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Postcolonialism – An Historical Introduction Essay

In these two chapters from the book ‘Postcolonialism – An Historical Introduction, Robert J.C. Young provides the reader with an in depth understanding of colonal and postcolonial history, as well as well pondered definitions of important terms within the academic field of postcolonial studies. To illustrate the cruel and inhumane reality of the imperialistic powers, Young uses the case of Sir Roger Casement, a former member of the British Consular Service who was asked by the British Government in 1910 to investigate allegations of atrocities committed against the indigenous of the Amazon by a British company extracting rubber from the jungle. Casement verified, against the British governments expectations the atrocities, which six years later ironically led to his execution, sentenced by the British government on a charge of High Treason. The case of Casement shows us how the imperialistic powers ruled with devastating inhumanity, not only towards the indigenous but also towards anyone whom opposed the colonialising forces.

The author goes on describing the history of 20th century imperialism. He puts forward the shocking fact that by the time of the first World War, imperial powers occupied, or controlled, nine-tenths of the globes surface territory, where of Britain governed one-fifth of the area of the world and a quarter of its population. Later in this chapter Young argues that Britain in fact actually was the first colony of the British empire, as here a minority elite – the ruling upper class, controlled Britain both before and well into the nation’ further imperialistic era. With no space left for territorial expansion the leading forces of Europe turned inwards in a last attempt to grow. He points to Aimé Césaire who was the first to note that fascism was a form of colonialism brought home to Europe. The outcome of the 2nd World War led to the defeated nations loss of colonies around the globe. After the Indian independence in 1947 began a further process of European decolonization that is now largely complete.

The author however argues that the list of direct or indirect colonized areas, are still surprisingly long. He also points to the many territories today, which is controlled by external forces not coming from within the European nations. Young states that the colonial history, which began as early as 500 years ago, has determined the configurations and power structures of the present. When we speak about colonialism the term Third World is widely used, Young however supports the criticism of this identification, as the word “third” in it self carries a negative aura in a hierarchical relation to the first and second. To describe the three southern continents of Latin America, Africa and Asia, young therefore uses the more political correct term tricontinetal and even suggests that postcolonialism should be called tricontinentalism. Postcolonial critique is united by a common political and moral consensus towards the history and legacy towards colonialism.

It presupposes that the history of European expansion and the occupation of most of the global landmass between late 15th century and mid 20th century mark a process that was both specific and problematic. Western expansion was carried out with a moral justification that it was of benefit for all those nations, which it impacted. However apologists continue to lean upon this argument, it is impossible to deny the extraordinary suffering and destructive impact on indigenous people the colonisation of the world brought with it. The assumption of postcolonial studies is that many of the wrongs, if not crimes, against humanity are a product of the economic dominance of the north over the south. In this way, Marxist theory became the most important framework in anticolonial thinking, where from postcolonial studies finds its birth.

Postcolonial critique is a form of activist writing that looks back to the political commitment of the anti-colonial liberation movements. In an attempt to define Postcolonial critique, we can say that it focuses on forces of oppression and coercive domination that operate in the contemporary world: the politics of anti-colonialism and neo-colonialism, race, gender, nationalism, class and ethnicities define its terrain. Its object, as defined by Cabral(1969), is the pursuit of liberation after achievement of political independence. It constitutes of a directed intellectual production that seeks to synthesize different kinds of work towards the realisation of common goals that include the creation of equal access to material, natural, social and technological resources, the contestation of forms of domination – economic, cultural, religious, ethnic, gendered, and the articulation and assertion of collective forms of political and cultural identity.

The Author gives the reader his definitions of the terms: postcolonial, postcolonialism and postcoloniality. He defines ‘postcolonial’ as coming after colonialism and imperialism, in their original meaning of direct-rule domination, but still positioned within imperialism in its later sense of the global system of hegemonic economic power. The postcolonial is a concept that marks the historical facts of decolonization but also the realities of nations and peoples emerging into new imperialistic context of economic and sometimes political domination. The term ‘postcoloniaity’ by contrast puts the emphasis on the economic, material and cultural conditions that determine the global system in which the postcolonial nation is required to operate, a system heavily weighted towards the interests of international capital and the leading nations of the world.

‘Postcolonialism’, which the author prefers to call ‘tricontinentalism’, names a theoretical and political position, which embodies an active concept of intervention. Unlike the words ‘colonialism’, ‘imperialism’ and ‘neocolonialism’ which adopts only critical relation to oppressive regimes and practices that they represent, postcolonialism is both contestatory and committed towards political ideals of a transnational social justice. It attacks the status quo of hegemonic economic imperialism, and the history of colonialism and imperialism, but also signals an activist engagement with positive political positions and new forms of political identity in the same way as Marxism or feminism.

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