Colonialism and imperialism partially stem from the desire to control territory and other people. External factors affect the origins of this endeavor, but often control is the underlying principle behind it. Why do some nations and empires decide to control others? By examining European colonists’ and imperialists’ attitudes from the fifteen-hundreds up until the end of the twentieth century, one can see the influence of Christianity, cultural chauvinism, economics, among others, on colonized and imperialized nations. This control over groups of people utilized various techniques such as forced conversion, violence, and exposure to opium. Above all, one type of success reigns supreme: the power of British culture. English is the language of commerce, Christianity remains the largest religion, and Shakespeare, the hallmark of Western culture, is taught in both the East and West as indication of how prominent the influence still is. This cultural influence remains and British colonies do not, which shows how colonialism and imperialism as an economic endeavor did not have a long term effect like it did as a cultural endeavor. Despite the long term success that colonialists and imperialists had with changing natives’ culture, this method is seen as more evil, futile, and extraneous than straight violence. The attitudes of Cortez, the Jesuits, Kipling, Farrell, Macaulay, and Conrad show how colonialism and imperialism fail in economic domination, succeed in cultural indoctrination, and ultimately create an evil worse than death.
In the sixteenth to seventeenth century, colonialism and imperialism focused on economic growth through exploitation of the natives and Christianization through conversion to Catholicism. Today, Christianity is the largest religion and Catholicism is the largest Christian denomination. This wide-spread influence stems from the way that conversion was dealt with in early colonialism. On one hand, Cortez the conquistador justifies his conquest by saying “And besides, we were only doing what as Christians we were under obligations to do, by warring against the enemies of our faith- by which means we secured to ourselves glory in another world…that they should also reflect that God was on our side” (Cortez). Essentially, what Cortez sets up is a two-fold idea that the Spanish have to bring Christianity to the natives because not only does the word need to be spread for the natives’ sake, but also to ensure salvation for the Spanish Christians. Additionally, a forced labor system known as encomienda arose under the pretense that in order to Christianize natives, their behavior had to be controlled. In other words, the Spanish had to find a way to justify cheap labor to make more money while sounding Christian. On the other hand, the Jesuits focused their efforts on Christianizing without an economic agenda. The Jesuits were encouraged to adapt to the natives’ culture in order to teach them more effectively (LeJeune). “Nevertheless, in the space of a few years about twelve thousands of them have been baptized,—most of whom, we hope, are now in Heaven, for having been most fervent and most constant in the Faith” reports Bressani in 1653 about the Jesuit’s success (Bressani). Despite the differing intentions that Cortez and the Jesuits had, both effectively caused a rise in Christianity. Both examples of this Christianization were done primarily in the name of God. Cortez killed many people, made natives slaves in everything excluding name, forced natives to convert to Christianity in the name of God. The Jesuits adapted to native culture and set up a bell system, regular mass, among other techniques to convert natives in the name of God. Whether through exploitation or sermonizing, Christianity played a huge role in early colonialism and imperialism as both a justification and a “necessity”.
Over time, Christianization shifts to a paternalistic attitude, hinting at cultural chauvinism. Much later, in 1899 Kipling penned the famous poem “White Man’s Burden”. The last stanza reads “Take up the White Man’s burden--/Have done with childish days--/The lightly proferred laurel,/The easy, ungrudged praise./Comes now, to search your manhood/Through all the thankless years/Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,/The judgment of your peers”. Christianity is not explicitly mentioned and one could argue that it is an implicit part of the poem. Whether or not Christianity is a part of the poem, the bigger idea that Kipling presents is a paternalistic attitude. Kipling portrays the “White Man” as the father to all of the natives, professing that colonialism and imperialism is a matter of manhood above all else. Furthermore, Kipling refers to the conquered natives as “half-devil and half-child”, echoing the father-son attitude and showing a new idea: superiority (Kipling). This idea of superiority is affirmed when Kipling writes “the blame of those ye better” (Kipling). For Kipling to make that conjecture, the underlying assumption is that there is something to better. At this point, colonialism and imperialism relied on controlling the lives of those who were conquered and that includes culture. Kipling shows how the British simply assumed that their culture was better and that their presence would provide betterment. The intrinsic quality of this idea shows how ingrained cultural chauvinism was in their own culture. The nature of the idea was so ordinary and common to them that it did not have to be defended.
Cultural chauvinism encouraged colonists and imperialists to disrespect, discount, and disdain native culture. Hari in Siege of Krishnapur takes Fleury on a tour of the Maharajah’s Palace, showing his own culture to Fleury. Fleury fancies himself a connoisseur of fine culture and is not impressed by Hari despite Hari’s ability to wield British technology better than people in the Residency and his collection of various rugs, parasols, and such. Hari, who tries to exist in both British and Indian culture, sharply remarks to Fleury that “I am very sad…that you, Fleury, should reveal yourself so frightfully backward” (Farrell 87). Hari wanted Fleury to validate his own culture and take interest, which Fleury did not do. Fleury frequently downplays Hari’s culture, which shows how Fleury does not care at all about what Indian culture is, he automatically thinks it is inferior and not worth learning about. To that point, Macaulay writes “And I certainly never met with any orientalist who ventured to maintain that the Arabic and Sanscrit poetry could be compared to that of the great European nations…all this historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable” (Macaulay). In sweeping generalizations and admissions of never having read anything in Sanscrit or Arabic, Macaulay literally says that their writing and culture is so inferior to European culture that it should not even be taught. Macaulay goes on to say “What we spend on the Arabic and Sanscrit Colleges is not merely a dead loss to the cause of truth. It is bounty-money paid to raise up champions of error” (Macaulay). Not only is non-European culture considered inferior, it is considered useless. Both Fleury and Macaulay think nothing of completely discounting someone else’s culture, which reflects the level of cultural chauvinism that Europeans, specifically Britons, had during this time.
Focus on cultural conversion led to emasculating criticism, which sparked a wholly economic type of imperialism and colonialism that championed money and materialism over human decency. Despite great cultural chauvinism, eventually focus on cultural conversion was considered futile because the natives were seen as so subhuman that they could not possibly take in “higher culture”. Dickens remarks “It is my opinion that if we retained in us anything of the noble savage, we could not get rid of it too soon” (Dickens). Gone is the Christian desire to convert, gone is the paternalistic desire to better, gone is the cultural chauvinist attitude to culturally convert, and here is the desire to rid the world of the “noble savage”. Not only is native culture seen as completely worthless at this point, the native or the “noble savage” is seen as completely worthless. Dickens harshly criticizes those who try to change the “noble savage”, saying that is a futile effort. By removing any sentimental, cultural connection with the colonized people, a new type of materialism is born- one without human decency. Marlow describes the atmosphere of those working in Africa as “The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it”, which shows the goal of their endeavor (Conrad 25). Marlow then narrates the cost of getting the ivory through a scene he relays “‘What a row the brute makes!’ said the indefatigable man with the moustaches, appearing near us. ‘Serves him right. Transgression- punishment- bang! Pitiless, pitiless. That’s the only way. This will prevent all conflagrations for the future’” (Conrad 27). Here, Conrad shows that when someone’s culture is discounted, all forms of violence taken against them, even for something as materialistic as ivory, are justifiable and not seen as flagrantly wrong. Arguably, in order to compensate for cultural conversion being considered a feminine idea, bouts of violence sprung up, no longer under the pretense of Christianization or paternalism, but for the purpose of making money. The colonists and imperialists consider the natives without morals and below civilization because of the way they live, but never consider how they will rape, pillage, and kill for kill for a sum of money (Dickens). Whatever semblance of a conscience that the colonists and imperialists have is shoved away, as seen by the Collector when says to Hari “You must forgive me for treating you so badly” (Conrad 135). The Collector is looking for justification for his actions and for someone to tell him that he can control people in this way if he can get money and power from it. The evolution of colonialism and imperialism sparks the idea that natives are subhuman and that actions taken against them do not matter in the long run.
By juxtaposing violence with full cultural conversion, it is plain to see that loss of identity is more impactful, evil, and disgusting than loss of life. The Collector keeps Hari in the tiger shed with a phrenology book while the Britons fight to defend the Residency (Farrell 190). The Collector removed Hari completely from his culture, his home and in turn, Hari loses his identity and falls under the European pseudo-science of phrenology. Farrell specifically chose for Hari to identify with phrenology because from a modern perspective, phrenology is absolutely absurd and it is painful to see Hari in this state. Farrell sets the novel up to have the reader sympathize with Hari, especially when Fleury berates his culture. Hari’s loss of identity is a blow more devastating than the descriptions of warfare going on outside. “Indeed, all the sepoys had vanished by now or were lying dead or mortally wounded” describes the close of a battle scene (Farrell 200). Much of the violence and death is purposefully desensitized in attempt to mimic what the British thought of their killing. The sepoys are almost always described either as faceless bodies or sepoys, seldom if ever are their expressions described. As an audience, Farrell does not set us up to feel sympathetic towards those dying, but rather towards those dying. This principle can be applied to life too. Farrell argues that those who die rather than live to lose their culture are not to be pitied. Living with a new culture perpetuates the culture. It is people like Hari, changed forever by the British, who stick with British culture and inevitably spread it. The generations of colonized people do not have a choice in whether they perpetuate British culture because the culture was pressed, whether directly or indirectly, on them. Their lives are changed forever and what makes it disgusting is that they did not have a choice and that they still have to live through it.
Colonialism and imperialism bring up many moral dilemmas about how much control if any is acceptable. The British exhausted many methods of control and ended up being successful on many fronts. The absolute shame about this success is how long it takes to undo change. Will English not be the language of commerce? Will other religions balance out Christianity? Will Shakespeare ever leave bookshelves? Will Western influence ever fade or is it because of cruelty, violence, ruthlessness, and malice that it will still pervade every area of the world that was colonized by Europeans at one point? Many of the authors discussed in this paper argued that we cannot lose British and European culture for the sake of maintaining civilization. Now we know that we cannot lose any culture for the sake of maintaining civilization, but did European colonists and imperialists make it so we have already lost too much of other civilization’s culture that we cannot gain it back? This paper is primarily a literary analysis, but it also serves the function of raising the fundamental question: what are we doing that destroys other people’s cultures? Ultimately, we are all colonists and imperialists in some way, shape or form, and if we minimize our destruction, we will maximize human decency. Reflect on what happened to Hari, reflect on how impossible it is to regain culture, and reflect on how easy it is to descend into the heart of darkness. Lastly, remember that change and death are both permanent, but one you have to live with and the other, you do not.