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History should be objective but historians can probably never be. They are narrators and any narrative has to highlight certain features of the subject matter, according to the author’s preferences, understanding, beliefs or to the influences that shape interpretations. History after all is a story.
In the guise of redressing injustice, there is a widespread push to analyse past events according to prevalent ideas. For instance, while there is a universal consensus to condemn abhorrent practices such as slavery, untouchability, the armed subjection of a people or country and the destruction of a culture, all of which are unfortunately par for the course of the human saga, an increasing number of features of history deserve a more nuanced and ambiguous interpretation than what is often nowadays given to them by the dominant leftist or left-of-centre ideology. One case in point is colonisation or imperial subjection resorted to in one form or another by innumerable tribes or nations on all continents at the expense of usually less numerous or less aggressive populations. There seems to be a harsh law of nature that leads to more powerful species or groups to annex the territory of weaker ones and to prey on them. European overseas mercantile colonialism that began in the late 15th century CE is now deservedly reviled after long being a subject of pride and glory but there is no unanimity for condemning the colonialism practiced by Greek city-states, the Romans or the Arabs in the early centuries of Islam. Likewise, we deplore the bloody campaigns of the Spanish conquistadors in the Americas without being similarly critical of the record of cruel wars between the various native American nations through which certain peoples, such as the Aztecs and Incas massacred and enslaved their neighbours. It was in part however the fear and enmity prevailing between many of the pre-Columbian ‘Indians’ which paved the way for the relatively quick and complete victory of the few invading Europeans over vast masses of local denizens.
In the annals of humankind, we will find very few nations that did not come to dominate, through a combination of economic, demographic and military means, other peoples or ethnic groups at some stage of their evolution. Many of the countries that are now officially ‘Arab’, such as Syria and the North African ones were not so original and some of their ethnic minorities are still uncomfortable with that blanket cultural and political identity. Likewise, Turkey was not Turkish until it was taken over by Central Asian settlers. However universal blame is reserved for the ‘western’ or rather northern countries which conquered much of the non-European world later. There is growing pressure to declare that colonialism is tantamount to genocide and hence a crime against humanity, yet facts belie that definition.
Genocide, a term coined by Raphael Lemkin in the particular circumstances of the second world war with a clear strategic objective means the extermination of an entire race and ‘crime against humanity’ is not a juridically codified or objectively definable concept as there is no litmus test for it. The population of many annexed lands – such as Algeria under French occupation for instance – increased manifold under foreign rule which, along with many undeniable and often dreadful injustices and impositions brought about material progress in terms of infrastructure, public safety, sanitation, health and literacy while broadly respecting the religious identity and way of life of the ‘natives’. This is not an attempt to justify the colonizers who were obviously acting in their perceived own interest or even out a misled belief in their bounden duty to ‘civilize savage races’ but simply a reminder of the need to keep things in perspective and not to judge the past by current standards which may well not survive very long either. In the protracted insurrection which brought the French presence to an end in Algeria atrocities were committed on both sides and the qualification of French military actions as genocidal is off the mark.
The widespread call for compensations to be given and apologies tendered by the formerly or presently colonizing powers makes sense if it is a constructive appeal to repair past injustices or simply an opportunistic attempt to gain some financial help from those who extracted profit from their colonies and protectorates in the past; however in the historical context it makes little sense. We cannot remake the past – though we often try to forget or revise it in our successive accounts – and we forget it at our own peril but neither should we become obsessed by it. The European arch-colonisers of the last five centuries had themselves fallen under the rule of several foreign rulers in prior centuries: Greeks, Romans, Goths, Franks, Lombards, Burgundians, Vandals, Vikings, Moors, Huns, Mongols and Turks, whether we think of Britain, Gaul, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Poland, the Balkans or Russia. Should the British accuse their Danish and Saxon invaders and will the French seek reparations from the Germanic Frankish conquerors?
Most overseas empires of the last 500 years began with commercial expeditions which gradually morphed into armed raids, land grabbing and political takeovers. The world map of today is the product of the eventually inevitable interaction between various civilizations and states, irrespective of the moral convictions and sociopolitical theories that now hold sway.
Realists from the Mahabharata and Chanakya onwards teach us that nature cannot be ignored and always reclaims its own. In recent years the Russian State at least has realized that it is vain to denounce and forget any stage of its history, whether it is Tatar rule, the Tzarist autocracy or the Soviet period. Can ‘Latin America’ give up the Spanish and Portuguese languages and return to the state of a tribal mosaic? Can the USA turn its back on the British legacy? Fiery anticolonial rhetoric was needed to extricate subjected nations from the grasp of their conquerors but it must now be replaced by a spirit of vigilant cooperation to defeat or prevent new forms of foreign domination in the erstwhile colonies. There were several specific cases of intended or fortuitous, attempted or complete genocide in the chronicles of colonialism, as in the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the American continent but as a whole, the latter (colonialism) cannot be equated with the former (genocide) nor do any post-facto official apologies make much sense as they cannot reflect the context in which past deeds and wrongs were done. As the ongoing waves of immigration from poorer or troubled parts of the world into richer regions show it is in the character of human beings to move to other pastures, peacefully or not and power has its own dynamic.