Imperialism is one of those dirty words thrown around to cover a multitude of historical ills. It’s hard to resist and the arguments are irrefutable.
Unless, that is, you’re a Bertie Wooster Tory or a historian like Niall Ferguson who, in his eminently readable book Empire, tried to explain away many of its sins.
But he asked a question that has always fascinated me: ‘How did a rainy island in the North Atlantic manage to rule not just the waves, but the prairies of America, the plains of Africa and the deserts of Arabia?’
He didn’t even get around to mentioning the Jewel in the Crown: India.
It wasn’t by being the most evil because the Spanish, Portuguese and Belgians, to name but a few, were equally, if not more bloodthirsty and ruthless.
It has to be accepted that the English were the best at it and in the second half of the last millennium owning the seas meant you controlled the world.
To trade, you needed goods to buy and sell, plantations to grow them, cheap or slave labour to harvest them and ports you controlled to move them.
Empire was about hard-nosed capitalism. The notion itself of conquest came quite late. As John Seeley famously put it at the end of the nineteenth century: “We seem to have conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind.”
Unfortunately for us, we were right next door. Many of the experiments in plantation and settlement were tested here and lessons learned.
We’ve been trying to come to terms with the political, religious and cultural consequences of that ever since.
Later this month, President Michael D. Higgins will host the latest in his series of Machnamh 100 lectures in the Aras. ‘Ireland and Empire’ is the mouth-watering theme.
In a fascinating piece in The Guardian, Michael D. delved into some of the uncomfortable truths about this unequal relationship and a brutalising system where “the colonised had to accept the inferiority of their culture”.
There is no arguing with his thesis and it is an eloquent and convincing read. Except perhaps for what it leaves out.
Imperialism, as viewed from Michael D’s perspective, seems to have been some sort of deliberate ideological project that went out to systematically destroy the weak and vulnerable. As if its raison d’etre was conquest for the sake of it.
Instead, it was simply a repugnant and efficient form of protocapitalism. Filthy lucre first and last.
The East India Company, England’s first route into the sub-continent, was, in effect, the world’s first multi-national.
It was nothing personal – it was strictly business. It was how the world was arranged: a transnational network that evolved into an entire economic, political and cultural eco-system.
Morally repugnant now to us, but seen mostly by Christian Europe then as a civilising project.
It wasn’t just England and Britain. Every country with a gunboat, and some without one, ploughed their way to ill-gotten gains and planted flags anywhere and everywhere.
By the time of the Scramble for Africa, everyone was at it, the Belgians most notoriously in the Congo.
This had been facilitated at the Conference of Berlin of 1870, where Otto von Bismarck helped carve up the ‘Dark Continent’ between the European powers.
Ireland wasn’t simply a victim of empire either. Often it was complicit.
Irishmen fought for empire, governed and administered it and were slave owners. Irish farmers fed it (they did particularly well out of the Great War) and eighteenth-century Cork grew fat by selling to it.
Dublin was called the Second City of the Empire for good reason.
Michael D. is right, of course. Untold damage was done. But imperialism was an all-encompassing phenomenon; simply how the world functioned. Unpicking our place in it is fraught and complex.