Thomas Macaulay: Drive for transatlantic dominion leads to endless wars, empty treasuries
From The West Indies (1825)
There are some who assert that, in a military and political point of view, the West Indies are of great importance to this country. This is a common, but a monstrous misrepresentation. We venture to say, that Colonial empire has been one of the greatest curses of modern Europe. What nation has it ever strengthened? What nation has it ever enriched? What have been its fruits? War of frequent occurrence and immense cost, fettered trade, lavish expenditure, clashing jurisdiction, corruption in governments, and indigence among the people. What have Mexico and Peru done for Spain, the Brazils for Portugal, Batavia for Holland? Or, if the experience of others is lost upon us, shall we not profit by our own? What have we not sacrificed to our infatuated passion for transatlantic dominion? This it is that has so often led us to risk our own smiling gardens and dear firesides for some snowy desert or infectious morass on the other side of the globe: This inspired us with the project of conquering America in Germany: This induced us to resign all the advantages of our insular situation – to embroil ourselves in the intrigues and fight the battles of half the Continent – to form coalitions which were instantly broken – and to give subsidies which were never earned: This gave birth to the fratricidal war against American liberty, with all its disgraceful defeats, and all its barren victories, and all the massacres of the Indian hatchet, and all the bloody contracts of the Hessian slaughterhouse. This it was which, in the war against the French republic, induced us to send thousands and tens of thousands of our bravest troops to die in West Indian hospitals, while the armies of our enemies were pouring over the Rhine and the Alps. When a colonial acquisition has been in prospect, we have thought no expenditure extravagant, no interference perilous, gold has been to us as dust, and blood as water. Shall we never learn wisdom? Shall we never cease to prosecute a pursuit wilder than the wildest dreams of alchymy, with all the credulity and all the profusion of Sir Epicure Mammon?
All the ancient fabrics of colonial empire are falling to pieces. The old equilibrium of power has been disturbed by the introduction of a crowd of new States into the system. Our West-India possessions are not now surrounded, as they formerly were, by the oppressed and impoverished colonies of a superannuated monarchy, in the last stages of dotage and debility, but by young, and vigorous, and warlike republics. We have defended our colonies against Spain. Does it therefore follow that we shall be able to defend them against Mexico or Hayti?…[What] would be the effect produced in Jamaica by the appearance of three or four Black regiments, with thirty or forty stand of arms? The colony would be lost. Would it ever be recovered? Would England engage in a contest for that object, at so vast a distance, and in so deadly a climate? Would she not take warning by the fate of that mighty expedition which perished in St. Domingo? Let us suppose, however, that a force was sent, and that, in the field, it was successful. Have we forgotten how long a few Maroons defended the central mountains of the island against all the efforts of disciplined valour? A similar contest on a larger scale might be protracted for half a century, keeping our forces in continual employment, and depriving property of all its security. The country might spend fifty millions of pounds, and bury fifty thousand men, before the contest would be terminated…
In our own time many a man shoots partridges in such numbers that he is compelled to bury them, who would chastise his son for amusing himself with the equally interesting, and not more cruel diversion, of catching flies and tearing them to pieces. The drover goads oxen – the fishmonger crimps cod – the dragoon sabres a Frenchman – the Spanish Inquisition a Jew – the Irish gentleman torments Catholics. These persons are not necessarily destitute of feeling. Each of them would shrink from any cruel employment, except that to which his situation has familiarized him.
When a community does nothing to prevent guilt, it ought to bear the blame of it. Wickedness, when punished, is disgraceful only to the offender. Unpunished, it is disgraceful to the whole society.