As the Israeli assault on Gaza yet again makes painfully clear, anticolonial movements of the last century won many of their battles, but they lost the war. The decolonisation of the minds of both colonisers and colonised that thinkers like Frantz Fanon and Gandhi called for failed to transpire. Even as demands for reparations, restitution, apologies, memorialisation and consecration of new human and educational values have crescendoed, many remain susceptible to the notion that modern empire is a legitimate civilising enterprise that can be evaluated neutrally.
Besides its obvious racist foundations, that sticky presumption draws sustenance from easy conflation of modern empires with earlier empires: the British empire was no different from the earlier Roman, Ottoman, or Mughal empires – why should it be singled out to make repair for what was simply more water under the historical bridge?
Anticolonial thinkers and activists long ago disproved this theory, exposing the particular moral and political indefensibility of European empire, but its enduring allure compels fresh reminder of how, even apart from the logical fallacy of “whataboutery”, it fails on empirical grounds: British colonialism (and modern European and American empire generally) departed dramatically from the goals, workings and effects of earlier empires.
Clearly, something very different had to have happened in modern history to land us at the unprecedented existential climate crisis in which we find ourselves. In their particular preoccupations with materialism, territorial control, and managing social differences and similarities, modern European empires created the world anew. This is not to say that the Mughal or Roman empires were not oppressive in their own ways – their histories are full of stories of contestation and resistance (most famously, Jesus’s anticolonial challenge to Roman rule in Judea) – but European empire reshaped the world in specific ways that need to be addressed for new, freer futures to become possible.
Anticolonial thinkers in the last century recognised that modern empire focused on material desire in a new way as the key to progress, enslaving both colonised and coloniser. After all, it began with the invention of a new kind of commercial institution: the limited-liability, joint-stock corporation. From the late 15th century, Portuguese and Dutch trading companies introduced a type of state-backed armed trade aimed at monopoly that was utterly foreign and disruptive to the commercial traditions and survival practices of the Indian Ocean.
This aggressive, warlike mode of business was the only way the Portuguese could elbow their way into the tangle of Venetian, Egyptian and Indian commercial networks of the time. Their intrusion launched a new era of racial and colonial capitalism in which mass extraction and commodification of botanical and earthly matter, including human beings, entailed devastation of entire peoples and landscapes – epitomised early on by Dutch devastation of the Banda Islands for nutmeg and Portuguese ruin of Madeira in the name of sugar. The Dutch empire became yet another of the empires that inspired, and justified, British efforts to build their own.
In the subsequent era of British dominance, while officials in the high corridors of power regularly contrasted the humanity of British rule to the oppression of the regimes they displaced, their policies produced famine and desolation that forced officials on the spot to question their self-congratulating rhetoric. The empire continued to depend on unfree labor well after abolition in 1833. By the late 19th century, the British ruling elite came to stoically accept that the ruin of certain peoples and landscapes was historical necessity for the sake of global material progress.
In 1868, noting “the now inevitable destruction of the Red Indians”, the British politician Charles Dilke explained that the “true moral of America” was “the vigor of the English race – the defeat of the cheaper by the dearer peoples, the victory of the man whose food costs four shillings a day over the man whose food costs four pence”.
This type of empire asked its agents and subjects to suppress ordinary ethical instincts to engage in “necessary evil” for the sake of future vindication in the form of progress measured in material terms. Hence did anticolonial leaders like Gandhi counter that freedom lay in the capacity for moral accountability in the present, regardless of consequences (a definition lately echoed by the London-based political theoris Lea Ypi). Such ideas contest the seductive notion propagated by modern empires, that material wealth is a measure of civilisation. (Even the non-capitalist Soviet empire was anchored in this assumption, planning and measuring “development” in terms of industrial output.)
Certainly, earlier empires were extractive in their own right, often excessively so. However, unlike the indigenous or indigenised imperial rulers they displaced, European colonisers did not typically invest the wealth they extracted back into the country. In the 18th century, the Mughal historian Ghulam Hussain Khan called out the traits that distinguished British colonialism: a disinterest in putting down roots and a sense of “divine obligation” to scrape “together as much money as they can in this country” and carry it home.
Mughal trends in managing food security and water are known to have been better. The greed-driven British “craze” for machines, Gandhi argued, atrophied the limbs of man and encroached on his individuality (unlike, say, the spinning wheel).
There are empires and there are empires. As Raj Patel and Jason Moore put it, “There had been massive empires before capitalism – think of the Romans or the Mongols. But never before in world history had there been transoceanic empires that scoured the globe for profit-making opportunities.” Britain alone ruled over a quarter of the planet.
This materialism depended on new notions of state power and territorial occupation. Earlier empires had typically depended on layered notions of sovereignty and suzerainty. In borderlands, the power of adjacent states might overlap, and in various regions state power might be shared with powerful local authorities and institutions. The British empire took shape in this world: with the British East India Company allowing the Mughal emperor to retain de jure sovereignty while it held de facto sovereignty.
In addition, the British Crown held ultimate sovereignty over company territories, but whether it could claim their revenue depended on whether they were understood to have been conquered or purchased. Affirmation of property as a natural law and moral principle helped manage the confusion between conquest and commerce. To guarantee the “permanency” of their acquisitions (mindful of the fate of the Roman empire), British imperialists established regimes of property rights in their domains.
The empire came to treat sovereignty, too, as something held exclusively and thus transferable as a commodity. British government and private entities bought, sold, and leased sovereignty over places as diverse as Jammu and Kashmir, northern Borneo, Hong Kong and beyond. Modern European empires idealised clear, policeable borders, traceable on a map – indeed, often first defined on a map and then realised on the ground. Fixed boundaries and exclusive title were considered essential to the fiscal and demographic legibility that enabled extractive policies.
Today’s world order based on the unit of the nation-state has consecrated this form of territorial control as a universal norm. The nation-state was coeval with modern empire. The internal colonialism through which “Britain” was forged as a political space from its constituent regions of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England informed and was informed by colonialism abroad. Disciplinary drainage of the unruly fenlands of eastern England coincided with British “settling” of landscapes in Ireland and North America.
The new form of political territoriality abroad was tied to the rise of private land ownership in England, too. Early modern English elites had held land, but ordinary people had also had substantial use rights and power to negotiate rents, nurturing inter-generational attachment to land even among tenant farmers. In the modern period, thousands of enclosure acts turned common lands, heaths, greens, and “wastes” that were used by all, into private property, while settlers (many drawn from among those pushed off English land) and administrators conquered and privatised land around the world.
The making of France was similarly a process of imperial conquest from Paris outwards to the regions that make up the familiar hexagon today, and the formation of the United States and Germany was inseparable from their expansion both overseas and within their immediate regions.
This new culture of exclusive claims to territory constituted a dramatic change in how humans and states related to the land. Fredrik Albritton Jonsson and Carl Wennerlind write, “Land ceased to be the existential and spiritual foundation of the community, and instead was turned into exclusionary and alienable pieces of property, existing solely for the purpose of accumulation.”
The philosopher Thomas More discerned when this process began 500 years ago, that enclosed, privately held land had unleashed an unprecedented social reality, driving elites into an insatiable quest for wealth to gratify false pleasures and driving everyone else, stalked by the threat of poverty, to forever seek more.
Philosophers like John Locke responded to the resistance triggered by this new reality by arguing that those who did not cultivate the land with a view to improving it forfeited any entitlement to it. For Europeans, explains Gili Kliger, sovereignty came to mean “power over land”, while many indigenous peoples conceived of it as “power shared with land.” It is difficult to know what indigenous peoples understood by signing away their “sovereignty” in treaties with the British or the United States; colonialism was enabled by European translation of words that lacked indigenous conceptual equivalents, because they emerged from a radically different view of the working of human and divine power in the world.
Certainly, practical reality on the ground in European empires often remained marked by porous borders, a cacophony of legal regimes, and political fragmentation, but from the late eighteenth century, these empires fostered the geopolitical and linguistic proliferation of the idea of sovereignty as territorial statehood – exclusive claim to and power over bordered space. An instrumental view of land, and earthly resources more broadly, was necessary to their terraforming goals.
In fact, as climate and environmental experts now recognise, indigenous ways of relating to the land were more sustainable, grounded in careful husbandry of land, forests, and water resources with a view to perpetual mutual preservation of land and life.
Thirdly, ideas about racial difference reshaped human relations under European empire. Slavery and violence were integral to the Roman empire, but prejudice based on distinctions of skin tone, features, and hair texture was not a defining feature of the system. Moreover, the Romans maintained diplomatic, military and commercial ties even with the Germanic peoples they considered “barbarians”.
The British and French empires, however, embedded racial distinctions in structures of governance and the social hierarchies on which they depended, including military recruitment, practices of war, policing and criminal punishment, urban planning, public health and labor policies, education, and beyond. Their imperialism was premised on the notion that non-white peoples (including the Irish), lacking conscience and virtue, required paternalistic government by Europeans.
In the second half of the 19th century, the cultivation of “scientific” racism (and persistent resistance to European rule) cast doubt on whether this civilising mission could ever be accomplished, fostering support for conclusions like Dilke’s, that the “extinction of the inferior races” was “not only a law of nature, but a blessing to mankind”.
If belief in human difference justified colonial rule and its violence, the goal of reforming colonial societies by fostering uniformity within them added further legitimacy. Earlier empires, like the Mughal empire, sought power and revenue but did not seek to homogenise their subjects; they did not dream of turning all Hindus into Muslims (despite myths dating to the British era of forced mass conversions). Their outlook was pragmatic, focused on cultivating loyalty and revenue, not some utopian end.
Europeans, however, sought to transform the people they ruled in the name of a “civilising mission” – turning Indians into Englishmen and Africans into Frenchmen and so on (however infinitely long the imagined timescale for that process). Coexistence with the alien was impossible in the British imperial mindset, but anticolonial rebellions like the 1857 uprising in India refused the modernising uniformity the British were imposing in defense of a social order offering the opportunity and obligation for ethical navigation of difference. As Rabindranath Tagore put it in 1921, “[O]nly those who are different can unite.”
Likewise, no homogenising end justified the Ottoman empire, even despite the sultan’s status as caliph; such empires did not purvey a narrative of suffering for the sake of historical progress.
To be sure, by the 19th century, European power had intruded so much into the Ottoman empire that it began to adopt European-inspired practices and goals in the hope of recuperating a measure of autonomy and fending off further dominance and territorial loss. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 prompted “modernisation” efforts that testified to the way European ideas of sovereignty, economic development, militarism, national identity, and governance were becoming global norms.
The Ottoman Empire took an increasingly “civilising” approach towards certain communities, such as nomadic Arabs, Albanians, and Kurds. Turkification policies became powerful in the 20th century. The relentless encroachment and aggressively asserted norms of European empire fed perceptions and policies that culminated in the Armenian genocide.
We can consider the post-19th-century Ottoman empire among the group of European empires that today owe apologies and reparations, while understanding that it was itself in a colonial relationship with European empires. Whatever Ottoman elites’ “civilising” vision, the state’s ability to fulfill it remained curtailed, preventing them, for instance, from eradicating pastoral life in the Syrian interior as the British did in Malwa Punjab.
This is why the iconic scholar of Western imperialism Edward Said acknowledged the imperialist nature of Istanbul’s dominance of the Arab world but stressed the “unique coherence and…special cultural centrality” of the “British, French, and American imperial experience”. For him, Napoleon’s invasion, accompanied by the team of scholars who produced the encyclopedic Description de l’Egypte, exemplified the “scientific appropriation of one culture by another,” announcing orientalist scholarship’s new mission of not merely representing but constructing “the Orient”.
Like the Ottoman empire, the nation-states that emerged from the rubble of European empires hewed to their inherited norms. Indeed, the goal of nation-statehood provided the alibi for colonialism: the British often protested that they were merely shepherding that universal process along in places lacking the innate capacity for historical evolution – empire as the handmaiden of national progress. The nation-state would embody the principles of sovereignty, material progress, homogeneity, and righteousness propagated by modern empire.
The critical distinction between European empires and the Asian empires they destroyed is not that the former were land-based and the latter straddled seas. It is rather the homogenising attitude towards people and territory that has come to define nationalism and the modern state everywhere. The postcolonial Indian and Nigerian states preserved much of their inherited imperial state structures and outlook and have faced repeated separatist challenges from those who refuse their homogenising visions and the poisonous forms of exclusion they entail. Likewise, the People’s Republic of China functions less like the Qing empire did in the same territory than like European empires did in their territories.
It was the anticipation of these continuities that caused many major anticolonial thinkers to reject nation-statehood as the goal of their struggle, recognising it as an extension of the imperial outlook and the destructive force it had proved in successive world wars. As they focused on freedom from state oppression rather than national emancipation, they imagined and struggled to realise federal or otherwise decentralised alternative futures. This is what made their tactics useful even in struggles against oppression within states, such as the African American struggle for racial equality in the United States.
The impulse to justify modern empire by insisting on its continuity with earlier empires is not new. In empire’s very heyday, British policymakers themselves used analogies to earlier empires to soothe their uneasy consciences. Edward Gibbon’s classic 1776 account of the “decline and fall” of the Roman empire appeared when Britain’s relations with its American colonies were in crisis, bolstering hopes that Britain might avoid the decadence and corrupting contact at the margins of the empire that, Gibbon believed, had led to its predecessors’ downfall.
For modern Britons, history itself, the chance at renewing, indeed redeeming, the epic Roman past, elevated their own imperial aspirations. In Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, the sailor Marlow, comparing the British empire to the Romans, admits that “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only…something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to…”
The British found salvation not only in walking in imperial steps hallowed by time but in flattering comparison of their “devotion to efficiency”, whatever its results, to their predecessors’ naked greed. Conrad skewered this self-deception, exposing the “darkness” masked by empire’s cover story of “civilising mission”.
He and other 19th-century Britons knew their empire was doing something new. Reflecting on invasions since ancient times and “the now inevitable destruction of the Red Indians…of the Maories, and of the Australians by the English colonists,” Dilke realised, “The Anglo-Saxon is the only extirpating race on earth.”
In World War One, though the British camouflaged their conquest of the Ottoman empire’s Arab provinces as a resurrection of the tradition of imperial improvement embodied by the Persians, Seleucids, and Parthians, they knew their government used “armed forces to do with explosives what should be done by policemen and sticks”. We can’t draw the same analogies to a “new Rome” today to justify the new imperial practices they enabled.
Though empire has always been integral to human history, we have only once – now – been on the brink of environmental collapse: a unique type of imperial formation and global order led to this unique historical moment. This is not to say that modern empires had nothing in common with preceding imperial formations. Glimmers of their dynamics are evident in even earlier polities – take Venice and Genoa’s 19th-century armed contest over trade in the Aegean Sea. The British looked often enough to (a mythical version of) ancient history for it to have had real influence.
History is always a story of continuity and change. But no previous imperial formation embraced all these four features (material measures of progress, exclusive sovereignty, racial hierarchy, and homogenisation), which together radically distorted our relations to the earth and one another, leading to our present planetary crisis.
To say this is not to say that European people were especially bad and that British and French people today must don hairshirts. That is not the point of understanding this past (whatever politicians like former UK home secretary Suella Braverman may opportunistically claim). It merely helps us grasp the origins of dominant cultural notions that have not served us (including British and French people) so that, by redistributing financial, moral, and cultural capital, we might recover alternate notions and make new history going forward.
The stakes for such understanding are high for relations between societies but also within them. If failure to reckon with the imperial past allowed nostalgic and xenophobic sentiments to fuel the disaster of Brexit in the United Kingdom, failure to address the Ottoman Empire’s evolution in its last decades enabled the rise of Erdogan’s right-wing Justice and Development Party in Turkey.
In his address to the US Congress in June, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that India had attained freedom after “one thousand years of foreign rule”, a pernicious elision of British with Mughal rule that has enabled his government’s erasure and distortion of Muslim presence in India. Failure to recognise the novelties of European colonialism has abetted continued settler colonial violence in Palestine.
The qualities that distinguished modern European empires from history’s earlier empires are material and persist in structuring our world and are the ground from which we must make new history as we stand on the precipice of survival.
Priya Satia is the Raymond A Spruance Professor of International History at Stanford University and the award-winning author of Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire (Penguin 2020), Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution (Penguin, 2018). and Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East (OUP, 2008).