Nation-States, Colonization, Wars, and more Nation-States

Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

Country is a concept that feels even more real than money and religion. Not only does it have its own flag and anthem, but also has physical components like land, hills, mountain and physical boundaries. For most of us, it is difficult to even imagine a world without countries – to pinpoint the establishment date of this concept of country is even more difficult. 

For example, take my country Nepal itself. While there is a certain date that we all can point out as the date for unification of Nepal (1768 AD), we go way back far back as before the Common Era as we would study a certain king called ‘Dharmakar’ as the first king of Nepal in school history books. Or take the example of India itself. While 1947AD is the date India got its independence from the British, India as a concept has existed for long. But again, while India as a concept is as old as history, India for a large part of history meant the land beyond the east of the Indus River (present day Indian Subcontinent), which was fragmented into several smaller states. 

But the modern countries that we have today, even if they feel like they have been there always, are all relatively new constructs. Italy and Germany – two of the biggest countries in Europe, the ones that feature prominently in history books too – while we loosely use the word Italian and German when talking about history, there were no Italy and Germany till 1850, which is just a whisker of time away when we talk in reference to long history. Christopher Columbus, whom we called an Italian explorer in our previous stories, was a Genoese explorer, for there was simply no such thing as ‘Italian’ back then. So, to understand how the concept of nation materialized, and how the modern representation of 200 odd countries came into being, we need to go back in time. 

Before taking that time ride, we first need to be clear of one thing. As you might have noticed, I have been (intentionally) using the words country and nation interchangeably. And while the words are almost similar, it is important to know about the distinction between Country, Nation, State, and Nation-State. 

Nation refers to the group of people who usually share common culture, language, religions, and history, whereas State refers to the political unit that has a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and a capacity to enter into relations with other States. And any nation (that is a group of people as defined above) that has its own state (independent political unit) is known as the Nation-State. The word Country also refers to a political unit, but while the word country can be used to refer to a sovereign political unit, it can also be used for political units that come under other sovereign states. Since all this sounds a little too complicated, an example will make it clearer. Kurdistan is a Nation, Scotland is a Country, and the United Kingdom is a State. Most countries are all Nation, State and Country, which is why these words are often commonly used as synonyms. 

For most part of our history, the world was ruled by empires. Be it the Roman Empires, Islamic Empires, Mongol Empire or the Ottoman empire, empires were the norm for long. And since some of the empires from history have now turned into modern Nation-States, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact point as time of the formation of Nation-States. Still, we can consider some milestones that were instrumental for the formation of Nation-States. And just like the era of exploration, we fittingly go back to the time and place when Columbus started his exploration, where it all started, the late 1400s Spain. 

When King Ferdinand of Aragon married Queen Isabella of Castile in 1469, two major kingdoms out of many in what is present day Spain, it marked the beginning of the unified Spanish Kingdom. The subsequent conquest of Granada – until then region under Islamic region – and the compelled conversion or ousting of Jews and Muslims, marked the beginning of nation formation under the concept of homogenization, at this particular instance being driven by religion, also highlighting the strong association of the state and religion, as Ferdinand and Isabella were heavily driven by their belief in Christian Catholicism. Religion, our first character, at the time had a strong hold over the world structure and politics, especially in Europe where the Pope was considered the most powerful figure and the one respected by major European monarchs and rulers. 

But as it often happens with power, there is always some tension among the competing powerful bodies, and thus there were also frequent tensions between the monarchs who wanted control over their nation and the religious figures who had the strong hold. With key incidents like the king of England establishing an independent protestant church in the 1530s, it marked the beginning of long tension between state and religion in Europe. The subsequent war in Europe between the Protestants and Catholics, often referred to as the Thirty Years’ War, led to the treaty known as Peace of Westphalia, which decreed that the sovereign ruler of a state had power over all elements of both the nation and the state, including religion. Thus, the Treaty of Westphalia is often considered as the beginning of the concept of modern nation-states, at least in Europe. And this also marked the gradual waning of the control of religion over state. 

And just as our first character religion was losing its stronghold control, our second character was slowly gaining momentum. Remember we had said at our midpoint juncture that money would shape history in the second phase? While we have talked about the gradual rise of Money a little here and there, I think it is at this point that we need to comprehend about the influence of money. Because, it was money that had a far greater role in the eventual formation of 200 odd nation-states world that we have today, by first breaking the existing structure of the society, and then catalyzing the rise of our title, that is, Nation-States, Colonialism, Wars and more Nation-States.

For a long part of history, the world was filled with small fragmented villages, ruled by local kings or lords. Although there were bigger empires in many parts, the empires were not as centralized as a modern nation is today, and most people did not consider themselves part of any particular nation. Especially in Europe, there was a system called feudalism, where the nobility held lands from the Crown in exchange for military service, and vassals were in turn tenants of the nobles, while the peasants were obliged to live on their lord’s land and give him homage, labour, and a share of the produce, notionally in exchange for military protection.

Other societies like India, China also had a similar system, and the common denominator for all these societies was the means of production, which was predominantly agriculture. 

But as the world got more connected and demand for goods from different regions soared, the gradual rise of the merchant class took place, as we talked in the story of the Mongols and the Silk Roads. The merchants had a long struggle, as religion which was the predominant force in most societies, saw traders and merchants with disdain and suspicion. Be it the stories like the removal of merchants from temples in Christianity, the Confucian philosophy that saw traders as only parasites relying on others sweat and labour, or the caste system of India where merchants were delegated third in the hierarchy, merchants and traders struggled to climb the hierarchy of societies all around. 

But treaties like that of Westphalia, which separated state from religion, was a telltale sign of the change of structure. And just as the control of religion was slowly waning, the influence of money was slowly waxing. And that waxing would come in the form of what is known as Capitalism. 

Capitalism is more of an economic (and political) system in which the country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners, rather than the state. In Capitalism, the ultimate goal is directed by profit, and the production of goods and services is based on supply and demand on the market – as it is also known as the free market economy. Innovation in the monetary world like the creation of joint stock companies (like the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) which we talked about in our previous article) meant capitalism flourished further in Europe, as people got more used to the concept of investing for potential greater profit in future. 

But while the idea of people acting on their self-interest, or privately owning their property is not an evil idea (it actually feels natural), Capitalism had (has) its evil too, which is the disregard of everything that was not called profit. And it is that pure pursuit of profit and more profit that propelled the circular loop of Nation-States and Colonialism, where Nation-States and Colonialism gave rise to each other in a feedback circle, with Capitalism fueling that circular loop. 

As the means of production gradually shifted from agriculture to industry, the clout of Capitalism grew even larger, as it led to what is known as the Industrial Capitalism, which is focused more on the initial investment made in heavy machineries and innovation with a promise of far greater output and profit in the long run. Industrial Capitalism meant production of more goods in less time at a cheaper price, which led to the massive increase in consumption of products by people, which is known as Consumerism. And in a sort of feedback loop in itself, Capitalism and its extravagant little brother Consumerism compounded the rise of each other. 

Capitalism itself needed its own fuel – that is, resources and labour – to run. And it was Colonialism that provided that to the capitalism driven superpowers and their companies. By taking over the new land, superpowers and their corporations could take over new resources as much as they wanted, get cheaper (or even free) labour in the form of natives or slaves. And ironically, the natives of the colonized land would also provide them with more market. As we have earlier seen in our previous article, most part of both the Americas (the new world for the Europeans) and Asia was eventually colonized by the European superpowers and corporations during the era of exploration. India and islands in the Indies (which is the modern day Indonesia) in particular saw a massive increase in wealth of the Europeans as they were lands directly colonized by the capitalism driven corporations. Indonesia alone contributed for 25 percent of total Dutch budget during the peak colonialism, whereas the British India in a way financed the rise of Britain as the richest country in the world, as India had become the biggest market for Britain. And while Colonialism did see some development of some institutions and infrastructures (like railways in India), it ultimately led to the massive depredation and plundering of the Asian riches. The global GDP contribution of India for example dwindled from 25 percent before the arrival of British Colonizers to 3 percent when they had finally left. 

Although religion too got its screen time during the era of colonialism, as is evident by the role of the missionaries and the spread of Christianity especially in the new world, the eventual waxing influence of money over religion is evident by the eventual triumph of Capitalism driven companies like Dutch East India Company and British East India Company over the monarch-funded-Catholicism-driven Spanish Empires in the long run of Colonialism. 

The first wave of Colonialism led to the rise of many Nation-States, in both the Americas. Just as 1776 had seen the rise of the United States of America, the next few decades saw the rise of several independent Nation-States in Latin America. In that sense, the newly found world, which is usually given space in the last pages of world history, actually pioneered the mass wave of formation of independent Nation-States. Europe itself went through its era of Nation-States formation, as nations like modern day Italy, Germany and Belgium were formed during the mid-1800s. 

But as industrialization was at its influential height, the 1800s saw even more influence of Capitalism, which again meant more Colonies for the European superpowers. European colonies in Asia had extended beyond India and Indonesia, as Britain had further colonized Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Singapore and Malaysia in Asia. And while the Dutch still had their control over Indonesia, France too had established its own colonies in Asia, with its colonies in modern day Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, which was then known as French Indo-China. But it was Africa, the land where the Europeans had first started their exploration, where the most extreme form of money driven Colonialism took place. 

As Africa was a land rich with natural resources like gold, diamond, rubber, and other valuable resources, it was Africa where the Europeans turned to fuel their industrial capitalism. In what is known as the Scramble of Africa, the European nations (Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Italy and Spain) carved out the boundary of Africa according to their own interest, and started the colonization of more than 90 percent of African land. Money was the reason a small country like Belgium eventually colonized a land almost 80 times its size in what was known as Belgian Congo for rubber. Or why Germany, a nation-state that was merely formed for just a few years, hosted a European conference (in Berlin 1884) on how to colonize a complete continent. Africa, a continent that today has the most number of countries, 54, saw all of its countries colonized except for just two, Liberia and Ethiopia. But again, maybe there wouldn’t even be 54 countries if not for its colonization and eventual decolonization. And this event of colonization to decolonization was catalyzed by Wars, which were in turn catalyzed by two phenomena associated with Nation-States: Nationalism and Imperialism. 

Nationalism is a feeling of loyalty and devotion a person feels for his or her nation – often placing primary emphasis on his or her nation’s interests over other nations. As it is normal for people to have attachment to their native land, culture, religion and tradition, people for a long part of history felt loyalty and devotion towards their own land. But just as Nation-States themselves are relatively new constructs, the concept of Nationalism – that feeling of I am a proud Nepali, Italian or a German –  is a relatively new construct too. And while we all love our nation, it is sometimes interesting to look back and wonder on how we got that feeling. For most of us, it is institutions like schools that instill that feeling of nationalism very early on, as we read about the glorious past of our history and our unique aspects in the world. Then there are public displays like statues and monuments of national heroes, and popular cultures like media, movies and national sport teams that further instill, stir and embolden our feeling of nationalism. But there is nothing that stirs the feeling of nationalism than wars. The very willingness to kill or die for a nation, or even some commoner feeling more devotion towards their nations in anything remotely related to wars, highlights the potential effect of wars on stirring nationalism. 

And while it is perfectly normal and necessary to feel love and devotion for one’s country, and that love and devotion might seem innocuous too, nationalism can sometimes turn into jingoism (extreme nationalism that hinges on aggressive warlike sentiments), with the worst form being the idea of perfect homogeneity and purity that often hinges on xenophobia. It was that dangerous cocktail of jingoism and the greed of resources accumulating capitalism, that further propelled the rise of Imperialism (which is basically the practice of extending power and dominion over other countries), which in turn led to the two of the darkest episodes in human history – the two World Wars in the 20th century.  

And as wars often stir that emotion of “us vs them”, both the wars led to the strengthening of the idea of more nations afterwards. Also, wars meant all involved superpowers had to sooner or later lose their colonies, as the losers had to lose their colonies immediately, and winners eventually, as both the wars were too costly even for the victors, is further testament to the fact that there are no actual winners in war at the end. 

While the end of the First World War led to the creation of Nation-States across Europe and the Middle East, it was after the Second World War specially that a flurry of nations gained independence as the weakened superpowers ceded their colonies, in what is known as the decolonization phase. Be it modern day nation-states like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia etc. in Asia, or 52 out of 54 nation-states in Africa, a vast number of Nation-States were formed after the Second World War. Pick a country randomly out of 200 odd countries from the globe, and chances are the country you picked was a result of the aftermath of the World Wars. 

And while decolonization and subsequent foundation of independent states is something to celebrate, there were (and are) plenty of elements to worry about attached to it. Be it the violent partition of India – Pakistan and the still ongoing feud, or the tiff in the Middle east, most of the problems have their root in colonization and decolonization. And the major reasons for the problems are the borders of these newly formed Nation-States. 

While there are all kinds of National borders, borders are usually shaped by natural barriers like sea, rivers, or mountains. As natural barriers play a pivotal role in shaping the evolution of different cultures and ethnicities, it is understandable for natural barriers to serve as borders. Borders, in that sense, evolve, rather than being created overnight, in ideal scenarios. And while border evolution and creation is a broad topic in itself, one can at least understand why borders should not be randomly created, not in the least by some outsiders who have no knowledge whatsoever (or regard) for the place. Except that is exactly what happened largely in the decolonization phase that followed the war.

That artificial drawing of borders has had grave repercussions in many regions across the globe, especially in Africa where it has led to a chain-reaction of problems that persist even today. The Scramble for Africa we talked about above, which was basically few outsiders far across in Europe randomly drawing the borders in Africa out of their self-respect, meant creation of artificial random colonial borders in Africa which largely became Africa’s national borders post decolonization. As the colonial borders had total disregard of the natives that lived there, it meant similar tribes being separated, and different and often competing rival tribes being grouped together, which till today has had a destabilizing effect in Africa, often leading to ethnic tension and violence, and sometimes even ethnic wars. 

So, as we see, we have come a long way in the past 200 odd years, and this journey from the completion of the land pieces on map to the filling up of 200 odd countries has been a rather tumultuous one. Amidst colonization, nation-states formation, decolonization, more nation-states formation, and two World Wars, we have reached a world where we have distinct nation-states, distinct national identities, distinct borders (although not everywhere) and a seemingly stable structure. So this stability also gives us a feeling that maybe we have reached the saturation level in the global structure in the form of stable Nation-States. 

Maybe we have. Maybe we haven’t. One thing we learn from history is that changes are inevitable and the changes also often take gradual steps. Therefore, it is interesting to ruminate on what possible changes could happen in future regarding the structure of Nation-States, our third fictional character. And even more interesting to think upon how our main two characters – religion and money – could impact the change in structure of our third character.  After all, these characters – as fictional as they are – make and shape our world. 

So, in our final chapter, we talk about the future of Nation-States, and the potential role money and religion could play in that change, some of which are already happening right in front of our eyes. 

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