Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters

Chapter VIII Part I

The Problem of a Federated Heterogeneous Empire

The failure of the British Experiment

The British experiment failed to establish a supra-national unit, albeit a heterogeneous world-empire though history had given it a chance. Sri Aurobindo examined the implications of this failure and the lessons for a world-unity in 1916 when the British Empire still existed.

The first mistake England did was ‘the fatal American blunder’ (The ideal of Human Unity, pg 332). The British colonies refused to pay taxes to an Imperial government in which they had neither voice nor share. This ultimatum was followed by the taking up of arms leading to a six-year war that culminated in winning independence in 1783. The refusal to pay taxes is one of the most powerful acts of defiance against administrative authority but what made the American imbroglio unique was the determination to snatch independence by war if the Imperial government did not pay heed to the ultimatum. Unfortunately, the ground reality was different in British India. Sri Aurobindo, while designing the Boycott policy of Indian subjects had compared the Indian scene with the American one:  ‘An ultimatum should never be presented unless one is prepared to follow it up to its last consequences. Moreover, in a vast country like India, any such general conflict with dominant authority as is involved in a no-taxes policy, needs for its success a close organization linking province to province and district to district and a powerful central authority representing the single will of the whole nation which could alone fight on equal terms the final struggle of defensive resistance with bureaucratic repression. Such an organization and authority has not yet been developed (The Doctrine of Passive Resistance, Part Four, Bande Mataram, April 11th to 23rd, 1907). Therefore, the American slogan of ‘’no representation, no taxation” was replaced in British India by “no control, no assistance” to support a program of passive resistance that ranged from industrial boycott, judicial boycott, educational boycott to executive boycott (Ibid).

Sri Aurobindo also pointed that England was on the verge of committing a political mistake in South Africa which would be detrimental to its Imperial hegemony but this was timely corrected. After the British victory in the Boer War (1902), the erstwhile Boer republics were granted self-government (1906) and later allowed to join the Union of South Africa in 1910 which became independent and withdrew from the Commonwealth in 1961.  It is another story that the European settlers in South Africa completely messed up the racial scenario, something that was not practiced by the British in India or Egypt. South African politics was dominated by the conflict between White supremacy and the rights of the black majority. The adoption of Apartheid (Policy of Racial Segregation) in 1948 led eventually to the Group Areas Act in 1950. Residential and business sections were specified for each ‘race’ and ‘pass’ laws required non-whites to carry identification papers. Public facilities, educational opportunities , jobs and labour unions were segregated, non-whites were denied participation in the national government and black African ‘homelands’ were established which were partly self-governing but politically and economically dependent on the national government. Universal condemnation lead to dismantling of apartheid laws around 1990-91 and free elections in 1994 when Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black President.

However, the failure of the British experiment of a federated heterogeneous trans-national conglomeration was already evident by the beginning of 20th century when ‘the evolution of Australia and Canada at least into young independent nations was considered the inevitable end of the colonial empire, its one logical and hardly regrettable conclusion’ (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 330). European settlement in Australia began with the Dutch (1616) and the British (1688) but it was James Cook’s expedition in 1770 that established Britain’s claim. In 1788 British settlement was initiated with convicts and sea-men. By 1859 British colonies in Australia were stabilized at the cost of a sharp decline of the indigenous population, courtesy, the introduction of European diseases and weaponry. Circumstances forced Britain to allow limited self-government in the mid 19th century and by 1900-1901, the separate English settlements federated into the commonwealth of Australia. It took another seven decades to formally abolish British interference in government through constitutional links (1968). A similar picture emerged in Canada.  In the conflict among European settlers in Canada, Britain gained an upper edge over France by 1763. After the American Revolution, loyalists fled the United States, swelling the population. In response, the British segregated the colony into Upper and Lower Canada in 1791 which were reunited by 1841. Circumstances forced the confederation movement and the Dominion of Canadian provinces was established in 1867. It was in 1931 that Canada was recognized as an equal partner of Great Britain through the Statute of Westminster. In 1971, the Canadian government issued the Multiculturalism Proclamation recognizing the ethnic diversity. It was only in 1982 that the British power to legislate for Canada formally ended.

The chain of events that unrolled in Australia, Canada and South Africa and sounded the decline of the colonial British Empire was foreseen by Sri Aurobindo. In his 1916 write-up, he listed several reasons for these developments:       

1. Geographical: ‘The geographical necessity of union was entirely absent; on the contrary, distance created a positive mental separation. Each colony had a clear-cut separate physical body and seemed predestined, on the lines on which human evolution was then running, to become a separate nation’ (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 330).

2. Economic: ‘The economic interests of the mother country and the colonies were disparate, aloof from each other, often opposite as was shown by the adoption by the latter of Protection as against the British policy of Free Trade’ (Ibid).

3. Political: The sole political interest of the colonies in the Empire ‘was the safety given by the British fleet and army against foreign invasion; they did not share and took no direct interest in the government of the Empire or the shaping of its destinies’ (Ibid).

4. Cultural:  ‘Psychologically, the sole tie was a frail memory of origin and a tepid sentiment which might easily evaporate and which was combated by a definite separatist sentiment and the natural inclination of strongly marked human groupings to make for themselves an independent life and racial type. The race origin varied, in Australia British, in South Africa predominantly Dutch, in Canada half French, half English; but in all three countries habits of life, political tendencies, a new type of character and temperament and culture, if it can be so called, were being developed which were as poles asunder from the old British culture, temperament, habits of life and social and political tendencies’ (Ibid, pg 330-331).

5. Long-term interests: In the long run, ‘the mother country derived no tangible political, military or economic advantage from these off-shoots, only the prestige which the possession of an empire in itself could give her. On both sides, therefore, all the circumstances pointed to an eventual peaceful separation which would leave England only the pride of having been the mother of so many new nations’ (Ibid, pg 331). 

It might be argued that in his zeal for seeking a supra-national federated conglomeration, Sri Aurobindo might be underplaying the contribution of colonial exploitation to capital formation in the colonizer’s mother country. It would be ordinarily assumed that the main economic benefit in the case of the British Empire would be amassing huge capital generated from colonial exploitation. But there is strong evidence that such assumption is at best overstressed. Amlan Dutta in his landmark 1972 essay titled ‘Primitive’ Capital Accumulation (Selected Works of Prof. Amlan Dutta. Development Challenges and Responses, Vol.1: Perspectives, Edited by B.B.Dutta, S.Mazumdar, S.Das, Divya Jeevan Foundation,India,2011, pg 40-41) cites several examples: 

  1. Much of the black money gained from the loot of Bengal by the servants of the East India Company could not be productively invested.
  2. The Spaniards loot of Latin American wealth contributed comparatively little to the  growth of trade and industry in Spain itself.
  3. England’s commerce with the United States and her investment therein greatly increased after America became independent.
  4. Countries like Denmark and Sweden made remarkable progress in trade and industry without having to depend on colonies at all.
  5. Japan had a period of colonial expansion prior to World War II when its industrial growth was supplemented by growth of national qualities like education, improved farming, a positive work-culture and the appearance of highly investment- conscious entrepreneurial class. When she lost her empire after World War II, her qualities remained and she displayed a more rapid and robust industrial growth than when she had colonies.

Amlan Dutta concludes that as losses and gains do not always balance, colonial exploitation might well have been a ‘negative-sum enterprise’ (Ibid). Sri Aurobindo is in consonance when he points that the ‘mother country’ derived no  tangible political, military or economic advantage from its colonies (vide supra) leading invariably to an eventual separation, nipping in the bud the dream of a federated heterogeneous empire.  Yet humanity continues to dream of unifying mankind. Therefore, in altered conditions of the modern era, the fusion of the colonial empire-idea into a great federated commonwealth or something akin becomes an inevitable alternative.

Date of Update: 3-Jan-12

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu