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READ: Responses to Industrial Imperialism

When confronting imperial power, people responded in creative ways that go beyond collaboration and resistance. Local knowledge and customs enabled some to resist imperialism with invisible yet effective tactics.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. Why were armed struggles not very common?
  2. How did cassava help people resist imperialism?
  3. Why did colonized people have to be careful and strategic?
  4. What are two ways people resisted French imperialism?
  5. What is accommodation? Give one example.
  6. Why might some peasants have vandalized or burned down offices of official records?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. The author of this article lists many types of actions and activities as acts of “resistance”. Do you agree that these were all acts of resistance? How does that change or reinforce your sense of what “resistance” means?
  2. How would you view the actions of colonial subjects through the “communities” frame? Were the people described in this article trying to build new communities? Maintain old ones? Resist the empire as an unequal community? Or do something different?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Responses to Industrial Imperialism

Carved into a stone wall is a striking and violent scene of prisoners crammed into cells. Guards are brutally handling people that they have imprisoned.
By Eman M. Elshaikh
When confronting imperial power, people responded in creative ways that go beyond collaboration and resistance. Local knowledge and customs enabled some to resist imperialism with invisible yet effective tactics.

The anti-imperialist vegetable

The struggle against imperialism conjures images of weapons and uprisings. Foods like corn or cassava usually aren't in the picture, but we'll soon find out why they should be. The thing is that while armed struggles were forms of resistance to empire, they really weren't all that common in the modern period. New imperial powers had greater technologies and deadlier weapons, and colonized peoples—mostly peasants—couldn't fight them. At least not with weapons. There were subtle ways to resist empire, and corn and cassavastart superscript, 1, end superscript were two of them.
Colonial states relied on income from fixed farming areas—that is, the farm and its workers stayed in one place. The imperial powers wanted to maximize farming output and export crops to make profits. By using the forced labor of indigenous people that stayed in one place, production costs stayed low.
But that all unravels when those local populations don't stay put. After all, they weren't getting any of the profits and only needed enough food for themselves. Crops like corn and cassava grow in a way that allowed growers to move around. Indigenous people sometimes migrated and changed their farming patterns to evade colonial oppression. Cassava, in particular, made this easier because it required relatively little labor for a pretty big return. Mobile groups could plant cassava and pretty much just walk away. A couple of years later, a community could come back and dig it up the high- calorie tubers (it's kind of like a potato). They could also eat the leaves in the meantime. Cassava gave indigenous people a cheap, easy way to feed themselves while resisting colonial systems of forced labor. Colonizers tried to brand cassava and corn as "lazy" crops for natives who wanted to avoid work—but these crops helped them resist empire. Like activists.
Aggressive and bloody? No. Effective and more common? Definitely. Let's contextualize with the many different ways people responded to imperialism.

Anti-imperialism before decolonization

In the late nineteenth century, most of southeast Asia came under either British, French, or Dutch control. This imperialism disrupted existing lives and societies affecting both empires and their subjects. It got very messy! Colonizers controlled wealth, status, and survival, so people had to be careful and strategic about how they engaged with imperial power. But the people of the colonies—the "colonial subjects"—had some ability to shape their own lives. More than individual survival, they also wanted to maintain their dignity and culture. The case studies in this article will show how some communities in Southeast Asia responded to the new, industrial imperialism that began in the late nineteenth century.
A map of Southeast Asia. Many regions have been colonized by Europeans.
European colonization of Southeast Asia, Legend: France (French Indochina) Netherlands (Dutch East Indies) Portugal (Portuguese Timor) United Kingdom (British Burma, Malaya and Borneo) Spain (Spanish East Indies)
By Rumilo Santiago CC BY-SA 4.0.

French Indochina

French Indochina was the colonial name for French-occupied areas in Southeast Asia. In the late nineteenth century, the French invaded the places now called Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. European missionaries and merchants had already established some presence there.
But colonial maps can be misleading; conquering a territory is not the same as truly controlling it. Although the local royal families technically accepted colonial rule, the French were met with constant mutinies and peasant uprisings, which are easily recognizable as resistance. Others—and that was most people—just tried to survive and thrive within a difficult system.
For instance, many Laotian villagers pretended to collaborate with the French while resisting at the same time. The French believed they were using local leaders to control villages, a key strategy in colonial empire-building. But the villages often put fake notables forward, who had no real power. Meanwhile, the real leaders secretly ran villages according Laotian interests, rather than what the empire wanted. The French had no clue.
A photograph of a grand palace. The building is mostly rectangular, with two levels and many arched windows. There is a large staircase leading up to the palace and a stone wall before it.
Saigon Governor's Palace about 1875, later renamed Norodom Palace after Norodom of Cambodia, who signed a treaty agreeing to French protection. Public domain.
Another example comes from the city of Hanoi, where French construction projects like sewers brought in large numbers of rats. The French decided to pay the locals to kill the rats, and give them a small amount of money per rat that they killed. They just had to bring the tail in as proof. People in Hanoi started clipping live rats' tails and releasing them back into the sewers to breed. The rat population grew, and the high number of tails coming in broke the colony's treasury, leaving the French with an even worse rat problem!
But not everybody resisted French rule. Some minority groups, like the small Christian population, saw French rule as a way to get ahead, especially by joining the military. Others felt so oppressed by colonial rule that instead of resisting, they left. They followed a long pattern in the region of people fleeing the valleys and deltas for the hills and mountains, which were more difficult for the imperial government to get to. As with the cassava example earlier, deep local knowledge of the environment was an advantage the French didn't have.
Even the French education policy backfired somewhat. It tried to make Southeast Asians embrace French values and culture. It worked to some extent, but it also gave many indigenous peoples intellectual tools to resist French imperialism. Colonial subjects formed networks and shared new ideas about revolution and resistance. Two great examples are Nguyen Thai Hoc, who founded the Vietnamese Nationalist Party in 1927, and Vo Nguyen Giap, who led the Vietnamese in battle against the French in 1954—both were products of French education.
Map of the regions of Southeast Asia colonized by the French, then known as French Indochina
Map of French Indochina. National Museum of the United States Air Force.
A black and white photograph of two Vietnamese officers. Both men are smiling.
Võ Nguyên Giáp and Phạm Văn Đồng in Hà Nội, 1945. Public domain.

Dutch East Indies

Just like French Indochina, Dutch colonialism in Southeast Asia began with commercial activity, in the form of the Dutch East India company. But both the company and the Dutch government struggled to control this very diverse region.
In Javasquared the Dutch tried to recruit Javanese aristocrats as leaders who would serve them, just like the French did in Indochina. These aristocrats accepted Dutch political rule, but got to keep some wealth and their elaborate ceremonies and court life. Other people, including those of lower social status, could gain some political rights in various ways. Many learned to speak Dutch, converted to Christianity, or adopted Dutch customs. These are examples of accommodation, where people adapt to colonial rule and even benefit from it, but without entirely giving up their own culture or values.
But some Javanese aristocrats didn't love this, like Raden Mas Adipati Brotodiningrat. His name translates to "Esteemed Golden Lord Who Performs the Most Noble Meditation in the World". But this guy is remembered less for his meditation skills and more for stealing a curtain from a Dutch colonizer. That might seem like a low-level crime, but it was politically charged. The curtain he snatched was used in a symbolic way to maintain privacy and separation between the colonizer and the colonized. By removing it, Brotodiningrat signaled that the Dutch had not earned his respect and held no real authority over him. A heated court battle followed this minor crime, giving Brotodiningrat's act of disobedience great publicity. This inspired aristocrats and others to fundamentally question colonialism and its morality.
Map of the Dutch East Indies showing its territorial expansion from 1800 to its fullest extent prior to Japanese occupation in 1942.
Map of the Dutch East Indies showing its territorial expansion from 1800 to its fullest extent prior to Japanese occupation in 1942. By Red4tribe, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Religious and spiritual beliefs also helped people subtly resist colonial rule. There was a large revival of Islam in this period, for example. Muslims were making their annual pilgrimage to Mecca—called the Hajj—in growing numbers, thanks to European transportation. Other local systems of belief revolved around mystics and holy people. What these all had in common is that they celebrated a higher authority than the colonial government.
A photograph of a woman, seated, her feet resting on a small foot stool. Her arm is resting on a small, round table covered in a floral tablecloth.
A Javanese aristocratic woman. National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0.
As in Indochina, Javanese peasants dodged colonial oppression by moving around or leaving. This was an important weapon used by otherwise powerless people. Peasants moved between Javanese and Dutch ruled areas. They understood that staying in one place long enough to be counted might trap them into forced labor and high taxes. They also resisted colonial regulations by purposely failing to comply, such as inaccurately reporting on land or crop yields.
A photograph of a group of young children, seated cross-legged. They are sitting outside, studying.
Javanese children studying the Quran during the Dutch colonial period. National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The southeast Asian highlands

As we saw, in both Indochina and the Dutch East Indies, people moved around, challenged authority, and failed to comply with colonial rules. But the Southeast Asian highlands are perhaps the strongest example of resistance to colonial rule. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the British pushed into Burma, Malaya, and Borneo, but they and other colonial powers had a lot of trouble controlling the people living in the hilly regions of Southeast Asia. These communities were incredibly mobile and were dispersed across a highland region roughly the size of Europe!
Like their Southeast Asian neighbors, many indigenous people here moved around to avoid taxation and forced labor. They resisted being included in colonial censusescubed, colonial writing, and record-keeping in general. It was a kind of an "if you can't count me, you can't rule me" strategy. By some reports, peasants even vandalized or burned down offices of official records.
Unlike their Southeast Asian neighbors, these communities were more nomadic and loosely organized. Colonizers found it hard to pin down local leaders or aristocrats who would work for them. So over time, the British switched tactics. They tried to imitate the local custom of community gatherings around elaborate feasts, where resources and political concerns were exchanged. The British paid for a few of these big parties in an effort to win favor and establish more colonial ties, but the locals resisted by simply not showing up. Instead, they had their own smaller gatherings.
Map shows the Southeast Asian massif and the Himalayan massif. They both cover very large portions of land.
The Southeast Asian Massif (in red) and part of the Himalayan Massif (in yellow). Jean Michaud, Journal of Global History, public domain.

Creative resistance

In these case studies, we've seen how colonized people engaged with empire. But even when these techniques weren't available, they found ways to voice their attitudes. The English writer George Orwell, when describing the occupation of Burma, noted that indigenous people communicated their disapproval anonymously or ambiguously. They would cause accidents by spitting at or tripping British colonizers, or they might laugh and insult them from far enough away to remain anonymous. Additionally, colonized people often created secret channels using special language codes, inside jokes, or satire to share their feelings of dissent.
People were incredibly creative in how they worked with or resisted imperial power. Large rebellions are easily recorded in history, but these subtler forms of resistance are—by design—much more "off the record". To learn about them, historians have to read the sources differently, or find new sources—though written ones are rare. Indeed, colonized people often expressed themselves in ways that weren't easily understood by colonial powers and are still largely misunderstood by contemporary scholars.
Author bio
The author of this article is Eman M. Elshaikh. She is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the United States and in the Middle East and written for many different audiences. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences and is currently pursuing her PhD. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP World History.

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