Believe it or not, today’s video deals with a surprisingly persistent piece of conventional wisdom. I honestly couldn’t tell you where I picked it up, maybe Niall Ferguson, but it’s something I unthinkingly believed for decades. The idea is that countries that were colonized by the British were better off than those colonized by the French, because of superior British institutions, or better management or whatever. I hardly thought about this old assumption in my two years researching the British Empire. Serious books of history don’t try to make this claim. But once the vids started coming out, it started cropping up in the comments.
This is one of the most fun things about studying history. If you build up a base of knowledge, you can occasionally get these sudden “Ah-Hah!” moments when you realize that something you’ve always believed is unmitigated balderdash. Today’s video wrote itself with very little prompting. If you have a cursory knowledge of the history of the countries in each of the Empires before and after colonization, it becomes clear how silly this old story is. And with this video, I get to make it clear to everybody else too… I love my job.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there! Today I want to talk about an old myth about the British Empire that has been cropping up in my comments a lot lately. It comes in different forms but the idea is that you can tell the British were better colonial masters than the French, because the old British colonies are in so much better shape than Former French colonies today, with better institutions and fewer civil wars. Well as much as I love sticking it to the French, I am here today to tell you that this idea is utter hogwash.
This idea of better-run British colonies persists because of another myth that the French and the British love to preserve. That’s the idea that their Empires were engaged in a serious struggle against each other in the 19th century. As I have been pointing out over the course of this series, there was no real competition. The French held a few scattered islands in a sea of British power.
And that gives us a clue to why French colonies in general tended to perform poorly post independence. It’s because they were performing poorly before the colonial experience even started. I apologize for referring to real people and countries this way, but it’s the truth. The British got the valuable parts of the world. The French got the scraps.
The Bulk of French empire was in West Africa, a territory that was in economic ruins before the French got there. The wealthy empires that had once existed here were starved from the 1500s by the shift of international trade away from the land to the oceans. The main industry after that was the European acceleration of the slave trade that had already been draining the region for 1000 years under the Arabs. By the time the French took over in the mid to late 1800s, the sub saharan African parts of the empire were economic wastelands because of the slave trade, and the North African parts were economic wastelands because of the end of the slave trade.
Compare this to the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire, the territories that make up today’s Pakistan India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Malaysia Sri Lanka and Singapore. Prior to the first serious British conquests in the 1750s these countries were the manufacturing center of the world, producing goods in far higher quantities and qualities than anyone in Europe could compete with.These shipping lanes were extraordinarily prosperous. If the Mughal Empire hadn’t collapsed under its own weight in the early 1700s, Europeans would never have been able to take over India. When the British did take over there were established tax systems and armies that they could easily absorb.
So, When independence finally came from the 1940s to the 1970s, it did look like the colonial territories that had kicked out the British didn’t do as badly as those that had kicked out the French. But that’s because British territories were vastly richer and better organized than the French territories long before the Europeans got there. It’s actually pretty horrifying that the British managed to take their prosperous industrial territories and beat them down to a level that’s superficially similar to the brutalized territories the French took over. The whole idea of British colonial superiority is based on comparing very different kinds of countries.
When you compare countries that are a little more similar, the British don’t look so great. It’s kind of hard to make a case that formerly British Nigeria is doing much better than the other West African Countries that had to deal with French oppression. In Asia, I think it’s fairly obvious that Vietnam, which forced out the French in 1954, is doing much better than nearby formerly British Myanmar, where a recent democratization process led to genocide and international condemnation. In North Africa, who is doing better, Egypt, with it’s bloodthirstly dictator and reliance on US subsidies? Or Tunisia with the only functioning democracy in the Arab world? Tunisia kicked out the French around the same time Egypt finished kicking out the British.
Let me be clear here. I am not making a case for French Imperialism. They were extraordinarily brutal, and even more reluctant to let go of their empire than the British were. A lot of West Africa’s problems can be tied to the fact that the French are still hanging on to elements of their empire there today. That’s an ongoing crime. But we shouldn’t pretend the British were any better. Post-Colonial countries all over the world are succeeding despite imperial crimes, not because some nice institutions came with the mass starvation.
Thanks for watching, please subscribe, and please check out my book Avoiding the British Empire, that deals with all of these issues in more depth. And come back next time when we give the British empire a break, by finally covering the Tunisian elections.