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Capitalism, Colonialism, and Reparations: A Postcolonial Analysis

By BETH HARPAZ

A new book traces the “financial genealogies” of colonialism, demonstrating how capitalism and colonialism worked symbiotically to steal, exploit, and destroy resources, cultures, and human beings. 

The Economics of Empire: Genealogies of Capital and the Colonial Encounter examines the afterlife of this relationship between capital and colonialism in the postcolonial world, along with its manifestations in the massive inequities of the 21st century global economy. 

The question for today’s postcolonial critic is, how is that massive loss to be assessed and then repaired?” writes Kingsborough Community College Professor Maureen E. Ruprecht Fadem, a co-editor of the book along with Michael O’Sullivan, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Topics covered by the book span the globe, from Indian immigrants building railroads in Africa to the “postcolonial geography” of Irish women forced to travel outside their country for abortions. 

About half the contributors come from the field of English literary studies. Fadem, who holds a Ph.D. in English from The Graduate Center, CUNY,  penned a chapter on The Moonstone, a mystery novel by Wilkie Collins published in 1868. Complete with murders, false leads, and an inside job in an English country house, The Moonstone is regarded as an early and excellent example of crime fiction. Its story concerns a precious diamond that’s looted from a palace in India, inherited by an English girl named Rachel, then stolen after she wears it to her birthday party. 

Fadem analyzes the story as an allegory about the evils of colonialism. She notes that Collins grounds his narrative in a real event: the 1799 storming and plunder of a citadel in India by forces from the British East India Company (EIC). By the time The Moonstone was written, Fadem writes, the EIC was at the height of its power, counting “among its assets half of the wealth of the globe.” Just as The Moonstone’s characters know that crimes have taken place without their witnessing them, “the people of Britain knew what was being done in their names” by the EIC. The looting of the diamond represents “colonial thieving,” and Rachel’s inheritance symbolizes ill-gotten generational wealth. 

Fadem describes Collins’ ending as an act of “imperial reparations” and “postcolonial purification”: The diamond is recovered by three Brahmins, not for “a capitalist enterprise but a sacred one,” and restored to its rightful place in India, decorating a statue of a god. The ending also suggests that the British “lost something sacred” as they committed crimes against humanity in pursuit of  material wealth for their empire.

The Economics of Empire, Fadem says, aims to reanimate postcolonial studies, “look squarely at modernity’s normalization” of the crimes committed in the name of empires, and “develop the logical conclusion of such study,” namely, the imperative of reparations and the redistribution of wealth.