What can I learn about crime and the building of the British Empire?
The only thing messier than empire building is the process of decolonization. Both activities invariably result in an enormous number of legal and moral infractions to which the indigenous populations of the territories in question are routinely subjected. Such was certainly the case with the British Empire. For purposes of discussion, it will be presumed that the issue of concern is the effects of British colonization on crime as usually described in terms of criminal codes banning such activities as murder, kidnapping, rape, robbery, and so on. The other category of crime associated with imperialism is a broader issue of what are today labeled “crimes against humanity,” or the institutionalization of practices and policies designed to subjugate another people and that involves mass arrests and executions, torture, land confiscation, destruction of crops, and other actions consistent with efforts at subjugating another nation. These are two very different topics, and the assumption here is that the former type of crime is the subject of interest.
The main ramification of British imperialism with respect to “street” crime was probably the massive growth in Asian organized crime that resulted from the British Parliament’s well-intentioned but ultimately catastrophic decision to ban the opium trade that had introduced to the Chinese a form of drug addiction that it had not previously experienced. The British, of course, had been instrumental in introducing opium into the Chinese territories it controlled, with the expected creation of a population of addicts resulting. The British Parliament, in 1908, prohibited the further export of opium, much of which was grown in poppy fields of South Asia, which was a major part of the British Empire. The prior creation of a population of addicts now legally cut-off from future supplies created the same kind of “supply-and-demand” vacuum that would later exist in the United States during the era of Prohibition and consequent rise of organized crime in America. Into the opening stepped Chinese Triads, which began trafficking in opium and eventually other derivatives of the poppy plants grown in India and Afghanistan. The Triads had already existed, but the revenues accrued through narcotics trafficking enabled them to grow in size and influence, with their effects felt today in China, Chinese territories like Macau and Hong Kong, and in “Chinatowns” around the world, including in the United States.
Other forms of crime that can be attributed to British imperialism include more common forms of street crime attributable to the deleterious ramifications on local populations of poverty endemic in most former colonies. Much of that poverty could have existed anyway, given demographic trends and political and economic systems that prevailed, but a legacy of British colonialism, as with that of other European empires, was the establishment of dysfunctional regimes that were – and in many cases still are – characterized by extreme levels of corruption and inefficiency and which fail in their central missions of serving the populations for whom they purportedly work.