National Identity: Empire and Resistance
Dreams of Empire and Resistance
10, 23, 2011
National Identity is a term used to depict a person or group of people that, according to Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities, can be organized and expressed into four classifications of nationalism. The use of national identity has varied over the centuries and has been expressed differently by people in different geographical regions under varying circumstances, such as race, religion, geography and location of one’s community, language, distinct physical characteristics, or even who happens to be the ruling class. The expression of a person’s national identity is called nationalism. The four main classifications of nationalism, expressed in chronological order, are Original or “Creole” nationalism, A European, Linguistic, nationalism based on vernacular, “Official nationalism” that was expressed in dynastic empires, consisting of many ethnic groups ruled by one family, such as the Russian and the Ottoman Empires, and “Last-wave nationalism,” seen in the early twentieth-century as the basis to turn a European colony into a nation-state.
Nationalism is in some respects a continuation of imperialism. It sometimes precedes imperialism, to later return in another variation. Whatever type of nationalism that is being expressed, it allows us to focus on the culture and national identity of the people who are expressing it. National consciousness and national identity are often the product of the elite ruling class. Despite the fact that many people think of European nationalisms when hearing about nationalisms and national identity in modern times, national identity and nationalism developed before the French Revolution. It occurred originally as a phenomenon in the Americas, partly as a response to the American War of Independence against the British Empire, a few decades before the French Revolution.
Creole nationalism, sometimes referred to as Original nationalism, was used to express the national identity of European colonists in the Americas who had grown to differentiate themselves from people living in the metropole. These colonists, shared common language, common religion, common decent , as well as common opinions about historical and modern enemies of the metropole, meaning that none of these factors played a key role in differentiating the National Identities of the Creoles form those or the metropoles. Despite these common bonds with the people of their ancestral homeland, the colonists did not see themselves as Englishmen, or Spaniards, or Frenchmen, they saw themselves as Americans, Mexicans, and Haitians, for example.
Defining Creole national identity can be difficult, as there are several factors to which a creole can use to self-identify, from Europeans as well as other Creoles. A potential key factor in a Creole state’s development of national identity is the colonies distance from the metropole. After a certain period of time colonization, there are going to be more Creoles born in the colony than there are colonists who were born in the metropole. In circumstances where the colony is separated by several thousand miles of ocean it is going to be difficult to maintain sufficient communication between the colony and their metropole. With this long distance and lack of communication a lack of interest is bound to develop, especially in those who were born on the colony. This lack of interest eventually develops into a “them” and “us” mentality, and a separate, Creole, national identity is born.
Another key factor, combined with national identity, in a Creole state’s drive for national liberation and independence, is the class system. Nationalist movements are often forged to help induct lower class society into politics. By the early nineteenth-century, leadership in the colonies was reserved mostly for landowners, as well as some small merchants, lawyers, and military men. These people in power did not wish to include lower class citizens into politics, for fear of a lower class takeover. This is what drove some Spanish colonies, such as Venezuela, Mexico, and Peru, to pursue independence from the Spanish Government in Madrid.
In the case of the Haitian national identity and the Haitian Revolution, both of the fore mentioned factors played a role in creating a Creole national identity in Haiti. What also helped influence the Creole national identity was race. Race was directly linked to class. The ruling class was comprised of whites born in France, the majority of the plantation owners were whites born in the colony, some plantation owners and the majority of the lower class free people of the island were mullatoes, and the slaves were primarily black. A large number of these black slaves were actually born in Africa.
Although all of the Haitians saw themselves as Creoles rather than Frenchmen, there were distinct groupings within Haiti. These can be referred to as sub-national identities. Among the Creoles in Haiti it is said that Toussaint L’Ouverture, the prominent leader of the Haitian Revolution and War for Independence, as well as other black Creoles favored white Creoles to mullato Creoles while others sought to build and alliance between the black and mullato Creoles. Despite the fact that Creole leaders, like Toussaint L’Ouverture, promoted Catholicism (the official religion of France), were “anxious to see the blacks acquire the social deportment of the better class of whites with their Versailles manners” and were struck by the “carriage and bearings” of French officers during the Haitian Revolution, all creoles preferred each other over the French. It could be said that the Creoles, despite racial distinctions, despised the French more than each other. The majority of Toussaint’s generals were black or mullato, while his Chief of Staff was white.
This revolution had created a new “race” of man. It almost seemed, for the time being, as if there was an unspoken alliance among Creole nations and colonies, void of racial and national distinctions, to combat the nations of Europe, even on small scales. Toussaint, on the advice of Edward Stevens, the Consul from the United States, who had just a few decades earlier established their own national identity and fought a war of independence with Great Britain, cut the tax on fixed property in half, reducing it from twenty cents to ten cents. Not too long afterward, Toussaint abolished the tax altogether. This made life in a nation being operated by former slaves easier to manage.
Before Haitians recognized this Creole national identity, there was wide spread racial prejudice in the colony, sparked primarily from plantation owners who were French nationals as well as the French government in Paris. The elite class that ruled the island recognized themselves as being French, as did the government of France. The elite looked down upon the lower class white of the island, as being almost the same as the Haitian born slaves and mullatoes. The lower class white, as well as the elite class, severely mistreated the mulattoes and the black slaves. In turn, at the beginning of the Haitian revolution, the blacks sought to seek revenge against the whites, regardless of class, and exterminate them. As the revolution developed, the various races and classes put their differences aside and united under one national Haitian, identity against various European empires, particularly the French. However, by the end of the revolution, the Haitian national identity had changed yet again. On account of the French nationals and the white plantation owners who inflicted many horrid abuses upon the black slaves and mullato population of the newly formed nation, whites were banished from Haiti for generations.
At the same time that the Haitian revolution was going on, there was another revolution happening in France. The French Revolution sparked a national conscious in the old world, which around 1820, gave birth to a new, Vernacular nationalism. National print-languages were now of ideological and political importance in the technological and social advancement of the nation. In the revolutionary Americas there was never any debate about whether to print material in English, Spanish, French, or German, as the former colonies took on the linguistic traditions of the majority in their former metropoles.
The Linguistic national identity in Europe was influenced by an ever expanding world, which in contrast made Europe appear to be shrinking. It was by this point in European History, that Europeans had discovered many of these ancient civilizations, Aztec, Inca, Sanskrit, Hindi, Chinese, and Japanese, had developed languages that far exceeded Greek, Latin, and Hebrew (languages historically used to by intellectuals and the elite class in Europe) in age and development. These “sacred” languages now shared the same common status as all other European languages, meaning that all languages were open to be expressed in study and admired. It was only natural that people would wish to study and admire their native language. Language is, after all, part of their national identity.
This pride in one’s native language and national identity grew over time, eventually developing in a way that made Europeans believe that their own language and national identity was superior to the ancient eastern languages, as well as those of other Europeans. This can be seen in “Minute” by the “Hon’ble” T. B. Macaulay, who is addressing the Committee of Public Instruction, in the British Government, on improving Indian education. Macaulay is trying to make the point to the committee that English, and other European languages, are far superior to the various Indian dialects. In the eleventh paragraph of the minute, Macaulay states: “It will hardly be disputed—that the department of literature in which the Eastern writers stand highest is poetry. And I certainly never met with any orientalist who ventured to maintain that the Arabic and Sanskrit poetry could be compared to that of the great European nations. But when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable. It is—no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England.” In the next paragraph Macaulay goes on to ask the question how they, the English, can educate a people who cannot be educated by their own language. The answer was simple, when considering the nationalistic ideologies of the time and how the English view their own national identity, they much teach the Indians a foreign language, specifically the English language. As Macaulay puts it; “The claims of our own language it is hardly necessary to recapitulate. It stands pre-eminent even among the languages of the West.” By this time Britain had a vast empire and would be a dominant military power for many decades to come. It was only natural that they would take pride in their national identity, language, and culture.
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