Postcolonialism is a field of academic study that takes for its object the European colonisation of much of the world and how colonial encounters — and their legacies — were experienced by the colonised and formerly colonised. A critical aspect of postcolonial scholarship and literature is the examination of the theoretical and intellectual underpinnings of the colonial project, which were often derived from racist ideas.
The British Empire, for example, sought to justify its economic practice of imperialism and colonialism by legitimising racist theories, such as "poly-genesis", which falsely reasoned that the human race did not evolve from a common ancestry. To believe that the theory of Poly-genesis is correct is to believe that white people are human and black people are sub-human. As such, so the theory makes explicit, white civilisation had a "responsibility" to aid the indigenous black people of Africa "redeem" their humanity. The path to redemption entailed, among other atrocities, the enslavement, displacement, exploitation, robbery, rape and murder of countless millions from areas of the globe such as Africa and South America over a period of time spanning in excess of two hundred years.
When the British Empire began to collapse and those territories that it once held dominion over gained independence, scholars who lived on or had connections with the "periphery" (territories and dominions) began a process of "writing back to the center" (London); criticising not only the way in which imperial Britain theorised and treated their ancestors, relatives and fellow compatriots, but also prevailing misconceptions held by contemporary Britons and the British establishment about the ex-colonies.
Some leaders of formerly-colonized nations still use colonialism as way to distract attention from their own incompetent and/or brutal governance. For example, Robert Mugabe often derides "British colonialism" or sometimes "neo-colonialism" whenever any British politician questions his methods. Embarrassment at this reminder of the brutality of imperial rule has prevented many Western liberals from criticizing the political excesses of many former colonial states.
Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge, both Postcolonial theorists, describe the term "post-colonial" (in a literary context) as having arisen from the term "commonwealth literature" which was considered politically ambiguous and "occluded" (or denied) the crucial differences between the "old" and "new" Commonwealth. "Old Commonwealth" being a term used to describe that set of predominantly White nations with a European settler heritage, and "New Commonwealth" being a term that has come to represent those nations with a predominantly African or Asian population that gained independence from Britain later than the Old Commonwealth States.
The term "Post-colonialism", argues Mishra and Hodge, "has many advantages over [its predecessor]. It foregrounds a politics of opposition and struggle, and problematises the key relationship between centre and periphery." Bill Schwarz puts it that "as a starting-point one can say that postcolonial theory takes for its object colonial texts or discourses, reading or deconstructing them in such a way as to make evident the radicalized effects or justifications for colonialism perpetrated by the particular text in question."
Postcolonialist Critiques of Imperialism and Colonial Discourse
Patrick Brantlinger in his criticism of Anthony Trollope, who "wrote extensively about Ireland, Jamaica, Canada, Australia and South Africa" during the 19th Century, discusses some of the ways in which the "old" and "new" commonwealth states were treated differently whilst under the dominion of Britain. "Trollope… says about Canada [in one of his texts entitled North America], colonies settled by British immigrants are like children whom the parent country should expect one day to grow up… "it is very hard for a mother country to know when such a time has come; and hard also for the child-colony to recognise justly the period of its own maturity... Nowhere does he argue" insists Brantlinger, "that India, the key to British power and glory, should be returned to the Indians, or that white settlers should relinquish the Cape to black Africans." The postcolonial theorist, Kenneth Parker, in his essay entitled English Travel–Writing About The Cape Of Good Hope describes how Britain invaded and occupied the Cape in 1795, but relinquished control of the territory in 1803, only for British forces to return once again in 1806. The territory was officially ceded to Britain in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814 and thus became known as Cape Colony. Parker then goes on to argue that "…texts published in England by travelers who penetrated the interior of the Cape Colony have a particular importance. What did English readers know about these specific colonial 'others', when did they know it, and what was the contribution to that knowledge by the tales told by travelers?"
Stuart Hall proposes that "the most fertile source of information was traveler’s tales — a discourse where description faded imperceptibly into legend." Laura Chrisman takes this train of thought further and argues that "imperialist discourse" ruthlessly "homogenizes and misnames its others, disregards the specificity and propriety of their own cultural identities…" This process of denial and generalisation of those living on the periphery of the Empire is aided by the way in which the traveler presents his findings to his readers back in Britain, or the centre of Empire. "The traveler’s tale", as Parker puts it, "presents a particular problem for cultural theory; a hybrid form, it belongs neither exclusively to the inventions of fiction nor the 'facts' of science, neither to the public world of 'official discourse' nor the private one of diary or autobiography, but contains and displays elements of all of these."
Colonial discourse is recognised by post-colonial theorists as an amalgamation of many things that ultimately served to inform those living at the centre of Empire about those who exist on the periphery. As Parker continues "[it] is important for our purpose to note… the pivotal position of the traveler’s tale in the long march of the destabilization of generic categories that culminates in the hegemonic triumph of the novel."
Brantlinger agrees with Parker; "the imperialist adventure fiction has [been influential, as] the 'benighted' regions of the world, occupied by mere natives, offer brilliantly charismatic realms of adventure for white heroes, usually free from the complexities of relations with white women."
Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is recognized as the first novel in the English language. It is also, essentially, a mouthpiece for proto-capitalist ideology. Brantlinger believes that Defoe's Crusoe was a "prototype of literary imperialism".
In agreement with Brantlinger is Martin Green, who argues in Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire that "the adventure tales that formed the light reading of Englishmen for two hundred years and more after Robinson Crusoe were… the energizing myths of English imperialism… they charged England's will with the energy to go out into the world and explore, conquer, and rule".
We can plainly see the connection between Defoe's Crusoe stranded on that little Island in the Caribbean in 1719 and Britain's foreign policy during the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. "European representations of 'Orientals' and their ways", argues Schwarz; "served to contain and to colonize: not merely as a belated rationale or justification for the dirty work of empire, but in order to hold in place the phantasmagorical figure of Western civilisation — rational man by the systematic exclusion of his Other, the Oriental."
This notion of the "other" is entirely fictional, as "the orient is itself the imaginative production of Europe and this imaginative act functioned as a necessary, constitutive element in the consolidation of the imperial system." As Edward Said puts it; "…texts can create not only knowledge but also the very reality they appear to describe."
Post-colonialists also attack colonial artists such as Van der Straet, who produced a picture entitled Europe encounters America in 1600 that portrayed the New World as being somewhat vulnerable and without civility in the face of masterful and supreme European explorers such as Vespucci and Columbus.
Colonial writers and artists effectively described the natives of the new world as uncivilised because they were unable or unwilling to appreciate, as Hall argues, their complex systems of government; the Maya and the Inca, for example ‘both had a complex social structure and a centralized administrative system, and both were capable of extraordinary engineering feats. Their temples outstripped in size anything in Europe… These were functioning societies. What they were not was European’.
It seems to the post-colonial theorist that Colonial discourse is a mish-mash of science-fiction and science-fact based on a number of misunderstandings between European explorer and alien society, and that these mistakes are sometimes made genuinely whilst others are made purposefully in order to benefit the selfish desires of the Imperialist. As Hall iterates; ‘the Europeans felt free to organise the continuous supply of gifts for their own benefit. What the Europeans found difficult to comprehend was that the exchange of gifts was part of a highly complex, but different, set of social practices [to their own]’, based on a system of reciprocity.
There is a thin line between legitimate critiques of the relations between imperial powers and their colonial underclass, and purely one-sided Pocahontasesque woo. Some post colonialists have been known to exaggerate the indigenous tribes as noble savages oppressed by the evils of capitalism and technology. Oftentimes this arises from an extremist interpretation of cultural relativism (an anthropological concept which originally involved not judging other cultures by our own Western standards but now has come to mean criticizing the West willy-nilly and assuming everything "pre-industrial" and "indigenous" is way better than it actually is), but it often occurs simply due to a lack of cynicism on the part of the theorist in question. It is very appealing for humans to attempt to use emotional, idealistic arguments for how injustice and evil came into the world. The problem is the desire to view history as "black and white" or "good and evil" is every bit as unscientific and simplistic as Christian fundamentalism.