Raffles Place, Singapore … ‘European withdrawal after the second world war was never in doubt.’ Photograph: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images
The central event of the modern era is Asia’s emergence from the ravages of western imperialism. In Britain, meanwhile, Niall Ferguson is an ardent ‘neo-imperialist’. Why can’t we escape our narcissistic version of history, asks Pankaj Mishra
The British empire, George Orwell wrote, was “despotism with theft as its final object”. So what has made imperialism an intellectual fashion in our own time, reopening hoary disputes about whether it was good or bad? After five years as a colonial policeman in Burma, where he found himself shooting an elephant to affirm the white man’s right to rule, Orwell was convinced that the imperial relationship was that of “slave and master”. Was the master good or bad? “Let us simply say,” Orwell wrote, “that this control is despotic and, to put it plainly, self-interested.” And “if Burma derives some incidental benefit from the English, she must pay dearly for it.”
Certainly, as Joseph Conrad wrote in 1902, “the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” Two years after Conrad published Heart of Darkness, Roger Casement, then a British diplomat, revealed in a report that half of the population of Belgian-ruled Congo – nearly 10 million people – had perished under a brutal regime where beheadings, rape and genital mutilation of African labourers had become the norm. Such overt violence and terror is only a small part of the story of European domination of Asia and Africa, which includes the slow-motion slaughter of tens of million in famines caused by unfettered experiments in free trade – and plain callousness (Indians, after all, would go on breeding “like rabbits”, Winston Churchill argued when asked to send relief during the Bengal famine of 1943-44).
Moreover, a narcissistic history – one obsessed with western ideals, achievements, failures and challenges – can only retard a useful understanding of the world today. For most people in Europe and America, the history of the present is still largely defined by victories in the second world war and the long standoff with Soviet communism, even though the central event of the modern era, for a majority of the world’s population, is the intellectual and political awakening of Asia and its emergence, still incomplete, from the ruins of both Asian and European empires. The much-heralded shift of power from the west to the east may or may not happen. But only neo-imperialist dead-enders will deny that we have edged closer to the cosmopolitan future the first generation of modern Asian thinkers, writers and leaders dreamed of – in which people from different parts of the world meet as equals rather than as masters and slaves, and no one needs to shoot elephants to confirm their supremacy.