John A. Hobson

Imperialism, A Study


Chapter IV
Imperialism and the Lower Races


The actual history of Western relations with lower races occupying lands on which we have settled throws, then, a curious light upon the theory of a “trust for civilisation.” When the settlement approaches the condition of genuine colonisation, it has commonly implied the extermination of the lower races, either by war or by private slaughter, as in the case of Australian Bushmen, African Bushmen and Hottentots, Red Indians, and Maoris, or by forcing upon them the habits of a civilisation equally destructive to them. [82] This is what is meant by saying that “lower races” in contact with “superior races” naturally tend to disappear. How much of “nature” or “necessity” belongs to the process is seen from the fact that only those “lower races” tend to disappear who are incapable of profitable exploitation by the superior white settlers, either because they are too “savage” for effective industrialism or because the demand for labour does not require their presence.

Whenever superior races settle on lands where lower races can be profitably used for manual labour in agriculture, mining, and domestic work, the latter do not tend to die out, but to form a servile class. This is the case, not only in tropical countries where white men cannot form real colonies, working and rearing families with safety and efficiency, and where hard manual work, if done at all, must be done by “coloured men,“ but even in countries where white men can settle, as in parts of South Africa and of the southern portion of the United States.

As we entered these countries for trade, so we stay there for industrial exploitation, directing to our own profitable purposes the compulsory labour of the lower races. This is the root fact of Imperialism so far as it relates to the control of inferior races; when the latter are not killed out they are subjected by force to the ends of their white superiors.

With the abolition of the legal form of slavery the economic substance has not disappeared. It is no general question of how far the character of slavery adheres in all wage labour that I am pressing, but a statement that Imperialism rests upon and exists for the sake of “forced labour,” i.e. labour which natives would not undertake save under direct or indirect personal compulsion issuing from white masters.

There are many methods of “forcing” labour.

Wherever the question of industrial development of tropical or sub-tropical lands for agricultural or mining purposes comes up, the same difficulty confronts the white masters. The Report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1842 on the state of the West Indies, subsequent to the emancipation of slaves, states the problem most succinctly: “The labourers are enabled to live in comfort and to acquire wealth without, for the most part, labouring on the estates of the planters for more than three or four days in a week, and from five to seven hours in a day, so that they have no sufficient stimulus to perform an adequate amount of work.” The reason of this inadequate amount of work (how many white men in the West Indies put in a five to seven hours’ working-day?) is that they can get high wages, and this is attributed “to the easy terms upon which the use of land has been obtainable by negroes.” In a word, the Committee considered “that the cheapness of land has been the main cause of the difficulties which have been experienced, and that this cheapness is the natural result of the excess of fertile land beyond the wants of the existing population.”

The negro would only put in a five to seven hours’ day at high pay because he had the option of earning his livelihood on fertile land of his own. The same trouble confronts the white master everywhere where the lower races are in possession of agricultural land sufficient for their low and unprogressive standard of comfort; they either will not work at all for wages, or will not work long enough or for low enough pay.

“The question, in a few words,” writes Professor Ireland, “is this – What possible means are there of inducing the inhabitants of the tropics to undertake steady and continuous work if the local conditions are such that from the mere bounty of nature all the ambitions of the people can be gratified without any considerable amount of labour?” [83]

There are only two genuinely economic forces which will bring such labour more largely into the labour market; the growth of population with increased difficulty in getting a full easy subsistence from the soil is one, the pressure of new needs and a rising standard of consumption is the other.

These may be regarded as the natural and legitimate inducements to wage labour, and even in most tropical countries they exercise some influence, especially where white settlements have taken up much of the best land. In the lowest races, where the increase of population is kept down by high mortality, aggravated by war and infanticide, and where new wants are slowly evolved, these inducements are feeble; but in more progressive peoples they have a fair amount of efficacy. Unfortunately, these natural forces are somewhat slow, and cannot be greatly hastened; white industrialists are in a hurry to develop the country, and to retire with large, quick profits. The case of South Africa is typical. There many of the Bantu races are fairly educable in new needs, and are willing to undertake wage labour for their satisfaction; many of them, notably the Basutos, are becoming over-crowded on their reserved lands, and are willing to go far for good wages. But the demands of a vast mining industry, growing within a few years to gigantic proportions, cannot await the working of these natural stimuli; the mine-owners want an unnatural accession to the labour market. The result is frantic efforts to scour the continents of Africa and Asia, and bring in masses of Zanzibari, Arabs, Indian coolies, or Chinese, or else to substitute for natural economic pressure various veiled modes of political or private compulsion.

The simplest form of this compulsion is that of employing armed force upon individual natives to “compel them to come in,” as illustrated by the methods of the South Africa Chartered Company before 1897, [84] which, when the chiefs failed to provide labour, sent out native police to “collect the labour.” Save its illegal character, there is nothing to distinguish this from the corvée or legalised forced labour imposed on natives in Natal, or the Compulsory Labour Ordinance passed by the Gold Coast Legislature in December 1895, reviving the lapsed custom under which it was “obligatory on persons of the labouring class to give labour for public purposes on being called out by their chiefs or other native superiors,” and authorising the Government to compel native chiefs to furnish as many carriers as were needed for the projected expedition to Kumasi. [85]

Military service, borrowing a semblance of “civilised” usage from the European system of conscription, is utilised, not merely for emergencies, as in the Kumasi expedition, and in our South African campaign, where native labour has everywhere been “pressed,” when ordinary economic motives failed, but for regular industrial labour. The classical instance is that of the Congo Free State, where a “militia” levy is made upon the population, nominally for defence, but really for the State and Chartered Company service in the “rubber” and other industries.

In face of unrepealed decrees according “une protection spéciale aux noirs,” and prescribing that “l’esclavage, même domestique, ne saurait être reconnu officialement,” a system of “voluntary” and “militia” levies has been instituted to be used “in the establishment of plantations and the construction of works of public utility.” The accuracy of Mr. Fox Bourne’s commentary is attested by numerous witnesses. “The ‘force publique’ with its ‘agriculteurs soldats’ and others subordinate to it, when not employed on military expeditions, are used as overseers of what are virtually slave-gangs or as collectors of ‘tribute’ from the luckless aborigines, whose right to live in their own country, without paying heavily for the privilege, is denied.” [86]

So far as “forced labour” is designed merely as a mode of revenue to the State, a system of “taxation in kind,” it cannot be condemned as essentially unjust or oppressive, however liable it may be to abuses in practice. All taxation is “forced labour,” whether the tax be levied in money, in goods, or in service. When such “forced labour” is confined to the needs of a well-ordered government, and is fairly and considerately administered, it involves no particular oppression. Such “servitude” as it involves is concealed under every form of government.

The case is quite different where governmental regulations and taxation are prostituted to purposes of commercial profit; where laws are passed, taxes levied, and the machinery of public administration utilised in order to secure a large, cheap, regular, efficient, and submissive supply of labourers for companies or private persons engaged in mining, agricultural, or other industries for their personal gain.

Where white settlers find “lower races” in occupation of lands rich in agricultural, mineral, or other resources, they are subject to a double temptation. They want possession of the land and control of a cheap native supply of labour to work it under their control and for their gain. If the “natives” are of too low an order or too untamable to be trained for effective labour they must be expelled or exterminated, as in the case of the “lower nomads” the Bushmen of Australia and South Africa, the Negritos, Bororos, Veddahs, &c., and even the Indians of North America. War, murder, strong drink, syphilis and other civilised diseases are chief instruments of a destruction commonly couched under the euphemism “contact with a superior civilisation.” The land thus cleared of natives passes into white possession, and white men must work it themselves, or introduce other lower industrial peoples to work it for them, as in the case of slave labour introduced into the United States and West Indies, or indentured labour into Natal, British Guiana, &c.

But where the “lower races” are capable of being set to profitable labour on their own land, as agriculturists, miners, or domestics, self-interest impels the whites to work a “forced-labour” system for their private ends. In most tropical or sub-tropical countries the natives can by their own labour and that of their families get a tolerably easy subsistence from the land. If they are to be induced to undertake wage labour for white masters, this must be put a stop to. So we have pressure brought upon government to render it impossible for the natives to live as formerly upon the land. Their land and, when they are a pastoral people, their cattle are objects of attack.

The Torrons Act, by which in 1852 the doctrine of “eminent domain” was applied to South Australia in such wise as to make all the country virtually Crown land, though not ill-meant, has furnished a baneful precedent, not only for encroachment of British settlers, but for the still more flagrant abuses of Belgian adventurers on the Congo. White settlers or explorers, sometimes using legal instruments, sometimes private force or fraud, constantly encroach upon the fertile or mineralised lands of natives, driving them into less fertile lands, crowding them into reserves, checking their nomadic habits, and otherwise making it more difficult for them to obtain a livelihood by the only methods known to them.

A chief object and a common result of this policy is to induce or compel natives to substitute wage labour, altogether or in part, for the ancient tribal life upon the land. Those ignorant of the actual conditions involved often suppose that the alienation of lands or mineral rights, or the contracts for labour, are negotiated in accordance with ordinary methods of free bargain.

The modern history of Africa, however, is rich in instances to the contrary.

The history of competitive knavery and crime, by which Lobengula was inveigled into signing away “rights” which he neither owned nor understood to the Chartered Company, cannot yet be written completely, but its outlines are plain and profitable reading.

A “free contract,” implying voluntary action, full knowledge and approximate equality of gain to both parties, is almost unknown in the dealings of superior with inferior races. How political treaties and industrial concessions are actually obtained may be described for us by Major Thrustin [87], who was sent to negotiate treaties in 1893 in Uganda.

“I had been instructed by Colonel Colvile to make a treaty with Kavalli, by which he should place himself under British protection; in fact, I had a bundle of printed treaties which I was to make as many people sign as possible. This signing is an amiable farce, which is supposed to impose on foreign Governments, and to be the equivalent of an occupation. The modus operandi is somewhat as follows: A ragged, untidy European, who in any civilised country would be in danger of being taken up by the police as a vagrant, lands at a native village; the people run away, he shouts after them to come back, holding out before them a shilling’s worth of beads. Some one, braver than the rest, at last comes up; he is given a string of beads, and is told that if the chief comes he will get a great many more. Cupidity is, in the end, stronger than fear; the chief comes and receives his presents; the so-called interpreter pretends to explain the treaty to the chief. The chief does not understand a word of it, but he looks pleased as he receives another present of beads; a mark is made on a printed treaty by the chief, and another by the interpreter; the vagrant, who professes to be the representative of a great Empire, signs his name. The chief takes the paper, but with some hesitation, as he regards the whole performance as a new and therefore dangerous piece of witchcraft. The boat sails away, and the new ally and protégé of England or France immediately throws the treaty into the fire.”

This cynical bit of realistic humour expresses with tolerable accuracy the formal process of “imperial expansion” as it operates in the case of lower races. If these are the methods of political agents, it may well be understood that the methods of private “concession-mongers” are not more scrupulous. Indeed “political protectorate” and “land concession” are inextricably blended in most instances where some adventurer, with a military or other semi-official commission, pushes across the frontier into a savage country, relying upon his Government to endorse any profitable deal he may accomplish.

But since, in the case of England at any rate, political expansion is commonly subordinate to industrial exploitation, a treaty or concession, giving rights over land or minerals, is of little value without control of labour. Enclosure of lands, while it facilitates a supply of native labour by restricting free land for native agriculture or pasture, does not commonly suffice. Various devices are adopted for bringing pressure to bear upon individual labourers to “contract” for wage labour. The simplest, apart from direct compulsion, is to bribe chieftains to use their “influence” with members of their tribe. Such was the system devised by the philanthropic Earl Grey to procure labour for the mines in Rhodesia. [88]

Such bargaining, either with “headmen” or with individual natives, is usually conducted by professional labour touts, who practise every form of craft and falsehood so as to induce ignorant natives to enter a labour contract. In the case of the Transvaal mines this abuse had become so monstrous as to “spoil the labour market,” obliging the mine-owners to go ever farther afield for their labour, and eventually compelling them to petition the Government for assistance in putting down the system of private labour touts, and substituting authorised responsible officials. Alike in the Boer Republics and in Cape Colony, the seizures of land and labour have been chief motives of the border warfare constantly recurring in the history of South Africa. The encroachments of Boers or British colonists upon native territory or reserves, or the seizure of cattle on border land by one party or the other, have led to punitive expeditions, the result of which has been further confiscation of land and capture of prisoners, who, formerly held as slaves, have in more recent times been kept to labour as “apprentices” or indentured labourers.

The case of Bechuanaland in 1897 affords a serviceable illustration. A small local riot got up by a drunken native sub-chief on a trifling grievance, and involving armed resistance on the part of a few hundred Kaffirs, easily put down by a small body of armed volunteers, was exaggerated into a “rebellion,” and was made a pretext for driving some 8000 natives from the lands “inalienably” secured to them by the Bechuanaland Annexation Act of 1895, and for confiscating these lands for British occupation, while the rest of the population, some 30,000, were to be gradually removed from their settlements, and given “equivalent land” in some other district. In the speech introducing the confiscation measure in the Cape Parliament, Sir Gordon Sprigg explained that this was “very valuable land, and probably would be cut up into very small farms, so that there might be a considerable European population established in that part of the country.” There was no pretence that most of those who were deprived of their lands or deported were proved to have taken part in the “rebellion.” The sequel of this clearing is most significant. What was to become of the people taken from their land? They were offered a choice between prosecution “on a charge of sedition” and “service in the colony upon such conditions and with such rates of wages as the Government might arrange for a term of five years.” The Government, in thus proposing to compound a felony, was well aware of the extreme difficulty of proving “sedition” in a court of justice, and, in point of fact, in two cases which were put on trial the Public Prosecutor declined to bring the case before a jury. The object of the threat of trial was to coerce into the acceptance of “indentured labour,” and in fact 584 men, with three times as many women and children, were handed over to serve under colonial farmers, wages being fixed at 10s. a month for able-bodied men and 7s. 6d for women.

Thus did covetous colonials kill two birds with one stone, obtaining the land and the labour of the Bechuana rebels.” [89] It is not necessary to suppose that such incidents are deliberately planned: where empire is asserted over lower races in the form of protectorate, the real government remaining in native hands, offences must from time to time arise, local disturbances which can by rash or brutal treatment be fanned into “rebellion” and form the pretext for confiscation and a forcing of the landless rebels into “labour.”

Among African tribes the most vulnerable point is the cattle, which form their most important, often their only, property. To encroach upon this is a sure way of provoking hostility. The Bechuana riot seems to have arisen from an injudicious handling of precautions needed to deal with the rinderpest. The second Matabele war, with its murders of white settlers and the wholesale slaughter in reprisal, was directly instigated by the seizure of cattle belonging to the tribesmen, on the unproven theory that all cattle belonged to the king and thus came into the possession of the Chartered Company. As a sequel of the first Matabele war large quantities of cattle had been stolen by white settlers to stock the farms which had just been pegged out for them in the land they had taken, and the further threat of a wholesale confiscation of cattle, though not carried into full effect, lay at the root of the subsequent rebellion. [90]

Everywhere these attacks upon the land and cattle of lower races, provoking reprisals, followed by further confiscation and a breaking-up of the old tribal life upon the soil, have as a related secondary object the provision of a supply of cheap labour for the new white masters, to be employed in farming, on mines, or for military service.

Such labour commonly preserves a semblance of free contract, engagements “voluntarily” entered into for a fixed period at agreed wages. The amount of real freedom depends partly upon the amount of personal pressure brought to bear by the chief through whom bargains are commonly struck, still more on the amount of option which remains to get a living from the land.

This last is the vital matter in an understanding of “forced labour.” In one sense all labour is “forced” or “unfree,” where it is not open to the “proletariat” to get a living by cultivation of the soil: this is the normal condition of the vast majority of the people in Great Britain and in some other white man’s countries. What is peculiar to the system of “forced labour,” as here used, is the adoption by a white ruling race of legal measures designed expressly to compel the individual natives to whom they apply to quit land, which they occupy and by which they can live, in order to work in white service for the private gain of the white man. When lands formerly occupied by natives are confiscated, or otherwise annexed for white owners, the creation of a labour supply out of the dispossessed natives is usually a secondary object. But this “forcing” becomes a system when measures are devised by Government for the express purpose of “compelling” labour.


The simplest method, that of “slavery,” is generally abolished by European nations. Corvée, the Congo and former Rhodesian methods are seldom openly advocated or defended; but the adoption of various forms of public compulsion in order to drive natives into private service is generally approved by “colonials,” and is sanctioned by imperialist statesmen. A chief instrument of this indirect compulsion is taxation. There is nothing essentially unreasonable in imposing a hut or a pole-tax upon natives to assist in defraying the expenses of government, provided that care is taken in the modes of assessment and collection, and due allowance made for the fluctuating economic circumstances of agricultural populations with narrow markets and small use of money. But these taxes are not infrequently applied so as to dispossess natives of their land, force them to work for wages, and even to drive them into insurrections which are followed by wholesale measures of confiscation.

The case of the risings in Sierra Leone during 1898 attests the nature of this impolicy, and the following passage from the report of the Special Commissioner, Sir David Chalmers, deserves attention. His conclusions as to the causes of the insurrection are thus summarised:–

“The hut-tax, together with the measures used for its enforcement, were the moving causes of the insurrection. The tax was obnoxious to the customs and feelings of the people. A peremptory and regularly recurring impost is unknown in their own practices and traditions. The English Government has not as yet conferred any such benefits as to lead to a burden of a strange and portentous species being accepted willingly. There was a widespread belief that it was a means of taking away their rights in their country and in their property.” [91] “The amount of the tax is higher than the people, taken together, can pay, and the arrangements by which liability is primarily placed on the chiefs to make good definite amounts on demand are unworkable.” “The mode of enforcing payment provided by the law would probably prove abortive, whether used to meet inability or unwillingness to pay.” “Repugnance to the tax was much aggravated by the sudden, uncompromising and harsh methods by which it was endeavoured to be brought into operation, not merely by the acts of native policemen, but in the whole scheme adopted by the colonial authorities.”

Here Sir D. Chalmers condenses all the familiar grievances of monetary taxes imposed by strong expensive white Governments upon poor “native” races. White government, if good, is expensive, hence taxation tends to be heavy in amount; fixed in amount, it must be paid out of very fluctuating industries; levied in money, it forces self-subsisting families or tribes to find markets for their goods or labours; collected, as it must be, by native authorities, it breeds extortion, corruption, and cruelty. But Sir D. Chalmers lays his finger on the central vice when he names “a widespread belief that it was a means of taking away their rights in their country and in their property.” [92]

Where there exists a large growing demand for native labour this method of compelling natives to pay money taxes is seen to have a new importance. They can only earn money by undertaking labour contracts. Hence a system of direct taxation imposed by hut, poll, or labour-taxes is devised. Everywhere, as we have seen, under free popular government, the tendency is to subordinate direct to indirect taxation. “Imperialism” alone favours direct taxation of the working classes. It does not, however, propose a general system of direct taxation applicable alike to whites and blacks. The direct taxes with which we are here concerned are applied exclusively to the “subject” races.

In South Africa their chief avowed aim is, not to provide revenue, but to compel labour. The hut and labour taxation is not strongly developed in Cape Colony or in Natal, because the break-up of old tribal life, and the substitution of individual economic family life favouring wage labour, has hitherto furnished a sufficient supply of labour to countries, mainly agricultural, thinly peopled by white settlers, and only in one district, that of Kimberley, developing a considerable centralised demand for native labour. The hut-tax in these colonies has, therefore, not proved an oppressive burden. Only when the diamond fields found difficulties in obtaining a ready supply of native labour, and wages rose, did Mr. Rhodes, a chief proprietor, use his public position as Cape Premier to procure an Act designed to assist De Beers in obtaining cheap labour. By this statute, the Glen Grey Act, it was enacted that every male native, in districts where the Act was adopted, should pay a “labour-tax” of 10s. per annum, unless he could prove that during three months of each year “he has been in service or employment beyond the borders of the district.” No secret was made of the fact that this measure was designed, not to provide revenue, but to compel to labour. “If they could make these people work they would reduce the rate of labour in the country,” said Mr. Rhodes; and in another speech in Parliament: “It was wrong that there should be a million natives in that country, and yet that they should be paying a sum equal to about £1 a week for their labour, while that labour was absolutely essential for the proper development of the country.”

The “labour-tax” has not, however, operated oppressively in Cape Colony; for the diamond industry, being limited in output, has not demanded more native labour than could be easily supplied by ordinary economic inducements.

It is in the Transvaal and Rhodesia that taxation of natives ripens into a plan of forcing labour. The mine-owners of the Transvaal are agreed as to their right and their need to compel the natives to undergo the dignity of labour, and they regard taxation as one important instrument. The testimony of witnesses before the Industrial Commission in 1897 was unanimous in favouring such compulsion, and Mr. Rudd, of the Consolidated Goldfields, stated the demand very plainly at the annual meeting of his company. [93] ”If we could only call upon one-half of the natives to give up three months of the year to work, that would be enough. We should try some cogent form of inducement, or practically compel the native, through taxation or in some other way, to contribute his quota to the good of the community, and to a certain extent he should then have to work.“ The general feeling of the “Outlanders” in the Transvaal has favoured the oppressive hut-tax of £2, imposed by the Republic in 1895, and has only complained of its inadequate enforcement.

Similarly, in Rhodesia, where mines require a larger supply of labour than can be obtained from natives by ordinary economic motives, an increase of the hut-tax and a labour-tax are an integral part of the public policy. Earl Grey, recent administrator and present director of the Chartered Company, thus states the case: “Means have to be found to induce the natives to seek, spontaneously (sic!), employment at the mines, and to work willingly for long terms of more or less continuous employment. An incentive to labour must be provided, and it can only be provided by the imposition of taxation. I look forward to the imposition of a hut-tax of £1 per hut in conformity with the practice which exists in Basutoland, and I also hope that we may, with the permission of the imperial authorities, be able to establish a labour-tax, which those able-bodied natives should be required to pay who are unable to show a certificate of four months’ work.“

It remains to add that one “imperial authority” of some importance has expressly endorsed this policy of using public finance for private profit-making purposes. In a speech in the House of Commons dealing with the Chartered Company, [94] Mr. Chamberlain said: “When you say to a savage people who have hitherto found their chief occupation in war, ‘You shall no longer go to war; tribal war is forbidden,’ you have to bring about some means by which they may earn their living in place of it, and you have to induce them to adopt the ordinary means of earning a livelihood by the sweat of their brow. But with a race of this kind I doubt very much whether you can do it merely by preaching. I think that something in the nature of an inducement, stimulus, or pressure is absolutely necessary if you are to secure a result which is desirable in the interests of humanity and civilisation.“

A far more thorough and logical application of the policy of taking natives from their life upon the land in order to perform wage labour is devised by the Transvaal mine-owners. The native labour problem there differs widely from the case of Kimberley, where only some 12,000 natives under strict control are required for the diamond industry. The intention of working out, with the utmost rapidity, the gold of the Rand can only be accomplished by securing a vast and a growing supply of native labour on the spot. In 1899, with great difficulty and at heavy expense, less than 100,000 natives were secured for work upon the mines. If twice or thrice this number is to be procured and at lower prices, this can only be accomplished by using taxation, coercion, and persuasion to induce large numbers of Kaffirs to come and settle down with their families upon locations in the mining districts, where the amount of land provided does not enable them to get a living from agriculture, and where they will consequently be dependent on wage labour at the mines, and will breed a permanent supply of young labour on the spot. The wages paid will be determined, not by competition, but by the Chamber of Mines; the houses they will occupy will be the property of the mines, as also the shops where they will be compelled to deal. This is the policy advocated by the chief mining experts.

Break up the tribal system which gives solidarity and some political and economic strength to native life; set the Kaffir on an individual footing as an economic bargainer, to which he is wholly unaccustomed, take him by taxation or other “stimulus” from his locality, put him down under circumstances where he has no option but to labour at the mines – this is the plan which mineowners propose and missionaries approve. [95]

This system of “native locations,” fortified by hut and labour-taxes, and by pass laws which interfere with freedom of travel and practically form a class of ascripti glebæ, is the only alternative to an expensive system of indentured labour from India, China, or distant parts of Africa. It will be adopted as the cheapest mode of getting a large, reliable, submissive supply; it will be defended as a means of bringing large masses of the natives under influences of civilisation, education, and Christianity.

The tendency will be for many who suspect the means adopted to condone the methods as necessary and as serviceable to the cause of progress. Sir Harry Johnston, in his History of the Colonisation of Africa by Alien Races, expresses a view which easily recommends itself to those who are convinced that there is but one sort of civilisation.

“In this world natural law ordains that all mankind must work to a reasonable extent, must wrest from its environment sustenance for body and mind, and a bit over to start the children from a higher level than the parents. The races that will not work persistently and doggedly are trampled on, and in time displaced, by those who do. Let the negro take this to heart; let him devote his fine muscular development, in the first place, to the getting of his own rank, untidy continent in order. If he will not work of his own free will, now that freedom of action is temporarily restored to him; if he will not till, and manure, and drain, and irrigate the soil of his country in a steady, laborious way as do the Oriental and the European; if he will not apply himself zealously under European tuition to the development of the vast resources of tropical Africa, where hitherto he has led the wasteful, unproductive life of a baboon; then force of circumstances, the pressure of eager, hungry, impatient outside humanity, the converging energies of Europe and Asia will once more relegate the negro to a servitude which will be the alternative – in the coming struggle for existence – to extinction.”

This widely accepted theory, accompanied by the illustrations of practice given above, makes it quite evident that Imperialism in its bearing on lower races implies the use of public force to compel natives to labour for the gain of white masters, and incidentally, it is claimed, for their own education and progress. The term “servitude” is rightly used by Sir H. Johnston. It is indeed feigned that the contracts by which natives hire themselves out to their white masters are “free,” in the sense in which an English mechanic is free to dispose of his labour. But investigation of the circumstances attending such contracts shows the absence of the two essential characters of a “free contract,” equitable purchase and voluntary service. In almost all cases, political domination by a white race, empire, is abused in order to apply compulsion to labour which would not be possible under conditions of popular self-government.


It is, of course, not true that all labour in the tropics is subject to these abuses. It is right to consider the best as well as the worst work of Imperialism on its economic side. There can be no question but that the best administered system of tropical labour under British rule is the indentured labour system as practised under imperial protection in certain West Indian islands and in Natal. British Guiana, Mauritius, and Trinidad are the West Indian possessions where the system of importing Indian coolie labour has been most practised, and where the system is best tested.

The present law governing indentured labour in British Guiana provides against most of the abuses which beset the economic relations of white employers towards “lower races,” and appears to be well administered. Here the Imperial Government in India approves all contracts with immigrants, and these contracts not only contain a full statement of time, wages, and other conditions of labour and of living for the immigrant and his family, but provide for his return, if necessary at the public expense, at the end of his time. During the term of his indenture in British Guiana he is under the protection of authorities appointed and controlled by the governor alone. An immigration agent-general, with a staff of agents, who visit all plantations where indentured labourers are employed, hear privately all complaints, and bring them, if necessary, into the courts, retaining counsel and acting in all cases as the principals. Employers of indentured labour are obliged to keep and produce full and accurate books of accounts under heavy penalties, and are forbidden to pay wages below a certain sum or to overwork their labourers. No punishment of any kind can be imposed by employers without recourse to the courts. It is contended by Professor Ireland, who has had long experience as an overseer, that this system operates with remarkable success both economically and socially [96] in British Guiana and in other West Indian islands; and in Natal, though “coolies” are regarded with anything but favour by large sections of the population, substantially the same protective legislation is in force, and there is every reason to suppose that indentured labourers are well protected as regards wages and other economic conditions.

But the very encomia passed upon this well-administered system of indenture show how defective is the grasp of the magnitude and the real nature of the issues involved in the control of tropical labour.

It seems a light and natural thing that large bodies of men, with or without their families, should be driven by economic pressure to quit their native soil in our Indian Empire and absent themselves for ten years at a time in some unknown and remote colony. Migration to, and colonisation of, sparsely peopled lands by inhabitants of thickly peopled lands is a natural and wholly beneficial movement, but the break-up of settled life, implied by long periods of alienation, is fraught with grave injuries to both countries alike. A country which relies for its economic development on continual influxes of foreign labourers who will not settle is impaired in its natural process of industrial and political self-development by this mass of unassimilated sojourners, while the country which they have abandoned suffers a corresponding injury.

Why is it necessary or desirable that large bodies of our Indian fellow-subjects should desert their native land, removing for long periods their industrial services in order to develop another country which is not theirs? If India is over-populated, permanent colonisation is surely the remedy; if it is not, this practice of “indentured labour” seems to testify to misgovernment and bad husbandry of our Indian resources. To break up considerable areas of Indian society, and remove its able-bodied males for ten years at a time, in order that these men may bring back some “savings” at the end of their term, seems at best a wanton sacrifice of the stability and normal progress of Indian society to a narrow consideration of purely monetary gain. History teaches, in fact, that a peasant people living on soil which they own will not consent thus to alienate themselves for purposes of slight economic gain, unless they are compelled by excessive taxation on the part of Government, or by extortions of money-lenders, which deprive them in large measure of the enjoyment of the fruits of their labour on their land. Certain very thickly peopled districts of China form the only instance in the modern world where the mere stress of growing population seems to be the prime motive to such alienation.

However well administered this system of indentured labour may be, it seems vitiated in origin by its artificial character and its interference with normal processes of self-development. It involves a subordination of wider social considerations to purposes of present industrial exploitation. What is true of the system, as applied in the West Indies and elsewhere for agricultural work, is still more true of industrial labour in mining processes. Whether we regard the huge barrack-prison life of the Kimberley “compounds,” or the laxer, more licentious conditions of Rand or Rhodesian locations, we are confronted by convincing evidence of the damage done to native life and character by these periodic removals from normal tribal life. When “civilised” Kaffirs choose to quit their individual farms in the Transkei, or elsewhere, in order to earn extra money by three months’ service in the mines, no particular harm may offset their monetary gain; but when labour agents are employed to break up tribal life and tempt “raw" Kaffirs away from their kraals and the restraints of their habitual life into the utterly strange and artificial life upon the mines, the character of the Kaffir goes to pieces; he becomes a victim to drink if he can get it, and often succumbs to the vices of the crowded, laborious, unhealthy life to which he has sold himself, while the arbitrary restrictions under which he works and lives, however justified, degrade and damage his personality. According to the evidence of most experienced and competent investigators, he returns home a “damaged” man, and often by his example a damage to his neighbours. [97] The least reflection will expose the dangers which must arise from suddenly transferring men from a semi-savage, tribal, agricultural life to a great modern, elaborate, industrial business like that of diamond and gold mining.

It may well be doubted whether there is a net gain to the civilisation of the world by increasing the supply of gold and diamonds at such a price.


It may be said: “Whatever the motives of employers may be, it is surely a good thing to take natives, by persuasion or even by force, from a life of idleness and habituate them to labour, which educates their faculties, brings them under civilising influences, and puts money into their pockets.”

Now while the statement that such Kaffirs, West Africans, and other tropical or semi-tropical men, left to themselves, lead an idle life, is commonly a gross exaggeration, due largely to the fact that their work is more irregular and capricious than that of their women, it must be admitted that the repression of internecine warfare and the restriction of hunting do set free a large quantity of male energy which it is really desirable should be utilised for industrial purposes. But for whose industrial purposes? Surely it is far better that the “contact with civilisation” should lead these men to new kinds of industry on their own land, and in their own societies, instead of dragging them off to gang-labour on the lands or mining properties of strangers. It can do this in two ways: by acquainting them with new wholesome wants it can apply a legitimate stimulus, and by acquainting them with new industrial methods applicable to work in their own industries it can educate them to self-help. Where native peoples are protected from the aggressive designs of white profit-mongers, this salutary evolution operates. In large districts of Basutoland and in certain reserves of Zululand the substitution of the plough for the primitive hoe or pick has led to the introduction of male labour into the fields [98]; every encouragement in stock-raising, dairy-farming, or other occupations connected with animals enhances male employment among natives; the gradual introduction of new manufacturing industries into village life leads to men’s taking a larger share in those industries in or near the kraal which were formerly a monopoly of women.

So far as Imperialism seeks to justify itself by sane civilisation of lower races, it will endeavour to raise their industrial and moral status on their own lands, preserving as far as possible the continuity of the old tribal life and institutions, protecting them against the force and deceit of prospectors, labour touts, and other persons who seek to take their land and entice away their labour. If under the gradual teaching of industrial arts and the general educational influences of a white protectorate many of the old political, social, and religious institutions decay, that decay will be a natural wholesome process, and will be attended by the growth of new forms, not forced upon them, but growing out of the old forms and conforming to laws of natural growth in order to adapt native life to a charged environment.

But so long as the private, short-sighted, business interests of white farmers or white mine-owners are permitted, either by action taken on their own account or through pressure on a Colonial or Imperial Government, to invade the lands of “lower peoples,” and transfer to their private profitable purposes the land or labour, the first law of "sane” Imperialism is violated, and the phrases about teaching “the dignity of labour” and raising races of “children” to manhood, whether used by directors of mining companies or by statesmen in the House of Commons, are little better than wanton exhibitions of hypocrisy. They are based on a falsification of the facts, and a perversion of the motives which actually direct the policy.


In setting forth the theory which sought to justify Imperialism as the exercise of forcible control over lower races, by regarding this control as a trust for the civilisation of the world, we pointed out three conditions essential to the validity of such a trust: first, the control must be directed to the general good, and not to the special good of the “imperialist” nation; secondly, it must confer some net advantage to the nation so controlled; lastly, there must exist some organisation representative of international interests, which shall sanction the undertaking of a trust by the nation exercising such control.

The third condition, which is fundamental to the validity of the other two, we saw to be unfulfilled, inasmuch as each nation claiming to fulfil the trust of governing lower races assumed this control upon its own authority alone.

The practice of Imperialism, as illustrated in a great variety of cases, exhibits the very defects which correspond with the unsound theory. The exclusive interest of an expanding nation, interpreted by its rulers at some given moment, and not the good of the whole world, is seen to be the dominant motive in each new assumption of control over the tropics and lower peoples; that national interest itself commonly signifies the direct material self-interest of some small class of traders, mine-owners, farmers, or investors who wish to dispose of the land and labour of the lower peoples for their private gain. Other more disinterested motives woven in may serve to give an attractive colouring to each business in hand, but it is impossible to examine the historic details in any important modern instance without recognising the supremacy of economic forces. At best it is impossible to claim more than this, that some consideration is taken of justice and humanity in the exercise of the authority assumed, and that incidentally the welfare of the lower race is subserved by the play of economic and political forces not primarily designed to secure that end.

Everywhere, in the white administration of these lower races, considerations of present order are paramount, and industrial exploitation of the land and labour under private management for private immediate gain is the chief operative force in the community, unchecked, or inadequately checked, by imperial or other governmental control. The future progress of the lower race, its gradual education in the arts of industrial and political self-government, in most instances do not at all engage the activity of imperial government, and nowhere are such considerations of the welfare of the governed really paramount.

The stamp of “parasitism” is upon every white settlement among these lower races, that is to say, nowhere are the relations between whites and coloured people such as to preserve a wholesome balance of mutual services. The best services which white civilisation might be capable of rendering, by examples of normal, healthy, white communities practising the best arts of Western life, are precluded by climatic and other physical conditions in almost every case: the presence of a scattering of white officials, missionaries, traders, mining or plantation overseers, a dominant male caste with little knowledge of or sympathy for the institutions of the people, is ill-calculated to give to these lower races even such gains as Western civilisation might be capable of giving.

The condition of the white rulers of these lower races is distinctively parasitic; they live upon these natives, their chief work being that of organising native labour for their support. The normal state of such a country is one in which the most fertile lands and the mineral resources are owned by white aliens and worked by natives under their direction, primarily for their gain: they do not identify themselves with the interests of the nation or its people, but remain an alien body of sojourners, a “parasite” upon the carcass of its “host,” destined to extract wealth from the country and retire to consume it at home. All the hard manual or other severe routine work is done by natives; most of the real labour of administration, or even of aggression, is done by native overseers, police and soldiery. This holds of all white government in the tropics or wherever a large lower population is found. Even where whites can live healthily and breed and work, the quantity of actual work, physical or mental, which they do is very small, where a large supply of natives can be made to work for them. Even in the parts of South Africa where whites thrive best, the life they lead, when clearly analysed, is seen to be parasitic. The white farmer, Dutch or British, does little work, manual or mental, and tends everywhere to become lazy and “unprogressive”; the trading, professional or official classes of the towns show clear signs of the same laxity and torpor, the brief spasmodic flares of energy evoked by dazzling prospects among small classes of speculators and business men in mushroom cities like Johannesburg serving but to dazzle our eyes and hide the deep essential character of the life.

If this is true of South Africa, much more is it true of countries where climate inhibits white settlement and white energy, the general condition of those countries which represent the expansion of modern Imperialism.

Nowhere under such conditions is the theory of white government as a trust for civilisation made valid; nowhere is there any provision to secure the predominance of the interests, either of the world at large or of the governed people, over those of the encroaching nation, or more commonly a section of that nation. The relations subsisting between the superior and the inferior nations, commonly established by pure force, and resting on that basis, are such as preclude the genuine sympathy essential to the operation of the best civilising influences, and usually resolve themselves into the maintenance of external good order so as to forward the profitable development of certain natural resources of the land, under “forced” native labour, primarily for the benefit of white traders and investors, and secondarily for the benefit of the world of white Western consumers.

This failure to justify by results the forcible rule over alien peoples is attributable to no special defect of the British or other modern European nations. It is inherent in the nature of such domination. “The government of a people by itself has a meaning and a reality, but such a thing as government of one people by another does not and cannot exist. One people may keep another as a warren or preserve for its own use, a place to make money in, a human cattle-farm, to be worked for the profits of its own inhabitants; but if the good of the governed is the proper business of a government, it is utterly impossible that a people should directly attend to it. [99]


82. Mr. Bryce (Romanes Lecture, 1902, p.32) says: “I was told in Hawaii that the reduction of the native population, from about 300,000 in Captain Cook’s time to about 30,000 in 1883, was largely due to the substitution of wooden houses for the old wigwams, whose sides, woven of long grass, had secured natural ventilation, and to the use of clothes, which the natives, accustomed to nothing more than a loin cloth, did not think of changing or drying when drenched with rain.”

83. Tropical Colonisation, p.155 (The Macmillan Co.).

84. Sir Richard Martin in his report states his conviction “that the Native Commissioners, in the first instance, endeavoured to obtain labour through the Indunas, but failing that they procured it by force.”

Howard Hensman, defending the administration of the Company in his History of Rhodesia (Blackwood & Sons), admits the practice, thus describing it: “In Rhodesia a native who declined to work” (i.e. for wages) “was taken before the Native Commissioners and sent off to some mine or public work close at hand, paid at what, to him, were very high rates, fed and housed, and then at the end of three months he was allowed to return to his kraal, where he was permitted to remain for the rest of the year.” (p.257)

85. Cf. Whites and Blacks in South Africa, by H.R. Fox Bourne, p.63.

86. Slavery and its Substitutes in Africa, p. 11.

87. Personal Experiences in Egypt and Unyoro (Murray).

88. “We propose to give to the big chiefs, when they have proved themselves worthy of trust, a salary of £5 a month and a house.... The indunas will then be responsible to the Government for the conduct of their people.” This, Earl Grey supposes, “is the best way to secure a considerable revenue in the future in the shape of hut-tax, and to obtain a fair supply of labour for the mines”. (Times, 28th November 1896)

89. The details of this business, recorded in Blue-book C.8797, relating to native disturbances, are most instructive to the student of Imperialism.

The Inspector of Native Locations in his report of the affair distinctly asserts: “That it was not a general rising of the Mashowing people is certain, because there were not more than 100 natives engaged in the Kobogo fight.” Yet the whole of the Mashowing territory was confiscated and all the population treated as rebels.

While only some 450 men were taken with arms, 3,793 men, women, and children were arrested and deported, 1,71 being afterwards “indentured” in the colony. Seven-eighths of the prisoners were women, children, or unarmed men. Even of the men who were taken in arms at the Langeberg Sir A. Milner wrote (January 5, 1898): “I am inclined to think that in many other cases, if the prisoners had chosen to stand their ground, the same difficulty (as in two cases taken to trial) would have been found in establishing legal evidence of treason. It is probable that, of the men who surrendered at the Langeberg, some had never fought against the Government at all, while many others had done so reluctantly. To bring home treasonable intent to any large number of them would, I conceive, have been a difficult matter.” (p.48)

90. Here is the account of a Rhodesian writer, defending the British policy:–

“Seeing that Lobengula only allowed his followers to own cattle on sufferance as it were, all the herds in the country might be said to be the property of the late king, and that was the view which the British South Africa Company took. The number of cattle in the country at this time was estimated at not less than a quarter of a million head, and the indunas were ordered at once to drive in the cattle from the districts over which they had control to Buluwayo. Some of the indunas duly complied with this demand, in which they saw nothing more than what was to be expected as the outcome of the war; but others, and those chiefly who had not taken any part in the fighting, declined to do so, and hid the cattle away out of reach of the Native Commissioners. As the cattle did not come in in such numbers as they ought to have done, the Government ordered the Native Commissioners to collect and send in each month a certain number of cattle ... This step proved a highly unpopular one among the natives” (History of Rhodesia, by H. Hensman, p.165).

91. Miss Mary Kingsley regards this “widespread belief” as justified.

“It has been said that the Sierra Leone hut-tax war is a ‘little Indian Mutiny’; those who have said it do not seem to have known how true the statement is, for these attacks on property in the form of direct taxation are, to the African, treachery on the part of England, who, from the first, has kept on assuring the African that she does not mean to take his country from him, and then, as soon as she is strong enough, in his eyes, deliberately starts doing so.” (West African Studies, p.372; Macmillan & Co.)

92. Compare the pathetic plaint of the natives in Rhodesia, as voiced by Sir Richard Martin in his official report. “The natives practically said: ‘Our country is gone and our cattle; we have nothing to live for. Our women are deserting us; the white man does as he likes with them. We are the slaves of the white man; we are nobody, and have no rights or laws of any kind’.“ (Cd.8547).

93. November 19, 1899.

94. May 7, 1898.

95. This has been the policy of the Glen Grey Act, and the following passage from the official report of a resident magistrate in a district of Cape Colony (Mr. W.T. Brownlie of Butterworth) makes its main economic motive transparent:

“I have long held and still hold that the labour question and the land question are indissolubly bound together. In my opinion it is of little use framing enactments to compel unwilling persons to go out to work. It is like the old saw about leading a horse to the water; you can take him there, but you cannot make him drink. In the same way you may impose your labour-tax, but you cannot make your unwilling persons work. Create a healthy thirst in your horse and he will drink fast enough. Similarly create the necessity for the native to work and he will work and none better.

“Hitherto, under our commercial-tenure system, there has been little absolute necessity for our young natives to leave their homes to work. The land supplies them with food, and a few shillings will buy a blanket, and as soon as the young man marries he is entitled to receive his lot of arable land; but once this is stopped – and it will be stopped by the survey and individual tenure – a young man before he marries a wife will have to be in a position to support a wife, and to obtain this he must work, and once having married her he must still work to maintain her and himself, and once the necessity of work is created there will be no lack of men ready and willing to work.” (Blue-book on Native Affairs, C.31, p.75)

For the Transvaal mine-owners’ extension and systematisation of the policy, see Appendix at the close of this chapter.

96. Tropical Colonisation, chap.v, by Professor Ireland gives a full and detailed account of the theory and practice of indentured labour in British Guiana.

97. Cf. Cape Colony Blue-books on Native Affairs, G.31, 1899, pp.5, 9, 72, 75, 91, &c.; G.42, 1898, pp.13, 14, 58, 82.

98. Cf. Report of South African Native Races Commission, p.52, &c.; also The Labour Question in South Africa, by Miss A. Werner (The Reformer, December 1901).

99. J.S. Mill, Representative Government, p.326.

Last updated on 12.11.2006