What traveling taught me about colonization

A millennial’s awakening to history lessons that are left obscure in textbooks.

I have traveled a lot within Asia and Europe. Every time I traveled in Asia I could see the similarities between each country. Every time I traveled to Europe the difference was extraordinary. The wide divide between a developing country and a developed country.

Up until recently, I had never been to the Americas. About a year ago I had the opportunity to go on a study trip to 3 beautiful countries: Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia. Naturally, I was excited to finally explore and discover this exotic part of the world.

On our trip, we encountered beautiful, kind, and happy people in all the three countries we visited. We experienced the warmth of these rich cultures, their impressive long histories, we witnessed their gallant spirit and acknowledged their struggles.

As I recall landing at Benito Juárez airport and rolling towards Mexico City in our rented bus, I could not help but notice the multitudes of colorful architecture, tiny brick houses next to modern glass buildings, frantic rush of traffic, vehicles moving in different directions and that particular smell of gasoline in the air. “Hold on a second”, I thought to myself, “why does it all look so familiar?”

You see, having never traveled there, I was expecting Latin America to be another unfamiliar universe. However, to my utmost surprise, it turned out to be closer to home. Victim of the same urban chaos, destined to be factories of the world yet thriving with mysterious joy and energy.

Here is a picture of my classmates and me in front of the legendary Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan in Mexico.

It was indeed a memorable trip. One that has left me with questions that continue to haunt me long after I have returned. The same questions that I couldn’t help but ponder every time I went back to Asia after visiting Europe.

Why do some countries have better social, political and economic conditions while others continue to struggle? Why do most of the Asian, Latin American, and African countries share the same faith? Why are some countries still plagued by poverty, pollution, and political instability?

Answers from the past

Why is it that some countries are more developed and when did some countries start getting poor and others rich? According to Eric Toussaint, a Belgian historian and political scientist, this growing gap can be traced back to a particular date in history: 1492. This was the marking of Europeans entering the history of the American people. When Italian explorer Christopher Columbus led a Spanish expedition and sailed west to find a new trade route to the Far East(India) but inadvertently landed in a beautiful Bahamian island of South America which later came to be known to Europeans as the “New World”.

1492, marked the beginning of systemized European colonization. This was the beginning of unprecedented exploitation of resources, conceptualization of slavery, and imposing of European laws on native lands. In British conquered American territories, a strict law was imposed: In areas where there is no settled form of government, the land belongs to the queen of England. BAM, just like that all the natives dwelling there since the 8th Century lost their ancestral lands to colonists in a matter of few years. This form of exploitation lasted up until the 19th-Century, nearly 500 years of resources flowing from all over the world to the European nations. The below GIF shows the expansion of different European empires from 1492 in South America spreading to Africa and Asia, reaching its peak in 1914 and starting to lose momentum towards the mid-1900s and a changed democratic world by the early 2000s.

Between the 15th and the 19th century European nations flourished. With the money and resources flowing from their colonies, European nations not only invested in their country but also funded their expansion of other colonies. Colonization for Europe gave rise to capitalism, new business opportunities, jobs and access to education. While in the colonies it meant forced labor, heavy taxes and lack of education (perhaps, even degraded self-respect?).

The face of the world changed disproportionately while the colonizers continued to play the game of world domination, dividing countries and owning land like it was a turn of Monopoly.

By 1914 European countries ruled about 30 % of the world’s population. Politically, economically and culturally Europe had reached the peak of its global power. However, social and national tensions, as well as international rivalries festered — all exploding in conflict at the beginning of the 20th century. With Europe suffering from 2 consecutive world wars and the anti-colonial movements rising in the colonies, the 20th century marked the end of European colonial empire.

21st Century: the post-colonial era

Growing up as a 4th generation independent (a.k.a post-British) Indian, I never really fully grasped the effects of colonization. To a naive me, it seemed that colonization was something that happened in the “past” and only exists now as boring chapters of our history textbooks. I dared to believe that it no longer affects our present. How can something that happened so long ago still be affecting the world we live in?

As someone wise once said, “Past is not over. In fact, it isn’t even past.”

In retrospection I realize that it wasn’t really that long ago, if you look at the long history of colonization, decolonization is still a recent memory. That perhaps sounds abstract so I have created the below diagram to graphically represent this idea.

We can see as compared to the green period of colonization and the yellow period of decolonization, the red period of post-colonization is relatively very small and much too recent.

Countries like India, Pakistan, Kenya and Nigeria were colonized by the British for over 200 years and in comparison have been “independent” only for less than 75 years. Mexico was a Spanish colony for approximately 300 years and only became democratic from 1910 onward. Colombia, Brazil and Peru, similarly were exploited for over 300 years and suffered a long period of political unrest and started gaining stability only very recently. The same narrative follows for the Philippines, Cambodia, Myanmar, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and so many other countries. Here is a list of sovereign states by date and their history of independence.

When we look at this list and the first GIF of colonial expansion, we can see a clear correlation between the nations that were subjugated to colonization and the nations that we now call “the developing countries”.

In other words, could developing countries be a more diplomatic term for “ex-colonies”?

The aftermath of colonization

The process of decolonization is still a very painful memory for most countries. Mass civil disobedience movements, guerrilla wars and millions of lives lost. Many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America faced political unrest for many years even after gaining their independence. Most countries were ushered into this new independence with huge debts to repay and economies in shreds. They had to rebuild everything on the debris of chaos that was left behind.

Expecting these developing countries to have the economical parity and stability similar to that of developed countries is like asking them to win a very twisted game of Monopoly, being played by a few elites, who buy all the commodities, get an unbeatable competitive advantage and finally allow the other players to join in.

It’s easy to win the game if everyone is forced to play by your rules. Moreover, how do you even win a game that is so partial and unbalanced?

Kudos to the undeterred spirits

It’s easy to criticize developing nations for decaying infrastructure, disparity and urban chaos. However, a more informed one would admire all that they have achieved in the short time of independence that these “developing countries/ex-colonies” have had.

Not only are these beautiful nations overcoming their haunted past but are also giving serious competition to their colonial counterparts. It gives me a ray of hope to see ex-colonies like India, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia be among the top 20 economies of the world (based on GDPR ranking 2020).

Given the historical context, I have greater sympathy for my own country as well as towards all the other nations that are bravely overcoming their past and creating a new global fairer world.

I acknowledge that there is still a lot to be done in terms of social justice, economical parity and political stability. But for now, I salute them. For their big hearts, for their power of forgiveness, for their undeterred spirits. I salute them because they continue to rise despite centuries of exploitation. I salute them for all that they have become and are becoming.

I write about change.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store