Former British colonies: Why are some so much more successful than others?

Please forgive my historical ignorance. I’m hoping to learn a little about this situation, but I’m not sure where to start because I don’t know if there’s a simple answer to this phenomenon or if it’s a controversial topic.

Among the former British colonies, why did some end up as modern, industrialized countries (Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, etc.) and others end up with a lot of poverty, illiteracy, violence, etc. (India, Palestine, parts of Africa, etc.)?

Would these countries have been better off if they stayed colonies?

The answer is quite obvious as most of the “successful” colonies you mention were settler colonies such as Canada and Australia which was settled primarily by British subjects who thus had knowledge of Western science, and technology along with a tradition of education, literacy, and capitalism. In addition since they were “white” colonies they were allowed to have considerable autonomy allowing them to develop their own governing institutions. The only exception with regards to this were Hong Kong and Singapore which while not white settler colonies, did gain special attention as port city enclaves.

Meanwhile industrialization was retarded in the non-settler colonies as the British authorities wished to use raw materials there for export to the factories of the British Isles and due to being administered by colonial officials for most of the time, they did not develop a tradition of self-gvoernment. For the most part, I’m not sure if in terms of development they’d be better off had they remained colonies although they might have been more politically stable.

That’s a controversial topic around here (I’ve gone on record before as saying “yes, in some cases” and it wasn’t a popular opinion at all).

I will observe that former British Colonies have generally done pretty well for themselves. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Hong Kong and Singapore are all modern, first-world places and there’s a few others like Malaysia which are doing pretty well and are definitely civilised countires but with some work to do in some areas. You’ve got a lot of the Caribbean former colonies just ticking over as well - they’re never going to be financial powerhouses or world leaders in commerce and industry but they’re not generally unpleasant or dangerous hell-holes, either. Jamaica has some issues to work through, though, from what I understand.

India’s it’s own special category because its got a billion people there and with a population that large there’s going to be difficulties. Parts of it are modern and first world etc and parts of I’m told haven’t changed much since Robert Clive was still a cleark with the East India Company. It’s also worth keeping in mind that India, Pakistan, Bangladesh Burma and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) were all one “country” as part of the British Raj and when the Raj was partioned after WWII, there were a lot of religious and ethnic factors suddenly brought into play (Bangladesh used to be called East Pakistan and was intended to be an exclave of present-day Pakistan, for example). Those sorts of issues take more than 60-odd years to sort out. It’s worth noting, however, that regardless of your opinions of British Rule in India, its legacy has been the creation of the world’s largest democracy.

Also, when the British dismantled their Empire, they didn’t generally embark on a “scorched earth” programme the way, say, the Portuguese did. That’s made a huge difference in the intervening years.

Um, if by “Palestine” you mean Israel, then it is one of the most modern, industrialized countries, ranked 16 in “Human Development” (whatever that means). Of course, if you mean Jordan, then yes, you’re right.

Surely a fair part of the Indian administration was Indian-run during the Raj? As to industrialization, the British certainly founded the Indian railway system from the 1850s onwards, and an Indian source I just checked claims that British-led industrialization was getting under way from the late 1700s on.

It’s an interesting question and I’m not going to try to claim I have an answer. I teach English (as a foreign language) at the high school level, and at my school we have a unit on English in Africa that focuses on three countries: Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Botswana. These three countries have several things in common: they are all on the same continent (two of them are neighbors), they were all British colonies, and they all are exporters of minerals, particularly diamonds. And yet they turned out completely different. Sierra Leone is still recovering from a spectacularly nasty civil war. South Africa has become a multi-racial democracy but is still dealing with all the problems of decades of apartheid. And Botswana is quietly stable and increasingly prosperous.

As I’ve said, I don’t have the answer. I don’t think there IS a simple answer. But it is a fascinating question.

India may be a unique case. It is so huge that it can’t really be described as a single colony.
The British built the railroads, developed some cities…but vast areas of the interior were untouched by Queen Victoria. I once read somewhere (Sorry, no cite!) that half the population of India was not even aware that their country was ruled by England. They simply continued living in small villages they way they had for centuries.

India is geographically too vast, and culturally too diverse to be described as a single (former) British colony. When the Indian leaders started the Independence movement (which went on for 150 years), they had to begin by creating awareness of the fact that India was foreign-occupied, and then get Indians all uppity about it enough to participate in a mass-level movement.

India was that loosely organized, politically disunited, and militarily weak. Her saving grace was the enormous unity of culture, religion and history.

While India held the lion’s share of world trade before the British arrived, it only had a tiny fraction in 1947 when the Brits were done with the looting and departed. Since then, India has done very well in some respects (participative political systems, rule of law, steadily increasing trade and education) but poorly in others (poor infrastructure, poverty, hunger).

It was primarily the British looting of Indian wealth that impoverished India, and also primarily the British administrative machinery that Indians adopted that today holds together such a diverse nation.

One thing the British tried but did not succeed in: eliminating Hinduism/Indic religions and planting the alien doctrine of Western Christianity on Indian soil. From that perspective, India was far, far more successful in dealing with the British colonists than any other nation.

So, nothing to do with the increasing amounts of trade between Europe and the Americas and the Americas and Japan and China? Nothing to do with trade between China and Europe taking a nosedive? Nothing to do with the Panama Canal which meant that ships from Europe could reach China without going round Cape Horn?


Umm… you do know that India had ancient Jewish and Christian populations?

A small nitpick: Sri Lanka (Ceylon) was, throughout its time under British rule – from annexation in 1802 to independence in 1948 – not part of Britain’s Indian Empire / Raj; it was a distinct British territory, with a similar – parallel, but separate – mode of government, to that which obtained in British India. (See Wikipedia article on “British Raj”, sub-section “Geographical extent”.)

Technically yes - the whole thing was originally a complicated collection of Princely States who were (nominally) independent Rajs of their own - with or without a British “Resident” (Advisor/Official Representative), as well as areas under direct British rule.

A similar situation occurred in Malaya - the only areas actually run as British Colonies were Penang, Malacca and Singapore (collectively known as the Straits Settlements). The rest of Malaya was collection of states which were effectively British protectorates to greater or lesser extents.

I read in one of my books on the British Empire that just before World War II there were less than 1000 Europeans in the Indian Civil Service and it was getting increasingly difficult to attract Europeans to the role. Even at time of independence there were something like 700 Europeans in the ICS, most of whom left shortly afterwards for obvious reasons - although their legacy did not.

About a third of the population probably wasn’t run by Britain, but by the independent monarchs of the Princely States, who were mostly left with a great degree of freedom in their own domains.

Other than that I’d doubt it. British developments spread planting of export crops, extractive industries, railways and canals, all of which tended to extend well outside the central areas. The peasants would have to be spectacularly remote and separated from the economy as a whole not to notice.

Well, the Presidencies of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta were formerly separate entities, certainly.

Unlike China India had never really been a unified state with a native government. The Mughals certainly weren’t native, and hardly ran a unified state.

That unity never existed. The place has got about as many languages as all of Europe, vastly different cultures and obviously the independence movement, and ultimately the whole country, split along religious lines. The only thing that ever unified India was British control. When Britain left India violently split apart at the seams.

India and China had a lot of exports before the industrial revolution, all of which quickly became obsolete. Indian calicoes were replaced by Lancashire mill products. Chinese porcelain was replaced by Staffordshire blue and white ware. Notice that China wasn’t conquered and suffered at least the same level of decline. Come 1947 the Raj had a positive balance of trade with the UK.

You’re welcome.

There was some looting of the occasional conquered territory, that’s how Clive became rich of course, but not something that would effect the majority of the population.

At best the missionary effort was a minority pursuit amongst the British in India, and was always controversial. It was never official policy to stamp out Hinduism. Hindu and Muslim laws were even allowed to stay in place. Africa was the only place really converted in any numbers.

This is something which bugs me, this ‘British looted India’ narrative is tiresome and inaccurate, because it puts the British alongside something like the Persian army which sacked Dehli and took its peacock throne.

First off, the British government encouraged investment in India, and fostered the growth of a small Indian middle class, and facilitated the construction of railways in India at a loss. Though obviously intended for primary use for the British administration and to strengthen the lines of communication.

I’ll use this quote as a prime example.

As you can see, before the Mughal empire fell, it was at $550, then during the time of the ascendancy of the East India Company, the collapse of Mughal Authority and the instigation of various wars in the subcontinent, it decreased to $520. After the mutiny in 1857, it steadily goes upwards until independence to $618.

And this guy was an Indian industrialist. His company still survives, and the head of the company is one of the richest people in the world.

Colonialism isn’t great, that’s for sure, but to characterise the British administration of India as something disastrous to India is not accurate.

In very general and simple terms, future success was really based almost exclusively on colonial patterns, particularly in regards to North America and Africa.

In colonies such as those in North America, large numbers of British immigrations came seeking to start families and recreate European life outside of Europe. This included more liberal government and institutions created to mimic Europe which was possible because the native populations died off and were largely continuously pushed to the periphery of colonial settlements. After independence, these colonies were successful simply because the institutions and government tradition created were developed to help them prosper.

In other types of colonies such as those in Africa however, colonial patterns were quite different. Since native populations did not die out like in North America, British immigrants and administrators were always tiny minorities and constantly in fear of native uprisings. In order to maintain order, minority control, and to protect investment, these colonies were usually forced to create very repressive and strict institutions and government authority. This was most notable in colonies in climates unsuitable for Europeans that were established almost exclusively for resource extraction. Furthermore, many immigrants to resource extractive colonies were young men willing to brave disease in order to find adventure and riches with little intention to stay forever and start a family there… particularly in colonies with few European women present.

These colonies’ future success was unfortunately hurt by this process by creating repressive institutions and governance that often continued into independence. Later, multiple colonies experienced independence movements that took years of very violent warfare between native groups and the minority European populations fully aware of the impending loss of all of their wealth and power. When these colonies finally won independence, the British government worked hard to protect as many British business interests as possible at the great expense of the new country’s government now responsible for trying to industrialize.

One last important indicator of future success of colonies was the societal homogenization of the people. While colonies in Asia and North America were largely made up of by mostly homogenous populations that could work together as one people, according to Ali Mazrui Great Britain had an unfortunate tendency in Africa of trying to make their colonies as big as possible. This enabled British administrators to divide the people by making them fight each other rather than British rule but after independence had the ultimate affect of making countries socially divided with different groups antagonistic towards each other. This later created coup d’etat and civil war problems and obviously stifled success.

Cite? :rolleyes:

That is his premise. He provided the supporting evidence he felt was necessary. Accept it or reject it, but don’t think that writing “cite” discredits his premise.

Most of them , no. But the Cayman Islands is a world leader among financial centres frequently ranking in the top 5 of various lists. In particular sectors Cayman is in fact the world leader, home to about 75% of the world’s hedge fund industry, for example.

Much of the success of Cayman can be traced to its stable legal system based on British law. In this sense Cayman can act as a stable acceptable third jurisdiction to facilitate international business. When Pakistan International Airlines bought several new Boeing 777s in 2003 the American financing banks refused to permit the aircraft to be registered in Pakistan. The airline did not want to register in the United States. Cayman was the acceptable neutral ground even though there is no airport in the country that can have such an aircraft take off at maximum weight.

Perhaps uniquely amongst the colonies Cayman was uninhabited at the time of discovery by European explorers. As such there is no social conflict between the settlers and indigenous populations. That just leaves conflict between the descendents of earlier settlers and more recent arrivals.

This is silly. As noted, Australia, Canada, New Zealand (and why do people in this thread leave out the US?) were settler colonies. Their governance institutions were designed to run the places well because Europeans were living there, and not sub human types whose labour and lands could largely be seen as resources. This is a fairly well studied question in the Economics literature. Look up Dani Rodrik’s work on extractive institutions. Singapore’s success has everything to do with Lee Kuan Yew, and nothing to do with the British. The place was a dump when they left it. Singapore and Hong Kong are also both effectively just cities, and IMO shouldn’t be included in a discussion of development anyway.

And if the British were to thank for India becoming the world’s largest democracy, why does your own post provide a counter example, in which you acknowledge that the Brits also ruled Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma and Bangladesh as part of the same country, but none of which have been particularly successful in staying democracies?

And no doubt you believe they did this out of the goodness of their hearts? No, they did it to facilitate troop movement so they could put down any popular uprisings like the Mutiny of 1857. India used to be among the richest regions in the pre colonial era. By the time the Brits left, not so much. Hell yes the British were looters and their occupation was disastrous for India.

Some good can come out of anything bad, and that’s all your two anecdotes go to show. As for your immensely ignorant statement about the British not being like the Persians come to loot the Peacock throne, are you aware of the current location of the Kohinoor diamond?

We leave the US out of these threads because it became independent of Britain in 1776 - before Australia and New Zealand were even founded and long before South Africa or Canada became independent entities. The USA has been doing its own thing for 250 years and was out of British influence far too early in the proceedings to count for the purposes of these sorts of arguments.

There’s probably several PhD theses in that question, but as I understand it Sri Lanka has a functioning democratic system (war against the Tamils notwithstanding) which includes an effective opposition party so the question really seems to be “Why aren’t Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma functionally democractic the way India and Sri Lanka are?”

And the British are to thank for India becoming the world’s largest democracy because they put the foundations there for it. The Indians chose to use those foundations and put the effort in to succeed at it, just as other countries which were once part of the British Empire did not. That doesn’t change the fact the foundations were there at independence from Britain.