Colonialism – Was it all bad?

Colonialism is not flavour of the month at present. At a time when activists are advocating the pulling down of statues of colonial leaders perhaps we should be investigating the actual history of colonialism rather than relegating it summarily to the ‘bad’ box of history. In New Zealand, a growing proportion of citizens are now learning te reo Maori, the word ‘Aotearoa’ prefaces the country’s name in public expression, and most public ceremonies open with a Maori greeting. Outwardly, New Zealand appears to have integrated its indigenous population into its culture, mastered inclusivity in employment law and is fast reversing the punitive effects of the predominantly monoculture it was in the post-war years, though Maori still comprise 50 per cent of New Zealand’s prison population, despite being only 15 per cent of its total population; a brake on complacency.

When I began researching Sailors, Settlers & Sinners, I was motivated by the need to know more about my family and its history and was galvanised by the primary evidence at my disposal – letters, journals, photos and portraits in family hands, but also documents in the public domain which would add support and colour to the colonial stories I found. Colonialism was a comparatively peaceful subject area. By the time the book went to press, the sometimes shrill and chilling clamour of identity politics  was gaining traction around the world and colonialism was being attacked on all sides. Rhodes, generator of the famous Rhodes scholarship which so many New Zealanders had benefitted from in providing the means for university study abroad, was being attacked at Oxford University, his statue under threat there. One British commentator, privately educated in Wimbledon and the daughter of a British father and Ghanaian mother, was questioning whether the statue of Horatio Nelson, hero of Trafalgar, should remain in place in Trafalgar Square, not on the grounds that Nelson was a slave trader, he wasn’t, but that he did nothing to act against slavery. In the subsequent public discussion, the complexity of individual positions on racism, Britishness, one’s identity in a multicultural society whose wealth and influence was bolstered by a history of colonialism and expansion, began to drown out pride in what the British had also achieved in colonising other territories. In fact, pride in Britain was being eroded fast. In the rush to proclaim the evils of slavery, and those who had exploited positions of powers to do evil (the genocide of aboriginal people in Tasmania, the Amritsar massacre in the Punjab of British India),  people seemed to forget that some British colonies had been established by enterprising people who laid the foundations for roads, schools, hospitals, law courts and the rule of law, universities, sports fields, churches, the police – the whole infrastructure of a stable society from which all of us were benefitting still.

In one discussion on social media, I was asked to ‘decolonise my bookshelves’, a baffling request. What did it actually mean? Was I being asked to dispose of the books that made my research meaningful? Was I being asked to throw away the primary sources that recounted what had actually gone on in this particular colonial society? When I objected, and tried to explain, I was labelled as ‘racist’. I’m not. The person who made this criticism did not realise how close her instruction to ‘decolonise my bookshelf’ was to those issued by authoritarian rulers who revel in ideology and the burning of books, a pre-requisite to re-education. The request mirrored similar requests of students around the world clamouring to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. Britain, like many societies from time immemorial had involved itself in slavery and made money from it, but it had also over a period of nearly fifty years after William Wilberforce’s famous activism, attempted to stamp out slavery.

As an expatriate New Zealander living in London and the beneficiary of a colonial society but also now a citizen in a sophisticated older culture that is now negotiating its place in the world, I am intrigued by the ferocity of this raging culture war. I hope Sailors, Settlers & Sinners, which began as an innocent research project will be taken for what it is, the memoir of a nearly forgotten time and not as an apologia for colonialism, some of it good, some of it not-so-good.