European Experience With Tropical Colonies

WRITING of the colonial problem now confronting the United States, Mr. Benjamin Kidd has said, in his little volume on the Control of the Tropics: “It is not a question of the relative merits of any form of government; it is not even a question of the relative merits of any race amongst civilized peoples; it is simply and purely the question of the ultimate relation of the white man to the tropics.”

Mr. Kidd has gone to the heart of the subject; for whilst it is certain that all intelligent citizens of the United States have realized that the war with Spain has created a new and important national problem, it is equally certain that there is a general tendency to underestimate its difficulties and to misjudge its real character.

In setting out to control tropical possessions the United States has the experience of six nations to draw upon, — Spain, Portugal, Germany, France, Holland, and Great Britain. Three of these may be dismissed at once. Spain and Portugal may serve as warnings; they can never serve as examples. Germany has had an experience of only fourteen years in tropical colonization, and no opinion of her methods can be of value until her work has had the test of a longer time. If, therefore, the true system of controlling tropical colonies has been discovered, we may expect to find it in the colonial experience of France, Holland, or Great Britain.

France embarked on a policy of colonial expansion from the necessity of keeping pace with Russia, who is extending her empire in the Far East, and with Germany, who hopes to become an African power; and although Colonial rivalry with England is at present out of the question, there is a lingering hope amongst a certain class of French statesmen that the next century will witness a decrease rather than an augmentation of Great Britain’s colonial possessions. Of the French Asiatic colonies as a whole it may be said that they consist of a handful of French merchants and adventurers, a large body of government officials, and a considerable population of uneducated and semi-barbarous natives, who are exploited — very unsuccessfully, it is true — for the benefit of the home government. Mr. Henry Norman, in his Peoples and Politics of the Far East, has drawn a striking picture of the methods adopted by France in her Asiatic colonies. In 1890 the population of French Cochin-China was 1,800,000, of whom only 1600 were French. Of these 1600, 1200 were government officials. The salaries of these officials amounted to $1,750,000, and in the same year the amount devoted to public works was $80,000. More extraordinary still, the whole of this $80,000 was paid out as salaries to officials of the department, and not a cent’s worth of work was done. In regard to Tongking, Mr. Norman calculates that the French taxpayer has expended $24,000 a day on the colony for each day, Sundays included, that it has been a French possession. Up to the end of 1892 France had spent 476,000,000 francs on Tongking, and as a setoff to this, during the same period, had sold the colony 59,000,000 francs’ worth of French goods.

In the West Indies France has been financially more fortunate, and a considerable trade exists between Martinique and Guadeloupe and the mother country. But a visit to these islands will convince the impartial observer that although they are not mismanaged in the same way as the Asiatic colonies of France, they are in many respects in an unsatisfactory condition.1 Both in Martinique and in Guadeloupe the leading industries are dependent on imported East Indian laborers. French Guiana, or Cayenne, is at present merely an insignificant tract of land on the mainland of South America, which is used as a convict settlement, no serious effort ever having been made to develop its great natural resources. It is interesting to note that Algeria, the most important colonial possession of France, and the one which might be most reasonably expected to prove a financial success, fails to pay the cost of its administration, from the necessity of maintaining an army of 54,000 men to control 3,500,000 natives. France has obtained little honor and less profit from her colonial ventures. Her ambition has been to achieve in the tropics what England has achieved in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and her other non-tropical colonies, — the founding of hardy dependencies, populated by a race mainly of the home stock, and bound to the mother country by all the ties of affection and loyalty, — dependencies which in the hour of need would prove a source of strength to the nation. The failure of France is due rather to the fundamental difficulties of tropical colonization than to the evil effects of maladministration ; for it is doubtful whether even any of England’s tropical possessions, loyal as they undoubtedly are, would prove a source of strength in time of war. Frenchmen have not emigrated to the French colonies, because to most white men the tropics offer little inducement as a home. The absence of all those conveniences and luxuries which form so large a part of our daily life becomes unendurable as soon as the novelty of a strange land has worn off.

The experience of Holland presents a series of facts of the highest significance in relation to tropical colonization, and the history of the Dutch colonies furnishes us with material for the understanding of the problem of colonial administration.

The Dutch have tropical colonies both in the East Indies and in the West Indies. In her East Indian colonies Holland has attained a degree of success which has been reached by no other nation in similar circumstances; but in the West Indies her failure has been no less conspicuous than that of other powers.

The principal East Indian possession of Holland is Java, an island which has an area of about 49,000 square miles, with a population of 22,500,000, or, in other words, 459 persons to the square mile. The population is made up of 22,000,000 natives, who are Malayans ; 300,000 Chinese; 42,000 Europeans, including half-castes ; 14,900 Arabs ; 3500 Hindus; the rest are of various Asiatic and Polynesian races. Ninetyfive per cent of the people are Mohammedans. When the Dutch occupied the island at the beginning of the seventeenth century, they found the people in an advanced state of civilization, measured by the standards of the East; and since the Dutch authority became firmly established, they have shown themselves peaceful, industrious, and of gentle disposition. Holland determined to govern the island as a national plantation, and instituted a system of forced labor which, with slight modifications, still exists. The system cannot fairly be called slavery ; for although it is compulsory for every able-bodied native to devote a certain portion of his time to the cultivation of coffee, sugar, and other crops, to be delivered at the government depots, he receives in return a fair price for the products of his labor. What the Dutch insisted on was, in effect, that the natural tendency of the people to work only so long as sufficed for the gratification of their simple needs should not be allowed to interfere with the development of a country which could be made to yield a handsome profit to the government, and at the same time provide a comfortable means of support for the natives. Under this system the island prospered amazingly. Trade increased with great rapidity; the government reaped enormous profits ; the people enjoyed a degree of material prosperity before undreamed of; gradually the task of ruling the island became less and less difficult, and the government has found it possible to appoint large numbers of intelligent natives to those important and responsible posts which had to be created, as a result of the commercial expansion arising out of the enforced industry of the people.

Let us turn our attention now to Surinam, the principal colony of the Dutch in the West Indies. Surinam, or Dutch Guiana, as it is sometimes called, resembles Java in many respects. It lies at the same distance to the north of the equator as Java lies to the south ; it is of almost the same area; it possesses a similar climate ; its soil is suitable for the cultivation of the same products ; it is watered by noble rivers; it has enormous forests of valuable timber ; and it has the advantage of Java in being much nearer to the European markets. Yet what do we find? Instead of the thriving population of Java, instead of its immense trade and tranquil prosperity, we see a country barely able to keep its head above the wave of bankruptcy which is continually threatening it; a country of whose area only one half of one per cent is beneficially occupied ; a country where most of the work is done by laborers imported from the East, — where, to quote from Mr. Washington Eves,2 “ the neglected stores where the European merchants carried on their business tell a tale of decadence.” It would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to enumerate all the circumstances which have combined to place in such striking contrast two countries so similar in natural conditions ; but two facts stand prominently forth, — the differences in the nature of the native population and in the form of government of the two colonies. In Java the population is of Malays, in Surinam of negroes. The Malays have shown themselves capable of evolving a civilization, of combining together for the purpose of maintaining national institutions and of carrying out enterprises of public utility without assistance or guidance from the white man. In character they exhibit those traits which belong to most Eastern races: a great reverence for family ties ; a tendency to resist the intrusion of foreign authority, and a tendency no less marked to submit quietly to that authority once it is firmly established ; a natural disinclination to steady work, which, however, yields readily in the face of reasonable inducement or slight pressure; a certain quickness of intellect which gives them a clear vision where their material interests are concerned, and saves them from being improvident; and, finally, a curious mental adjustment, which, if it becomes unsettled through intense excitement or mental strain, is likely to change them in a moment into savages.

It is not my purpose to undertake to describe the negro as he was before his introduction into the western hemisphere, or as he might have been under different circumstances, but only the West Indian negro as he is, without reference to the question whether his present characteristics are due to ill treatment, to lack of opportunity, or to inherent mental and physical qualities.

The Dutch found the negro undesirable as a slave ; they have found him still more undesirable as a free man. Having developed no civilization of his own, he cannot adapt himself to an alien civilization. Exhibiting some outward indications of adherence to Christianity, he reverts, as soon as he is left to himself, to the disgusting rites which belong to his gross and abominable superstitions. He will not work, for he has no ambitions to gratify. For authority, unless it be of the rigorous military kind, he has no respect. His passions are easily aroused, and he is prone to riot and insurrection. Finally, there seems to be no general tendency in the West Indian negro to improve under the influence of education and example. The character of the negro, then, is one reason why Surinam differs so widely from Java.

In government Holland has adopted toward Java an autocratic method, and under it the people have become prosperous and contented. In Surinam a restricted system of representation exists, and the government has not compelled the people to work. The result has been that the negroes have retired into the forests, and given themselves up to devil worship, whilst the labor in the colony is done chiefly by imported East Indian laborers. Whatever might have been the condition of the Surinam negro under autocratic government, he has proved himself, under a more liberal system, unsatisfactory as a colonist.

The experience of the Dutch with tropical negroes, however, has been limited, and the idea naturally suggests itself that possibly the failure of the Surinam negro to make a good colonist is due rather to bad management by his rulers than to any defect in his own nature. In order to gain a broader view of the tropical negro, and to observe him under the most enlightened form of government he has ever enjoyed, a brief glance at the British West Indian colonies is necessary. I spent six years, beginning in 1891, in the West Indies and in British Guiana, and made during that time a careful study of the conditions prevailing in the West Indian colonies.

It is convenient to divide the more important of these colonies into three classes: the colonies of small industries, Dominica, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Tobago, Antigua, Grenada, St. Kitts, Nevis, and Montserrat; the colonies of large industries, Trinidad, British Guiana, and Jamaica; and Barbados, the economic conditions of which differ materially from those of either of the other two classes. In the year 1896 the colonies of the first class exported produce of the total value of $3,240,000 : the highest on the list being Antigua, with $910,000; the lowest Montserrat, with $120,000. The colonies of the second class exported produce of the total value of $24,000,000 : the highest being British Guiana, with $9,000,000; the lowest Trinidad, with $6,750,000. It is impracticable to deal with each of these colonies separately, or to point out those distinctions which undoubtedly exist in their conditions. Taking the colonies of small industries as a group, we find a most depressing state of affairs. These islands, which were once thriving and prosperous, are now fast sinking to ruin. Nearly all are of extraordinary fertility, and most of them possess a delightful climate; yet the land is falling out of cultivation year by year, and unmistakable signs of decay are observable on every side. The chief cause of this decay, in my judgment, is the nature of the native population. Except St. Lucia, none of the islands suffers from a lack of laborers; but very little labor is required for the carrying on of the small industries that still survive. Were any attempt made to establish large industries, it would fail unless laborers were imported from the East.

In support of this view I turn to the colonies of large industries. Trinidad has a population of 245,000, composed chiefly of negroes, half-breeds, and East Indian coolies. The coolies were introduced in order that the agriculture of the island might not disappear for want of men to do the work. These coolies and their descendants now form nearly one half of the population; and this testimony as to their importance as laborers is given in the Report of the West India Royal Commission, which visited the British West Indian colonies last year :

“ It has, however, been pressed upon us, by evidence which we cannot disregard, that at the present time, and under present conditions, indentured laborers are absolutely necessary to the carrying on of the sugar estates.” 3 In Jamaica a similar condition exists. To the question, “ Should the supply of immigrants be increased, continued, or diminished ? ” Mr. P. C. Cork, a gentleman who has had an experience of twenty-three years in the West Indies, gives the following reply : " The system should be continued ; otherwise no large agricultural operations can be conducted with good prospect of success. . . . A great many of the most important sugar estates would have long since had to be abandoned but for coolie libor. . . . And the banana industry could not have extended at anything like the rate it has done without such aid.”4 In British Guiana the case is even more serious. The coolies in that colony are fully one half of the population ; and at least three quarters of the work done in the colony is done Gy East Indians. A planter of thirty-seven years’ experience gave the following reply to the question, “ Does the need exist for further immigration ? ” " Yes, immigration is now as indispensable to the sugar planter as it ever was, because here in British Guiana the native laborer is disinclined to work more than four days a week, and often [he works] less, perhaps not at all. He is quite unreliable, and not to be depended on,” 5

In Trinidad, Jamaica, and British Guiana East Indian laborers are imported under contract to work on the sugar estates. The terms of indenture vary slightly in the different colonies, but are, in effect, as follows : The indentured laborers must work five days a week, and seven hours a day, for a period of five years. In return for this, the planter must furnish him with a free house, free hospital accommodation on the estate, free medical attendance and medicine, and free schooling for his children, and must pay a minimum legal wage. At the end of five years the laborer becomes absolutely free, and can claim a free grant of land from the government or a passage back to India.

The testimony is overwhelming that in those islands where the labor supply consists of negroes little work is done ; that wherever large industries are to be found it is the coolie who does the work. There is one, and only one exception to this rule, — the island of Barbados; and the negro is there under absolute compulsion to work. Barbados is unique in several respects. With an area of 100,000 acres of cultivable land, 91,000 acres are under cultivation, the rest being used for residential sites, pasturage, and so on. There are left no forests or waste lands on which the negro can squat. The population of the island is about 186,000, or 1120 to the square mile. Under these circumstances it is evident that the Barbadian negro has his choice of working or starving.

It is significant of the feeling which prevails at the British Colonial Office in reference to the fitness of the West Indian negro for self-government that the island of Dominica has recently been deprived of its system of representation and converted into a Crown Colony. The manner in which the change was effected is most instructive. The Dominican House of Assembly, which consisted of elected and nominated members in such proportion that a solid vote of the electives would place the government in a minority, rejected a government motion to make the island a Crown Colony. The administrator then dissolved the Assembly and issued writs for new elections. With the particular issue before them, the people returned one member whose views were known to coincide with those of the government. When the new Assembly met, the resolution to make the island a Crown Colony was carried by one vote, — that of an elected member representing the wishes of his constituents. An amendment was introduced and lost, which ran: “Inasmuch as the government is trying to deprive the inhabitants of their just rights and liberties, be it resolved that the British government be asked to barter Dominica with the French, American, or any other nation.” A local newspaper, commenting on the vote, said: “ Rather than counsel submission to such a policy we advise steadfast and persistent opposition to the government; and when all constitutional means shall have been exhausted in vain, then we would hold up for imitation the resolve of the Cuban people, — to let the aliens have the country in ashes, if have it they must ; since it is preferable to be a free man in a wild country rather than a serf in the most highly developed and prosperous community.”

It speaks something for the tolerance of British rule that such rank sedition should remain unnoticed by the authorities. The question of representative government for tropical negroes has been treated by many writers. James Anthony Froude, writing on the subject in 1887, said : “ If the Antilles are ever to thrive, each of them should have some trained and skillful man at its head, unembarrassed by local elected assemblies.

. . . Let us persist in the other line; let us use the West Indian governments as asylums for average worthy persons who have to be provided for, and force on them black parliamentary institutions as a remedy for such persons’ inefficiency, and these beautiful countries will become like Hayti, with Obeah triumphant, and children offered to the devil, and salted and eaten, till the conscience of mankind wakes again and the Americans sweep them all away.”

To sum up. We find that Holland has succeeded in Java, where the population is composed of Malayans, and where forced labor has been exacted ; that she has failed in Surinam, where the population is largely negro, and where no compulsion has been used; that England has failed wherever the population is composed of negroes, and has attained a moderate degree of success only where East Indian laborers form a large proportion of the population, and a contractlabor system is in force; finally, that wherever, in those colonies which have been dealt with in this article, any considerable industries exist, the East Indian indentured immigrant is found doing the work.

Any attempt to govern the tropical possessions of the United States on democratic principles is doomed to certain failure. It has been clearly shown that without forced labor, or at least some form of indentured labor, large industries cannot be developed in tropical colonies. Apart from the instances already cited, this statement is true of Hawaii, Mauritius, Natal, Queensland, Peru, the Fiji Islands, the Straits Settlements, and the Danish West Indies.

But there is a more serious question. It is thought by many that although it may be unadvisable to grant the colonies representative government at present, the time will soon come when the people of these colonies will show themselves capable of self-government. Judging from past experience, there would seem to be little hope that these pleasant anticipations will ever be realized. We look in vain for a single instance within the tropics of a really well-governed independent country. Would the United States tolerate under its flag the conditions which prevail in Venezuela, in Siam, in Hayti, in the Central American republics ?

The system under which this country might hope to achieve success with her tropical possessions is one which is little likely to be adopted. It is the system advocated by Froude for the island of Dominica,—surely the most beautiful of all tropical islands: “ Find a Rajah Brooke 6 if you can, or a Mr. Smith of Scilly. . . . Send him out with no more instructions than the knight of La Mancha gave Sancho, — to fear God and do his duty. Put him on his metal. Promise him the praise of all good men if he does well; and if he calls to his help intelligent persons who understand the cultivation of soils and the management of men, in half a score years Dominica would be the brightest gem of the Antilles. . . . The leading of the wise few, the willing obedience of the many, is the beginning and end of all right action. Secure this, and you secure everything. Fail to secure it, and, be your liberties as wide as you can make them, no success is possible.”

W. Alleyne Ireland.

  1. In Rear-Admiral Aube’s La Martinique: Son Présent et son Avenir occurs the following passage: “ The colony is fatally doomed to decadence, and it is to put things in the very best light to suppose that the richest part of the island will be able for a few years longer to maintain the degree of prosperity which it has arrived at.”
  2. Mr. Eves, C. M. G., F. R. G. S., is a member of the council of the Royal Colonial Institute, and the author of an admirable history of the West Indies.
  3. West. India Royal Commission Report, Part 39, Sec. 302.
  4. Ibid., Appendix C, Part 13, Sec. 756.
  5. Ibid., Appendix C, Part 2, Sec. 160.
  6. Of Sarawak, Borneo.