Rule or Cruel Britannia

Tears of the Rajahs (Simon and Schuster, 2015) by Ferdinand Mount, describes how the British East India Company dealt with the local populations on the Indian subcontinent from around 1600. It was often not a pretty picture and provides more ammunition to British Empire bashers.

I am aware of the list of documented atrocities and Mount helps to confirm them. But there is another side to the story, at least regarding the state of India and the countries which were once part of the Empire. Like most major happenings, there is a good and bad news story to recount. This one links to what is discussed under the rubric of globalization and suggests a good news outcome.

There are several stages and meanings to the idea and process of globalization. A world map for 1905 (I have one on my wall) shows countries of the British Empire coloured red. They include the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, parts of Africa, the Indian subcontinent (today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar), and numerous places like Malaysia, Singapore and a series of rocks and islands. Until 1776, the thirteen American colonies would also have had a reddish hue, and in many ways still do.

From around 1600, and from a geographic viewpoint, the process of globalization lead to Britain becoming the world’s main superpower. On the way it had to compete with Holland, Spain and France in North and South America, in Africa and in parts of Asia. Naval superiority aided by piracy helped to establish British footprints around the world.

Soon after 1905, the British Empire started to decline, and within fifty years of the end of WW1 it was over in a political, economic and military sense, but not, I would suggest, in a cultural and political sense. Its political institutions had become established in North America, Australia, New Zealand, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere. No formal empire existed, but in its place the British Commonwealth, now the Commonwealth, was formed, reinforcing British views on many issues. English has become established as the common language for international interactions. Even the EU is reported to be considering retaining English as its working language after Brexit.

Another stage of globalization began after 1945, when the US became the main superpower challenged only by the Soviet Union and its satellites. By 1990, the Soviet Union had dissolved and Russian influence diminished globally and especially in central and eastern Europe. Meanwhile China was on the rise following the death of Mao and the reign of Li Peng. While China has become a global economic player, its neighbor Japan has receded somewhat from the global economic scene.

The foregoing is a ridiculously brief summary of how globalization has evolved geographically and politically over the past 120 years, but it does suggest quite a change over a reasonably short period of time. Few if any forecast these changes five years before they occurred. The same is true today and those who make even short term forecasts, say 2-3 years, are usually wrong.

Another dimension of globalization is more economic and technology related. Steam engines, railroads, cars and planes were technological changes stemming from the 19th century. The past several decades have seen the spread of computer-communications technology affecting different areas of economic, political and social activity. Enormous changes have taken place in numerous areas of our lives. These have been rapid and difficult to predict, but entrepreneurs are active around the world, as are criminals who have created a whole field of cyber-security.

In sum, the globalization initiated by the British Empire, although faded in some ways, is still very much present associated with the spread of democracy, certain human values, the English language and many types of sporting activity. How it got there was not always a pretty picture, but in the long run the results have not been too bad. Large parts of the world today still have a reddish hue. Rule rather than cruel Britannia is probably a better summary of many aspects of globalization today.

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