By Nick Edwards-Often we are told that the colonial period of European empires is an epoch that we should only consider as shameful and horrific, a time when our ancestors exploited and oppressed native populations across the world.
The truth is more complex than this stereotype, whilst examples of exploitation and even of extermination (such as the Spanish conquest of the Incas and Aztecs) can easily be found, there are also many examples of colonialists who worked hard to improve the lives of the native populations, and who helped them to preserve their cultures while propagating education, health care and other benefits of modernisation.
Slavery and the slave trade is always cited as the worst colonial atrocity -- as Britain's 'holocaust'.
Yet Britain led the way in being the first to outlaw the slave trade (in 1807) and to liberate slaves in its colonies (1833). Its maritime power was used to break up and eventually end the seagoing slave trade between Africa and
Britain also took the lead in terminating the slave trade of Africans to Arab and Middle-Eastern countries, which had been going on for centuries, and was even more extensive across Africa than the European slave
trade, which had been concentrated in West Africa.
For example, Gen. Charles Gordon and Eduard Schnitzer ended the slave trade from the South Sudan in the 1870's -- Schnitzer was later murdered by Arab slave traders in revenge for this.
Throughout Africa, the British colonial administrations adopted the policy of 'indirect rule', with existing African tribal organisations preserved and used as the intermediary authorities between the colonial administration and the native population.
This policy protected and preserved the indigenous cultures, whilst enabling the diffusion of education and
In Ghana, for example, Governor Gordon Guggisberg in the 1920's initiated substantial development of the country: construction of railways, of a deep-water port, and a hospital and college, aiming at works which were for the benefit of the native population rather than for external capitalists (Wikipedia, Sept 2012).
At independence in 1957, Ghana was one of the most affluent of African countries.
In India, the British administration brought substantial benefits to the indigenous populations, constructing
32,000 miles of railways up to 1910, founding universities (such as the universities of Calcutta, Bombay and
Madras), taking measures for famine relief, and enacting social reforms (suppression of female infanticide, etc).
A major achievement was keeping the peace between Muslim and Hindu states, which had been incessantly at war for hundreds of years before the British Raj.
As in Africa, the British were reluctant to interfere in the cultural or religious lives of native Indians. It took
sustained campaigning by Indian and British reformers against the custom of widows being put to death (suttee) before the administration finally declared suttee illegal (1829).
Colonialism, particularly the enlightened forms of administration practised by the British over much of Africa and Asia, should be recognised as a period that helped the native societies to progress economically and socially faster than they could have done without this assistance from more developed societies.
independence, the colonies also retained a legacy of democratic, legal and educational institutions which in many cases still survive today.