indigenous people are twofold, viz.

  1. You can’t cancel history – you can only learn to live with it.  One way or another Australia was bound to be colonised. On balance most would agree it was probably better to be colonised by the British than the other European alternatives. Moreover the romanticised ideal of pre-colonial indigenous Utopia, despite the mythologising of Bruce Pascoe and others, is far from the truth and is not something a logical person would aspire to. Pre-colonial indigenous existence was not a bed of roses!
  2. Colonisation has brought many benefits. Indigenous people can enjoy those benefits if they choose to engage with our modern, liberal democracy (as many do). Those that are stuck in the mire of victimhood, as Senator Price opined, have also chosen to absolve themselves for responsibility for their own lives. That can only lead to despair. Australia is a better place because of colonisation if you only choose to avail yourself of those benefits. Wallowing in the victimhood of colonisation consigns you to a bitter life with little hope of redemption.

8 Replies to “A Rational Look at Colonialism”

  1. Very good treatise on the realities, Ted. When researching for my most recent blog, Recolonisation, I noted from one of the many reports on Aboriginal welfare that education was rejected by many as interfering with culture. Small wonder so many aborigines decline the opportunity that would bring them out of misery.

  2. The simple truth is, for all the pain and suffering, Britian coming to these shores and forming a colony benefitted everyone.

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