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Sunday, July 14, 2024

Are colonies still owed reparations?

The era of colonialism is technically over, but this doesn’t mean that past imperialist nations can forget that it happened


By GEETIKA MAHAJAN — giamahajan@ucdavis.edu


I didn’t officially “learn” about European colonialism in school until 10th grade. I had heard about, or history books had mentioned in passing, countries in the East or in Africa that had fallen under Europe’s sphere of influence — but that was the extent of my knowledge until I reached high school. When I think about this now, it seems ridiculous; colonialism is so deeply entrenched in the history of many European nations and the U.S. and still has ramifications that persist in the modern day. It seems that many nations in the West are attempting to bury their colonial history rather than taking accountability for it. However, rather than allowing these nations to get away with denying their pasts, people need to be made increasingly aware of the crimes committed toward colonized nations. The imperial empires must provide some sort of reparation.

The history of colonialism has been an ongoing detriment to the nations that were colonized, and on the flip side, those who reaped benefits from colonization are still benefitting today. India, for example, has had almost $43 trillion worth of artifacts stolen. While the nation was forced to reckon with this loss while rebuilding after the end of the British Raj, the British government has many of these artifacts displayed in for-profit museums still today. 

This may be the most obvious example — imperialist governments displaying stolen items in museums — as if these artifacts should be the original owners’ to display and make money off of. However, there are other ways in which these governments have disenfranchised those who live in the previously colonized territory; oftentimes, the rule of colonizers draws sharper lines between groups of people in a nation, negatively affecting the politics and attitudes in the land the colonizers left. The most obvious example of this is the Rwandan genocide, which resulted in the deaths of around 500,000–660,000 Tutsi people, because of distinctions and division exacerbated by the previous German colonizers. 

The legacy of colonialism is still being fully realized; it is not a thing of the past, despite how desperately past colonizers may wish to frame it as such. With this in mind, it should seem obvious that past colonies are owed reparations — the only question is what form these reparations should take. For example, dumping a large sum of money on a newly formed democracy is a recipe for fraud, corruption and overall inefficiency. 

Further, reparation is not just restorative — it also functions as a gesture of apology and of recognition that a crime was committed. As such, the actions should not only aid the newly formed governments but should also symbolize that the governments truly recognize how they have disenfranchised such nations. 

First, there should be a dedicated curriculum in schools in the previous empires to ensure that the history of colonialism is not forgotten, benumbed or framed as a necessary evil. Additionally, all relics stolen during colonialism must be returned to their nation of origin. Both of these actions demonstrate an acknowledgment of the wrong, and an unwillingness to hide behind the years that have passed since they actually left the colonized land. Finally, rather than paying the governments of past colonial lands, efforts should be made to provide infrastructural support to these burgeoning nations. This could come in the form of support in building and maintaining hospitals, schools or government structures. 

Colonialism may seem like an event that began and ended in the past — but if one observes the nations that were colonizers or colonized, it’s clear that its effects are ongoing. It should naturally follow that the past imperial nations pay reparations for the crimes that were committed and for the negative consequences that still result from colonialism. These reparations should not merely be a monetary donation, but a genuine gesture and acceptance of responsibility. Without this, we run the risk of colonialism being forgotten — or perhaps even doomed to be repeated again. 


Written by: Geetika Mahajan — giamahajan@ucdavis.edu


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