Cultural Imperialism

The Author

Robert Cecil, CMG, MA was Chairman of the Graduate School of Contemporary European Studies, University of Reading (1976-8), and Chairman of the Institute for Cultural Research, for which he edited an anthology, The King’s Son (Octagon Press, 1980). His other published works include Life in Edwardian England (1969), The Myth of the Master Race: Rosenberg and Nazi Ideology (1972), Hitler’s Decision to Invade Russia (1975), A Divided Life: a biography of Donald Maclean (1988), and The Masks of Death: Changing Attitudes in the Nineteenth Century (1991). This monograph is the text of a lecture delivered under the aegis of the Institute for Cultural Research. First published in 1971, what follows is a substantial selection from the original, a full copy of which can be obtained from the ICR website:

Introducing Cultural Imperialism

Since this thoughtful monograph was written, the charge of cultural imperialism has become a blunt sword for attacking people from economically privileged cultures – Americans and Europeans generally – in their historical and present-day dealings with those from different cultures, less wealthy than themselves. But the charge, like many accusations of cultural wrongdoing, is more complicated than it seems at first. It is clear that more powerful cultures tend to do harm to weaker ones, but they also influence them, and are influenced in turn. Indeed, it is naïve to assume that influence is a one-way street, from the powerful and domineering to the weaker and more submissive. But after the accusatory dust has settled, the question remains; what can we learn from what happened before?

Cultural Imperialism

I ought to begin with some definition of how I am using these two words: cultural imperialism. I want to use the word imperialism in the sense of the impact of a race, people, or nation, which in ordinary politico-economic terms is strong, upon another race, nation or people which in politicoeconomic terms is relatively weaker.

The impact of the strong on the weak is usually treated in the history books in terms either of conflicts, colonial wars, wars of independence and so on, or else in terms of political organization – the Indian empire, the American colonies, Commonwealth, French Union and so on.

The way I want to deal with it is in terms of the confrontation of two cultures, because we have today the idea, and it’s a comparatively modern idea, that the culture of the country, or the continent in the case of Europe, which is stronger in terms of technology, weaponry and political organization, must also have a culture superior to that of the country, or group of countries – often we call them developing countries – which do not possess the same technological and other advantages.

A new idea

This is, in fact, a comparatively modern idea; the Romans, for example, although in political and economic terms, in organization and so on, much stronger than the Greeks, were quite prepared to admit that Greek culture was superior to their own.

Similarly the barbarians, as they were called, who destroyed the Roman empire, were quite willing to admit that they had much to learn culturally from the Romans.

So this is a comparatively modern development, of which I shall say more in a minute. Culture, of course, I am using not in the narrow sense, the sense in which it has been said that culture is found in museums and galleries on wet Sunday afternoons, but in the broad sense of culture as a manifestation of the psychic life of a people.

In particular, I am going to talk about it in terms of language, education, metaphysics and religion.

A useful definition

There is also a very useful definition of culture, a very succinct definition, in a book by the American anthropologist Edward T. Hall, which some of you may have read. He quite simply says that culture is communication, meaning that it is through the cultural life of peoples that they can communicate with one other; but also, as I am going to illustrate tonight, it can be something that tends rather to divide them.

Obviously I cannot talk about all the different imperialisms, all of which have somewhat different connotations, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Russian and so forth.

I am going to concentrate on Anglo-Saxon Imperialism, British and American that is, and to some extent also on French, for the reason chiefly that the British and the French expanded into the same continents at about the same historical periods.

Because first contacts between cultures can be so important, I am going to begin with the impact of the British and French on the original inhabitants of North America, the American Indians, and then to some extent also on the peoples of the Indian sub-continent.

Then I shall take a few side-glances at Africa and, coming on to the present day, I want to examine the question whether cultural imperialism is really dead, or whether it has merely taken new forms.


Now to begin with something of an historical perspective, how did the Europeans acquire this rather arrogant attitude towards non-European cultures? It is an attitude that was very well expressed in a phrase I found in a contemporary French writer the other day, who said, ‘There is something sad, pathetic even, in the efforts of certain intellectuals to prove that the culture of their country of origin is the equal of European culture.’

It is an extraordinarily arrogant remark when you come to think about it. I have already said that in the Classical period of history the assumption was not made that, because you could outfight other peoples, therefore you also had a culture which was superior to theirs.

The Renaissance in Europe, which opened a great many new horizons, was largely based on the rediscovery of Greco-Roman civilisation, much of which had been preserved in the medieval civilisation of Islam.

Then in the Eighteenth Century, the period of what is often called ‘the Enlightenment’, when the intolerance and exclusive attitude of the churches, which had contributed so much to separating European from Islamic culture, had dwindled, the idea grew stronger that reason was common to all mankind, in all parts of the world and in all ages of history, even pre-Christian periods; hence one should have at best an interest in, and at worst a tolerance for, the exotic non-European cultures.

The age of reason

So there was in the Eighteenth Century a keen interest both in non-Christian antiquity and also in exotic non-European cultures, including relatively primitive ones (or ones which the Europeans regarded as primitive). This was perhaps most clearly expressed in the thinking of the French philosophes. For Rousseau’s followers, for example, the North American Indians represented a form of society relatively uncorrupted by what they regarded as tyrannical forms of government and society in Eighteenth-Century Europe.

Another French writer, La Bruyère, said, ‘Reason belongs to all climates.’ They concluded from this that every European should take an intelligent interest in the civilisations and cultures of remote parts of the world.

For these French philosophes, the North American Indians seemed to supply an example of the relatively happy, enlightened ‘savage’, as they called him, from whose form of existence something could be learned. From this came the stereotype of the ‘noble red-man’, something which degenerated later in American minds into the Hiawatha type and later still into the ‘Cowboys and Indians’ syndrome.

The French took up this line of thought because they came to North America not as settlers so much as hunters and travellers and they found the Indian useful. They took an interest not only in the way the Indians made their living, but also in what they thought and how they lived.


The British, by contrast, had come to Plymouth Rock and Jamestown as settlers. They wanted land and they wanted labour, so they decided that the Indians were nomads and they took their land.

As the Indians still refused to work for them, they imported negroes as slaves. The British, of course, didn’t invent negro slavery on the American continent; it had been introduced in the 16th century by the Spaniards in the West Indies.

I do not want to spend very much time on slavery because it represents the least fruitful contact between two cultures – the maximum of exploitation by the more powerful and the minimum of effort to bring about any kind of human contact.

Why, then, if the Eighteenth Century was relatively enlightened, did it allow slavery to continue and indeed to develop? I think there are two main reasons for this. First, in the eyes of the Europeans, white and black were at the extreme ends of the spectrum; particularly the negroes from Africa seemed to the Europeans quite extraordinarily different from themselves – almost a difference of kind rather than of degree.


But secondly, and I fear more importantly, the negro slaves were absolutely essential to the economies both of the sugar islands in the West Indies and of the cotton and tobacco states in the south of what shortly became the United States of America.

The maintenance of the cultural standards and the standard of living of the whites depended on denying any cultural standards to the blacks and debasing their standard of living. Yet in the long run the slaves in the North American continent fared better than the ‘Red Indians’ because, as the doctrine of what the Americans called the ‘manifest destiny’ evolved – the destiny to overspread the whole North American continent – the native peoples were either exterminated or driven into reservations.

Parallel to this development there was created the new stereotype of the Red Indian, not now the noble Hiawatha type, but the image of either a bloodthirsty warrior – this is of course the ‘Cowboys and Indians’ syndrome which persists on television to this day – or else the lazy, drunken good-for-nothing.

But the Red Indian was drunk because the white men sold him cheap liquor and he was idle because they had taken his land. Once the strong had created a stereotype of the weak to suit his economic convenience, it is not very difficult to bring reality into line.

Missed lessons

In fact, if there had existed any real contact between the two cultures, the white men could have learnt much from the red men. The white men might have learnt, for example, some respect for nature and the need to conserve natural resources.

The Pablo Indians cultivated what is now Oklahoma with wooden ploughs and with restraint, where later the white farmers turned it into a dust bowl. The red men fished the Great Lakes and got their living by it, where the white men have so poisoned the lakes with industrial effluent that no fish can now live in them.

Secondly, the whites might have learnt from the red men some respect for ancestors.

Instead the Americans acquired a great contempt for the past and evolved the worship of youth.

This was, of course, partly promoted by the massive scale of immigration and the fact that the children, brought up in American schools speaking fluent English, acquired in this way a contempt for their own parents, who still spoke broken English and clung to the out-of-date way of life of the European countries from which they had come.

Thirdly, the whites might have learnt from the red men the virtues of open-handedness instead of the get-rich-quick of the affluent society.

An American anthropologist has written of the American Indians: ‘In the main a man was respected because he gave, not because he possessed.’

Of course there was an interchange and the red men acquired from the white the horse, which was very valuable to them; but they also acquired measles, firearms and liquor, and not many of the benefits of the consumer society.

The situation in Asia

I should like to turn now to Asia.

The British had gone to North America to settle, but they went to India to trade and for this reason at first they made no attempt to disturb Indian society or to impose European religion and culture on the indigenous people.

The first Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings, founded a college for Arabic and Persian studies in Madras and his successor Lord Cornwallis (the same one who had had an unfortunate experience at Yorktown) founded a college of Sanskrit studies at Benares.

The Eighteenth Century, as I suggested earlier, believed that there was something of interest in alien cultures. Sir William Chambers erected a pagoda in Kew Gardens, which you can see to this day. King George IV erected at Brighton the Pavilion, which has been described as ‘pseudo- Hindu without and pseudo-Chinese within.’

When in the last year of the Eighteenth Century Napoleon went to Egypt, he took with him architects and draughtsmen to study the monuments there and he circulated all over Europe transcriptions of the Rosetta stone in the hope, which was realised, that the wise men of Europe would eventually be able to decipher it.

Napoleon said, though he did not always live up to it, that ‘True conquests, the only ones which leave no regrets behind, are conquests over ignorance.’


After this promising start in India, what went wrong?

First, I think, as British rule expanded all over India, problems of administration grew. Lord Cornwallis believed every native of Hindustan was corrupt and concluded that it was necessary to Anglicise the administration.

In 1806 the East India College, now known as Haileybury College, was created to produce the Indian Civil Service, as it came to be called.

Secondly, after 1813 Christian missionaries were admitted to India and they tried not only to convert the heathen, but also to change their way of life, some aspects of which they very much disapproved of.

Into India, where religion permeated all aspects of Indian life, they imported the curiously European idea that religion was some special compartment of the mind and emotions, separated from the daily life of political expediency and economic self interest.

They imported also the dualistic idea, foreign to the Indians, of an antagonism between soul and body and mind and matter.

Thirdly, in the 1820’s, the Utilitarians, followers of Jeremy Bentham and the principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, imported into India the idea that prosperity and, in their view, therefore happiness, consisted in economic progress and improved education and material conditions for all, a belief that on the whole exists to this day.

‘White man’s burden’

Finally, under the influence both of the Evangelicals and the Utilitarians, although they were not in agreement with one another, the British in India developed a strong sense of mission. They believed that they had the duty to interfere in the way of life and culture of the peoples subjected to their rule and to convert them to the European way of life, which they believed to be in every way superior.

The Indian Civil Service was forbidden to trade; they were to concentrate on administration and they began to proselytise; this was the beginning of the phase to which we usually give the designation ‘the White Man’s Burden.’

The watershed was the Governor-Generalship of Lord William Bentinck (1828–35) with at his elbow for part of the time Lord Macaulay, an evangelical, and in the India Office James Mill, sometimes described as the Saint of Rationalism, a utilitarian, who at this time, although he had never visited India, was writing his great History of India.

Rich and happy

Bentinck believed that the key to civilising the Indians lay in what he called, ‘The British language, the key to all improvements’. Persian, which had been the language of the higher courts of Law, was replaced by English as the official tongue and there began a period when, although the Indian Civil Service learnt Indian languages, they gradually ceased to have any interest in Indian thought and Indian culture.

‘General education,’ said Bentinck, ‘is my panacea for the regeneration of India.’ Instead of doing as his predecessors had done and subsidising Persian and Sanskrit studies, he decided that all funds available for education should in future be spent on English language and Western science, because this would make the Indians rich and therefore happy.

But cultural contacts, unfortunately, were not altogether happy. To take one example from the Law, Macaulay himself observed and commented on the unfamiliarity of the Indians with the English Common Law. This is what he wrote in his essay on Warren Hastings:

‘No man knew what was next to be expected from this strange tribunal. It consisted of judges not one of whom was familiar with the usages of the millions over whom they claimed boundless authority. Its records were kept in unknown characters, sentences were pronounced in unknown sounds. It had already collected around itself an army of the worst part of the native population, informers and false witnesses and common barrators and agents of chicane and above all a banditi of bailiff’s followers.’

If you turn to another field of abortive interchange, the British succeeded in teaching the Indians to have wants, to have needs, although in Indian philosophy nothing was less desirable than desire.

John Stuart Mill

But there was no reverse flow, as far as the British were concerned, and this can be illustrated from the life of John Stuart Mill, the son of the James Mill, whom I have already mentioned.

Like his father, John Stuart Mill felt contempt for Indian philosophy and religion. He was convinced in early life by the utilitarian belief that it was possible to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number by educational and economic reform; this was the secret.

Then in 1826 he suffered a period of terrible depression, which he wrote about as follows in his autobiography:

‘In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself. Suppose that all your objects in life were realised, that all the changes and institutions and opinions that you were looking forward to could be completely effected at this very instant, would this be a great joy and happiness to you? And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered “No”!

‘At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be an interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.’

Yet even this harrowing experience does not seem to have led Mill to investigate the possibility that another people in another and more distant clime, pursuing a very different way of life from that of the Europeans, might also have thought about such problems, have experienced such depressions and produced an analysis of them which might at least have been worth investigating.

Mill’s contempt for the wisdom of the East persisted.

What’s different now?

Has all this changed? Have we really abandoned all the trappings of imperialism, or are we just pursuing the same objectives in a different and perhaps rather more subtle way?

The former colonial powers today claim to be reformed characters, and it is true, of course, that instead of extracting profits from their colonies they have set them free and supplied them with aid and technical assistance. But is this in fact setting them free?

Open attempts to dominate these countries had begun to meet with increasing resistance. But if one creates appetites, which only western technology can satisfy, does one not tie what one calls the developing countries to one just as effectively as by having an Empire?

The latest conquest of the northern hemisphere is the conquest of space and so we have the happy spectacle of a Chinese satellite circling the globe emitting the message ‘the East is Red’, whilst American astronauts practise their golf shots on the surface of the moon. And one is tempted to think that it might have been better to attempt a conquest more difficult, but perhaps equally important; the conquest of man’s own nature by himself.

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