During the early 1990s I was stationed at RAF Greenham Common and RAF Alconbury in the United Kingdom. Our family loved our three brief years in that inspiring land. One of the quaint things I recall was the relatively frequent question I was asked when meeting someone new. They would inquire as to “how things were going in the colonies.” It was actually a pleasant ice-breaker, and never said maliciously.
The comment offered no cause for offense. It’s been too long since the United States was a British colony for it to be more than a historical comment. The heated issues that once led to bloodshed have become historical trivia. There are, of course, many “younger” nations in our world that are still struggling to discover their post-colonial identities. This has been notoriously difficult where occidental powers established arbitrary boundaries that failed to recognize ethnic, religious or cultural considerations.
So, why is today’s post pondering the concept of colonialism? It just so happens that today is the anniversary of the imposition of the Stamp Act (tax) on her colonies by the British. It became law in 1765, a full decade before the War of Independence, but it was one of the alienating actions that laid the foundation for the upcoming rebellion.
Apparently, our paternalistic government in Europe regarded North America as a sort of bank from which they could make continuous withdrawals without ever repaying the funds. (“No taxation without representation” was a common battle cry.) The Stamp Act directly taxed all commercially published colonial materials, including newspapers and pamphlets. The Stamp Act would have been burdensome enough by itself, but the colonies were still reeling from three other onerous taxes that had recently been levied:
Sugar Act (1764)
…which covered textiles, wines, and coffee, in addition to sugar.
Currency Act (1764)
…which undermined colonial mercantilism and freedom.
Quartering Act (1765)
…which transformed every American home into a free bed & breakfast for British soldiers.
You get the idea. Georgia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and their like were merely colonies, so why should their concerns be factored into the equation? Extremely shortsighted. Not to mention, quite selfish.
C.S. Lewis addressed this subject in his major historical work.
The best European minds were ashamed of Europe’s exploits in America. Montaigne passionately asks why so noble a discovery could not have fallen to the Ancients who might have spread civility where we have spread only corruption. (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century).
We recognize that Montaigne’s notion is just a tad idealistic. If the Romans had colonized the Americas, for example, the indigenous people would hardly have been treated any differently. And the introduction of gladiatorial arenas would have presented an arguable civic improvement.
Still, Lewis’ point is completely valid. Whenever humans conquer or “colonize” their fellows, the colonies always get the proverbial “short end of the stick.” Thus, we recognize that it’s tough being a colony.
So, where does that leave us? Historically informed, perhaps we can make better decisions in the future. Weaker nations and peoples should never be exploited. It’s not just a matter of justice. Ethics aside, history teaches that sowing seeds of alienation and discontent invariably reap an unwelcome harvest.
One word of hope that we see in this historical snippet is that despite a combative history, lands (and people) can lay aside their animosity and become sincere allies. Which brings me back to the place where I began this column . . . living in an era when these nations that fought not one, but two wars, are steadfast friends.