A group of scrappy rebels from an underdog nation bravely fighting back against their oppressors is a staple of fantasy and science fiction, to such an extent that in some cases, our views on colonialism and imperialism are shaped more by what we’ve seen in fiction than what we’ve experienced in real life. Let’s face it, most readers, particularly white readers, have little direct experience with colonization. Even those of us in former colonies are several generations removed from our own colonial experiences, and while our nations’ cultures were certainly shaped by our colonial past, citizens of today lack the direct experience of having our bodies violated, our land stolen from us, our languages obliterated, our customs and cultures marginalized.
Fictional portrayals of colonization and imperialism are, necessarily, tales of violence. Fiction does not err when it portrays the brutality of colonization, but these portrayals are, nevertheless, often lacking in nuance. The conquerors are bad, the people are oppressed, and they need someone to save them. While so-called “chosen one” narratives are a staple of fiction, and have been for as long as humans can remember, pairing chosen one narratives with narratives of imperial oppression simplifies complex issues and further, places the blame for a group’s continual oppression solely upon the oppressed. The people just need a hero, or so the story goes, and if they do not have one, they need to find one, even if it means looking to outsiders to save the day. This narrative forgets the fact that rarely, if ever, has revolution been accomplished due to the efforts of one individual, and empires are much harder to dismantle than most fiction gives the credit for.
History is filled with far more tales of failed revolutions than successful ones. It wasn’t until the Haitian revolution, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, for instance, that an entire group of enslaved people successfully and permanently cast off their oppressors. While enslaved people have, throughout history, rebelled in ways large and small, for the most part these rebellions ended tragically. Rebellion against colonial control is also, historically, a tale filled with more tragedy than triumph. Going back to Ancient times practically every nation conquered by Rome — Britain, Gaul, Judea, Mauritania — tried to rebel against it at some point or another. Indians in India revolted against British rule, the First Nations of the United States and Canada fought wars against their colonizers. Revolutions don’t always fail, of course, but when they succeed, timing is usually a key factor. Vietnam’s defeat of France and then later the United States came at a time when both countries were exhausted by war and unwilling to continue fighting. The liberation of Spanish colonies in South and Central America came at a time when Spain was in a general decline. Revolutions can succeed, but when they do not, it is rarely because the revolutionaries lacked a good leader, didn’t have enough heart, or even because they lacked military know-how. They failed because empires are designed to be self-perpetuating and toppling them is incredibly difficult.
Fiction has a disturbing tendency to treat successful revolution as a fight of individuals, instead of institutions. While revolutions may need a figurehead, an empire is not like a snake, cut off the head and it dies. Nor either, is a successful revolution simply a matter of leadership, otherwise Tecumseh, one of the most talented strategists of the 19th century (and leader of a large multi-tribe confederacy united in fighting against the United States) would have succeeded. It isn’t simply a matter of heart, either, otherwise the native peoples of North and South America, who loved their way of life with all of their hearts, would have pushed back their colonizers. While the pretty speech in which the exiled ruler rallies the troops to take back their stolen home may sound lovely, it simplifies a nuanced problem.
Empires are complex organisms. They have multiple mechanisms in place that which serve to perpetuate oppression. Many fictional stories based upon defeating empires take the defeat of the evil monarch — an emperor, usually — as the objective. Kill the king and the empire falls, or so the story goes. In real life, however, empires are not constructed by one man, nor are they dismantled in the same way. The emperor dies, and a new one rises in his place. Heart alone does not defeat infrastructure, military might, and psychological warfare.
Empires are constructed with built in fail-safes which ensure that they continue beyond the lifespan of one person. A scrappy band of rebels defeating the big bad empire is a nice pipe dream, but it also dangerously ignores the insidious power or colonization. Colonization is often successful in the short term because when colonization occurs the colonizers immediately set to work winning over the hearts and minds of at least some of the colonized. The Romans brought roads and aqueducts to even the far flung corners of their empire. The Chinese freed the Tibetan serfs. The British brought political infrastructure and widespread education to India. It is not uncommon for colonizers to improve the lives of at least some of the colonized, thus winning over certain hearts and minds. In every colonized society, there are stories of collaboration, divided loyalties, and self-preservation. This is not at all to say that the colonized peoples are better off under their colonizers, but that rarely did colonizers exercise and maintain colonial control through unrelenting brutality. Colonies that were based upon abject brutality tended to fall quicker (such as that of King Leopold, in the Congo Free State) than those that maintained at least a facade of benevolence (a benevolence usually carefully meted out to the chosen classes, often, but not always, the elites).
Colonization is insidious. It replaces and erases native language, culture, political structures until it is often impossible to return to the original state, because that state has either been forgotten or dismantled to such an extent that it is impossible to recreate without massive societal disruption. While many in Tibet call, for instance, for Tibetan freedom, what Tibetan freedom would look like, after years under Chinese rule, is certainly a vastly different thing than what it would have looked like had the Chinese never arrived. Could all ethnic Chinese be expelled from Tibet? Could schools revert to the Tibetan language, even though there are generations of youngsters with only an imperfect knowledge of that language? Even among Tibetans, there are those now that advocate that the best thing for Tibet is to forget about independence and learn to make nice with its colonial masters. Colonization is insidious. A scrappy band of rebels may be able to over throw one leader, but can they dismantle the mechanisms of oppression and erasure? It’s easier said than done, certainly.
While a simple tale of a fight between good and evil, the oppressed against their oppressors, may be temping, consider the implications of simplifying these stories. A narrative that denies the nuanced way that empires exercise control and distills them into simple cookie-cutter villains is not a narrative that is helpful to the oppressed. It places the responsibility for their own oppression squarely on their own shoulders, ignoring the complex ways that erasure of identity, language, and culture are used as methods of control. This, along with the control of political structures and economic resources, often make traditional forms of resistance — the good old fashioned fight between the good guys and the bad guys — at best ineffective and at worst impossible.
Author’s note: I wanted to recommend a few books were colonization is handled well, and I actually rather struggled to come up with even a handful of titles. However, I do unreservedly recommend Tash Suri’s duology, Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash. These two books, and especially the second one, deal with complex and nuanced issues surrounding identity, erasure, and colonial control, set in a rich fantasy world inspired by Mughal India.
Another book recommended by co-blogger Bruce is Malafrena, by Ursula K. Le Guin, which depicts an imaginary European country rebelling against the Austrian Empire.