One severely misunderstood element in nation building is the effects of Colonialism. Typically people just look at post-colonial countries as targets for nation building, spinning how they got to such a state for political purposes, and ignoring that one element of Colonialism was in fact nation building.
Yes, that’s right, one of the elements of seeking those overseas colonies was the theory that those “less-enlightened” societies would be guided towards “proper” Western culture and government. While such an attitude can, and in many cases should, be indicted for paternalistic racism, it also remains an absolute fact that the colonial governments also ended slavery in most of Africa, ended the burning of widows in India, supplanted dozens of absolute monarchies, suppressed tribal warfare, and in general really did a considerable amount of social uplifting.
The former British Empire provides examples from virtually the entire range, and I will examine them in three groups.
The “Real” Colonies
When people use the word “colony” for the territories the European governments established outside Europe it applies to an incredible range of actual examples. Of those the British Empire established, four: the American Colonies, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, are notably different. In them the native populations were replaced rather than ruled. This varied of course, with the New Zealand Maori coming just short of splitting the islands with the settlers, and Native Americans and Australian Aborigines just short of wiped out. Mind you, I’m not saying this to open up the arguments as to whether it was done deliberately, there certainly appears to be no evidence it was the original plan when the settlements were made. It was however what happened, and is in stark contrast to India at the other extreme, where a few thousand Englishmen ruled a few hundred million Indians. This difference makes the nations built in those colonies strikingly different from other English colonies.
For one, with the exception of the American Colonies, the others achieved independence peacefully. Canada had some local revolts, but nothing even vaguely approaching the Revolutionary War. There governments came about as early extremes of the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland now happening in the United Kingdom.
Further, I would argue that the American Revolution was not an anti-colonial revolt – it was a civil war. The American Colonists made it clear that they wanted the rights of Englishmen, and it was only when they were not granted that war resulted.
Had the United States been contiguous with England, the results would have been far different, closer to the English Civil War that resulted in the execution of Charles I and the rise of Oliver Cromwell.
Had we been closer, the results would more likely have been similar to the separation of Ireland, with Canada winding up like Northern Ireland.
As it went, the separation by violence seems only to have placed the United States in a position to have to attain Great Power status by itself, which of course led to us being the only Superpower. We’ve otherwise had only one real internal political upheaval, albeit it was a massive one, and otherwise have, despite the best efforts of some factions, remained an industrialized, Western, democratic republic. As for those that took the peaceful devolution route, Canada and Australia are G-20 members, while New Zealand, being smaller, and incidentally having a significant remaining indigenous population, “merely” rates regularly as one of the most pleasant places to live.
It also bears noting that none of these countries were settled with the intent of creating new countries. They were just supposed to be frontier settlements to coordinate resource gathering, or to get criminals and other undesired elements of the population out of the way. Yet nations grew there anyway, despite the support or opposition they received.
The key is that these were countries settled by Englishmen, creating English-derived governments, with any previous governments simply being expunged. Naturally doing that now, depopulating 90-99% of the indigenous inhabitants of some country and replacing them with Westerners of one nationality or other, intentionally or otherwise, is not going to be well received – to put it mildly. It remains a relevant element, and an example of an extreme that nation building can be taken to.
In the next parts I will examine more typical colonies.