In many parts of the world, the legacies of empire have been looked at afresh and more critically in recent years. In Britain and South Africa, hard questions have been asked about the suitability of continuing to honour the name of Cecil Rhodes, a 19th-century colonial statesman now seen by many as the embodiment of racist imperialism.
Last year, King Philip of Belgium wrote a letter to Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi apologising for atrocities committed while the latter’s country was under Belgian colonial rule. Earlier this year, Germany acknowledged that its massacres of Herero and Nama tribespeople in Namibia in the early 20th century constituted genocide and promised to fund more than €1 billion ($1.15bn) in reconstruction and development projects.
But there have also been some surprising and jarring exceptions to this reappraisal of empire. In his recent acrimonious comments about Algeria – which was not just a colony; part of it was legally part of France for more than 100 years – French President Emmanuel Macron raised a highly inflammatory point: "Was there an Algerian nation before French colonisation?" he said. "That is the question."
Theoretically, there may be a partial truth to his remark in reference to a modern nation-state, just as it would be true to say that there was not a Malaysia or an Indonesia, as such, prior to British and Dutch colonisation in South-East Asia. There were empires, kingdoms and sultanates in the region, long histories and strong local identities. But the two countries are the successor states to two sets of colonial possessions and have therefore had to engage in a long period of nation-building.
Thinking of my own heritage, was there an Irish nation prior to British colonisation? Well, there were the "High Kings" of Tara, but theirs was a loose sort of overlordship, and in prehistory probably mythical; there certainly wasn't even an embryonic Westphalian nation-state, and not just because that concept was only formalised many hundreds of years later and only truly popularised in the 19th century.
But to suggest, as Mr Macron did, that a country, in this case Algeria, had been gifted nation-status by being colonised is something else. It is hard to imagine a UK prime minister ever saying something so breathtakingly patronising about one of its former colonies. Perhaps Mr Macron has fallen prey to the idea that France's imperial expansion really was a "mission civilisatrice" – that it was a duty to convert other parts of the world to the glories of French culture, for their own good naturally, but by force if necessary.
Mr Macron is, however, not alone in seeing an unwarrantedly positive side to past European colonisation. Reacting to Pope Francis’s contrition for the Catholic Church’s “very painful errors” in Mexico during the Spanish conquest of the Americas, Isabel Diaz Ayuso, a leading light in Spain’s conservative People’s Party, recently said: “I’m surprised that a Catholic who speaks Spanish should talk that way about a legacy such as ours, which actually took civilisation and freedom to the American continent.”
The far-right Vox Party went even farther on the 500th anniversary of the conquest in August, stating: “Spain succeeded in liberating millions of people from the bloody regime and terror of the Aztecs. Proud of our history.” It is perfectly true that Hernan Cortes could not have succeeded in defeating the Aztec Empire without the support of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of other Mesoamericans who resented the tributes their imperial masters demanded of them. But their own cultures and practices of warfare were hardly any less ferocious. And the most consequential result of the Spaniards’ arrival was that within 50-100 years up to 90 per cent of the local indigenous peoples – Aztec or not – had been wiped out, partly through war but much more so through the diseases that the newcomers brought with them, and to which the Americans had no natural resistance. Some liberation.
Of course, the idea that Spain went to war in the Americas to free far away peoples from tyranny is an absurd post-hoc justification. To suggest that European powers embarked on an orgy of empire-building out of noble motives – such as bringing “civilisation and freedom” to countries that in many cases had rich and cultured histories far older than those of Europe – or did anywhere a favour by colonising them, deserves equal ridicule.
It should be beyond question by now that such benefits that colonisers sometimes left behind – new infrastructure, more widespread education – were put in place solely so that the process of extracting wealth from empire could take place more efficiently. You need roads and railways to transport and export valuable resources; and a local class of clerks and administrators comes in very handy when there are only so many Europeans to go around.
No. Most of the world has come to the settled view that the western imperialism that reached its apogee in the 19th and early 20th centuries is not something of which anyone should be proud today. It frequently had devastating effects, many of which still scar societies in developing countries, and enriched the West at the expense of the Global South and East.
I am not one for extreme self-flagellation over this. We are not responsible for the sins of our ancestors, and war and the conquest of new territories have been second nature to mankind for most of our history. Indeed, we celebrate figures such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan and Saladin precisely because of their martial prowess.
But for a French president to imply that his country deserves credit for forging Algerian nationhood through brutal domination, or for a former Spanish prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, to say that he “is inclined to feel very proud” of his country’s colonial past, is out of step with the times, to put it mildly. A little humility is in order. As is a recognition that if the advances of industrialisation had taken place in other continents earlier, it could have been Europe that was colonised instead. Had that happened, there is no doubt they would feel very differently about the “positive” legacies of empire.