Saturday, 15 April 2017

Imperialist Wargaming

Some of you, possibly, knowing my interest in the Thirty Years War may well be expecting something about that subject, but, no, that will have to wait for another occasion. I mentioned before that I had read Wolfgang Reinhard’s ‘A Short History of Colonialism’ (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), and that it was a fairly interesting book. I also noted that I had accused some wargaming of being neo-colonial, and so I suppose I had better at least assess what I might mean and what Reinhard, if he were interested in wargaming, might think about it.

Well, firstly, the idea of the book is to present the term ‘colonialism’ in a fairly neutral light. Some colonialism is better than other colonialism, obviously, but Reinhard’s view, I think, is that colonialism in some form is an almost inevitable fact of human existence. Far before the term was thought of, and long before it was used in a pejorative sense, the Greeks and Romans were setting up colonies. London, York and Colchester are among the colonies of Rome in the UK. Marseilles and Cadiz can trace their roots back to the Romans, Greeks and Carthaginians. Wherever international trade existed, there was the opportunity for colonialism, in the sense of what would be later termed ‘factories’, which amounted to trading stations and merchants from overseas.

As is fairly inevitable, a trading station can develop. The merchants get involved in local politics, and get involved with the population. Friction can ensure and military action follows. Further, of course, as the international scene becomes more active, rival merchants are driven out and British Empire, often said to have been acquired in a fir of absence of mind, in fact came about through a set of local initiatives seizing power in various places, and international conflict, mostly with France. It was not, in most senses, planned to become an empire on which the sun never set, it sort of happened.

Reinhard notes that the balance sheet for colonialism is mixed. Some people certainly suffered greatly from it, although some of the suffering was inadvertently inflicted, as with the epidemics that decimated the populations of the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Other suffering was, in essence, racist, although that is rather a smaller element than might be expected. Mostly the driver was money. Europeans went to their colonies to make it, and usually had to harass the locals to provide it in some form. Of course, some of the locals were pleased to do this. Much colonialism was enabled by local elites seizing more power (or, in some cases, any power) in alliance with the colonials.

Colonialism did do some good things. Ultimately, many colonies were democratised and developed. Whether this was done deliberately is a bit of a moot point, but it did happen. On the other hand, there are in the world a sufficient number of basket case former colonies to make us wonder if a different development course might not have left better legacies. The colonial powers pulled out, in some cases, far too quickly for local democracy to have had much of a chance against the local, armed, strong men. Even now, in some places, the former colonial power has some sway and has intervened in some of the internal disputes.

Imperialism, however, is a bit of a different kettle of fish. The Scramble for Africa of the late nineteenth century was caused by great power rivalry. Bismarck is quoted as saying that the map of Africa ran through Europe. There was a lot of horse trading between the powers over trade routes and colonial stations. For example, all powers wanted coaling stations to their ships could reach their colonies without having to stop at other power’s ports. Thus, otherwise commercially rather unattractive places became subject to colonial powers.

There was also the requirement to be seen to be strong. Rebellion could not be countenanced. The Germans executed what, today, would be called genocide in Southern Africa. The British invented the concentration camp in the Boer War, although the deaths were caused mainly by disease rather than deliberate extermination. Few of the other colonial powers come out of this part of the story well. Imperialism was conducted, as Bismarck implied, with one eye on the other powers. He needs of the locals were ignored.

As for wargaming, of course, there are two issues. Firstly, do we really want to wargame, say, the fighting in New Zealand against the Maori? From earlier posts on this theme, the answer of some correspondents was broadly speaking ‘no’ because the game would be one sided and hence boring. Fair enough – there are certainly more interesting wargames to be had than one side setting up some machine guns and mowing down all comers.

The second issue, I submit, is the tendency of the opposition in colonial wargames  to be presented as some sort of sub-Europeans. By this I mean that the local population is represented by categories of troops, with outlooks, that are imposed upon them through European colonial-imperialist eyes. In a sense, it is just an extension of the dreaded ‘national characteristics’ that used to be so rife in rules. But in this context it does start to look rather like the imposition of a different standard of warfare and organisation onto a culture, rather like the imperial powers imposed on the slices of the world they acquired.

As an example, which hopefully is fairly neutral, the European settlers in North America complained about the locals, that they would not stand up and fight. They ambushed. They raided. They used cover, and essentially undertook what the Europeans called a ‘skulking way of war’. Now, I am aware that this is best covered by skirmish level wargames, but there are some “big battle” games which also cover the period. These latter make what we could call an imperialist assumption: that the locals stood up and fought in accordance with the European expectation. Actually, so far as I have read, they rarely did, at least in the seventeenth century.

I could, and I may well, go on, but I think sufficient has been said to justify a gentle accusation at wargaming: some of it is imperialist.


  1. I'm enjoying this series on wargaming as imperialist. Thank you. Within the dictates of the definition employed by Reinhard, much wargaming is imperialist in the sense that it colonises and repurposes/does violence to history. I still struggle with the use of colonialism as neutral though. I would suggest that imperialism is the ideology behind colonialism, and that both are functionally the same, even if semantically different. I shall have to read Reinhard to see if the book changes my mind on this. How irksome that it is not in the university library! Ah well, to Blackwells I shall go.

    1. Fair enough, but I'm not sure there is any reasonably neutral term to describe colonialism / imperialism.

      As for the book, I got mine from

    2. Agreed. I cannot immediately come up with a suitably neutral term either. Perhaps there's a reason for that ... :)

      Thanks for the tip on the book. It's a few quid cheaper from Postscript than from Blackwells, even with my discount.

  2. Some very interesting thoughts. In Australia, the Indigenous people call Australia Day (Anniversary of the First Fleet's arrival) "Invasion Day" and it not hard to see why.

    While the colonies in Australia brought a great deal of advancement for British convicts and immigrants the Indigenous peoples suffered dreadfully.

    I certainly think that wargaming currently has a very western influence/view point.

    Some wargaming is quite explicitly Imperialist. For example the British versus Zulu wars, Wellington in India, Boxer Rebellion where the sole purpose of the wars were to increase or maintain the Empire/s.

    Would the Eastern Front in WW2 be Imperialist? The Germans wanted to create an empire. Although it was the Russians ended up with a bigger one.

    I think that the difference in warfare is more about logistics and resources than any inherent bias. Are the British Commando raids in WW2 or the French Resistance any different to the various native forces. Peoples/nations fight wars with what they have. Perhaps it is just a bias that "when we do it is OK" but no one else can. Each country feels that it is a little bit special and the rules can be bent for them.

    Going back to the Zulus I a have come to believe that Rorke's Drift was one of the first great modern examples of spin. "We just lost big at Isandlwana so let's talk up our win here and award lots of medals". Not to discount the bravery of the soldiers there but certainly wonder if the subsequent acclaim was influenced by the prior loss. (I have no doubt this is not an original thought - a quick search to pull up the correct spelling of Rorke's Drift proved this.)

    In the movie (obviously not a great historical source) the Zulus move off after two days due to the heroism of the defenders. But I always imagine it was because they were hungry and went off to find something to eat.

    This all leads to the hope that as the rest of the world gets wealthier and can afford wasting money and time on wargames we will get a lot more view points and ideas, figures, rules and terrain and our hobby will be a lot more diverse and interesting.

    Sorry that the above is a bit/lot rambling and disconnected but your posts have been very enlightening and led to a bit of deep thinking. :)

    1. I am fairly sure that you are right about Rorke's Drift / Isandlwana and talking up the heroic win rather than the abject failure. And of course, one person's freedom fighter can be another's terrorist...

      I think, too, that ideologies often get conflated and overlap. Thus the ideas of Nazi expansion, Aryan superiority (or Slav inferiority, if you like), antipathy between Stalinist communism and National Socialism all need to be added to the pot. Whether the brew is imperialist is probably a matter of taste - it is certainly nasty.

      Glad to have provoked a bit of thinking - I've no idea of the answers, of course...

  3. I see where Reinhard is coming from (going by what you said of course: I haven't read him). If by colony we mean a trading post in a foreign country. In some ways that is no different to what happens in many cities around the world today. But that word 'colonialism' has baggage, at least by association. We tend to think of the later 'colonies' of the late 19th and 20th centuries where the white western nations, metaphorically and literally had the whip hand. But in the 17th and early 18th century we have relatively weak European powers with limited footholds usually at the whim of local rulers. There was more of an attempt to learn the local languages, understand the local cultures and integrate. That seemed to change as the 19th century wore on and the Europeans became more powerful until ultimately we saw the growth of theories of racial superiority and imperialism as a mission rather than localised attempts to make profits (by fair means or foul).

    In wargaming terms, it's probably not surprising we impose our Euro-centric structures on to non-Europeans. After all, how well do we understand our own ancestors? Can we disengage our post-industrial brains to see things how agrarian people saw them? In our minds do we lump the early period East India Company in with the world of Cecil Rhodes? Don't we colonise our own past? Cue the famous Hartley quote:
    'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.'

    1. I suppose that a number of things happened in the C19 - technological advances, for one thing, enabling mass death to be dealt out. Later C19 imperialism was either directed to Africa, where the problem really had been disease, and the east, where China was, I think, falling apart but Japan sort of managed to resist.

      Earlier colonialism had been directed to the Americas, where metal tools were significant (as well as disease) and Siberia. In N. America and Siberia the population densities were low, so what exactly was happening (particularly in America after the post-contact disease epidemics) is a little moot.

      Of course, we have no other structures to impose on everyone else but our own. This is exacerbated because the records we have are from within our culture.

      Quite what we lump in with what is, of course, moot. Geoffry Parker remarks, for example, that the interesting thing about Europe is not how it managed to dominate 90% of the globe with a huge technological advantage, but how it came by 30% of it with only, at best, marginal technological advantages.