Widening the Postcolonial Debate (II) --More Grist for the Mill

Eric Dickens

In an attempt to widen the postcolonial debate, both synchronically and diachronically, I would like to mention a few areas where a postcolonial perspective on Europe may prove fruitful. Firstly, the Roman Empire is surely the first time that a large colonising power in the West managed to get anything written down in large amounts, and which has come down to us. The fact it was all written in Latin by people almost always well-disposed towards the project of empire could fruitfully be compared and contrasted with the international postcolonial debate which exists nowadays, also conducted in an (erstwhile?) colonial language: English. That is why I personally am very positive about the use of English as a lingua franca -- ultimately, using Latin was no longer a sign of the dominant Roman Empire. The language was gradually taken over by various other bodies, such as the Christian Church which, though centred on Rome, became a very international body.

Comparisons nowadays should also take colonialism within Europe into account. Even at this present time (i.e. in the year 2000) there are European countries, nations and peoples which have just freed themselves from the political and cultural yoke of their more powerful neighbours, or other historically metropolitan powers during the last couple of centuries. Or are still in the process of doing so (including one quasi-European instance):

1. The Faroe Isles

Perhaps few people realise it but at this very time the Faroe Isles are negotiating with Denmark for a greater measure of autonomy, or even outright independence. But a lot depends on the fact that the Faroese economy is heavily subsidised by the Copenhagen government. Iceland managed to more or less wriggle free from Danish rule in 1944.

2. The Baltic States

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Baltic states, i.e. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have been standing on their own two feet for a decade. They run their affairs in their own respective languages. They do not, therefore, use former colonial language, Russian, as the language of commerce, politics, culture, the media. This is in striking contrast to countries in the developing world where the myriad of local languages make it necessary to use a lingua franca such as English or Spanish. After six or seven hundred years of foreign colonial rule by Swedes, Danes, Poles, Germans and Russians, the Baltic states, along with Finland, finally shook off colonial rule in 1917. By the end of World War II, only Finland remained a free country and has flourished ever since. The other three were once again swallowed up until 1991 by the Soviet Union. Surely here again there are fruitful comparisons to be drawn and lessons to be learnt for newly independent states in Africa and Asia. However kind the Soviet Union was to certain African, American and Asian states, and their exiles, during the Cold War, please remember what it was doing back home!

Some suggested readings

3. British Concentration Camps in Southern Africa

As traumatic as the Amritsar Massacre, another blot on the escutcheon of the British Empire is a relatively forgotten episode occurring during the Boer War. As the British found the Afrikaners a pretty intransigent bunch, they decided to put their women and children in what to all intents and purposes were concentration camps and burnt down their farmsteads. Some 20,000 women and children starved to death in these camps between 1899 and 1901. The Afrikaners also had to go through a period of postcolonial readjustment after the war as they were gradually rehabilitated under the watchful eye of the Britsih Empire. But because of the later follies of powerful Afrikaans-speaking whites in South Africa -- apartheid, the death of Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, Doctor Death -- the fact that Englishmen and Scotsmen also perpetrated what would nowadays be termed crimes against humanity should be remembered for the sake of evenhandedness.

4. The Gaidehealtachid

While the history of Ireland is well known in postcolonial circles, do not forget that the Scots also suffered. And again, the question of language rears its head. Can it be a coincidence that it was in the Gaidhealtachd -- the Gaelic-speaking area of Scotland -- that local inhabitants were turfed out of their homes so that the landed gentry, often of English provenance, could let their sheep graze freely across parts of the Highlands? This episode in British history is known as the Highland Clearances and occurred during the 19th century. [Niel Gunn Butcher's Broom (novel; 1934).]

5. Catalonia

After General Franco banned the language outright in the 1930s, speakers of Catalan have making a cultural comeback since the death of that dictator in the early 1970s. In fact, many of the publishing houses of Spain, even those for Spanish-language publications, are located in the largest city in Catalonia, Barcelona, rather than in the capital Madrid. Nowadays, Barcelona is a flourishing city with a lot going on in the language once doomed to extinction, Catalan.

Postcolonial OV discourseov Bibliography

28 April 2000