Ethnic Studies Report
, Vol. XIX, No. 2, July 2001
Colonial Expansion and
The British and Russian Experience
K M de Silva
The principal concern in this article is with the dispersal of peoples under colonial rule, primarily British colonial
rule, and the contrast with the cognate process, the construction of the Russian Empire under the Tsars, and Stalin.
The dispersal of communities under British colonial rule generally had an economic or social imperative, very
seldom a political one, while political and strategic reasons were always features of Russian colonial expansion.
This latter expansion, to the Baltic region, to Central Asia, and the Pacific, each involved a transfer of populations
from which has emerged some of the difficult problems bequeathed to the world by the former Soviet Union.
article reviews the transfer of people from the territories the British ruled or controlled in the Indian subcontinent
to British colonies in other parts of the world, a process governed entirely by economic considerations, a response
to the operation of market forces.
While the two processes, British and Russian, had many differences, they had
some things in common as well.
Post-colonial states face a common set of problems in fashioning policies to deal
with immigrant minorities, introduced as in the British tradition, or imposed as in the Russian empire.
This article deals with one of the most complex and least researched aspects of colonial rule over the
last three centuries, the transfer of populations, voluntarily and involuntarily, under colonial rule from
one part of an empire—or indeed from outside the formal boundaries of an empire—to another. It
seeks to identify some of the salient issues on the theme and, more important, to suggest areas within it
that need further exploration.
Those who engage in such a process of exploration will find a vast lode
of material that researchers can mine well into the 21st century.
One field in the wider theme of the transfer of peoples shall not be dealt with at all.
It has its
dozens of histories and scores of historians—the transfer, generally voluntarily, of people from Europe,
principally from the
British isles and north-western Europe, and later on from Central and Eastern
Europe, to North America, South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
This is one of
the great historic processes of the three hundred years or more, beginning in the 17th century.
scale of this transfer of communities was enormous.
Some aspects of it have been studied in depth, the
movement of European peoples to North America and Brazil, to Australia, New Zealand and South
It would take a team of historians several decades to produce a composite picture of this great
phenomenon, and to analyse its impact on the host societies.
Perhaps it is something that will never be
undertaken and not merely because of the massive costs of such an operation.
Another aspect of British colonial rule, the transfer of people of African origin under the most brutal