The Colonial State as an Area of Limited Statehood

The colonial states were set up on the belief that the model of the European state system could simply be applied to the colonies. But the practice on the ground turned out to be very different from the theory. The colonial state was not simply an extension of the western European model, but, as Jurgen Osterhammel suggests, “a political form in itself” (1995, 62). More importantly, even during its heyday in the age of high imperialism (1880-1914), the colonial state was essentially a weak state. It was therefore dependent on forms of governance in which power was delegated to local actors and native potentates. The acknowledgement of the instability and uncertainty of colonial rule is very much the result of recent scholarship. It runs counter to the traditional view of virtually unlimited state power in colonial settings. And it also runs counter to the fact that viewed in long-term perspective, colonial rule did indeed initiate a radical transformation in the nature of the state. It led to the creation of territorial states under international law that aspired to a state monopoly on power and to fixed external borders. Frequently, this took place in regions where boundaries had previously been imprecise and constantly changing, and where there had been a wide variety of different types of political order with very different degrees of centralization.

Especially in Africa, colonization introduced a completely new principle of political organization (Herbst 2000).

But recent scholarship, with its focus on the everyday dynamics of colonial rule, has relativized this macro perspective. Indeed, it has demonstrated that in many respects, colonial control was limited and that the colonial state was not able to exercise a monopoly of power. To be sure, any generalization needs to take into account the great variety of colonial experience. The laws and regulations that were applied differed greatly from one colony to the next. The structures of colonial power varied according to regional differences and different types of colony, and they followed different chronologies. They were also affected by local geography and by the dynamics of local societies. The level of control desired by the colonial state also depended on the objectives being pursued for each colony—in trading colonies like Hong Kong or Togo, the state’s presence was limited to a small number of administrators, while in settlement and plantation colonies the presence of settlers and the demands for labor by landowners led to the state taking more control over local territories. Last but not least, colonial governing practices and structures and the power of the colonial state varied according to the time period in which colonization took place. While late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century colonies were ruled against the background of modern statehood in the colonizing countries, this was not the case with regard to premodern and early modern European colonies, for example in North America. Here, the limitations of centralized power were not only determined by the distance between colonizing power and colony and by the long lines of communication this distance entailed, but also by the absence of consolidated statehood in Europe where sovereign nation states basing their authority on an institutionalized form of abstract power were not yet existent (Lehmkuhl 2007).

In spite of this great diversity, it is possible to discern some general patterns of the specific weakness of colonial power. The following account examines the difference between the modern state, defined by Max Weber in terms of territoriality, monopoly on the use of physical force and bureaucracy, and the colonial state. While the argument is a general one, we will use examples from German colonialism, mainly in Africa, to illustrate our points. We will focus on two dimensions of colonial rule. First, the colonial state was generally weak in terms of the extent and depth of its control. This was partly related to its lack of legitimacy and ideological hegemony, the second issue we will examine.

The characteristic feature of the colonial state was that it only reached into local societies to a limited extent. There was a vast difference between the colonial powers’ aspiration to total control of the colonies and social practice; the presence of the state was often very limited. In theory, colonial states were territorial states, which aspired to achieve a monopoly of power over the entire territory they claimed as theirs. Even if Germany’s suggestion that effective control over an area would determine colonial rights was defeated in favor of Great Britain’s insistence that the responsibility of the occupying power should be limited (at the Congo Conference in Berlin in 1884 and 1885), the monopoly of power remained the official ambition of the colonial bureaucracies (Forster 1988).

However, these visions remained largely unfulfilled; theory and social reality did not coincide. For the most part, the European colonial states did not exert full control over their territories. The colonial states were weak states, even though the office of governor was usually equipped with a wide range of competences. These included both executive and legislative powers, and, because governors could issue ordinances, they could add regulations to the legal system almost at will. The governor was the head of the colonial administration and commander-in-chief of the colonial military (Gann and Duignan 1978). In the German case, the Foreign Office, and, from 1907, the Reich Colonial Office, had very little control over the governors’ actions— not least because the letters that were the main form of communication between Berlin and the colonies took two months to arrive. In addition, this concentration of powers in the office of the governor made continuity in colonial policies less likely. Each governor stayed in his post for only a few years; every change of governor could result in a change in focus or even a complete change of policy (Gann 1987; Pesek 2005).

Below the governor, the local administrative units were led by the district officers (Bezirksamtmanner) and station heads. They were the most important instances of colonial power and, like the British district commissioners and the French commandants de cercle, they had a range of competencies over which the governor, in his turn, had little control. They were the real creators of empire. Their local powers were such that in Togo, for example, one Bezirksamtmann dismissed every single one of the 544 chiefs in his district over the course of his twenty-year rule, appointing more favored candidates in their stead. Like their superior, the Bezirksamtmanner attempted an aristocratic style of power enforcement and insisted on their autonomy from the seat of government; they justified this with their superior knowledge of the situation on the ground. For this reason, we can describe the situation outside the main colonial cities as a form of subimperialism over which the governor had little actual control (Steinmetz 2007).

Because of this, the bureaucracies within the colonies were extremely heterogeneous. This was reinforced by the fact that a large number of other instances were involved at a local level, for example the members of expeditions sent out by antislavery committees and missionaries. They were independent of the colonial administration and did not feel bound to the latter’s wishes. In fact, the colonial administration needed the cooperation of these individuals; given the costs involved, a large number of regions had no colonial presence at all. As Kwame Anthony Appiah has underlined, “the experience of the vast majority of [the] citizens of Europe’s African colonies was one of an essentially shallow penetration by the colonizer” (Appiah 1992).

Here, too, we must differentiate. The administration’s ability to control its territory generally increased over time; in the German colonies, this was the case especially after the Colonial Office was set up in 1907. It also varied from one colony to the next; a greater degree of control was possible in Kiaochow than, for example, in northern Cameroon. In towns and coastal regions, colonial rule was more thoroughly institutionalized than in the hinterlands. Dar es Salaam was completely transformed, becoming a modern colonial metropole. But outside these colonial centers, the creation of a full system of colonial rule remained incomplete. In 1900, 415 German officers and colonial administrators in East Africa were (supposedly) in charge of between eight and ten million African and immigrant inhabitants. At this level, the administrative presence was even slightly higher than in the British colonies, but some sixty times lower than in Japanese-occupied Korea. Over large areas of the colonies, then, real implementation of the supposed colonial monopoly on the use of force was impossible. Colonial administrators undertook travel outside the area of real control at their own risk. If an officer went on leave or was absent for any other reason, administrative activities often ceased for a considerable period. The few administrative stations within the country were “islands of power” (Pesek 2005) that struggled to maintain a semblance of authority.

In 1903, for example, there were only thirty German stations and military posts in German East Africa, and in many cases they were almost helpless to direct events in their surrounding regions. In most cases, the infrastructure available meant power could only really be exerted at isolated points. After the Reich Colonial Office was set up in 1907 and Rechenberg installed as governor (in 1906), and with the changing focus on rational, “scientific” colonial policy, this began to change. Life in the colonial stations became strictly regulated, and the separation between officers and troops, and Germans and Africans, was implemented much more forcefully. Police regulations were imposed on local societies, natives were obliged to greet every German they encountered, and a curfew was introduced. All inhabitants were required to register their address in order to make administration easier; they were also banned from changing their names. In practice, however, these policies were almost impossible to enforce. The African population was able to make use of their superior knowledge of the local situation for their own purposes. Mobility, in particular, continued to be used strategically by the rural population and the administration found this very difficult to control. In addition, the stations in the colonial hinterlands were often dependent on the cooperation of local traders and power holders.

The second aspect of the weakness of the colonial state was related to its lack of “grass-roots” legitimacy—the colonized did not believe that the colonial rule was legitimate. Colonial regimes always attempted to create the impression that their interventions were done for the benefit of those ruled. Their main instrument in this regard was the promise put forward by the “cultural mission”; the colonizers firmly believed that the state’s organizational achievements would meet with the approval of the colonized populations.

The mission civilisatrice promised to gradually modernize the colonized societies and to improve individual standards of living. It was closely linked to a worldview that thought in terms of development and of progress. It was founded on a strong belief in the superiority of Western civilization and the backwardness of African societies and a conviction that the achievements of the colonial state would be such that those colonized would willingly go along with colonial rule. Roads, railways, buildings, the teaching of reading and writing, medical care, the creation of a Western system of education, military superiority and a (compulsory) work ethic enforced by a regime of physical punishment—all these were, in part or in full, the result of political or economic interests, but it was also hoped that they would help to demonstrate to the native population the organizational powers of the colonial state. In practice, however, these interventions, though propounded in terms of the cultural mission, often triggered resistance and as such actually helped to undermine colonial rule (Barth and Osterhammel 2005; Conklin 1997).

Another limit to the on-the-ground legitimacy of the colonial state was the fact that colonial rule always meant foreign rule. Even where the cultural and technological transformations met with the approval of the population, this deficit could never be completely overcome. Anticolonial national movements always picked up on this issue, even when they themselves were fundamentally interested in pursuing modernizing policies of the type that the colonial government had previously been engaged in. In structural terms, colonial rule was a form of “dominance without hegemony,” as Ranajit Guha has described the rule of the British Empire in India. Following Antonio Gramsci, Guha uses hegemony to mean the broad acceptance of a particular cultural or ideological belief in a society not through force (i.e., dominance) but through the “agreement” of its members. In contrast, the colonial state had little chance of relying on shared beliefs and had to make use of force on a regular basis (Guha 1998).

This applied even when colonial government attempted to embrace local traditions. The British Empire in India was a model in this respect: the East India Company adopted the institutions of the defunct Mughal Empire in order to profit from the latter’s prestigious status. Similarly, German colonies made use of indigenous customs and habits, typically in the context of institutions of indirect rule. This strategy was most successful in Samoa, but German officials in Africa also (increasingly) attempted to reconstruct local traditions and to ensure that German rule would make reference to them. The recovery and codification of what was called “native law,” developed by legal experts such as Rudolf Asmis in Togo, was the most important element of these attempts to share in local structures of legitimacy (Knoll 2001; Steinmetz 2007).

Nevertheless, full rights of participation in modern societies remained inaccessible to the colonized population. This was one fundamental difference between colonial societies and European nation-states. Describing British-occupied Bengal, Partha Chatterjee has spoken of a “bi-furcated public sphere” Under the conditions of colonial rule, it was impossible for an independent civil society to emerge. Instead, the colonial state claimed and controlled large areas of the public sphere, not least by limiting education, freedom of expression and opportunities for codetermination (Chatterjee 1995). Similarly, the German colonies did not envisage any form of popular democratic representation.

This fundamental weakness of the colonial state-due to its limited resources and means of governmental control as well as its lack of legitimacy— gave rise to the quintessential colonial form of governance: intermediarity, the delegation of power to local and regional power holders and elites. The new power holders had no option but to enter into alliances with locals, who themselves were pursuing their own goals. The strategy of divide and rule was, of course, not unique to Germany. This form of indirect rule was a common practice in the British colonial states, the famous example being Nigeria under Lord Lugard. The objective was to achieve careful modernization while maintaining traditional structures. The other end of the colonial spectrum—at least in theory, because in practice these differences tended to become blurred—was represented by France and Portugal, who aimed to achieve complete control over their colonies, with little scope for local agency. German policies were located somewhere in the middle. During the early phase of German colonialism, power was based on close cooperation with chiefs like Samuel Maharero in southwest Africa (although he was later to lead the armed resistance to German rule). Later, the Germans tended to involve selected local individuals in the colonial administration. Examples were the Akida, used as local administrators in the coastal regions of East Africa, or the Luluai, their counterparts in New Guinea. This was not indirect rule as such, because the power of the colonized was not derived from their own power resources; rather, they were taking on a role within the colonial administration (Dimier 2004).

Indirect rule, then, was devised as a form of governance by colonial powers to cope with the task of ruling over territories and populations largely outside governmental control. They used the prestige and authority of local potentates, so-called chiefs, to strengthen colonial rule by delegating limited powers. This strategy enabled colonial governments to rule over vast territories and large populations with only small armed forces and limited administrative personnel.

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