China has many of the characteristics of an emerging colonial power. How does it compare historically?

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Dutch East India Company shipyard – the technological basis of Dutch maritime superiority.

History, Future. Now. had dinner earlier this evening with two Kenyans of Indian origin.  Indian-Kenyans make up less than 1% of the country’s 43 million people, but apparently account for 70-80% of the country’s wealth.  Indian-Kenyans arrived in the country in the late 19th and early 20th century, typically with nothing but the brains in their heads and the clothes on their backs.  This dinner triggered thoughts the new player in Africa: China.

China has been accused of being a neocolonial power in Africa.  The country, through semi-governmental organisations is buying up land in countries such as Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Madagascar and  Zambia and investing heavily in resource extractive industries, whose products are then sent back to China for processing into value added goods.  Much of this feels familiar to a historian.  So is China really an up-and-coming colonial power, or is this something completely new?

History, Future. Now. first looks back in time for some other examples of colonialism, ranging from the beginnings of recorded history up to the present day.

Greeks, city states, Marseilles, Carthage.

Once reasonably risk free navigation and ship building techniques had been established in the Mediterranean, its main innovators used their new technology to trade and eventually set up colonies all the way to the Straights of Gibraltar and the Atlantic Ocean.  The Phoenicians, who provided us with the basis of our phonetic alphabet, were extremely competent mariners and many left their base on the eastern Mediterranean around modern day Lebanon in the 1200s BC  to found port cities, one of which would become even more famous than their mother city: Carthage.  The Greeks also expanded in the 800s-700s BC, spreading their city state model of political organisation around the Aegean and Black Seas all over Italy,  Sicily and into southern France and eastern Spain.

The founding of these colonies appears to have been done by family groups who set up villages on the coast, to provide easy sea access, and with the reasonable acquiescence of local tribes (at least until the villages turned into populous cities).  A primary driver appears to have been population growth: emigration helped keep numbers at home at a manageable level.  While the city states did appear to cooperate together and support their mother city, they were independent entities and were not governed from a distance.

Roman colonies

Unlike the Greek and Phoenician/Carthaginian city states, the Romans were not great sailors for most of their history, and Roman colonies were mainly contiguous to Roman occupied lands.  By the end of the Roman Republic, reforms to the way the Roman military was recruited meant that land was frequently granted to retiring soldiers.  With limited public land available at home, veteran soldiers were granted land in newly won territories and provinces.  This served a dual purpose of expanding Roman influence & culture and providing a core of Roman reserves to call upon if the newly conquered populations rose up in rebellion.

Unlike Greek colonies, who moved in family units, this form of colonisation was mainly of single men who eventually married local women, passing on Roman citizenship to their offspring.  Many of these colonies were actively resented by the local population and in the 1st Century BC uprisings in Asia Minor (Turkey) resulted in the coordinated massacre of Roman settlers.

Inverse Roman colonisation

From the 300s onwards the Roman Empire stopped expanding and consolidated its borders.  Border tribes became increasingly Romanised and wanted to move into the Empire.  This desire to move into a highly prosperous region was enhanced as waves of new tribes – such as the Huns – pushed whole nations against the borders of the Roman Empire.

The Romans had good systems to deal with large numbers of immigrants.  The young and able were frequently mustered into joining the army, rather like the Union States does today with its own immigrants.  Family groups were sometimes separated and the population dispersed throughout the empire.  In 376AD this system abruptly broke down when what should have been a regular border crossing turned into a riot.  The Romans had abused their position, sold many of immigrants into slavery and stripped them of their wealth.  Rising up in arms, a wave of Visigoths rolled into the Empire, unchecked.

Over time, this became the norm, with successive Germanic nation groups settling in France, Spain and North Africa.  These nations eventually stopped paying taxes to the Roman central government and the Roman Empire in the west withered away, finally ending when the Germanic ruler of Italy usurped the young Emperor Romulus Augustus in 474AD and sent the imperial regalia to the Eastern Roman Emperor in Constantinople.  Unlike Greek and Roman colonies, this form of colonisation was unplanned and large numbers of people simply overwhelmed the local Roman populations.

Spanish New World colonies

By 1492, the Spanish Christian kingdoms of Castille and Aragon were masters of the art of warfare.  They were the descendants of the German tribes that had reverse colonised Roman Closer and Further Hispania and had merged with the local populations.  The successful Arab invasions of North Africa and Spain prior to 720 AD had pushed these Christian groups to the north and west of the peninsula.  A love of church bells, a dual use technology whose  military bi-product was cannon and guns, helped Christians fight back and on the 2nd January 1492 Granada, in the southern Arab kingdom of Andalusia, fell to their most Catholic Majesties Isabella of Castilla and Ferdinand of Aragon.

When the Italian Christopher Colombus approached them for funds for his geographically challenged voyage to China and thus bypass the Islamic monopoly of trade following the fall of Constantinople in 1453 they accepted.

Spanish colonisation was the first time in over 20,000 years that Eurasian germs had successfully been able to adapt to the densely populated and warm climes of the Caribbean, Central and South America.  They did so with gusto and within 50 years up to 90% of the original inhabitants of the New World had been wiped out by disease.

Disease and military technology superiority had de-stabilised the local ruling elites giving a small number of Spaniards the ability to dominate their areas.  Like Roman colonisation, Spanish colonisation was centrally managed, albeit at a distance, and led by former soldiers who intermarried with the locals.  But the populations that they inherited had been decimated.  This required them to bring in new labour – African slaves – to do the work that they wanted doing. This form of involuntary African colonisation was particularly successful in the Caribbean islands where they dominated ethnically.

English colonies in America

Early English colonists were refugees.  First came the Puritans from eastern England with their unpopular Protestant views.  Like the Greek colonies, these colonists came in large family groups and tended to stick to the coast, providing access to England and new colonial recruits.  Also like the Greek colonies, the lands that they encountered were considerably less populated than from whence they had come, thanks to Eurasian disease brought over one hundred years earlier by the Spanish.  Like the Inverse Roman Colonisation of German tribes in the 300-500s, the numbers of colonists eventually overwhelmed the local population wiping out most of the indigenous people and their cultures.

The second wave of High Church of England aristocrats, accompanied by single indentured servants, from the southern part of England was different.  They settled in hotter, less appealing climes but soon discovered that their lands were ideal for many of the crops that were appealing to Europeans: tobacco and sugar.  Unlike the northern settlements, which were family orientated and more egalitarian, the southern colonists continued their aristocratic tendencies with larger estates and a larger distribution between rich and poor.  Favourable winds provided a wind powered merchant navy a profitable triangle of trade which enabled English manufactured trinkets to be sold to coastal Africans, where they then purchased captured Africans which they then sold to Americans and then purchased tobacco, sugar and eventually cotton back to the English.

The third wave of Quakers, and their Germanic kinsmen, was similar to the first wave and also moved relatively far north.  The fourth wave came from the borderlands of Wales, Ireland and Scotland and promptly moved to the western borderlands in America, bringing their distinctive culture with them.   These groups also benefited from a military superiority over native American tribes and these colonists overwhelmed the local indigenous populations.

Trading colonies

The Dutch city states kicked off a new form of colonisation, which was initially similar to the Phoenician trading outpost. These activities were joint ventures between the state and private investors, who used the innovation of the joint stock ownership company to share the costs, risks and income associated with trading missions.  The Dutch were superb ship builders and used highly mechanised processes powered by wind mills to produce large numbers of low cost well built ships.  These merchant ships of the VOC were big enough to carry a good cargo, well armed enough to fight off any pirates and fast enough to out run ships sent to intercept them in large numbers.

They used these ships to do what Christopher Colombus had initially signed up Isabella and Ferdinand to do – cut out the Islamic middleman and trade directly with east Asia and China, bringing back large volumes of spices and silks to Europe at a huge profit.  Amsterdam is testament to the wealth that was generated during that period.

This was not really colonisation as we have seen previously.  There were no family groups involved and no real emigration of single men to a new location.  Britain’s second empire, after the loss of the American colonies in 1783, was a similar trading empire.

But colonisation did eventually happen.  At times of dispute between local rulers and Dutch and English traders (in India) force of arms, rather than diplomacy was used.  Once enough local rulers had been sufficiently chastened a power vacuum emerged which was eventually filled by Dutch and British government officials.  Compared to emigration to America, emigration to Africa and Asia was tiny.  Once they ended their colonial rule the influence of the English and Dutch on the native peoples was quickly eroded, with the significant exception of the use of the English language and common law.

Me- too- colonialism

No account of colonialism is complete without mentioning the late-to-the-game colonialism of Germany, Italy and Japan, which ultimately led to the Second World War.

Germany, blocked to the west, had some half hearted African colonial attempts but it was Nazi Germany that decided to push east into Poland and Russia to achieve living space for his people.  Unlike the English and Spanish colonies, in America, however, Russia had a large population, a strong political leadership, equal access and production of military technologies and similar diseases.  Turning your equals into colonies is difficult.

Italy headed south, with an attempt to recreate a Mediterranean empire.  Like Germany, its efforts were largely repelled, despite superior access to military technologies. Japan also headed south and west.  China proved a quagmire, despite its initially weak political leadership.  US military supplies and Communist leadership, however, made its efforts there unsuccessful and gradual attrition due to unequal military capabilities with the US made it lose its island empire and then its homeland.

So is China colonising Africa?

China does not appear to want to use Africa as a place to send its expanding population.  While China’s population is still growing due to demographic momentum, its widely practiced one child policy will result in an eventual peak and then decline of its population.

China wants Africa’s resources.  It is willing to lock in higher than market prices today in the anticipation that demand for raw materials will go up over the next five to ten years.  As part of that process it is willing to build infrastructure in Africa to get to the resources.  Interestingly, much of the work is done by Chinese workers who live in compounds, though perhaps not as much as widely reported.

As a result China seems to be following a path similar to that of the Dutch and English trading empires with relatively small numbers of Chinese responsible for extracting resources and then shipping them back to China for processing into value added products.

At some point, however, Chinese interests in a particular country will become sufficiently large that it will need to have a political say in the economy in order to protect its investment.  In the event of armed conflict between locals and its Chinese workers it will be forced to defend its nationals.

As the Dutch and English discovered, once you start to get involved politically and militarily to defend economic interests, it is a short hop and a skip to full blown colonisation.

China is on that path, whether it wants to be or not.

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