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Culture War Roundup for the week of October 24, 2022

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I want to start a discussion here on a historical subject I've never been able to get a decent answer on anywhere else. The question is:

What is going on with how colonialism worked in its heyday versus how difficult it seems to be to conquer and control other countries nowadays?

Back in the heyday, tiny little England controlled something like a quarter of the world, off and on during various periods, including such areas as all of India, most of the Middle East, the original American 13 colonies, Canada, Australia, sometimes hunks of China, various large hunks of Africa, etc. The somewhat larger France controlled other hunks of North America, a bunch of Caribbean islands, large chunks of Africa, and the Middle East, etc. Even tinier Belgium, with a modern-day population of only 11 million, had some pretty big colonies in Africa that they controlled. At the time, they (mostly) seemed to have little trouble controlling these colonies for centuries, sometimes with mostly peaceful means and sometimes with quite brutal violence.

Meanwhile nowadays, mighty continent-striding America can barely keep Iraq and Afghanistan under control for a decade or two. Russia had little better luck in Afghanistan and mostly hasn't done too well in controlling areas other than tiny regions on their borders already at least partially populated with Russians. China doesn't seem to be doing much better. All of the former colonial superpowers can now barely dream of controlling a single hostile city overseas. The British stretched themselves to the limit trying to take the Falklands back, and managed to hold I think it was a city or a small region in Iraq with a lot of help from America. I think France intervened briefly in Mali a decade or so ago, with only limited success.

So ahem, what the hell happened? How did it go from super-easy to super-hard to control a foreign country on the other side of an ocean? Questions about this in Reddit history subs seem to generate mostly uhhs and grunts and vague excuses. I wonder if anyone in here, with mostly more open discussion on tougher topics has any interesting thoughts on the subject?

I've got a deep enough knowledge base that I think I can wade in with an answer. First thing to note: what you are describing as "colonialism" is, very roughly speaking, three very different types of colonialism.

In the first instance, you have what I'd call "merger" colonialism. This was the kind practiced in central and south America by the Spanish. When the Spanish landed in the New World, they found themselves two large, urbanized, literate, complex, and populous states in the Triple Alliance and Inca. Both probably had a larger population than Spain itself at the time (Mexico probably had something like 2.5-3x the population of Spain), and both had expanded very rapidly in the century previous. They were big, overstretched empires with lots of internal and external enemies, who were very glad to help these strange dudes in shiny clothing who happened to show up just in time for serious strife. It's hard to overstate just how lucky the Spanish conquest of the Americas was in retrospect, and difficult to understate the degree to which aid from rival indigenous groups helped topple the Aztec/Incan empires. In any case, the Spanish did not wipe out the previous governmental or state structures; rather they placed themselves at the top and married into important local dynasties. The subsequent Spanish crown colonies had a Mestizo elite (that Castile often tried to push back against).

In the English/French colonization of North America, the situation was quite substantially different. Serious attempts at colonial ventures began roughly a century after the Spanish entry into the Americas, and somewhere on the order of 60-80% of the indigenous population of North America had died off from introduced diseases in the interim. The east coast of North America had already seen a fair amount of trading and interchange even if there had been no serious attempts at settlement, and the tribes living along the coast (and somewhat less so into the interior) were ravaged with disease. Somewhat more amusingly you have anecdotes like how when the Plymouth Colony landed the first native they met greeted them by asking in English if they had any beer. Unlike further south there were no large states to conquer; even the Iroquois Confederacy which gave European settlers such a hard time peaked at only slightly more than 10,000 people. This was in large part a virgin land with the large bulk of the pre-existing population destroyed before arrival. Settlement did not face the same military response, nor were settlers obliged to marry into indigenous families. The climate was also much more favourable to Europeans and largely lacked the (imported) African diseases that made the Caribbean so deadly to settlers post-1600.

In the subsequent European colonization in Africa, India, China, etc. the ratio between the colonizers and the colonized was even more extreme. By the time the East India Company had taken control over most of the Indian subcontinent, its administrative functionaries (~1,500 men) ruled 300 million souls. I've just finished reading a book on the East India Company's takeover (The Anarchy, by William Dalrymple) and it is kind of mind-boggling to try and process how a few men in dingy offices in London can effect the conquest of a region so much vaster in wealth and population. It's hard to nutshell exactly what caused the "Great Divergence"; there are various ideas, namely with respect to the burgeoning industrial revolution, Enlightenment principles of rationalism and liberalism, and the revolutions in military science (both theoretical and technological). But I think it is important to stress that it was not for the most part Englishmen who conquered India, but rather largely Indians assembled, trained, and organized by Englishmen. Other colonial takeovers were similar to varying degrees; they tended to be small European expeditionary forces that, once landed, trained and organized local forces to do the bulk of the conquest/occupation. Which I think is getting more along to the point you were wondering about: what changed?

Nationalism is the easy answer, if somewhat of a simplification. In some cases it is less nationalism and some other method of pan-identification, but the principle is simple: Europeans were able to leverage significant technological advantages wielded by small groups of men to exert control over massive numbers of people because most of those people did not care who they were ruled by. In fact, when intervening in regional affairs, many groups would prefer to have foreigners be in charge rather than their rival; especially ones so self-evidently powerful. Why would some tribe in Gabon prefer to stand in solidarity with the tribe next to them they've warred with for a thousand years, instead of the guys with Maxim guns? If you're some local noble in the Laotian highlands what does it matter to you if you're ruled from Paris instead of Hue? And if you're a peasant why care at all as long as the harvests are good?

This is the kind of thing you could write 100k words on easily and not get anywhere so I'm trying to keep things simple. Before mass literacy there is no mass politics, there is no nationalism, there is no reason to care about the guy 30 km down the road, there's no reason to worry about who rules over you except for how it matters to the here and now. There is no class consciousness, there is no sense that you, a farmer, has more in common with a farmer a few towns over than the priests or tanners or dyers who live in your town.

Why didn't Indians unite against the British? Because they didn't know they were Indian. Various polities tried to cobble together anti-British alliances with the help of the French (the most successful being a Maratha-Mysore pact that inflicted a few crushing defeats). But this was all elite squabbling. There was no larger identity to draw on.

Now there are other elements here. These different forms of colonialism wasn't all that profitable in the end; go have a look at the GDP per capita rankings of western European nations and look how neatly it fits to their colonial pasts. Would the USA want to colonize the Philippines or Liberia like it did in the past? Would France really retake Algeria if it could? The west is still plenty able to extract wealth out of these places without requiring armies and colonial administrations. And we could if we really wanted play at war in these regions. We could kill millions. But it would be brutality with little benefit, and a lot of international backlash.

Regarding India as well, it wasn't (despite any nationalist ret-conning) one unitary state, or even a collection of states that recognised themselves as making up an entity called "India". You have several feuding sets of empires, and states that were familiar with strangers coming in and setting up as local power brokers.

Oh, this set are from somewhere called 'England'? And they want to trade with us? And they're happy to help us fight our traditional enemies, the big Maratha/Rajput/Muslim empire that is currently encroaching on our borders? Sure, let's make a deal, why not?

Even "Hinduism" is sort of a retcon as a religion; it's really just a jumble of dozens of local Dharmic traditions rather than a unified confession.

they found themselves two large, urbanized, literate, complex, and populous states in the Triple Alliance and Inca.

To nitpick, the Inca were not literate and the Aztec were arguably not literate either. The Inca had no writing system, they were a pre-literate society. They did have the 'Quipu', a system of knots on cords for recordkeeping, but it is a real stretch to call this a writing system. The Aztec did have pictogram/ideogram 'writing' system, but it debated whether this represents a 'true' writing system. It doesn't have seemed to have reached the complexity of late Egyptian hieroglyphs or Chinese characters (becoming logographic) which also started off as pictograms, for example. It's not clear if there was any 'real' written literature or prose like epics or poems (colonial destruction is an issue), the writing was mostly used for record keeping, they seemed to have a primarily oral tradition. Mayan writing system was a bit more complex however, but does run into much of the same issues.

IIRC Mayan hieroglyphs are confirmed to be writing and at least one book has been recovered in it. The Spanish conquered several complex societies, including the Aztecs and Incas but not limited to them(the purepecha empire says hi, and the various maya states took centuries to conquer them all), and all of them were pre-literate except for the Mayans.