Decolonization – the long goodbye

Confronting the impact of empire is not about getting stuck in the past, writes Amy Hall. It’s vital to how we build a better future.

Activists from Debt for Climate and Extinction Rebellion shut down traffic in front of the IMF and World Bank annual meetings in Washington, DC on 13 October 2022, as part of decolonization demonstrations. CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES
Activists from Debt for Climate and Extinction Rebellion shut down traffic in front of the IMF and World Bank annual meetings in Washington, DC on 13 October 2022, as part of decolonization demonstrations. CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES

As people across the world struggle to afford to eat, spare a thought for the bosses at Unilever – makers of popular brands such as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Dove soap. They reported a 22 per cent rise in operating profits during the first six months of this year, after significant hikes in their products’ prices. Outgoing chief financial officer Graeme Pitkethly told reporters that the group’s lower overall profit margins showed they were ‘sharing the pain’ of inflation-hit consumers.

Unilever wouldn’t be raking it in if it wasn’t for its colonial roots. The company began in 1885 Britain, with the Lever Brothers’ soap business, which relied on palm oil sourced from Africa and procured via its United African Company. It later expanded into foods, and merged with the Dutch company Margarine Unie to form Unilever, which these days boasts over 400 brands in over 190 countries.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the plantations where the company built its business have been described by the agriculture researchers GRAIN as ‘sites of ongoing poverty, conflict and violence’.

Within the borders of the present day US, Indigenous land density and spread has been reduced by almost 99 per cent

In 1911 King Leopold of Belgium granted the British industrialist Lord Leverhulme – one of the Lever brothers – concessions over forested land, ‘large chunks’ of which Unilever eventually converted into industrial oil palm plantations. It sold these off in the 2000s to Canadian company Feronia Inc. Communities in the DRC have accused Feronia of ‘murder, land grabbing, indentured labour’.

In Kenya, widespread sexual abuse has been uncovered on tea farms that supply some of Unilever’s brands. The company has also been linked with legal action as the Kipsigis people fight for the return of their land. They were forcibly removed by the British, with thousands of their people massacred. The land is now home to tea plantations which until 2022 were leased to a subsidiary of Unilever.

There is an ever-present thread between the past, the present and the future. Unilever was only able to source the essential ingredient that helped to build its business thanks to the colonial system – one which was based on the extraction and exploitation of people, resources and the earth. The same system remains today, albeit in a different guise.

Colonial capitalism

Britain was one of a handful of European states which drove Western empire. Countries like Spain, France, Belgium, Germany, Portugal and the Netherlands also played their part. While there was competition between them, they are, as professor of Black Studies and author of The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World Kehinde Andrews says, ‘overlapping manifestations of white supremacy that cannot be separated from each other and which bleed into the current forms of colonial domination’.

A girl skips past a colonial-era red postbox outside the former post office building in Roseau, Dominica. The Caribbean island became an independent republic in 1978 after its decolonization efforts. TIM SMITH/PANOS PICTURES
A girl skips past a colonial-era red postbox outside the former post office building in Roseau, Dominica. The Caribbean island became an independent republic in 1978. TIM SMITH/PANOS PICTURES

This network also worked together to develop Western capitalism and industry, fuelled by their programme of devastation. But it was the British empire that was the largest, at one point colonizing a quarter of the world’s population and landmass.

At one time this included the US – which subsequently became the world’s biggest imperial power, and a thoroughly modern colonist. As Andrews points out, its entire existence is ‘built on the logic of Western empire’.

When Italian Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492, his ‘discovery’ was anything but: an estimated 72 million people already lived there. In the subsequent years a genocide was unleashed, which Andrews describes as ‘creating an industrial method of death that cleared the path for European advancement’.

In the centuries that followed, this land would produce commodities to power European empires, and be the site of numerous labour camps, worked by enslaved people. But although huge numbers were killed or died due to disease, many Indigenous peoples survived. Today most of these communities remain separated from their land and marginalized economically. One study estimated that, within the borders of the present day US, Indigenous land density and spread has been reduced by almost 99 per cent, with communities now living on lands more vulnerable to climate change and with fewer resources.

Indigenous communities in Canada, Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand and elsewhere continue to live with the reality of settler colonialism.

In his 1972 book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, historian Walter Rodney outlines how the continent was systemically exploited by extractive European powers who took ‘the wealth created by African labour and from African resources’ and placed restrictions ‘upon the continent’s capacity to make the maximum use of its economic potential’, including foreign ownership. ‘So long as foreigners own land, mines, factories, banks, insurance companies, means of transportation, newspapers, power stations, then for so long will the wealth of Africa flow outwards into the hands of those elements,’ he writes.

Many places which had healthy industries saw them run down under colonial rule. India, for instance, had strong textile and other manufacturing industries prior to colonization. But it saw its share of global manufacturing fall from 27 to 2 per cent under British rule.

Global shake-up

Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, there was a long, messy and often violent process of decolonization, as countries gained independence thanks to sustained resistance movements. But it was by no means a clean break.

Elites in formerly colonized countries have managed to amass vast wealth and ‘reap financial rewards from access to a slice of the Western imperial pie’, as Andrews describes. There is also a growing middle class whose wealth is based on exploiting ‘the same system that impoverishes the vast majority of those in the world who are Black and Brown’.

Today’s trade, tax, debt and financial and legal systems have grown out of colonialism, and serve to dilute the sovereignty of supposedly independent nations. Central to this are institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank who play a part in maintaining the status quo.

Left impoverished by underdevelopment, on gaining independence many states struggled economically. The IMF – whose five original shareholders were the US, Britain, France, Germany and Japan – provided loans which also served the agenda of increasingly neoliberal Western powers, and restricted borrowing governments’ ability to spend on public services.

Today, as Pakistan reels from devastating flooding and extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change, its economy is in free fall. In July, on the brink of a sovereign debt default, it secured a $3 billion bailout from the IMF, following other new loans from governments such as China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

A statue of King Leopold II in Brussels, Belgium, defaced in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings, following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, US. Leopold ruled Belgium during a particularly bloody colonial period. DIETER TELEMANS/PANOS PICTURES
A statue of King Leopold II in Brussels, Belgium, defaced in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings, following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, US. Leopold ruled Belgium during a particularly bloody colonial period. DIETER TELEMANS/PANOS PICTURES

Since 1958 Pakistan has entered into 22 agreements with the IMF, its debt to this organization alone reached an astonishing $7.6 billion. IMF loans come with conditions attached: Pakistan has already raised power tariffs under its insistence.

‘The policies funded by the Fund have worsened Pakistan’s food and energy dependency and insecurity, increased inequality and reinforced the trend towards an authoritarian regime,’ Abdul Khaliq of the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt in Pakistan says.

Since 1980 there have been $4.6 trillion in debt payments from the Global South to the Global North. Debt cancellation is vital to achieving any sort of rebalancing of power

But we should be looking elsewhere for the debtors. Sociology professor Gurminder K. Bhambra has documented how India was ‘coerced’ into providing finance to Britain after the First and Second World Wars, with these debts subsequently being ‘erased’ through currency manipulation and other means. She explains that, from 1946 to 1951, the colonies were required to provide about £250 million ($321.7 million) in finance to help bankroll the post-war reconstruction of Britain.

According to War on Want, since 1980 there have been $4.6 trillion in debt payments from the Global South to the Global North. Debt cancellation is vital to achieving any sort of rebalancing of power.

‘The best type of debt is the one that can never be paid,’ explains legal academic Kojo Koram. ‘This is how sovereign debt has come to function – while never being cleared, the “project” of paying off the debt can be a useful umbrella under which to remake the economic basis of a society.’

In his book Uncommon Wealth: Britain and the Aftermath of Empire, Koram outlines how the rampant nature of capitalist empire also ‘ricocheted back home’ through economic and political trends which were first tested in the colonial world. He describes a ‘boomerang’ effect in which things like outsourcing, privatisation and weakened labour protections in Britain all evolved from empire, contributing to the vast inequality within the country today.

Wealth builders

Not only was poverty far from inevitable – neither was wealth.

It was only in 2015 that British taxpayers – including a significant number who were descended from enslaved people – stopped paying off the debt, originally £20 million ($25.4 million), from the ‘compensation’ given to Transatlantic enslavers. And it wasn’t just the super rich who profited from this. While they may not have had their own land in the Caribbean, many middle class people still ‘owned’ enslaved people who they could ‘rent’ to landowners. According to historian David Olusoga, ‘these bit-players were home county vicars, iron manufacturers from the Midlands and lots and lots of widows’.

While it is a myth that countries were better off for being colonized, it is clear that Britain was better off – at least in financial terms – from doing the colonizing, even if this wealth wasn’t equally shared. The Empire spurred the industrial revolution and Britain profited, reaping in $45 trillion from its colonial rule of the Indian subcontinent alone. Money from the empire was invested across British society and business.

Bhambra has outlined how taxes extracted from India were used to benefit people in Britain, including through the development of the welfare state which factored in the wealth coming from the Empire, but didn’t allow for that income being redistributed in the form of support for colonized subjects – not even when India faced famine.

When Britain struggled to rebuild itself after World War Two, people from across the Empire – like my aunties and grandfather – answered the call for help, and came to work as nurses, bus drivers and whatever else was needed. They travelled on British passports but were met with discrimination and racism, and it became ever clearer that not all colonies were created equal. People from across Africa, the Caribbean and Asia have always received different treatment, by British government policy and the public, than those from ‘white’ colonies like Australia and Canada.

White supremacy was at the heart of the British Empire and the Transatlantic slave trade, and the racialization of Indigenous and enslaved peoples was central to colonizers maintaining their power, and reducing solidarity among oppressed groups.

The Decolonization facts spread from issue 545 of New Internationalist
See the full-size fact spread.

Decolonization beyond buzzwords

So what can be done?

Decolonization can refer simply to the process in which territories that were once colonized become recognized as nation states. But increasingly, many people see it as more than that. Geography professor Farhana Sultana has defined decolonizing as ‘accounting for and reflecting on the past and present’ to find ways ‘to remove colonial and imperial powers in all their forms’.

It goes deeper than street names and statues – although the symbolism and cultural importance of those things should not be dismissed.

‘Decolonize’ has become a buzzword in recent years – thrown in front of initiatives that are actually more about diversity and inclusion, or simply making something less racist. But as Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang remind us in their seminal essay ‘Decolonization is not a metaphor’, if decolonization were to happen it would be unsettling for everyone. They warn against the ‘easy adoption of decolonizing discourse’ and seek to separate this from wider discussions around social justice.

‘Decolonization in exploitative colonial situations could involve the seizing of imperial wealth by the postcolonial subject,’ they explain. ‘In settler colonial situations, seizing imperial wealth is inextricably tied to settlement and re-invasion.’

Calls to decolonize have too often been relegated to being ‘just another frontier in the culture war’, ‘just another attempt by resentful Black people to impose white guilt on those who are doing better than them’, divisiveness, or trying to ‘rewrite history’, as Koram puts it.

All hell broke loose when the National Trust, a membership-based historical conservation charity in Britain, published a report which outlined the links between colonialism, or slavery, and the properties under its care. Some of the Trust’s staff and the report’s authors were hounded by the rightwing press, and the Trust became a new battleground in the ‘war against woke’.

Also in this issue...
Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco reports on the growing movement to get the Global North to cough up for its climate debt.
Tarushi Aswani shines a light on how the Indian government uses the language of decolonization to promote rightwing nationalism.
Priya Lukka explores the current states of reparation movements, their varied history, and what could be ahead.
Patrick Gathara examines how to decolonizing Africa’s media, telling the story of an initiative in Kenya.
Amy Hall reports on how Barbados ditched the British monarchy two years ago, and what has really changed since then.
Plus features about abuses of power in Guatemala, France’s reckoning with police violence, and how Brazilian agribusiness threatens to scupper climate progress. Read more about Issue 543 here.
Subscribe now to receive your copy and every back issue of New Internationalist.
Digital subscribers – read issue 545 on Exact Editions.

Reparation not aid

As well as continuing the process of decolonization, a journey of repair will be essential as people continue to live with the psychological and material impacts of empire. Climate change continues to ravage the planet. Capitalism continues to kill. Indigenous peoples struggle to get their land back. And in Britain’s overseas territories – and elsewhere – the decolonization process is yet to be completed.

Reparation is different from aid. The latter is based on the logic that it is the ‘right’ thing to ‘help’ people in poorer countries whereas, as Bhambra has pointed out, ‘reparations provides a different frame – what responsibility do we have to rectify inequalities?’

There are wide-ranging calls for reparations for descendants of enslaved people, and those impacted by colonialism. The climate is a crucial part of this, as is the return of land (See NI 540 Big Story).

We’re not looking for aid and we’re not asking for aid. We’re demanding redress for the harm committed

Some of the most high-profile work for reparations at an international level has come from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), a grouping of 15 member states, as well as five associate members which are all British Overseas Territories. In 2013 CARICOM nations set up a Reparations Commission to establish the case for the payment of reparations from former colonial powers – and ‘relevant institutions of those countries’ – to the people of the Caribbean.

In 2014 the Commission launched a 10-point plan outlining its demands for reparations, which includes a full formal apology to the descendants of Indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans, assistance with the healthcare system and education development, and the repair of psychological trauma caused by colonialism.

Verene Shepherd is professor emerita of history and gender studies at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, Jamaica, as well as co-chair of the Commission. When it comes to reparations, she notes, it’s ‘not just a few people who are talking about it, this is now an international movement’.

She says: ‘Infrastructural development is necessary to reverse that poverty and underdevelopment that we have today, and the psychological harm. The 10-point plan is saying that this is what needs to be fixed at the very least.’

In July 2023, the Dutch King Willem-Alexander made a formal apology for the Netherlands’ involvement in slavery. He’s not the only one: individuals whose families have directly benefited from the slave trade have begun to express a desire to address this legacy, including members of the Trevelyan family whose ancestors enslaved more than 1,000 people in Grenada. Earlier this year the family apologized and paid around $120,000 towards a community fund.

Shepherd welcomes the move, but speaks of concerns that the profile given to these descendents and their activities could drown out generations of work by Black activists in the Caribbean. The risk is that these ‘heirs’ are remembered in history as the ones who made reparations happen.

‘Those who know history and have a good understanding of the emancipation and abolition campaign are saying we do not want a repeat of the mis-education of our people,’ she explains. ‘To this day when emancipation comes up it’s Wilberforce and so on who are remembered – not those who with boots on the ground fought revolutionary wars to abolish the chattel enslavement as well as the trafficking in African people.’

An extensive report published in June estimated that reparations of $77 trillion to $108 trillion are due to descendents of enslaved people in the Americas and the Caribbean. The report’s authors are keen to point out that this is a ‘lower-bound estimate reflecting conservative assumptions’.

Shepherd explains that the CARICOM 10-point plan is not intended as a pay-out to individuals, but to establish something that everyone in the Caribbean can benefit from, including through better infrastructure and public services.

‘Europeans sometimes claim “oh well over the years we have given so much in grants and loans”, but that’s not reparations, that’s aid. We’re not looking for aid and we’re not asking for aid. We’re demanding redress for the harm committed.’

Now the Commission is stepping up its campaign to get a meeting with the British government. In April, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak rejected calls for an apology and reparations to address Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. ‘We reject the negative attitude of the present prime minster of Britain,’ says Shepherd. ‘I think he needs to get up to speed with the history of colonialism.’

The decolonizaton process is not over: seeking to confront, undo and repair harm caused by colonization, imperialism and enslavement is an essential part of it, alongside the dismantling of the structures that perpetuate colonialism’s impacts.

In the words of Sultana there is no blueprint, as ‘decolonizing is a process and not an event; it is ongoing unlearn-ing to relearn. It is the many acts, small and large, acting in constellations and collectivities over time and place, that bear results’.