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19th Century Colonialism and Racism

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Published: Wed, 07 Jun 2017

Colonialism and Racism in the 19th Century

Throughout much of the 19th century, European powers used their financial wealth and technological advancements to colonize much of Asia and almost the entire continent of Africa. Oftentimes the motivations were national pride and the acquisition of natural resources, but there was another very potent impetus behind Western imperialism in the 19th century: racism. At a time when Charles Darwin had just recently revealed his theory of evolution, and much of the previously unchartered territory of the world was becoming known, the European powers felt themselves to be the superior race, because they believed they were the most civilized, or because they had the most advanced technology. This idea, known as social Darwinism, takes the natural theory of evolution and applies it to human races, positing that the societies and races that are “superior” than others are more “fit” to exist and survive, and therefore they make take advantage of and exploit the other, inferior peoples who are not as “fit” to survive. With this idea in mind, many Western powers sent troops and resources around to globe to set up colonies and imperialize other nations, often with no regard for the indigenous people. Although this massive wave of colonialism in the 19th century was driven by desire for material wealth and national pride, racism also played a significant role.

In George Orwell’s Burmese Days, he chronicles the daily life of a British gentleman’s club in upcountry Burma, part of the British colony of India. His account gives a very telling indication of how the British citizens viewed the local citizens of Burma, and it reveals the racism that was at the heart of the imperial system. When the club is discussing the suggestion to allow a Burmese man to join, the Secretary of the club says, “He’s asking us to break all our rules and take a dear little nigger-boy into this Club…That would be a treat wouldn’t it? Little pot-bellied niggers breathing garlic in your face over the bridge-table. Christ, to think of it!” (Reilly, 285). The use of a derogatory racial slur clearly demonstrates the way the British gentlemen thought of the locals, clearly as inferior people. The use of the term “nigger” has long been associated with people of African descent, but here the British Club secretary uses it to refer to the local Burmese citizens, an obvious indication of racial hate and insult. Their hatred and racism go so far that one member of the club, a local company manager, says “I’ll die in a ditch before I’ll see a nigger in here” (Reilly, 286). The continuous use of racial slurs and insulting remarks indicate that the British members of the club were all highly racist towards the local people, a factor which definitely influenced the British colonization of India, and the treatment of the indigenous peoples.

In a similar portrayal of life inside an imperialized nation, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness takes a close look at a steamboat journey deep into the heart of the Congo, the captain of which was a white man. The first signs of racism come out when he refers to the African people on his boat as “cannibals”, implying that they were savage and uncivilized, although there is no other evidence that these people were in fact cannibals. These basic false assumptions are often seen in stories of imperial racism; White colonists are always quick to judge the local people as brutal savages without actually taking the time to understand their culture. However, the ship captain’s racism goes far deeper than that, when he comments “the men were…No they were no inhuman. Well, you know that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces, but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours” (Reilly, 296). His pain at realizing that he was connected to these people, through a common humanity, hurts him because they appear so wild and savage to him that he would prefer to believe they were not human, but rather animals or beasts. His European heritage makes him regard himself as superior than the local Africans, and in turn he sees them through racist eyes, another important factor in the Western colonization of Africa. Both these excerpts of colonial life in the 19th century demonstrate that the Westerners almost always considered themselves superior to the local citizens. The European powers had convinced themselves that because they had the power and resources to create global empires, they were somehow inherently better than the people they were conquering, and this all too often lead to the exploitation and degradation of indigenous peoples around the globe.

Another example of the conflict between two cultures is shown in the case of Ida Pruitt, in the book China’s American Daughter by Marjorie King. Growing up in an American family working as missionaries in a small town in China, Ida experiences both the local Chinese culture around her and the American ways of her Christian missionary mother, who resents many things about China. As her mother constantly tried to convert Chinese people into Christians, Ida witnessed the harmful effects of such colonial interactions. King writes that “As Ida became aware of the differences between the Chinese and the Christian missionary cultures, she resented Christianity’s intrusion in the Chinese culture” (King, 17). Even as a young girl, Ida is able to understand that the Western forces (her mother) are attempting to insert their own ways of life, religion, and culture into the Chinese culture because she regards them as inferior. The religious component of this is especially powerful, as many forms of Christianity believe that it is their responsibility and duty to spread their religion and convert as many people as possible, regardless of changing their previous way of life and destroying the original culture. The focus for the Westerners in colonial China was on taking advantage of the local people in order to convert them and insert western culture as a replacement for their own. Ida recognizes this, and “Ida admired her father’s adaptation to Chinese ways in order to help build genuine friendships between the Chinese and Westerners” (King, 19). Her father acts as a model for a better, more mutual exchange of culture and ideas between the Chinese and the Westerners, which is an equal interaction between the two, not the domination of one over the other as Ida’s Christian mother attempts to instigate.

Ida Pruitt’s experience as an American in colonial China greatly differ from those of the Westerners in both Heart of Darkness and Burmese Days, as she actually identifies more closely with Chinese culture than she does with her original ethnic culture. Instead of approaching the local citizens as being inherently inferior or below her, Ida embraces their traditions and culture, and in many ways finds the Chinese way of life better than the American one that her mother works so hard to encourage. Especially because she lived in China at such a young age, “Growing up in the halls and courtyards of the haunted house of Song Family Village, Ida felt herself to be part of Chinese life stretching back thousands of years” (King, 6). As opposed to the British club officer who uses racial slurs to insult the Burmese people, or the steamboat captain who observes the “wild” and “inhuman” people of the Congo, Ida grows up surrounded by the Chinese culture, and she is able to compare and contrast it with the Western tradition promoted by her mother. The racist characters in the other accounts experienced life as a Westerner, and therefore never were able to appreciate or respect any other culture. This stubborn obsession with one’s own culture resulted in their imperial racism towards the local peoples. With Ida, she was able to form her own cultural and racial identity while experiencing both Western and Chinese lifestyles, and this allowed her to really respect and understand both, and in doing so she was able to remain connected to both cultures without having to racially reject or degrade one or the other.

Racism is unfortunately an inherent part of human society, and it can be especially devastating when it is used to guide political and military decisions, such as during the colonization of Africa and Asia in the 19th century. Many people were killed, exploited, or left in poverty solely because of the racial hate of others. The European imperialism of the world, although based on many motivations, was in part based on racism, as demonstrated in the excerpts from Joseph Conrad and George Orwell. However, not all interactions between cultures were negative, such as the case of Ida Pruitt in China. She was able to ignore her mother’s blind bias and learn to value and appreciate Chinese culture, something that indicates the importance of being open minded and experiencing other cultures for oneself before judging. Perhaps if the British officers didn’t think so lowly of the locals, they would have provided better things such as schools and libraries, which in turn would result in a better educated country and an improved society. If the steamboat captain hadn’t viewed the Africans as savages, maybe he wouldn’t have been so focused on the material wealth and financial gain that was possible in Africa, but in setting up stable governments and creating better infrastructure for all people. Although things didn’t turn out this way, we can learn from this past and apply that knowledge to create a better future. Ida Pruitt is a great example for overcoming racism, by experiencing a different culture for oneself and criticizing your own heritage, rather than stubbornly purporting your way as the best and only way, and hating all other cultures and societies that are different. Always racism may never go away, we can make a difference by understanding the past and learning to appreciate the value of all human societies and races.

King, Marjorie.China’s American Daughter: Ida Pruitt (1888-1985). Hong Kong: Chinese UP, 2006.

Reilly, Kevin.Worlds of History: a Comparative Reader. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2007.


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