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  • The Urbanization of Empire:Megacities and the Laws of Chaos
  • Mike Davis (bio)

The Old Imperialism

The great colonial empires of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were, of course, brutal engines for the extraction of rents, crops, and minerals from tropical countrysides. Colonial cities and entrepôts, although often vast, sprawling, and dynamic, were demographically rather insignificant.

The urban populations of the British, French, Belgian, and Dutch empires at their Edwardian zenith probably didn't exceed 3 to 5 percent of colonized humanity. The same ratios generally prevailed in the cases of the decayed Spanish and Portuguese empires, as well as in the conquests of nouveaux riches like Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States. Although there were some important exceptions—for example, Ireland, Cuba, Algeria, Palestine, and South Africa (after 1910)—even in these cases, city dwellers were rarely more than one-sixth of the population.

Nor were colonial cities the most important centers of native resistance. It might have been expected that the ports and administrative centers, with their extreme inequalities, their concentrations of indigenous intellectuals, and their embryonic labor movements, would have been the principal incubators of revolutionary nationalism. In many cases, in fact, the urban milieu was the decisive progenitor of nationalist and anticolonial theory. But the colonial city was only episodically, and usually very briefly, the actual theater of violent revolt.

Indeed, it is striking how few repressive resources, especially European troops, were needed to control large colonial cities like Cairo, Havana, Bombay, Manila, or even Dublin. In part this was because of the existence of large comprador middle classes, whose nationalism, if it existed, usually took cautious, incremental, and nonviolent forms. But many of the urban poor were also integrated, as servants, soldiers, prostitutes, and petty traders, into the parasitic ecology of the colonial metropolis. In Dublin in 1916, the slum poor jeered the survivors of the Easter Rebellion as they were led away to British prisons.

The sustainable zones of anticolonial resistance were in the countrysides, and the recurrent pattern of modern national liberation movements [End Page 9] —as far back, even, as the North American and Irish revolutions of the late eighteenth century—were the flight of urban revolutionary avant-gardes to rural redoubts with durably anchored traditions of revolt.

Thus Cuban nationalists both in the 1860s and 1950s abandoned the cities for the rebel sierras of eastern Cuba; urban Arab nationalists took refuge in the Rif or the villages of Upper Egypt; Sinn Fein fled Dublin and Cork for the Wicklow and Galty hills; Gandhi turned to the great soul of the Indian countryside; Emilio Aguinaldo retreated to the rugged mountainsides of Luzon; and the young Communist parties of China, Vietnam, and Indonesia all made their long marches from the cities to remote rural fortresses.

For pre-1940 empires, therefore, social control was largely a problem of rural counterinsurgency. The classic Victorian response was the punitive expedition that sought not only to reduce rebellion in the field but to devastate its subsistence base: thus the Seventh Cavalry exterminating Plains bison, German troops decimating the herds of the Herero, French marines destroying the rice stores of Tonkin, and so on.

But the work of imperial armies was usually incomplete. In the 1890s the Spanish general Weyler sought a more radical solution. He attempted to drain the rural reservoirs of insurgent strength in eastern Cuba by concentrating the population in fetid camps. The "empty" countryside then became a shoot-on-sight killing field without discrimination as to target. Concentration camps and free-fire zones were soon adopted, with even deadlier results, by the British in the Transvaal, the Americans in the Visayas, and the Germans in Southwest Africa.

In 1919-20, faced with the escalating costs of occupying Mesopotamia, Air Minister (and soon, Colonial Minister) Winston Churchill invented a third strategy for coercing the countryside. He became the chief apostle of using airpower, supplemented by flying columns of armored cars, against rural centers of revolt.

As interpreted by its Royal Air Force innovators, air control was as much about creating mass terror as hitting specific targets. During the next decade, the RAF routinely bombed and strafed rural insurgents in Mesopotamia, Afghanistan, Somalia...