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 The Story of Colonization  (1956)*

By Bertrand Russell

There are various different aspects from which the history of mankind may be viewed. One of the most important of these concerns the spread of civilization. In its earliest phases, this is marked by the presence or absence of certain skills and techniques. The domestication of animals, agriculture, writing, and the use of metals are the most important of these. The beginnings of agriculture are prehistoric, but its gradual spread, after a beginning in certain river valleys, occurred in historical times and was not complete until our own day. The use of metals spread with almost equal slowness. The Iron Age in some countries began thousands of years earlier than it did in others. The art of writing, which seems to have developed slowly out of pictures and not, originally, as a representation of spoken language, can be traced through many early stages in Egypt, the Hittite Empire, and Phoenicia, to Greece. Writing in China, which was not alphabetic, appears to have developed independently. It would seem that in Mediterranean countries, but more especially in Egypt, writing was for a long time a mystery understood only by the priests. In the Dark Ages this had again become the case in Western Europe. It was only gradually that kings decided to teach their children to read and write. As late as 1807 the President of the Royal Society vehemently opposed the extension of literacy to wage-earners on the ground that, if they could read, “it would enable them to read seditious pamphlets, vicious books and publications against Christianity.” The long stretch of time from Egypt in the Fourth Millennium BC, to the English Education Act of 1870 illustrates, in the case of writing, the extreme slowness which has characterized the spread of culture.

Various agencies have been favourable to the growth of civilization. I think the most important have been military conquest, commercial intercourse, and missionary zeal. In regard to all three a very important part has been played by colonies, which form the theme of these talks. A colony, as the word was understood by the Greeks, consisted of a small group of sea-faring men accompanied by their families, all coming from some one Greek city and settling on the sea-coast of some comparatively uncivilized country. Such cities were founded at an early period of Greek history in Asia Minor, Southern Italy, and Sicily. Before very long they spread farther afield to Spain and Marseilles. Wherever they went, they carried with them the institutions of the parent city, with which they retained close ties in spite of political independence. They were maritime commercial cities, and many of them achieved great wealth, which has become proverbial in the case of the epithet “sybarite.” They did not aim at conquest of the hinterland, although many of them maintained considerable armies of mercenaries. The Phoenician colonies, especially Carthage, were essentially similar; and, before the rise of Rome, the Mediterranean from Sicily westward was dominated by the rivalry of Carthage and Syracuse. It was owing to the Roman victory that Greek and not Phoenician culture became prevalent throughout the West.

A different kind of colonization was inaugurated by Alexander the Great. The Greek colonies which he planted from Egypt to the Indus came in the wake of conquering armies, and not as an incident of commerce. Where Macedonian or Roman armies preserved their supremacy, these colonies remained centres for the diffusion of Hellenic culture. But where, as in Persia, Afghanistan, and Northern India, the Macedonians lost their power, the trickle of Greek culture became gradually less and less, like a river losing itself in the desert. Even in India, however, it left important traces: its influence on early Buddhist art is generally acknowledged.

Northern Europe, including Germany, Scandinavia, and Poland, owed its civilization mainly to missionaries, except for the conversion of the Saxons by Charlemagne. Buddhism, quite as much as Christianity, affords examples of the spread of culture by missionary zeal. China, at about the beginning of the Christian Era, acquired Buddhism from India and with it learnt important elements in Indian culture. But this movement, important as it was, owed its success rather to saintly pilgrims than to colonizers, and therefore hardly falls within our theme.

Military conquest has played a very great part in the spread of culture. But here there is a broad division between cases where the conquerors were more civilized than the conquered, and cases where they were less civilized. And the cases in which the conquerors were less civilized, again, fall into two classes: those in which the conquerors swept away the conquered civilization, and those in which they absorbed it and carried it on. The barbarians who invaded the Western Roman Empire degraded the level of Western civilization for centuries, but the Arabs, in the East, assimilated Greek science and philosophy. Many centuries later, the West regained from them what it had destroyed when the Western Roman Empire fell.

Over and over again in history an advanced culture has been overthrown by barbaric conquerors. Sometimes, as when the Greeks overthrew the Cretans, the barbarians have quickly surpassed those whom they had overthrown. Sometimes, their destructiveness has proved more permanent. The Mongols in Persia did irreparable damage, but, in China, in the course of two generations, they learnt everything that the Chinese had to teach. The Danes in the eighth and ninth centuries wiped out the civilization of Ireland and gravely impaired the nascent civilization of Yorkshire monasteries. But their kinsmen, the Normans, at a slightly later time, became, when they had finished conquering, the leaders in all that was best in the West.

Much the largest example of colonization known to history was the settlement of the Western hemisphere by white men. This proceeded on somewhat different lines in tropical and in temperate latitudes. In temperate latitudes the Indians were gradually driven out or confined to reservations. In one way or another they ceased to play any vital part in the life of the community, which became almost as dominantly white as in Europe. In tropical latitudes, on the contrary, where white men felt unable to undertake severe physical labour, they remained an aristocracy. In many regions they tried to employ Indian labour, but the Indians often proved recalcitrant and the white men fell back upon negro labour imported by the slave trade. In many parts of Latin America, a large Indian population survives. Latin America, consequently, has not, except in the far south, produced a more or less pure white civilization. Nevertheless the language, religion, and culture of all Latin America are those which were brought by the Spaniards and Portuguese.

North American colonists were of two different sorts. There were those who went for gain, and there were those who went to escape religious persecution and to found communities on new political principles. These principles, developed by discussions in Cromwell’s army, were suppressed in England, first by Cromwell and then by the Restoration. But, after a somewhat obscure persistence, they burst upon the Western hemisphere in the American Revolution, and upon Europe in its French sequel.

The acquisition of the Western hemisphere by white men was one of the causes of the supremacy in world affairs which they enjoyed for some centuries. They can hardly recover this supremacy by new colonizing efforts after the old pattern, because there are no longer large regions that are empty or nearly empty awaiting the coming of vigorous and enterprising men. In quite recent times the words “colonial” and “colonialism” have acquired new meanings. They are now habitually used to denote regions where the governing class is white but not Russian, and the bulk of the population is of some non-white race. Western ideals of freedom have been propagated throughout the world by Western instructors and have produced an unwillingness to submit to alien domination which in former times was either non-existent or very much weaker. Although only military conquest compelled Gaul to become part of the Roman Empire, its population, after conquest, acquiesced completely and did not welcome the separation from Rome that came in the fifth century. National independence, which has become an obstacle to colonization, seems to modern men a natural human aspiration, but it is, in fact, very modern and largely a product of education. If the human race is to survive, nationalism will have to come to terms with a new ideal—namely, internationalism. I do not see how this new ideal, which will concede to each nation internal autonomy, but not freedom for external aggression, can be reconciled with the formation of new colonies, because empty regions can no longer be found. Perhaps the Antarctic continent will be made habitable, and this might prove an exception, but I think it is the only one.

Perhaps internationalism, as a principle, may sometimes be compelled to over-ride even what might seem to be the internal affairs of a country. This may be illustrated by the problems which have arisen in relation to the latest serious attempt to found a new colony. I mean the creation of the State of Israel. This has raised difficult and bitter controversies in which each side, for different reasons, has claimed the support of outside opinion. I do not wish to express any view on these controversies on the present occasion, but their bitterness is likely to make statesmen wary of similar experiments in any foreseeable future.

Throughout history colonies have been among the most powerful agents for the spread of the arts and science and ways of life that constitute civilization. For the future, it seems that mankind will have to learn to do without this ancient and well-tried method. I think mankind will have to depend, not upon force or domination, but upon the inherent attractiveness of a civilized way of life. The Romans when they overcame the Greeks were at a much lower level of civilization than those whom they defeated, but they found Greek civilization so attractive that, from a cultural standpoint, it was the Greeks who were the victors. Those among us who value culture and a humane way of life must school ourselves to learn from the Greeks rather than from the Romans. If this is to be done successfully, we shall have to eliminate those harsher features of our way of life which have repelled many alien nations with whom we have had contact. Missionary and soldier have hitherto played equal parts in the diffusion of civilization. For the future, it must be the missionary—taking this term in a large sense—who will alone be able to carry on the work.

*  “The Story of Colonization,” Bertrand Russell, a talk on the B.B.C. European Service, July 1956  Repr. FF