Category Archives: colonialism

An advanced East and a backward West

China flu and the ignominy of Europe

Anyone who has been to church in France, writes Dalrymple,

will have noticed that the direction of the tide of evangelism has reversed. It used to be from France to Africa; now it is from Africa to France. Many of the priests are African: they come to serve or convert the heathen who once colonised them.

It points, he notes,

to a loss, not only of faith but of cultural confidence. The idea of Europe preaching to the world now seems ridiculous. Europe has lost the mandate of heaven.

Who would have thought, Dalrymple asks,

even 30 years ago, that China would be sending humanitarian assistance to Italy, both in the form of medical material and technicians?

There has been a reversal

of what people in the West, for so long, took as the natural order of things.

The Wuhan virus

has revealed what Westerners would have preferred not to know: they are no longer in the forefront.

Dalrymple points out that Europe cannot even console itself that, if it has not responded with the efficiency of Korea, Taiwan, or Singapore, it is at least not authoritarian. Near where Dalrymple lives, people are required to show a laissez-passer. Taking a short walk in the district, Dalrymple says he half-expects someone to jump out of a doorway and shout

Halt! Ihre Papiere, bitte.

A Chinese aid worker loads humanitarian relief supplies bound for Italy at Hangzhou airport

The world must be kept free of any kind of moral complexity

Cherchez le colonialiste britannique

The diversity to which the liberal claims devotion is a sham

Dalrymple occasionally meets among his patients

Jamaican homosexuals who have received political asylum in Britain. (In Jamaica, laws against sodomy remain on the books, though they are rarely enforced.)

Leafing through the British newspaper the Guardian, he comes across an article

ascribing blame for this Jamaican illiberalism not to the Jamaicans but to the British. The Jamaicans, it argued, had a fear and hatred of homosexuality because British slave masters sodomised slaves one-and-three-quarter centuries ago.

The article’s author allowed that other factors played a role:

Jamaican men tended to be swaggeringly macho as a consequence of the powerlessness they felt under the colonial and neocolonial regimes. Furthermore, Jamaica is a poor country, and its population poorly educated. Why is it poor? Because so large a proportion of its budget goes to service the national debt—a burden developed countries have laid on it. If Jamaicans were richer and better educated, they would be more tolerant of homosexuals.

This argument, writes Dalryjmple,

is paradigmatic of the liberal mindset regarding supposed victim populations such as the Jamaicans, who nevertheless hold views and behave in ways that liberals find distasteful. The blame is not theirs but belongs to the perpetrator group of which the liberal disapproves. The victim group—in this case the Jamaicans—find themselves dehumanised. They can do no wrong because, as victims, they are not moral agents. Their opinions, if similar to those widespread among us not so very long ago, are not theirs, but are unthinking emotional responses to historical experiences—not real opinions but like the automatic responses that rats develop when exposed to conditioning stimuli.

The liberal’s devotion to diversity

disappears. Jamaica, which for all its faults has a democratic method of altering its laws, is to be regarded as suffering from a neurotic illness if it does not go along with current liberal notions of right and wrong.

The diversity to which the liberal claims devotion

is a stalking horse to destroy moral attitudes of which he disapproves, so as to replace them with others that he regards as universal and binding.

How Mobutu bared his teeth against the rotten imperialists

Prophet of ‘national authenticity’

One man who was keenly aware of the political advantages to be derived from assumption of victimhood was Mobutu Sese Seko, Dalrymple reminds us. In order, Dalrymple explains,

to overcome the effects of a colonial past, and in the name of authenticity, Mobutu decreed that all Zaïrian citizens abandon their European names — to which they had been accustomed since birth — and take on African ones. Likewise, no one was henceforth to wear a collar and tie; instead Mobutu had designed a national costume, which he imposed. In this way, he made himself all-important.


when he had a toothache, he commandeered a jet aëroplane of the national airline and flew to Paris for dental treatment.

Leading by example: Mobutu models his abacost (‘à bas le costume’) menswear designs

Jet aircraft of the type commandeered by Mobutu for visits to the dentist

The main harm of European colonialism in Africa

Jean-Bédel Bokassa

It was psychological, Dalrymple points out.

Working as a doctor in Rhodesia, he noticed that

black doctors were paid the same as white doctors; but while I lived like a king on my salary, the black doctors on the same salary lived in penury and near-squalor.

The reason was that while Dalrymple had only himself to consider, the black doctors,

being at the peak of the African pyramid, had to share their salary with their extended family and others. It was a profound social obligation for them to do so and was, in fact, morally attractive.

Idi Amin


did not prevent them from wishing as individuals to live at the European standard; but this was impossible so long as the colonial régime lasted.

Once this élite had its hand on power, Dalrymple notes,

it had both the means and opportunity to outdo that standard to assuage its humiliation, but the social obligations to look after the extended family and others remained. There was no legitimate way to satisfy these demands other than by gaining and keeping control of political power, which is why the struggle for such control was often so ruthless and bloody.

When the model of power they had in their minds

was that of the colonial ruler, salaried philosopher-kings whose prestige was maintained by a lot of ceremonial flimflam (white helmets with egret feathers, splendid uniforms), it was hardly surprising that the dance of freedom was a bestiary of bizarre rulers.

Robert Mugabe

Ahmed Sékou Touré

Mobutu Sese Seko

Too far gone for Salvarsan

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 22.48.55Dalrymple notes that Llewelyn Powys

detested the Kenyan colonists, whom he saw as greedy philistine brutes.

In one of the stories in Ebony and Ivory (1923),

a farm labourer is so badly treated by his employer, but has so little chance of escape, that he decides not to kill himself but simply to lie down and die – and he does, his corpse being burned as ‘Rubbish’, the title of the story.

In another story,

a young man just out to the colony starts out better and more refined than the other colonists but is gradually coarsened by them. He takes a local girl as a lover but contracts syphilis from her, so virulent that the doctor tells him that even Salvarsan cannot help him. He takes a pistol and shoots himself in the head.

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 22.54.33Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 22.53.55Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 22.54.13

Postcard from Salisbury

Rhodesia was in many ways admirable. The settler regime was, writes, Dalrymple, 'in truth a remarkable one, with a very small élite who produced and ran a functioning, though not of course a just, state'.

Upon qualifying as a physician, Dalrymple sets off with alacrity for Rhodesia, a place which he finds to be in many ways admirable. He has landed a job at a hospital there. The settler regime, he writes, is ‘in truth a remarkable one, with a very small élite who run a functioning, though not of course a just, state’.

The wounded amour propre of subject peoples

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 08.56.33Many people, writes Dalrymple,

would rather be misruled by their own than well governed by strangers.

The greatest harm inflicted by colonial régimes, he argues,

was to the pride of the colonised. It was not the larger injustices that moved them (it seldom is), but the disdain and contempt in which they were so obviously held by the colonisers. Unrequited admiration is bad enough, but to admire those who regard you as beneath consideration, and as congenitally stupid and lacking in capacity, is painful indeed.

Lee was not universally loved

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 21.56.04The most intelligent and capable world leader of the past half-century

He was not, writes Dalrymple with gentle understatement,

universally loved.


universal approbation is not an appropriate goal for a politician.

His authoritarianism

fell far short of despotism.

Lee brought order

Lee brought order

Like many politicians brought up

in the twilight of empire, he both admired and disliked the colonial power.

Lee recalled admiringly

the way evening newspapers were piled in the street in London and people paid for them by leaving their money without any compulsion to do so and without ever stealing what others had left. This, he thought, was a well-ordered and disciplined society.

The achievements of Singapore under Lee Kwan Yew are incontestable

He had the pleasure

of being able to reverse the flow of moral example, and of seeing the former colonial power, which had always prided itself on its moral, intellectual and political superiority, sunk in terminal decline and decadence.

Unlike the good order and discipline that he thought he saw in England,Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 21.49.39

which had grown more or less organically from the country’s history, Singapore’s had to be brought about by stern and some would say oppressive legislation.

The efficiency with which the city-state is now administered

is one of the reproaches against Lee; it now seems almost intimidatingly tidy and well-organised, with little scope for the free expression or the crookedness of the timber from which Kant thought that mankind is made, and in which he delighted.

'Jeder derselben will immer seine Freiheit mißbrauchen, wenn er Keinen über sich hat, der nach den Gesetzen über ihn Gewalt ausübt. Das höchste Oberhaupt soll aber gerecht für sich selbst, und doch ein Mensch sein. Diese Aufgabe ist daher die schwerste unter allen; ja ihre vollkommene Auflösung ist unmöglich; aus so krummen Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden'

‘Jeder derselben will immer seine Freiheit mißbrauchen, wenn er Keinen über sich hat, der nach den Gesetzen über ihn Gewalt ausübt. Das höchste Oberhaupt soll aber gerecht für sich selbst, und doch ein Mensch sein. Diese Aufgabe ist daher die schwerste unter allen; ja ihre vollkommene Auflösung ist unmöglich; aus so krummen Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden.’

Expressing esteem for Maugham is inadmissible in polite company

Floc'h & Rivière, Villa Mauresque, La Table Ronde, 2013

At the former home of the chaplain to Leopold II of Belgium: Floc’h & Rivière, Villa Mauresque, La Table Ronde, 2013

Admitting to an admiration for W. Somerset Maugham is a bit like announcing how much one enjoys pornography, Dalrymple suggests. To an intellectual, it is

what voyaging overseas once was to an orthodox Brahmin: it leads automatically to a loss of caste.

It is like

expressing a preference for Offenbach to Bach.


Maugham’s insistence on clarity and economy is a factor, Dalrymple explains.

The demand for clarity makes intellectuals uneasy, for it renders originality so much more difficult to achieve. Clarity comes to be identified with superficiality and obscurity with profundity.

Superficiality is one of the charges laid against Maugham by his fierce critics, says Dalrymple.

Among the many others are

  • cynicism
  • misanthropy
  • callousness
  • snobbery
With catamite: 1941, George Platt Lynes photo

With catamite: 1941 George Platt Lynes photo

Dalrymple believes that people

have tended to confuse Maugham’s character in real life — or what was reportedly his character in real life — with what he wrote. If he was a sour, prune-faced man who was unreasonably outraged by the smallest breach of etiquette, and who was excessively worldly into the bargain, it must follow that his writing partook of the same or cognate qualities. But this is wide of the mark.

Maugham clearly favours

common human pleasure against the demands of a too rigid morality, or moralism. His dry condemnation of the suppression of native dancing — a suppression that really did take place — means that he did not share the sense of providential cultural and moral superiority that fuelled colonialism.

The short story Rain

is anti-colonial, though not stridently so. Colonialism harms the natives by depriving them of their culture and traps the colonialist in the amber of self-importance and priggishness. These were not views that were universal in 1916 when Maugham voyaged, or even in 1920 when he wrote the story. And there are plenty of Mrs Davidsons among us today, though they direct their moral enthusiasms in other directions than the suppression of dancing.

Resolutely anti-sentimental and realistic, Maugham

nevertheless demands of his readers that they extend their emotional range, the very opposite of cynicism and misanthropy.

Sadie cruelly flaunts herself

Sadie cruelly flaunts herself

Mission civilisatrice

Léopoldville, 1928

Léopoldville, 1928

It ends with heads impaled on poles

In Conrad, writes Dalrymple, there is not just linguistic mastery but

a cognitive and a moral quality.

Art, entertainment, and moral purpose are indivisible.

Probity was perhaps the highest good, the moral quality Conrad admired most; for him, very distant goals diluted probity and finally dissolved it. The good that resulted from doing something with all one’s might had to be tangible or immediate, and not so far removed that it entailed or permitted the doing of evil in the name of the eventual good that it would supposedly produce.

Forced labour, Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company, Belgian Congo 1907

Forced labour, Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company, Belgian Congo 1907

The risks of distance are shown by the colonialists in Heart of Darkness.

Kurtz has grand plans for a mission civilisatrice in the depths of the primeval forest that end with decapitated heads impaled on poles.

Conrad allowed no transcendent meaning, purpose, or design to the universe:

There were no ultimate consolations for our earthly travails, except such as we can find for ourselves, and that are inevitably modest. Attempts to transgress those dimensions are intellectually absurd and practically disastrous.