Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Colonial Reformation and Science

How did the social and political reforms instituted by European powers influence the progress of science in Southeast Asia?

Invading European powers into Southeast Asian nations employed a consistent set of social and political reforms on the local inhabitants’ culture which were intended to make for a transition of power requiring the least amount of military force and which had, in some cases, a significant impact on the development of scientific endeavors. Reforms included were social, political, cultural, academic, economic, and geographical in nature and what is listed here should not be considered a complete list by any means, nor is it the case that any particular method described is standard or requisite for every colony within the region.

Colonialism in the West was primarily enacted through the method of settlement of previously unoccupied or insufficiently occupied territories, whereas in the East, especially due to its much more advanced and numerous populations experienced exploitation colonialism. It was much more beneficial, and efficient, to the empires of power to exploit the peoples and territories of the East than to attempt settlement of the land or a slave-labor restructuring and relocation of the already existing populations which was seen all throughout the West Indies, South America, and spots of the African continent.
Among the reforms instituted was the division of the colonized peoples, also known as divide and rule, either across racial, ethnic, or economic lines in order to create schism and disunity among the natives so that organized resistance to foreign rule would be minimal. In some cases this was accomplished by the displacement of the original occupiers of regions and replacing them either with foreign or slave labor. Initially the British understood the Indian caste system in terms of their own system of economic and nobility class structure, but found that the treatment of the lower castes disagreed with their views of justice. The British instituted their own view of class structure based on economics and ethnicity, especially favoring those whom were loyal to the crown (Prakash 157). The British effect on the social structure of the Indian peoples is most evident in the result of the rail system placed across the Indian continent. What developed, though not necessarily as intended by the British, was a transportation system divided by classes, with Europeans in the most desirable cars, European-educated Indian elites next, and followed by the lower classes and undesirables. The train system became the embodiment of the problems with the class/caste system in India and was the image of need for social reform and the separation from Britain for Modern India (Moon Fall 09).

In regions of sufficient population and resource distribution can be seen the creation of wholly new Western economic structures: where once the economy had been trade-based, westerners would enact currency-related economics in order to more easily facilitate the collection of taxes and further widen the gap in the social hierarchy of the colonized people. Standing out from this method is 19th century Dutch-controlled Java, where the colonized peoples were required to pay taxes in a form of tribute – through the cultivation of valuable export crops for use in Western trade. This particular form of taxation, prior to the privatization of Javanese land, resulted in mass starvation and famine of the indigenous Java people (Moon Sp 10). Having instituted this new form of economy, colonizers move on to milk the colonized nation dry of resources, both fiduciary and material. The people are left with no protection from the exactions of the government once the local systems of rule have been destroyed (Prakash 185). Chunder Dutt argues that even with the altruistic projects such as the railways, the exclusion of the Indian peoples from decision-making positions in the ruling government can only result in poverty result because “the British destroyed Indian manufacturing and turned India into an agricultural country as they drained India’s wealth to finance industrial revolution in Britain” (Prakash 182-190).

In addition, most colonies would see to the appointment of puppet governments, or people favored with the colonizing government; rather than spend their own funds and resources in managing a foreign bureaucracy the colonial powers would set up a ruling elite who would bear the brunt of civilian outrage, while still acting in the best interests of the colonizers. Though India, as a colony, began in much the method which has been described, especially through conquest and alliance, it stands out as the exception to the rule, because after the major uprisings of the 19th century, the British Crown officially took over the government in all but a few of the princely states. In Malaysia the British held advisory roles to the Malay sultans so that they could maintain the image of the protectorate over the state, though in reality the sultans had to strictly adhere to the advice of the elected British official or face repercussion (Mohamad). The Phillipines, while technically under direct rule from the Spanish crown, first from Mexico and then later from Madrid, is the most striking example of puppet government within Southeast Asia. The Spanish managed to foster relations with those in village government and in essence to create an elite ruling class, known as the principalia, who would manage their municipalities through oligarchic power-structures (Library of Congress). For the Indian subcontinent some attempts at a quasi-local system of government were made with the typical, elitist oligarchy as the result. As Prakash states, “[When] local self-government [was introduced] in 1882…, it was extended only to Europeans and a small group of wealthy Indians” (131).

Western medicine was often introduced into newly colonized territories primarily for the benefit of the invading army’s health, but was soon followed by its introduction to the indigenous people as a source for “gaining the affection of governed populations” (Pols 1). Within India “it was anxiety about the security of the empire that aroused interest in the health of the population.” This focus on health was initially aimed at the royal army after it was recognized that the high mortality rates – three times that of back in Britain proper - were interrupting the military operations during the Mutiny of 1857” (Prakash 128). The British believed that the people of India were ignorantly living within their own filth and that their native medical systems lacked the necessary means for fighting off the specter of disease. The subcontinent was, by its nature, an unhealthy cesspool of disease in need of control and the indigenous medical and sanitation practices were not sufficient for the job, nor even considered practical in conjunction with Western science (Prakash 128-130).

How does all of this play in to the development of science within Southeast Asia?

Most importantly, the civilizing mission necessarily creates a schism between the favored elite and the indigenous population. This liminal man, as Prakash calls it, while intended by the altruistic colonizers as a bridge between the two, results in only further widening the gap. Little attempt is made in reconciling indigenous and Western science, with the Western-trained elites more-often-than-not supplanting indigenous ideals and practices.

The colonies, in the eyes of the European powers, exist only for the profit of the empire. Regardless of how seriously the powers-that-be take the civilizing mission, the result is the same: the oppression of the indigenous people and belief structures, replacement of the indigenous with Western practices, and the incorporation of Western technologies into indigenous life without regard to its effect, ill or otherwise. The position of the Europeans is that any imported technology will only be beneficial to the native population, without consideration of negative consequences. Ghandi, however, put the problem of the European influence best: “I am not against machinery as such, but I am totally opposed to it when it masters us” (Prakash 217).

Mohamad, Mahathir.  “Our Region, Ourselves.” Time Asia. 13 May 1999. Web. 10 Apr. 2010. <>.
Moon, Suzanne.  “Inventions of the Modern World.” University of Oklahoma – History of Science Department, Norman. Fall 2009. Lecture.
Moon, Suzanne.  “Science and Technology in Asian History.” University of Oklahoma – History of Science Department, Norman. Spring 2010. Lecture.
“Phillippines – The Early Spanish Period.” Country Studies. Library of Congress. Web. 10 Apr. 2010. <>.
Pols, Hans. “European Physicians and Botanists, Indigenous Herbal Medicine in the Dutch East Indias, and Colonial Networks of Mediation.” East Asia Science, Technology, and Society 3.2 (2009): 173-208. Desire2Learn. Web. 10 Apr. 2010
Prakash, Gyan. Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1999. Print.

This article was originally written April 19th, 2010 for OU HSCI 3313 - East Asia Science and Technology.

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