British rule was the particular forcing house in which East Africa faced its trial by modernization, a process by which state power and capitalism have transformed societies the world over. Many have suffered, many have benefited by it. Rulers of modern states can use their unprecedented power to commandeer their subjects' blood and treasure and, if unchecked, their labour and their liberties. By widening markets beyond local control, capitalism has twisted moral economies of obligation and devalued statuses and skills. Yet modernity has also created unequalled opportunity, unequally shared, for social mobility, for collective solutions to natural disasters, for the access of the literate to new ideas, for the broader enjoyment of useful goods during longer lifetimes. Did British rule make these experiences more or less arduous or productive, more divisive or more widely liberating, than would any other regime, local or foreign?
The question grows no less insistent as more time passes since colonial rule ended in the 1960s, six decades after the first tax collections marked its effective birth. Independence has not delivered the growing welfare which, perhaps unrealistically, it was once hoped to bring. There is, however, no easy answer. Modernity was bound to be a harsh ordeal for East Africans, who came late to the world's market-place, with few resources, working old, eroded soils with simple tools. The colonial past must, none the less, bear some responsibility for failure. If empire was a necessary lesson in capitalism, it came too late to East Africa for Britain to be its best tutor. Before 1914 the British Empire was the world's pioneer development agency, with London the cheapest supplier of capital to apprentice producers and the best market for their primary products, but for East Africans the British were little more than recent conquerors. After the Great War, the Empire turned into a prop against Britain's decline; East Africa's high colonial period thus coincided with the least creative, most exploitative, era of British overseas rule. But there was no indigenous power to take command of change, unlike Meiji Japan; nineteenth-century East Africans, before colonial rule, had suffered political disintegration more often than they had forged wider alliances in face of economic