GREAT BRITAIN: A CONQUEROR WITH A CONSCIENCE

 It had done much good in its time; it had behaved with courtesy as well as brutality, rapaciously and generously, rightly and in error: good and bad had been allied in this, one of the most truly astonishing of human enterprises… the arrogance of this Empire, its greed and its brutality was energy gone to waste; but the good in the adventure, the courage, the idealism, the diligence had contributed their quota of truth towards the universal fulfillment.” – Historian Jan Morris, on the British Empire, in Farewell the Trumpets1[1]

It was if a new and better armed tribe had pushed its way in, seizing some land for itself and touching off a round of warfare and relocation among the earlier tribes. The new tribe claimed sovereign authority over all the other tribes, but in practice it dealt with the Indians more through diplomacy than conquest. -Tom Flanagan, First Nations? Second Thoughts[2]


 The degree to which Great Britain showed restraint and civility towards the Aboriginal peoples of Canada in its’ colonial dealings with them was an unprecedented departure from the eternal migration and conquest norm of forcible, usually violent, dispossession of the conquered.

This norm, being a timeless historical norm, was of course still operative at the time of European contact with North American Aboriginal peoples.  But the usual excessive effects of it- murder, pillage, rape and enslavement- were, in colonial Canada, minimized to the extent so as to be almost non-existent.

Instead of regarding and treating Aboriginals as the sub-human “other”, the usual mental approach consciously or not adopted by conquerors since the beginning of history to justify their conquest and dispossession, the French, and then later the British, acknowledging to a remarkable degree the humanity of the Aboriginals, dealt with them, in relative historical terms, in a benevolent and respectful manner.

Most astonishingly, and probably never in history before, the conquering British, by the Royal Proclamation of 1763, deemed the Aboriginals to have legal rights, a purely European concept, and dealt with them accordingly.

There’s no doubt that by 1759, the year of France’s defeat in Canada, Europeans had achieved cultural and economic dominance over the territories they had migrated to. The physical and cultural remains of the scattered Indian tribes of eastern Canada, their populations reduced by European diseases, wars and cultural dislocation, were no match for British arms, British mercantilism and the ever-increasing numbers of British migrants arriving yearly.

There was nothing in the circumstances of the times, in terms of power relationships or power politics, that compelled Britain to treat fairly and honorably with Canadian Aboriginals. That was mainly voluntary on Britain’s part. The British were clearly in the position at that time to deal with Canada’s Aboriginals in accordance with one variation or another of the usual callous, historical violence and dispossession norm.

They were clearly in the dominant position where they could have acted completely “unjustly” towards Canada’s Aboriginals and totally got away with it- where they could have easily let play out the typical cold, merciless precept followed by most conquerors throughout history: i.e., that the “question of justice arises only between parties of equal strength, and the strong do what they can, and the weak submit.”[3]

But, to their enduring credit, they didn’t. That approach rarely crossed British minds.

Why not?

Chance and luck play a big part in history, as in life generally. Canadian Aboriginals were very lucky that Britain became their ultimate social and economic conquerors, the colonial power that found itself in the position of deciding their ultimate directions and fate. For Great Britain, alone amongst the migrating, imperialist, colonizing powers of the era, was the sole exponent and exemplar of somewhat enlightened, modern, rationalist values.

They weren’t perfect, but they were miles ahead of any other country.

Britain alone was a country with a developing political philosophy that increasingly focused on representative government and the rights of the individual, and with a growing social, political, economic and intellectual infrastructure that permitted these philosophical ideas to be slowly but surely implemented.

On the home front Britain was the only country in the world at the time that was a genuine constitutional monarchy, a country increasingly more tended to be ruled by laws than men. It was a country whose consciousness had been widened and raised over the preceding 150 years by great humanist thinkers like Shakespeare, John Milton, Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson and countless other vibrant, enlightened, intellectual seekers.

Thus, despite its’ class-ridden bigotries and inefficiencies, despite the fact that it was still heavily involved in such morally repugnant activities as the slave trade, (which it at least had the sense to be the first to begin to get out of), and despite the fact that in its’ essence, on the world stage, like all the other European powers at the time, it was an imperial power engaging in imperialist undertakings, Britain had, or at least it was developing, a civic conscience- a sense of public/government morality.

This behavioral duality exhibited by Great Britain in its imperialist undertakings is well illustrated by the following statement about the workings of the British justice system towards the “locals” in its South African colony:

The quality of justice being dispensed in Durban was a paradoxical mixture of rank prejudice and British fairness.[4]

Britain’s relatively moral, principled and compassionate attitude and behavior towards Canada’s Aboriginals at that time should be regarded as even more singular and praiseworthy when one considers that at that time in the history of “civilization”,  human bondage, in one form or another, was the principle means by which the work of the world was getting done, and when one further considers that that tragic reality- that prevailing oppressive milieu- was in no large way allowed to affect British-Canadian- Aboriginal relations.

Yet despite this, Britain, and seemingly only Britain at the time, (with its nascent anti-slavery movement that finally, in 1833, would bring about the complete abolition throughout the British possessions of that not-at-all peculiar institution), never considered any kind of forced servitude regime for Canada’s Aboriginals.

In fact, the opposite happened. Britain bucked history’s nasty trend in this regard.

This is a part of our heritage to be proud of.

Britain’s atypical approach in this regard is further highlighted by comparison with Spain’s more historically conventional, uncivilized treatment of the Aboriginal populations of its’ colonies in the Americas.

Unfortunately for all, particularly the Indigenous peoples under its control, the Renaissance largely skipped Spain. Renaissance values were unable to take firm root there. With the exception of history’s first novel, Don Quixote, the average person is hard-pressed to point to anything that happened in Spain during the Renaissance period in Europe that represented an intellectually awakened, generally accepted, humanist ethos.

Throughout the Renaissance period and beyond Spain was stuck in the gloomy, dual grip of an absolute monarchy and a reactionary Catholic Church. Just before the time of Spain’s first substantive contacts with the Americas the Spanish monarchy had finally finished the long, grim business of ending all Muslim occupation and control in Spain, re-taking it in its entirety for “Holy Christendom.”

Along the same dark, ethnically and religiously purifying lines, it had also just completed the shameful business of expropriating all the lands and other wealth of its Jewish population and expelling it from the country- an undertaking carried out with the enthusiastic assistance of the Catholic Church.

By the time of its arrival in the Americas Spain had developed well that hardened, narrow cast of mind- that predilection for regarding peoples of different creeds, colors and cultures as subhuman, both so necessary to be able to, with a “clear conscience,” (there was after all, clear precedent for it in the Bible), murder, rape, rob and enslave them. They had also developed well, at home, the practices of murder, dispossession, and expropriation which they readily employed in their ventures abroad. For Spain, as for most conquering powers throughout man’s long, blood-soaked history, these were normal, everyday tools of state policy.

Within a generation or two of the establishment of Spanish rule in the Americas whole Aboriginal empires, tribes and cultures had been destroyed, either by Spanish arms or Spanish diseases. Many of the Aboriginal persons who survived moved to the higher and further reaches of their old, dispossessed lands. Many were made slaves and put to work in Spanish mines or on plantations.

Throughout the over 300 years period of Spanish rule in the Americas Spain’s policy towards their indigenous peoples was, at its highest, simple neglect and assimilation, and at its lowest, slavery, murder and extermination. (Harrowingly and sickeningly described in 1542 by priest Bartolome de Las Casas[5] in his plea to the Spanish king to intercede and stop the genocidal murder of the Aboriginals of the Spanish colonies.)

There were no reserves set aside for anyone in these Spanish colonies.[6] There were no treaties entered into. There were no legal rights or protections even conceptualized for, much less granted to, these unfortunate peoples. No, these peoples suffered much the same kind of brutal behavior at the hands of Spain as, for example, the Old Testament Jebusites did at the hands of the Israelites, as the Gauls did at the hands of Caesar, as Spain itself, North Africa and the Middle East did at the hands of the Arabs in the seventh century.

And, as but one example of many from Aboriginal history, as the Hurons, Eries, Petuns, Nipissings and Neutrals did at the cruel and devouring hands of the Iroquois!

They suffered from a cruelly harsh application of the historical violence and dispossession norm, a norm that has always evidenced a depressingly low standard of human behavior, where the bar of virtuous conduct is set just barely off the ground, if at all.

Even subjects of British colonial rule elsewhere have acknowledged the partial good that came from it, as the following extracts from Robert Conquest’s Reflections on a Ravaged Century[7] reveal:

“The writer V.S. Naipaul, from Trinidad, and of Indian Hindu origin, rather reluctantly acknowledged that India’s entry into the broader world- “mentally as well as physically-was brought about by foreign rulers, and yet how vital it was.” He described the British imperial record as “pretty terrific, It would be churlish to say otherwise, It would be foolish to say otherwise, It would be unhistorical to say otherwise.” …Similarly, Nirad Chaudhuri, veteran critic of both Britain and India, dedicates his book The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, to the memory of the British Empire in India which conferred subjecthood on us but withheld citizenship; to which yet every one of us threw out the challenge: “Civis Brittanicus Sum” because all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule. .(Heart of Darkness is based on Joseph Conrad’s experiences in the Congo, where fearful chaos and misery and death had resulted under Belgian rule- writer)…Conrad specifically attacked the Belgian experience, and also that of the Spanish in the Philippines and the Dutch in Indonesia, and commented on the latter’s Boer offshoot that it “was a fact that they have no idea of liberty, which can only be found under the British flag all over the world.” (Italics added)

Finally, Mr. Conquest writes:

A statistical analysis by Seymour Martin Lipset…recently found that the variable having a higher relation to democracy than any other the world over was “having been a British colony.” They-none of them of British origin incidentally-attribute this fact that many of the old British colonies had had “elections, parties and the rule of law before independence.” so that, unlike the French, Dutch, Soviet and other empires, “out groups” were gradually incorporated into the polity.

Therefore, by properly and necessarily taking a deeper, longer, more informed, reflective and properly relative historical point of view, by considering Canadian Aboriginal issues today not with reference to a blindly naïve, never-attained standard of human perfection, but rather with reference to “the human norm, not with Utopia”[8] -with reference to how man has actually behaved in similar circumstances throughout history- we can justly say that, after its victory over France in 1759, Great Britain did indeed act in a unique and superior fashion- in a manner way above the moral standards and regular practices of the times- in its subsequent dealings with the Aboriginals of Canada.

Aboriginal writer Calvin Helin, in Dances with Dependency [9] while in back-hand fashion, acknowledges this. He wrote:

While the intentions of subsequent generations of colonial and Canadian governments may have been good, Aboriginal people know, from several hundred years of bad experience, the place to which the road paved with good intentions has led. (Italics added.)

Finally, history is filled with “what if?” speculations. The world in the sixteenth century, the beginning of the “age of discovery”; an age characterized and driven by the development of ships that could cross oceans, the rise of the nation-state, a new dynamic form of globally-integrated capitalism, messianic religious zeal, new civil and military technologies and bigger and better armed forces, meant that some country, some empire– a country or empire far more technically advanced than the small, mainly paleolithic tribes then thinly spread out over this vast land- was going to “discover”, settle and dominate what is now Canada. That, looking back, is a certainty. It was just a question of which country or which empire. 

What if, instead of Great Britain, it had been Spain, Portugal, Holland or Russia that ended up as “colonial masters” of Canada? What if France had defeated Great Britain in the Seven Years War, and the 1763 Treaty of Paris had ceded all of Canada, as it then was, to the politically backward, absolute monarchy that France then was?

What if, as was distinctly possible for a while, the United States had ended up in possession and control of all Western Canada? The 49th parallel would not mark an international border. It would not have been called “the Medicine Line” by American Indians, because above it there was “healing” for them in Canada from the depredations of the U.S. Cavalry.[10]

In all of these “what if” scenarios and any other similar scenario, the outcome for the Aboriginal peoples of Canada would have been far worse than what unfolded under the relatively enlightened British.

Further, without the benefit of British-Canadian law, which Canadian Aboriginals have for the past 40 years used to their immense material advantage, the present situation of Aboriginal peoples in Canada would be far less to the liking of Aboriginal elites than the powerful situation enjoyed by them in Canada today.

Great Britain was indeed a conqueror with a conscience.

Peter Best

April 4th, 2022


[1] Jan Morris, Farewell the Trumpets: An Imperial Retreat. The Folio Society, London, 1992

[2] Tom Flanagan, First Nations? Second Thoughts, McGill-Queens University Press, 2008

[3] From Lewis Lapham’s essay, The Demonstration Effect, in Age of Folly, America Abandons Its Democracy, quoting from Plutarch’s Lives the Athenians’ message to the population of the island of Melos, who, in 416 B.C., having killed their leaders, made them choose between abandoning their loyalty to Sparta or accepting the sentence of death.

“As practical men”, said the Athenian heralds, “you know and we know that the question of justice arises only between parties of equal strength, and the strong do what they can and the weak submit.”

[4] From Charles R. DiSalvo, M. K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law, The Man Before Mahatma, University of California Press Ltd. London, 2013

[5] Bartolome de Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Penguin Books, 1992

[6] Which, compared to Canada, in the long term has turned out to be a present advantage for the Aboriginal peoples of Mexico.

[7] W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2001

[8]“It is always necessary to stipulate, though of course it should be assumed, that there should be comparisons with the human norm, not with Utopia…Distinctions available to us in this world are not arrayed between good and bad but between bad and worse.” -From Marilyn Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Toronto, 2012

[9] Dances With Dependency: Out of Poverty Through Self-Reliance, Ravencrest Publishing, Woodland Hills, California, 2008

[10] See Beth LaDow’s The Medicine Line: Life and Death on a North American Borderline, Routledge, New York, 2002

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