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Past present: Imperial intent

Past present: Imperial intent

Whether old or new, imperialism will always find some moral justification for its expansion, occupation, loot and plunder and enslaving of defeated people. Modern European imperialism traced its legitimacy not only in its ideology of the civilising nations but also to the past. In this capacity, they justified the colonisation of North African countries, which in the ancient period were a part of the Roman Empire.

David John Mattingly in his book Imperialism, Power and Identity points out that in the 19th century, when the French and the Italians invaded North African countries and annexed them as colonies, they claimed their right to rule over these territories as inheritors of the Roman Empire. They asserted that after the fall of the Romans, North Africa was conquered and ruled by the Arabs and the Turks. As a result it relegated the local civilisation to backwardness.




The European arrivals made attempts to connect the past with the present and renew the Roman mission to ‘civilise’ the ‘barbarians’.

Historians and archaeologists reconstructed the history of the Roman Empire and revived its grandeur. The archaeological sites of the Roman period were excavated and set as reminders of the past when the Romans developed their territories as colonies.

They rediscovered the achievement and contribution of the Romans to the civilisation and culture of the colonised societies. They pointed out that the Romans built aqueducts, improved the irrigation system, set up factories for pressing olive oil and laid down the foundation of cities and maintained law and order. According to them, the Roman imperialism was benevolent and enlightened which converted North Africa to a civilised society.

Both the French and Italians wanted to revisit the old power and glory of the Roman Empire. They emulated most of the coercive methods and applied them during their rule. The French forced the people of Algeria to abandon their culture and assimilate into French civilisation. Claiming to be the inheritors of the Roman Empire, the Italians dominated Libya under the Fascist rule of Mussolini and quelled all resistance movements that broke out against their rule. European imperialism was not enlightened and benign but exploitative and despotic for the colonised people.

After the independence of North African countries from European imperialism, postcolonial historians critically examined imperialism of the past and the present and their impact on the society.

Responding to the argument that the Roman rule was enlightening, they proved that during this period, the colonies suffered immensely. The colonised people did not accept Roman domination and continued to resist it. A number of resistance movements were brutally crushed by the Roman generals.

They also established that the Romans annexed the agricultural land and allotted it to their aristocracy, extracted taxes from people, forced peasants and workers to build roads and public buildings without any remuneration. They exploited the natural resources of the colonies, enslaved people and sexually abused women.

Postcolonial intellectuals also condemned modern European imperialism for emulating the Romans. Europeans too ruled over their colonies with an iron hand, committed genocide and massacred the colonised people. They made attempts to wipe out the locals’ religious and cultural identity in order to make them history-less. This response created historical consciousness among the colonised people and provided them an opportunity to understand the impact of old and new imperialism.

Interestingly, when the British started to rule over India, they also claimed to be relatives of Indians as both belong to the Aryan race. Max Muller, the Sanskrit scholar, while addressing selected Indian Civil Service officers, told them that they were going to serve their brothers in India. The reason for this relationship was that the British were not foreigners or strangers therefore they should be accepted as new-found relatives. However, it was said that although the Indians belong to the Aryan race, as a result of mixing with other races they had lost the purity and characteristics of the Aryan race. The British as pure Aryan had the right to rule over India. This is how British imperialists used history to justify imperialism.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 4th, 2015

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