AN old sound-bite from President Ramos goes something like, “the British ruled us for just two years . . . it may have been better if they had stayed longer.” Indeed, for two years from 1762-1764, the British had a Governor General in Manila to look after Manila and Cavite, which they had taken as a result of the Seven Years’ War, a conflagration involving most of the world’s major powers at the time (Spain being one), sparked off by yet one of the many disputes between Britain and France over their respective North American colonies. But then as a result of some political horse trading in 1764, the Spanish from New Spain (Mexico) came back again to rule for another 134 years.
The British Empire at the time covered most of Canada and 13 colonies of the United States, parts of India and what is now Bangladesh, various cities in Africa, the Caribbean and Central America, and a scattering of small islands all over the place. It later expanded to cover half the world’s population and about one-third of its land mass. It can therefore be said that the British were experienced colonizers. Most of this colonization was based on trade supported by military force and included swapping opium for tea. The Empire at its peak accounted for half the total trade of the world.
These days colonization, like “sexism” and “racism,” is an unpopular thing. It is viewed mainly as unfair exploitation and has attracted a lot of negative press highlighting subjugation, slavery and the rape and pillage of the natural resources of various sovereign states. Some of the great powers of the time were better at colonizing than others. Spain was primarily notable in terms of “giving back,” for the introduction of the Catholic Church and adoption of Catholicism by the local “heathens.” It is here that President Ramos has a point. Whilst there is little doubt that the British in their colonizing efforts raped and pillaged as much as any of the other powers, it is also fair to say that they gave back and that their “give backs,” even though some of them were self-serving to feed British industrial capacity (railways), are sustained in very many cases to this day.
In their tramping around the world, they put in place parliamentary systems of government, legal systems that work, infrastructural administrative systems, postal services and educational systems which, at a glance, appear to be counter to the colonialist model of exploitation, rape and pillage. They also built railways; Argentina, China, Thailand, Chile, Brazil, Mexico (not formal colonies), India, South Africa, Uganda, Malaysia, the USA and Canada. They built roads and established marine passenger transport and air routes. They set up and ran the Chinese customs and postal services for over 100 years even though China was not officially a colony.
Lest the reader think that I am trumpeting Britain’s colonial achievements—that is not my point, albeit it is saddening to see such a fall in the UK’s position in the world over the last 70 years. But then everything is cyclical. I wonder what would be different in the Philippines of today had, as President Ramos implies, the British indeed stayed for longer, prevented the reoccupation of New Spain and resisted the Americans, who themselves do not have a particularly good track record of successful colonization.
It may have been that there would be a parliamentary system of government today, a good education system, a working postal service and an objective legal system, as well as infrastructures that actually operate to support economic development. Interestingly, British colonization did not generally require that any particular religion be adopted; they were not great ones for missionary efforts although Anglican Christianity was a preferred option.
The Philippines would also have become a member of the British Commonwealth which encourages trade between its members such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the other 50 member states, among which their trade is 50 percent more than that with non-members. Members are generally ex-members of the British Empire; they have no legal obligation to one another. Instead, they are united by language, history, certain common cultures, and the shared values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. That these countries can still formally associate with one another is, to my mind, a testament to the fact that British colonialism was nothing like 100 percent bad.
So I agree with the observation of President Ramos that despite the many negative aspects of colonialism, had the Philippines “suffered” the British type for a period significantly longer than the two years it did, then it would indeed be a very different place today. We may even be playing cricket and driving on the left-hand side of the road!
Mike can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.