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Some South East Asians in the colonial era may seem like they propagated the colonial agenda. The few natives, who were in positions of power, seemed to detest and even mistreat their own people. As such, they fueled the colonial machinery and ensured that it maintained a firm grip in these nations.
However, one must look beyond the actions of these few native administrators and focus on the reasons behind them. A thorough analysis of books and journals on colonialism in South East Asia reveals that the white man had succeeded in causing the native to hate himself.
The latter was now susceptible to exploitation and oppression because he had lost belief in himself. Therefore, indigenous populations were mere instruments for colonial masters; they did not support imperialism.
The role of the locals in colonial societies
Orwell (1934) talks about the British invasion of Burma only briefly in his book “Burmese Days”. He explains that the British Army was so superior to the Burmese side that it saw no need to engage in a war with them; all it had to do was display its weapons. Even U Po Kyin realized that his country was no match for these giants. Therefore, the natives were helpless against the colonialists and had to accept them reluctantly.
British Imperialists needed to colonize and subvert other nations in order to access more resources (Louis, 2004). John Flory notes that he would not have been in Burma if it was not for the capitalist agenda; that is, the exploitation of resources.
However, this need for wealth eventually culminated into cultural imperialism. In order to keep the natives suppressed, the white man had to make the colonized feel as though they needed the British. This led to the development of the civilizing agenda; in fact numerous books written during colonial times indicate that many settlers thought that they had a duty to enlighten primitive societies.
They claimed that it was only through colonialism that natives could access schools, hospitals and other modern services (Collis, 1953). Locals started to believe in this propaganda as illustrated through Dr. Veraswami’s assertions. He often praised the British for the wonderful things they did for his society.
The Doctor even blamed his own people for diseases that the colonizers brought into their land. This character illustrates that the British had effectively caused natives to regard them as superior. Such an attitude would allow the colonists to continue using resources from the South East Asian nations.
On the surface, the indigenous person may seem to support colonial societies, but what he really illustrates is a reverence for European culture and a hatred of his own culture. If such a person appears to take part in furthering colonial principles, it is only because he does not know any better.
The rituals, policies and rules prevalent in South East Asian nations engrained the identity of the native as a colonized person and the white settler as the colonizer (Fergusson, 2002). For instance, certain native customs were outlawed by the British. Furthermore, they altered land ownership patterns in a manner that favored them.
The laws prevalent in these colonized territories even contradicted the principles of equality as espoused by the British people. Colonialists restricted the nature of communication that could take place between these two races and also minimized contact between them.
The manner of dressing as well as the culinary habits of the settlers was quite distinct from the natives. Even their social practices enforced these identities. After placement of these rules and practices, it became evident to the native that he was a colonized individual and was so different from the colonizer. It was such a mentality that created dual societies.
The Europeans were afraid that a rebellion might stem from the locals, so they needed to know their ‘place’. Additionally, since the settlers and the locals were quite apart from each other, it was almost impossible for the natives to learn about the weaknesses of their colonizers.
Although white society in South East Asian nations was deeply divided and hegemonic, the locals could never learn about this because they lived apart from them. The isolation led to exclusivity and further subversion of the Orientals (Cooper & Stoler, 1997).
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Several natives in South East Asian nations longed to become part of the English culture because they had been convinced that their culture was primitive and barbaric. For instance U Po Kyin tries as much as possible to enter the European club. He is willing to scheme and even place another person’s life in danger in order to achieve this goal.
Even the good-natured doctor seems to have caught this disease. He feels that the greatest achievement in his life is his association with Flory- a white man – and not his accomplishment as a doctor. Flory also asserts that most white men in Burma consoled themselves with the fact that they were uplifting the Burmese. However, deep down, they all knew that this was a lie.
They had come to the country to rob its resources. That was the reason why many settlers drank excessively; they needed something to help them forget the evils of their actions. Natives had bought into the lie and behaved in a way that would increase acceptance in British culture even if this meant betraying their own people (Williams, 1958).
Segregation was rife in most colonized nations in South East Asia. The colonizer and the colonized rarely interacted meaningfully with one another. Several authors note that racism brought about this situation. Even settlers who sympathized with the locals espoused only humane interactions rather than self determination.
The locals learnt very quickly that they were not equal to the white man, so they had to accept things as they were. Most white women in these colonial lands lived for years without learning a word of the local language. They often thought of the locals as disgusting and even treated them that way.
It should, therefore, not be surprising when these natives respond to the same treatment by loosing faith in themselves. In ‘Burmese Days’ John Flory explains how young children openly disrespected and despised old Burmese servants or how the Colonel wanted the natives to boil in oil.
He even notes how some of his friends call the Orientals ‘greasy babus’ (Orwell, 1934). The natives were exploited and bullied by the colonizers and this explains their passivity in the colonial empire.
In order to run the British Empire, it was necessary to use the locals for economic and political purposes. Burmese citizens contributed to the success of the economy through their manual labor. Additionally, because South East nations were so large, it was almost impossible for British citizens to run them; they needed help from the natives. Some Asians were appointed in positions of authority.
However, colonial masters used their knowledge of the indigenous society to consolidate power. White settlers made it prestigious to hold these minor responsibilities, and thus caused many Asians to aspire towards them. If the rest of the population was made to believe that it needed the white man for survival, then it would become passive.
As a result, many locals never questioned the position of the British colonizer because his role was firmly grounded. Controlling their own nation was too high a goal for the natives as they had been made to believe. Those who thought that they had an opportunity to become colonial administrators were willing to betray their own in order to participate in this ‘superior’ culture.
Many supporters of imperialism assert that successful imperialism occurs when the English oppress the natives. They claim that this leads to the consolidation of power and protection of their own interests.
When natives believe that they have a lower position in the power hierarchy, then chances are that they will accept the need for English presence in their land. Colonizers can only achieve this through inferior treatment of the locals (Hall, 2000). They locals only become tools for achievement of British objectives when oppression exists.
The native did not benefit much from the presence of the colonialist in South East Asia. Most of the resources derived from these nations were used for the benefit of white men. This is the reason why rebellions sometimes arose in certain parts of colonial territory. Locals had numerous grievances about the colonial regime, but few of them had the capacity or the will to mobilize themselves.
They eventually accepted the status quo and simply tolerated their existence. In ‘Burmese Days’, the only rebellion that occurred was one that U Po Kyin had mobilized. This was not a neutral peasant uprising that had occurred without external influence; it was the work of a malicious and scheming individual.
Perhaps Orwell (1934) wanted to show that the desire for participation in the colonial system was so great that a native was willing to put the lives of his fellow countrymen in danger in order to achieve it.
In fact, passivity among the Burmese was so intense that no violent acts were ever manifested against British administrators. The only time that the natives killed a Briton in the book was when Maxwell attacked their children. Even this was an act of self defense rather than a form of opposition against British rule (Meyers, 1975).
A number of western writers wrote about Burma during the colonial regime in a very distinct manner. These authors include Scott O’Connor, George Scott, Talbot Kelly and Earnest Hart. Most of them are travel writers who were more interested in tales of adventure rather than the social-political ideologies at play.
Nonetheless, it was still impossible for the writers to exclude political sentiments from their writings. Most of them claimed that Burma was a rich and beautiful land. Their description of their people was one of passivity too. These authors pointed out that the Burmese were controlled by British rulers, and few writers talked about the potential of self determination among the South East Asian population.
According to them, Burmese were not active in pursuance of their destiny. To a certain extent, one may even say that there is a state of indifference among the Burmese. Several critics in periods that existed after British imperialism claimed that travel writers distorted the true view of colonialism (Thornton, 1966).
They were not truthful by asserting that colonial Burma was controlled by strong dedicated Britons. Authors such as George Orwell, who tried to challenge British imperial rule, actually deemphasized the role of the locals in colonialism.
Through an immense focus on the imperialists, Orwell (1934) created the same effect that the travel writers had made. The locals were not active agents in the development and creation of their own way of life (Aung, 2003).
One should note that not all individuals in Burma were passive in nature. A vast number of them were corrupt and highly inefficient. In fact, colonial territory was a place where vast numbers of inefficient white settlers and locals could thrive without any reprimand.
‘Burmese Days’ also brings out this contrast quite well. Some of the local characters in the book are far from innocent. U Po Kyin is a corrupt magistrate who commits hideous crimes. However, one should understand that it was the colonial system that allowed this kind of ineptitude to exist in its colonial territories.
The inefficiencies and weaknesses prevalent within the local characters were creations of the colonial system. Any exploitative system is bound to create a backlash against itself both from the exploited as well as the agents of oppression.
In most literature about colonialism in Burma and other South East Asian nations, it is evident that locals were exploited and oppressed. The colonialists were successful because they convinced the natives that their culture was inferior. As a result, most of the locals accepted their positions without question. One may, therefore, say that they played a passive role in colonialism.
Aung, M. (2003). George Orwell and Burma. Asian Affairs 57(1), 19.
Collis, M. (1953). Into hidden Burma. London: Faber and Faber.
Cooper, F. & Stoler, A. (1997). Tensions of empire: colonial cultures in a bourgeois world. Berkeley: University of California Press
Fergusson, N. (2002). Empire: How Britain made the modern world. London: Allen Lane
Hall, C. (2000). Cultures of empire. Manchester: Manchester University Press
Louis, W. (2004). The Oxford history of the British Empire. Oxford: OUP
Meyers, J. (1975). George Orwell: The critical cultural heritage. London: Routledge.
Orwell, G. (1934). Burmese Days. NY: Harper and Brothers.
Thornton, A. (1966). The Imperial idea and its enemies. London: McMillan
Williams, R. (1958). Culture and Society 1780-1950. London: Chatto.