Over recent decades, to this day, there has been a great deal
of distorted and emotional criticism of the former British
Empire which is constantly depicted as the 'villain of the
piece' particularly by some members of the media and other
self-serving community groups and individuals.
The extent of this insidious disinformation program is
widespread to the extent that most of the time the general
public absorbs and digests the unnecessarily biased and
inaccurate information with little question or concern.
It seems that a large segment of the public, which
includes some members of the media, have very scant knowledge
of the recent history of mankind over the last two-and-a-half
thousand years, the nature of mankind's territorial
acquisition and development and the evolution of the nations
which exist today.
This whole history of the 'civilized world 'we know today has
been a continuum of warfare, invasion, occupation,
colonization and empire building with varying degrees of
violence, tenure, success and failure.
Among the very many nations throughout the world over time,
in Europe, Asia and America which have all followed this path
of development, the best-known in recent centuries and
acknowledged as the most humanitarian and most successful in
terms of achievement (in spite of some mistakes) has been
Some interesting facts about the British Empire are:
Britain itself, over history, has been one of the most
colonized countries in the world; subjected to attack and
invasion by the Picts, Romans, Celts, Angles, Saxons, Jutes,
the Vikings (Danes & Norwegians), and the Normans in earlier
history, and later attempted invasions over the centuries by
the Spanish, the French (Napoleon) and the Germans (Hitler) -
who actually did succeed in invading and occupying the
Channel Islands. This culturally mixed and turbulent history
bred a hardy and resilient nation in many respects and one
generally experienced in matters of international negotiation
and diplomacy and, when necessary, skilled at warfare.
Certainly, in later centuries, compared to any other nation,
Britain's empire was the largest and in total disproportion
to its tiny 1and mass and small population.
While it must be said that the expansion of the British
Empire was largely planned, particularly as a defensive measure against the French and the Dutch, to some extent, at
least, the expansion and evolution of the British Empire was
not so much the result of a planned national strategy but the
vision and efforts of a number of shrewd and tenacious
individuals who saw the opportunities and grasped them,
sometimes in direct conflict with the views and opinions of
the English Parliament and those who wielded power in
Hong Kong was the result of an astute commercial transaction,
an island which was initially regarded by China as of little
importance and by certain influential British politicians as
of very dubious value at the time - 'a barren rock' and 'a
most unhealthy place'. Little did they all realize!
The saga of Hong Kong's enormous success, due to efficient
British administration and Cantonese business acumen, and the later
flood of Chinese fleeing from Communist China to find a haven
and a future under British rule and justice is well known.
Uniquely, the end play of Hong Kong 's colonial history is in
the near future with the intent of all parties being for a
smooth and peaceful transition.
Singapore, also, had a difficult and precarious genesis.
Stamford Raffles failed to convince the Directors of the East
India Company and the English Parliament that the acquisition
of Singapore was imperative for the development and
protection of trade routes in the Far East. It was only
through his great vision, courage, persistence and tenacity
and some very shrewd conniving with a local royal family
installed as Sultan by Raffles, that a 'deal' was struck
which surprised the English with the fact that they suddenly
owned Singapore; a fact which they initially were reluctant
to acknowledge and then when they did, refused to compensate
Raffles for the considerable expenses he had incurred in
establishing the settlement. However, aside from this 'black
mark' against the English, and their appalling and myopic
lack of vision, they subsequently administered the Settlement
of Singapore with considerable skill and humanity - factors
which were not lost on many races in Asia, notably the
Chinese, who flocked to Singapore to benefit from the freedom
to live and work in peace and safety under a sound and just
British administration and to build wealth for themselves and
their families, often in stark contrast to the incredible
poverty and deprivation of their homeland origins. And
finally, when the time came to hand over independence to the
locals, the transition was accomplished peacefully and
Malaya is another case in point. Malacca was taken over from
the Dutch by the British as part of a treaty resultant from
the victory of the British over the French (Napoleon) and
their allies in Europe. The acquisition of Penang (and
Province Wellesley) was the result of a shrewd commercial deal by Sir Francis Light with the reigning Sultan of Kedah.
Aside from these two small territories, neither the East
India Company nor the English Parliament had any desire to
become involved in further acquisitions in Peninsula Malaya
(Malay States). They were greatly reluctant to be dragged
into the problems of the other territories on the Archipelago
beyond the existing Straits Settlements of Penang-Province
Wellesley, Malacca and Singapore.
This was due not only to a pressing need to conserve very
limited resources but also because of the political need not
to alienate the Siamese who still wielded considerable power
and influence in the northern regions of what is now known as
It was only at the repeated behest of certain sultans who
were troubled by continuous internecine raids and "wars" that
the British reluctantly came to agreements with these
sultans to provide them with "British Residents" to advise
and assist in overcoming their problems and to develop sound
administrations. In due course this led to the gradual
growth of British influence, both commercial and political,
and finally to the formation of the Federation of Malaya
As with Singapore, during this century or so of progress,
justice, peace and prosperity, the country, under the
British, attracted tens of thousands of migrants seeking a
better life than existed in their homelands. In 1957 Malaya's
transition to independence was also smooth and peaceful.
In Sarawak, the territory was acquired by James Brooke with
the popular consent of the people who invited him to become
their Raja in 1841. In 1842, Raja Muda Hassim, as
representative of the Sultan of Brunei, signed a document
resigning his title and authority to the Englishman. It was
not until 1888 that Britain entered the scene and agreed to
grant protection to Sarawak. As a small point of interest,
the United States of America recognized Sarawak before
India, the jewel-in-the-crown of the British Empire, was the
result of the vision and efforts of the directors of the East
India Company acting with the consent of and by arrangement
with the English Parliament. The achievements of the initial
tiny contingent of The East India Company was nothing less
than prodigious in the vast sub-continent of India with its
teeming and incredibly complex millions. No less was the
incredible achievement of the following British
administrations which numbered only a few thousand in this
hugely populated pot-pouri of races, sects, religions,
languages, dialects - much of the time in conflict with each
other. It has been said (by Indians) that only the British, with their skills and experience, diplomacy, justice and
humanity, could have achieved such results.
Other territories of the British Empire in one form or
another at different times included Kenya, Tanganyika,
Uganda, Somalia, Nigeria, Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, Gambia,
Rhodesia, South Africa, Mauritius, Seychelles, Ceylon, Burma,
Sarawak, Sabah, Java, America, Canada, British Honduras,
British Guiana, Jamaica, Bahamas, Bermuda, Trinidad-Tobago,
Grenada, Antigua & others, Egypt, Sudan, Aden, Palestine,
Jordan, Cyprus, Malta, Gibraltar, Fiji, Tonga, Gilbert &
Ellice Islands, New Hebrides, Samoa, Solomon Islands, New
Zealand, Australia, Middle-East territories.
Other empires over history included:
Greece - early Mycenaean kingdom; the great empire of the
Macedonians led by Alexander the Great which covered vast
areas of the Middle-East; numerous wars resulting in the
invasion and occupation of island groups in the Ionian Sea,
the Aegean Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea.
Italy - the Great Roman Empire which extended over most of
western and southern Europe and the Mediterranean countries
and great tracts of Asia Minor and North Africa; the
Byzantine Empire covering Greece, Turkey (Anatolia) and North
Africa; the Venetian expansion which extended over
Mediterranean coastal territories including much of Greece,
and in the 20th Century, Abyssynia, Libya, Iritrea and
Somaliland, and finally, the partnership with Germany's
military crusade for world domination in WW2.
France - Norman invasion of Britain and also Sicily, southern
Italy and Greece; Napoleon's campaigns and huge empire
building achievements across Europe and the Mediterranean
coasts; colonies in North America (Canada & U.S.A.), Indochina,
North and West Africa, Madagascar, Comoro and
Reunion islands, Middle-East, Caribbean, South America
(French Guiana), East India, Tahiti, New Caledonia.
Spain - Europe (Spanish Netherlands), West Africa, North
Africa (Morocco), South Americas (very extensive) and Central
Americas, west and south of North America, Caribbean (Cuba),
Portugal - West India (Goa and Diu), Brazil, Malaya
(Malacca), East Timor, Macau, West Africa (Angola) and East
Mongols - huge and rapid invasions and vast territorial
acquisitions across Siberia and the Russias and into Europe
as far as Poland and Hungary by the great Khans (Genghis and
others) and into south Asia, the Middle-East and northern
China - multiple and extensive invasions by Chinese races
from north to south; considerable warfare and cruel
subjugation of populations; invasion of northern Korea and
Moghuls - extensive invasion and occupation of northern India
Japan - Formosa, Korea, Manchuria, China, the entire East and
South-East Asia (with great barbarity).
Turks - Ottoman empire - very extensive over the Middle-East,
North Africa, Egypt, Greece and southern Europe as far as
Hungary and Austria.
Austria - extensive Hapsburg Empire into Bohemia, Silesia,
Hungary, Moravia, Galicia, Lodomeria and Bukovina, Slavonia,
Serbia, Wallachia, Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, the Austrian
Netherlands, Spain (Castille, Aragon & Granada), southern
Germany and North Africa (Tunis).
Belgium - Central Africa (Congo)
Germany - early multiple wars and invasions and territorial
gains in central Europe including invasions into southern
Italy to establish the early Germanic states in central
Europe; later colonies in Central, West, South-West and East
Africa, Pacific (Samoa and others). New Guinea (Bismark
Archipelago), European countries in World War 1, European and
North African countries in World War 2, (two of the periods
of the w o r l d 's greatest dislocation and destruction).
U.S.A. - the western regions (Indian wars) of North America,
Hawaii, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba (Guantanamo Bay),
American Samoa, Panama.
Iran - extensive Great Persian (Achaemenid) Empire commanding
the entire east Mediterranean coast, Asia Minor territories,
and into southern Europe (Byzantium and Macedonia), northern
Egypt and Cyrenaica (Benghazi) and east to the River Indus
(Afghanistan & Pakistan).
Iran - extensive Great Persian (Achaemenid) Empire commanding
the entire east Mediterranean coast, Asia Minor territories,
and into southern Europe (Byzantium and Macedonia), northern
Egypt and Cyrenaica (Benghazi) and east to the River Indus
(Afghanistan & Pakistan).
India - constant early internecine wars, invasions and
occupations with various empires, including Bindusara and
Iraq - invasion of Kuwait, genocide among the Kurds.
Norway - Viking invasions into Scotland, England, Ireland,
Iceland and Greenland.
Sweden - Viking invasions into Russia as far as the Black Sea; invasions of Norway, Lapland, Estonia, Livonia and Ingria.
Denmark - Viking invasions into England, France (Gaul), North
Sea coast of Germanic territories; the empire of King Canute
the Great included England, Denmark and Norway.
Egypt - control over the Levant (Palestine, Lebanon and
Syria - extensive Assyrian empires in the reigns of Tukulti-
Ninurta, Tiglash-Pileser, Shalmanser and Ashurbanipal from
the Mediterranean coast and northern Egypt (mouth of Nile).
Hungary - early Magyar invasions which devastated large areas
of central Europe including France (Gaul), Germanic kingdoms,
Austria and Italy.
The Muslim Empires - these were very extensive and at
different times the Caliphates and Emirates covered most of
the Middle-East and North Africa and into Europe as far as
Hungary, southern Spain and France, Corsica, Sardinia,
Sicily and the Italian peninsula. In addition, slave raids
were constantly made by Arab nations into African territories
(with slaves in far greater numbers than were ever taken to
the West Indies or North America - also, all supplied by Arab
Holland - West Indies and East Indies (Indonesia), New
Guinea, Malaya (Malacca), Borneo and South America (Dutch
Indonesia - Sri Vijaya Kingdom, Majapahit Kingdom, Achenese
Kingdom, Celebes, Moluccas, West Irian, Timor, Borneo and
Siam - many conflicts with the Khmers, Anamese and the
Burmese to finally establish Siam, which itself ruled the
northern parts of the Malayan Archipelago (Kedah, Perl is,
Kelantan and Trengganu).
Former Jugoslavia - current horrific carnage and genocide for
territorial advantage and religious persecution among the
Russia - over many earlier centuries subjugated and absorbed
many ethnic communities in Siberia and northern Asia; since
the revolution and since WW2 built an empire of subjugated
nations across Eastern Europe and Afghanistan. Created the
greatest disruption to the progress of humanity and
destruction and waste of nations' resources in the history of
the civilized world.
Australia - the western and northern regions of Australia,
This brief and greatly oversimplified overview of colonial expansion over the past 3,000 years and longer clearly
illustrates the natural predisposition of mankind anywhere in
the world regardless of race, colour, or creed to seek
territorial gain and influence by peaceful or violent means.
During the more recent period during the nineteenth century,
under the impact of the industrial revolution, the character
of European imperialism changed. Earlier, the motivating
force had been the search for the riches of the Orient, and
the European stake in Asia and Africa was confined to trading
stations and the strategic outposts necessary to protect this
trade. In 1815, with the important exception of India, this
was still the situation. But in the nineteenth century two
new factors came into play. The first was the enforced
opening of the world - Turkey and Egypt (1838) Persia (1841)
China (1842) and Japan (1858) - to European, particularly
British, commerce; in short, the breaking down of barriers to
European penetration. The second, setting in around 1880,
when a new phase of the industrial revolution got under way,
was the search for the raw materials without which industry,
in its new form, could not exist. Tin and rubber from Malaya,
nickel from Canada, copper from Australia and South America
were the sinews of European industry; and so the scramble for
natural resources began, providing new impetus for colonial
It could be said that European imperialism was more ephemeral
than anyone, at the close of the nineteenth century, could
have believed; and yet it left an indelible impression on the
peoples of Asia and Africa, propelling them, unwillingly and
willingly, into the twentieth century.
There were examples of nations which did not become involved
in colonial outposts because of their later development in
history, their geographical location, their lack of resources
and know-how or the lack of opportunity in history. To some
extent this included Australia (where I live) which historically was not
inclined to seek external trade or influence beyond
established partners and was generally only on the fringe of
mainstream international power broking up to the turn of this
century. However, when the opportunity arose for buccaneering
behaviour on a small scale, Australians showed no hesitation
in 'blackbirding' - the kidnapping of South Sea islanders
(kanakas) for forced labour in Queensland.
Expansion by colonization was the naturally accepted method
of gaining and maintaining power (survival) and of developing
the undeveloped parts of the world. Some nations were better
at this than others. Many were dismal failures in many
respects due to excessive greed, religious intolerance or
sheer incompetence. Some were successful. The nation
recognized as the most successful was Britain and certainly
the greatest failures were the Russians/Soviets who couldn't even
manage their own economy and last into the 21st Century, the Germans whose attempt at world domination is curiously
forgotten by those who seem to follow a certain persuasion,
and of course, the Japanese whose invasion and incredible
barbarity in East and South-East Asia and arrival on Australia's
doorstep is similarly overlooked when there seems to be some
strange need to 'point the finger' and look for scapegoats.
To those who seem to feel that it is 'de rigueur' and
fashionable to denigrate the former British Empire and,
perhaps, to demonstrate to our Asian neighbours that we are
terribly sympathetic to them for their past historic
'suffering' under the British, it would be worthwhile warning
them that, for the most part, they will appear quite
ridiculous to most thinking Asians who are a great deal more
understanding and tolerant of their historical evolution
under the British, and realistic in their appreciation of the
benefits they inherited.
As some small evidence of this, coincidentally, the following
is the content of a personal hand-written note by a senior
government official of an Asian nation on a ceremonial
occasion to a former British government official in August
"I will always remember this night (14 August 1993) as a
memorable one. Never for a moment did it occur to me that a
comrade-in-arms from across the seas would be back to share
with us his past experiences and sacrifices towards the
nation building of Malaysia.
Your sweat and toil will never be forgotten. I do hope that
this auspicious meeting will confirm the future.
Terima kaseh dan semoga Allah akan melindungi anda.
(Thank you and may Allah bless you)"
Furthermore, for those who seem convinced that the British
were determined to hang on to their possessions forever, the
following extract from a speech by Lord Curzon in Calcutta as
far back as 1902 should help give the lie to this other myth:
"To fight for the right, to abhor the imperfect, the unjust
or the mean, to turn neither to the right hand or the left,
to care nothing for odium, flattery or abuse, to drive the
blade a little further forward in your time, to feel that
somewhere among the millions you have left a stirring of
duty, a dawn of intellectual enlightenment where it did not
before exist: never to let your faith grow sour or your
courage grow dim, but to remember that the Almighty has
placed your hands upon the greatest of his ploughs, in whose
furrows the nations of the future are germinating and taking
shape - that is the Englishman's justification in India: let
it be his watchword while he is here and his epitaph when he
It is, unfortunately, too fashionable these days to be
cynical and this is a predisposition of some sections of the
media on many issues which it feels necessary to 'hype' and
emotionalize in order to be popular and gain a sympathetic
audience - unfortunately too often at the expense of the real
facts. And , of course, this is not helped by fictional
1iterature, film and television which, in the commercial
interests of 'good entertainment', distort history and the
real facts, creating types of people and situations sometimes
quite out of character with the real people and events. The
ploy of mixing fact with fiction helps to add credibility to
To the disparagers of Britain who may point out many
instances of failure and mistakes, either by the British
Government or particular individuals, it is worthwhile to
point out that in life it seems to be the busiest people who
make the most mistakes. The less active or the idle do less
and so make fewer mistakes.
It is a point of interest, too, that the two nearest nations
to Australia's north were given independence by Britain - Malaysia
(1957) and Singapore (1959) - allowing those populations to
have the vote and elect their own governments. It took
Australians another decade before they got around to giving
their own aborigines the vote. Furthermore, there is a
perception that Australians have not handled the situation
of their aborigines as well as they might have. Is there,
perhaps, something significant in this behaviour?
In Papua New Guinea, Australia's one and only brief role as
colonialist, there were many examples of failure to meet
changing situations and needs. In spite of hard work and high
ideals by some, Australians in Papua New Guinea were not
well-prepared and did not handle many situations as well as
might have been desired, allowing many instances of reversion
to tribal warfare. When the United Nations delegation headed
by Sir Hugh Foot visited Papua new Guinea it produced a
highly critical report on Australia's failure to adequately
prepare the indigenes for the path to Independence. Finally,
when independence was granted in 1975 it was felt, as with
Britain and India, that a Labour Party had rushed the
decision to get out of Papua New Guinea and that the timing
and circumstances left much to be desired.
Additionally, it might well be viewed that as administrator
of Nauru, Australia's record was not very caring or farsighted
and certainly detrimental to the islanders resulting
in the devastation of their homeland.
In Fiji, Australia's CSR corporation gave considerable
offence to the Fijians not only because it dominated Fiji's
economy (sugar being by far the largest foreign currency
earner at the time), but also because the management was
perceived to be extraordinarily insensitive and arrogant.
When independence was gained the Fijians rapidly ended CSR's
long domination and nationalised it. In turn, this experience
coloured general perceptions of Australians in these islands.
And, again, while there are exceptions, Australians generally
have not endeared themselves to Asians in recent decades.
In both their behaviour and attitude and their business
reputation, or lack of it, there is much ground to be made up
before the situation can be recovered.
Furthermore, while the 'White Australia' policy of Australia
is a thing of the past, the legacy still sticks. The point is
not lost on Asian countries that only recently Australia was
insensitive to the situation and slow to remedy this
anachronism in a world that had changed around it. Just as
Australians now still do not recognize that it has changed in
other respects also.
Colonialism was an inevitable transitional era which lasted
for a relatively long period in mankind's recent history.
Since WW1 and in the latter part of this century, as the
world community rapidly matured and changed, particularly
with increased standards of education and industrialisation,
the explosion in communications technology and knowledge, and
fast and economical air travel, so did political awareness.
These factors - the spread of Western-based civilization, its
justice system and other benefits and expectations - and the
establishment of the United Nations, all influenced
perceptions of the future global community and the necessity
of self-determination for all nations. In turn, former
colonialist nations made provision for this inevitable change
and, with varying levels of success, independence was granted
and many new nations emerged.
Unfortunately, while independence and freedom became a
constitutional fact, history has shown that for some new
nations the reality has been far from the ideal. It has been
convincingly argued that in very many ways the great mass of
the African populations, with some exceptions, are worse off
now than during the time of their colonial past. The litany
of corruption, devastation and horror common in many African
nations described to a stunned Canberra audience of
journalists and politicians by a highly respected
international journalist and commentator in the late 80s was
a stark reminder of the worst excesses of power hungry
dictators and followers. An African, a noteworthy Ghanian
professor of economics now domiciled in the U.S.A. said:
'Throughout Africa one constantly hears the slogans "People's
Revolution" and "People's Power". But where is the power of
the African to remove a head of state they do not want? Since
1957 there have been more than 150 heads of state in black
Africa. Only six... relinquished power voluntarily... All the rest were ousted or assassinated in military coups. True freedom never came to Africa. Its people wanted independence from colonial rule, not to be ruled by another set of aliens or black neo-colonialists. Under their traditional chiefs - in most cases even under colonialism - they were at least free to speak their minds.'
From some of these countries and others, too, - including
Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, many have fled the conditions of their own homelands. And where have they gone? To Britain
to find freedom, justice and a better life. Where did they
learn of this? They knew from the time of the British Empire.
It seems pointless to continue selectively and repetitively to make such a biased issue, however subtly, out of past historical facts which were simply the inevitable way the world evolved and the manner in which civilisations developed up to the 20th Century. And to continue thus may well be
perceived as somewhat immature and sanctimonious.
The most flagrant example of very recent, modern colonialism was, of course, the Communist Russian Empire. Built on an ideology and supported by a totalitarian regime which exported its credo across the world with devastating results. After 1945 the only people who still believed in empires were the Communists, at a time when others clearly saw the future otherwise.
One really has to ask, what is it that motivates those of a particular
persuasion or mind-set, to ignore the appalling
recent humanitarian record of Germany, Japan and Russia and
persistently denigrate Britain? Do the unusually tragic
circumstances of Australia's genesis as long ago as two centuries still have some bearing on our culture and colour some attitudes towards Britain? Or are there other reasons?
"Let not England forget her precedence
in teaching nations how to live".
Lord Caradon (Hugh Foot), long active in the process of granting independence to his country's colonies - quoting the poet, Milton.