Do a nation’s past sins eventually evaporate if they’re long ignored? Or do they just slowly simmer until they one day boil over?
For hundreds of years, European nations had powerful warships capable of sailing great distances. Their fighting men were armed with weapons of steel fueled by gunpowder. And–perhaps most importantly–Europeans carried with them potent biological weapons: diseases like smallpox to which they had developed immunity. They used those guns, germs and steel to subdue native peoples outside Europe and turn those lands into colonies. Spain–the first colonial power beginning in 1492–dominated the Americas south of the Rio Grande. In the decades and centuries which followed, other European powers followed Spain’s example not only in the Americas, but also in Africa and Asia.
Europe said it was doing all this for the good of the people they colonized. They believed that their ability to conquer was proof positive that they were superior to the conquered people and that those people would therefore be better off ruled by European masters. This attitude was most famously captured by the Rudyard Kipling poem The White Man’s Burden:
Take up the white man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
Not surprisingly, the colonized did not welcome Europe’s rule. Neither did they accept the view that Europeans were superior to them and that colonization was really for their own good. They saw it as a rape of their country in which their riches flowed out to Europe and only repression returned. Colonized people resisted their European overlords, and the colonizers responded brutally. Because they viewed the native people as inferior and less-than-fully human, it was easy to justify harsh measures; they were necessary, done for the natives’ own good.
Although the British Empire was the largest and best-known colonial operation, the United Kingdom was far from alone. The French colonized Indochina, the Dutch took over the East Indies and the Germans picked up what scraps were left. (German rule of Namibia was particularly brutal.) And Americans should not feel so smug. After defeating the Spanish in 1898, the USA inherited its colonies. America’s post-war failure to turn the Philippines over to Filipino rebels–fighters who had been American allies during the war with Spain–led to an insurrection that lasted for years. (America’s armed opposition to Philippine independence embarrassed a large segment of the population of a country founded a little more than a century before by rebels who opposed British rule over its 13 American colonies.)
In the years following World War II almost all colonies were granted independence. But rarely did independence include reparations for the damage done during the colonial years or apologies for the killing, torture and other brutality committed to maintain colonial rule. Decades have passed, but the sins of those colonial years have not evaporated over those long years. They have only simmered slowly on the back burner, with grievances and memories passed down to a new generation.
Those simmering sins are now boiling over. Did the United Kingdom ever imagine that its biggest ally would one day elect as its president the grandson of a Kenyan rebel? A few months ago NBC News noted that in his book Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama said his Kenyan grandfather Onyango was held by the British for six months in a detention camp, returning to his family malnourished and crippled with a head full of lice. Now Kenyans are suing the UK to be compensated for injuries they received as Britain struggled in the post-WWII years to put down the Mau Mau uprising and hang on to a key African colony.
A nation’s mistakes do not disappear by pretending they do not exist. A nation–just like a person–can be deep in denial. And denial rarely works. A nation accepts responsibility for past mistakes like people accept responsibility: first by admitting to what it did wrong. But confession is not enough. When he was President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy said France would own up to its repressive rule of Algeria, but it would never apologize. “I’m for a recognition of the facts.” Sarkozy said, ”but not for repentance, which is a religious notion that has no place in relations between states.” Italy disagrees. Back in 2008 Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi apologized for its actions in Libya during colonial rule: “It is my duty, as a head of government, to express to you in the name of the Italian people our regret and apologies for the deep wounds that we have caused you.” To show that he meant it, Berlusconi kicked in five billion bucks as compensation. Japan, like France, is stumbling over its national pride. Korea is still waiting for a Japanese apology for its oppressive colonization of Korea in the early 20th Century.
Just like people, nations cannot move past colonial sins unless they not only admit those sins but also apologize for them. It’s amazing what saying “I’m sorry” can do to repair relationships between nations just as it can work miracles among people. Former colonial powers may hope that their colonial sins will simply evaporate. But until they fully accept responsibility for their repression, the grievances of the repressed will continue to simmer on the back burner and continue to boil over. Closing out the colonial era requires courageous confession, apology and compensation.
NBC News reports on colonial sins coming back to bite the colonizers: http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/10/01/13722339-colonial-sins-return-to-haunt-former-world-powers?lite
This is a good book about one country’s far-too-typical looting of the resources of its colony. Belgium’s King Leopold treated the Congo almost as his personal piggy bank:
The French President refuses repentance: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2007/07/10/uk-algeria-france-apology-idUKL1063873720070710