I came across a post on social media where a man posted a chart, apparently first made in 1931, that shows how various peoples and civilizations from the Assyrians to the Romans and the Mongols have conquered and enslaved and colonised various other peoples in history.
The poster concluded that the current “wokeism” of always blaming colonisers from the west is misplaced and wrong. The logic was hey, everybody’s been doing it forever, so give us westerners a break!
A most interesting perspective indeed. But let me digress for a bit.
After 25 years, I’ve returned to the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet along the banks of the Mekong River, to visit a very special museum that didn’t exist then.
Not much has changed on the Thai side. It’s still the same sleepy river town, though I’m sure it hustles and bustles more in the peak season, which doesn’t seem to be anywhere near December by the look of it.
The Myanmar side looks just as sleepy, though not far away are shooting wars going on between the government forces and their armed opponents. Time will tell who will win, and whether the shooting war will visit this sleepy place.
On the Laos side, however, many high-rise hotels, casinos and apartments have sprung up on what used to be muddy and empty river banks. The money that paid for all this construction has come from China, though there’s much evidence that that has dried up. Many of the buildings will probably never be filled, or even be completed.
The museum I came to visit is grandly called the Hall of Opium and was built by a Thai royal family foundation to tell the sad story about opium, and also pay homage to the late king and his mother who worked tirelessly to improve the lot of the local people and stem the opium plague.
It’s a unique building that burrows into a hill, and tells its story with an impartiality I didn’t quite expect.
The opium story started when the various European East India Companies, especially the British one, aided and abetted by their respective governments, forced China’s weak Qing Dynasty to open up the country to foreign trade. This allowed unimpeded exports of precious Chinese tea, and imports of manufactured western goods through China’s many coastal cities, much against China’s will.
One of the goods that flowed in made a huge and savage impact. It was opium, then produced in the hills of this very “triangle”, and an extremely lucrative export for the British, but which brought untold misery to millions of Chinese who became addicted.
The Chinese rulers knew about opium’s destructive impact and tried to stop its distribution and use, but were thwarted by the British and their European cohorts through the various Opium Wars, which China lost.
China kowtowed to the foreigners and had to open up the domestic market even more, and pay war reparations too.
Opium eventually led to the overthrow of the weak and corrupt Qing Dynasty. China was in turmoil for a few decades before the communists finally won the civil war and took over the whole country, with the exception of Taiwan. This loss remains a sore and possible flash point even now.
Communism brought much hardship and led to the death of millions of Chinese especially during the various “cultural” revolutions. But things have improved and China is now a stable and prosperous nation, with a realistic chance of becoming the biggest global economic power.
That’s one of the clearest examples of the effects of colonialism, albeit an indirect one carried out through an evil sabotage.
In Africa, the enthusiasm and ruthless efficiency of the French, Belgian, German, Dutch and Italian colonisers made the British look like choir boys as millions of Africans were enslaved or killed, in the Belgian Congo as well as in every other part of Africa and the Middle East.
Then there’s South America, where entire native civilisations were wiped out by the Spanish and the Portuguese. And then there’s North America, and also Australia, where the indigenous populations lost pretty much everything to the invaders.
We in South East Asia fared slightly better. Malaysia got off the colonisation train relatively lightly, though others, such as Vietnam, paid a much higher price, even after independence, in terms of lives and destruction.
It’s been pointed out that, on average, every six days a nation somewhere in the world celebrates its independence from Britain, showing the scale of British imperialism. Add in the other colonising nations and well-nigh every other day is a celebration of freedom from colonisation somewhere in the world.
Does this prove that the westerners are evil? No, it doesn’t. The other colonisers before them were also harsh and cruel. No human race has the monopoly on being good. We often give in to our baser instincts when it comes to the treatment of others not quite like us, and even today it seems there are no limits to our capacity to be cruel, as can be seen even from some current issues.
So, the chart I mentioned earlier may be right in depicting the many eras of various colonisers in world history. But if you’re one of the billions in the world today who has directly faced, or continues to face, the effect of colonisation, much of which was at the hands of westerners (and perhaps Japan, who played the colonisation game too), who do you blame?
Do you blame the Assyrians or the Romans or the Mongols for tearing your country and ancestors apart? For the rape and pillage of the various nations regarded as “crown jewels” of the colonising powers? For arbitrarily drawing lines in the sand that gave rise to untold suffering and misery and injustice even today?
Chart or no chart, you would point your fingers to those who actually committed these horrors, such as the British or the other even more brutal (dare I say uncivilised?) European powers whose blood lust cost the deaths of untold millions, especially of Africans and Asians.
And these ex-colonisers, now busily shouting about rule of law and right to defend one’s self, never came even close to being held accountable for their sins, including the inhumane exploitation of opium to subjugate China.
It’s easy to argue, as the drawer of that chart I mentioned earlier had done, that we all had our turns at being colonisers as well as the colonised. But it’s easier to argue that, regardless of ancient history, the authors of much of the current misery in much of the world today are indeed to be found in the west.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.