The Spoils of Empire

Find out more about the colonial context that informed Ella Hickson's 'bold, playful and scorchingly ambitious' (The Guardian) new play Oil.

The word ‘empire’ derives from the Latin imperium, with those territories conquered by the militaristic strength of ancient Rome constituting what became known as Sacrum RomanumImperium (the Holy Roman Empire). Both ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’, two words synonymous with Empire throughout the ages, are Latinate in origin; their etymological history provides a means to comprehend both their differences and the relationship that binds them together. Imperialism comes from imperium – command – and we have only to think of the grand imperial centres of Athens, Rome and London in order to conceive of imperialism as the apparatuses, the ideology and the economics that propel expansionism beyond immediate national borders. ‘Colonialism’, on the other hand, derives from colonus, literally meaning ‘farm’ or ‘farmer’. Within the lexicon of Empire, then, colonialism refers to those remote outposts, based in foreign climes, which not only establish sovereign control over new territories, but operate as stations enacting the commands transmitted from the imperial centre. The expression ‘All roads lead to Rome’ refers to the position of the city as the geographical centre of the Roman Empire, yet also emphasises the importance of trade routes as a mechanism to transport back to Rome the riches annexed from vanquished regions.

By the close of the nineteenth century the British Empire coloured over a quarter of the globe pinky-red – a visual statement of economic and military triumph – with India the jewel lying at the heart of the colonial enterprise. From the moment Vasco da Gama, the great Portuguese explorer, rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1462 and encountered India as a land of plenty, European prospectors and imperial mandarins began to look upon it with a proprietorial relish. European expansionist powers immediately dispatched cartographers and geographers to forensically map the Indian landscape in order to extract valuable textiles, dyes and foodstuffs (not to mention tea). The kitchen of a middle-class housewife in the nineteenth century would have provided visual testament as to how the coffers of the British exchequer were beginning to bloat from the imperial plunder being shipped back along the Thames into London.

In contrast to the sedulous mapping of India, continental Africa remained devoid of topographic definition, routinely appearing on maps of the world as the ‘Unexplored Countries’. David Livingstone, the poster boy for Central African missionary work, wedded a spiritual enterprise to a commercial one by coupling together colonial expansionism and cartographical exploration. Livingstone’s private correspondence with various imperial investors reveals an ulterior and nefarious motive to his ill-fated expedition along the Zambesi in 1858, while searching for the origins of the Nile. Livingstone was a skilled mapmaker who believed that the vast continental interiority of Africa was home to an untapped bounty of natural resources and precious gemstones, and he was able to raise funds for his expedition by appealing to the colonial equivalent of today’s venture capitalists. The popular image of Livingstone as the great Christian proselytiser of African heathen souls, itself deeply offensive to a modern sensibility, disguised the ruthless economic acumen by which he set out to establish trade routes and commercial outposts within Central Africa to facilitate the extraction of resources, minerals and materials.

Today, the old imperial orders of Europe have been replaced by the neo-imperial power of the United States and, more recently, that of China, both of which have emerged as the monoliths of global capitalism. At first glance, the USA and China appear rather different iterations of Empire in their organisational structures, and yet contemporary neo-imperial powers continue to expand beyond their national boundaries in order to extract riches from the modern equivalent of overseas colonies. Where once the immense bureaucratic might of the British state was responsible for the extraction process, today that job is carried out – in nations like Nigeria, Egypt and Sudan, all at one time British colonies – by multinational conglomerates such as Exxon and PetroChina.

We continue to live in the age of Empire, the evidence of which can be found in the iniquitous power relations that characterise global capitalism. The deregulated flow of capital is celebrated as a benign feature of the global economy, with money flowing along neo-imperial lines where it was once transported by road, rail or sea. The movement of people from overseas into richer nations, known in the nineteenth century as reverse colonialism, continues to generate anxiety within populations and governments throughout the geo-political West. The old Empires of Rome and Britain effectively transformed individuals living under their imperial dominion into commodities – seen in harrowing diagrams of slave ships which embody economics as a means to interact with other human beings. In contrast, modern Empires continue to rely on forms of slavery and indentured labour, yet differ from those historical forms in the damage wreaked upon the ultimate source of the riches coveted: the planet itself. The thirst for oil is resulting in large parts of Earth becoming uninhabitable, coinciding with the emergence of a new type of ecological migrant. Displaced from countries that sit along the earth’s equatorial regions, the increasing prominence of ecological migrants displaced from the Global South functions as harrowing evidence that testifies to the continued greed of imperial nations.

Robbie is a Lecturer in English Literature at Newcastle University. He works on postcolonial studies and psychoanalysis.


Oil | 7 October - 26 November 2016

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