Perhaps the easiest way to understand why colonialism was so horrific is to imagine it happening in your own country now. It is invaded, conquered, and occupied by a foreign power. Existing governing institutions are dismantled and replaced by absolute rule of the colonizers. A strict hierarchy separates the colonized and the colonizer; you are treated as an inconvenient subhuman who can be abused at will. The colonists commit crimes with impunity against your people. Efforts at resistance are met with brutal reprisal, sometimes massacre. The more vividly and accurately you manage to conjure what this scenario would actually look like, the more horrified you will be by the very idea of colonialism.
One would think this revulsion was now universally shared. But that is far from being the case. The majority of British people are still proud of colonialism and the British Empire. Americans continue to show an almost total indifference to the lasting poverty and devastation inflicted on the country’s indigenous population. Being pro-colonial is no bar to success in academia; Harvard historian Niall Ferguson has long defended the British Empire as a force for good in the world. And now, Princeton PhD and Portland State University professor Bruce Gilley has published an unapologetic “Case for Colonialism” in Third World Quarterly, a respected academic journal.
Gilley’s article takes a very clear stance: not only was colonialism a force for good in the world, but anti-colonial sentiment is “preposterous.” What’s more, Gilley says, we need a new program of colonization, with Western powers taking over the governing functions of less developed countries. Gilley says he intends to overturn or revise three lines of criticism directed against colonialism: “that it was objectively harmful (rather than beneficial),” “that it was subjectively illegitimate (rather than legitimate),” and “that it offends the sensibilities of contemporary society.” Thus he is not just concerned to prove that colonialism was good and should be revived. He also wants to prove that it was “legitimate,” i.e. that there is nothing inherently unjust about invading and dominating a people.
Gilley’s article is a truly extraordinary piece of work. It’s hard to believe, at first, that it isn’t a Sokal-esque satire intended to prove how normalized abhorrent opinions are. But it appears to be sincere. And because it appeared in a mainstream journal, and the sentiments it expresses are somewhat common, it’s worth responding to the case Gilley makes.
Gilley’s argument is, roughly: opposition to colonialism is reflexive rather than reasoned. This has caused terrible consequences, because postcolonial governments have hurt their people by attempting to destroy beneficial colonial institutions. The “civilizing mission” of colonialism was valuable and had a positive effect. Colonialism was legitimate because it helped people and many populations were willing to tolerate it. Anti-colonial arguments are often incoherent, blaming colonial governments for all ills rather than examining what would have occurred in the absence of those governments. And colonialism should cease to be a dirty word; in fact, it should be re-instituted, because many developing countries are incapable of self-government. Gilley’s article is brief, so he does not elaborate much on each of these points. But the thrust of the article is that a commitment to factual rigor requires an unbiased assessment of colonialism, and that such an assessment will reveal colonialism to be a good thing for the colonized. Anti-colonialism is a destructive and irrational “ideology” that should be abandoned.
I suppose to those unfamiliar with the history, Gilley’s argument could appear superficially persuasive. But a moment’s examination of the record reveals why the case he makes is abhorrent. Gilley says he is simply asking for an unbiased assessment of the facts, that he just wants us to take off our ideological blinders and examine colonialism from an empirical perspective. But this is not what he has done. Instead, in his presentation of colonialism’s record, Gilley has deliberately excluded mention of every single atrocity committed by a colonial power. Instead of evaluating the colonial record empirically, he has distorted that record, concealing evidence of gross crimes against humanity. The result is not only unscholarly, but is morally tantamount to Holocaust denial.
First, Gilley says he is making a “case for colonialism,” to rescue Western colonial history’s “bad name.” But he restricts his examination to “the early nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries.” He does so because if he were to include the first 300 years of Western colonialism (i.e. the majority), it would be almost impossible to mount any kind of case that the endeavor benefited indigenous populations. The civilizations of the Americas were exterminated by colonialism, through disease, displacement, resource depletion, one-sided warfare, and outright massacre, and their populations suffered a “catastrophic collapse.” Since it is impossible to spin this as benefiting the inhabitants, Gilley avoids mentioning that it even happened. This, in itself, in an article defending “colonialism,” should sufficiently prove that Gilley is unwilling to consider evidence that contradicts his case, by discussing “colonialism” generally while selecting only the cases in which native populations were not extinguished.
Next, Gilley’s method of defending colonialism is through “cost-benefit analysis,” in which the harms of colonialism are weighed against the “improvements in living conditions” and better governance. (Gilley even proposes “greater business confidence” as a potential benefit of a neo-colonial project.) He quotes his standard of measurement:
[I]n times and places where colonial rule had, on balance, a positive effect on training for self-government, material well-being, labor allocation choices, individual upward mobility, cross-cultural communication, and human dignity, compared to the situation that would likely have obtained absent European rule, then the case for colonialism is strong. Conversely, in times and places where the effects of foreign rule in these respects were, on balance, negative compared to a territory’s likely alternative past, then colonialism is morally indefensible
We should observe here that this is a terrible way of evaluating colonialism. It is favored by colonialism’s apologists because it means that truly unspeakable harms can simply be “outweighed” and thereby trivialized. We can see quickly how ludicrous this is: “Yes, we may have indiscriminately massacred 500 children, but we also opened a clinic that vaccinated enough children to save 501 lives, therefore ‘the case for colonialism is strong.’” We don’t allow murderers to produce defenses like this, for good reason: you can’t get away with saying “Yes, I killed my wife, but I’m also a fireman.” We must also be careful about using hypothetical counterfactuals: examining whether colonialism is “better than what would have happened in its absence.” I’m reading Great Expectations at the moment, and so I’ll call this the “Pip’s sister defense”: Pip’s sister justifies her cruelty and physical abuse by constantly reminding Pip that if it were not for her, he would be in an even worse situation. It’s an argument frequently deployed by abusive and exploitative individuals in order to justify their acts. And the point is that whether or not it’s true is immaterial to the evaluation of the person’s crimes. Gilley and other colonial apologists, like the husband telling his wife that while she may not like being hit, she should remember who provides for her, try to exonerate colonial powers by suggesting that enough economic growth could somehow make a “strong case for colonialism” even if there had been constant mass rape and torture. (By the way, I think even committed opponents of colonialism may sometimes fall into this trap. They may feel as if it is necessary to deny that colonialism ever brought any benefits—which, as Gilley points out, even Chinua Achebe doesn’t think. Instead, it’s important to point out that building power lines and opening a school doesn’t provide one with a license to rob and murder people. Furthermore, nobody should be surprised if performance on certain economic and political metrics did end up declining in the postcolonial era, since reconstructing a functioning country after decades or centuries of subjugation is… not easily done.)
But even if we assume that “cost-benefit” analysis is the correct way to examine colonialism, Gilley has to distort the evidence in order to prove his case. For example, Gilley cites the fact that “since gaining independence, Congo has never had at its disposal an army comparable in efficiency and discipline” to that it had under the Belgians, commenting that “Maybe the Belgians should come back.” If one knows anything about the history of the Belgian Congo, one knows that this statement is equivalent to saying “Maybe the Confederacy should come back” to the American South. Belgian King Leopold created possibly the most infamous colonial regime in history. Contemporaries called it “legalized robbery enforced by violence,” and Leopold “turned his ‘Congo Free State’ into a massive labour camp, made a fortune for himself from the harvest of its wild rubber, and contributed in a large way to the death of perhaps 10 million innocent people.” Belgian rule in the Congo was a reign of terror that scandalized the world:
Much of the death toll was the result of killing, pure and simple. Villages were dragooned into tapping rubber, and if they refused to comply, or complied but failed to meet European quotas, they were punished. The hands of dead Congolese were severed and kept by militias to account to their quartermasters for spent ammunition. And, as Morel said, the practice of mutilation was extended to the living. By far the greatest number of deaths, however, were caused by sickness and starvation. The effect of the terror was to drive communities from their sources of food.
Below is one of the most disturbing pictures I have ever seen (WARNING), taken by English missionary and journalist Alice Seeley Harris, who exposed the Belgian abuses. It depicts a man looking at the severed hand and foot of his murdered daughter, who had been killed after the man failed to meet his daily rubber harvesting quotient:
It is shocking that Gilley could discuss Belgian colonialism without so much as mentioning any of this in his “cost-benefit” analysis. But then, despite promising to weigh negatives against positives, he doesn’t really discuss any negatives. He says British suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya was better than the alternative, but doesn’t discuss what it involved, namely mass detention and human rights abuse. Kenyans were “put in camps where they were subject to severe torture, malnutrition, beatings. The women were sexually assaulted. Two of the men were castrated. The most severe gruesome torture you could imagine.” Gilley doesn’t deal with or refute this, he simply writes all allegations off as “scolding.” (Even Niall Ferguson admits that “When imperial authority was challenged… the British response was brutal.) Likewise unmentioned is what happened in India under British rule: the horrific Amritsar massacre, the mass famines that killed millions, and the horrors of the partition. French crimes in Algeria: unmentioned. German genocide in Namibia: unmentioned. Heck, Gilley doesn’t even mention racism, or the various psychological wounds inflicted on colonized people by a dehumanizing ideology (as explained by Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and Albert Memmi, all of whom… also go unmentioned.) One of the cruelest aspects of colonialism is the way it forces the colonized into servility and obedience, yet this doesn’t even count as a “cost.”
In “Shooting an Elephant,” while conceding the prejudices he had developed against the Burmese, George Orwell expressed the revulsion that he felt about participating in the colonial project:
I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos — all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.
I say, then, that Gilley’s article is “morally tantamount to Holocaust denial” because if you say you are performing a cost-benefit analysis of colonialism, and you ignore colonial atrocities, you are fabricating history. Gilley says that anti-colonialism is just leftist ideology, that it doesn’t take account of the facts, but it’s his article that depicts a factually false version of colonial history, one in which colonists acted out of benevolent and civilizing motives, and primarily devoted themselves to opening schools and hospitals, and imposing efficient government. The worst he will say about colonialism is that it was “not an unalloyed good.”
The portions of Gilley’s article alleging that colonialism was “legitimate” adopt reasoning that cannot possibly be taken seriously. Gilley says that “alien rule has often been legitimate in world history because it has provided better governance than the indigenous alternative.” If this logic were accepted, anyone could establish totalitarian rule over anyone else if they could “govern them better than they can govern themselves”; Gilley doesn’t provide any reason why we should accept that theory, he just says it. Gilley also says colonized populations engaged in “relatively voluntary acts” like “send[ing] their children to colonial schools and hospitals” and “fight[ing] for colonial armies” that legitimized the enterprise, and that “the rapid spread and persistence of Western colonialism with very little force relative to the populations and areas concerned is prima facie evidence of its acceptance by subject populations compared to the feasible alternatives.” Somehow, obtaining compliance from an indigenous population means obtaining legitimacy, which is like saying that a man with a gun to his head has voluntarily decided to give you his wallet. As evidence that colonizers were not attempting to pillage the colonized, he says “Despite cries of ‘exploitation’, colonialism was probably a money loser for imperial powers,” reasoning that would lead us to believe that if a company loses money it must not be seeking profit.
I go into this level of detail because I think it’s crucial to show that Gilley’s article is not a serious work of scholarship. I think the gut reaction of many people will be that Gilley’s arguments are “self-evidently” absurd. But apparently this is not the case, because the Third World Quarterly chose to publish them. I don’t know why they made that decision; frankly, it’s very strange. The board of TWQ is stocked with anticolonial lefties like Vijay Prashad and Noam Chomsky, and while Prashad has said that they didn’t see the article before publication (and threatened to resign if it’s not retracted), it’s odd that the editors themselves thought an essay suggesting that the Belgians should recolonize the Congo was a useful contribution to scholarly discourse.
But while TWQ’s motives remain inscrutable, I suspect I understand Gilley’s. This article does not read as if it is attempting to be taken seriously. Its tone toward critics of colonialism is polemical and mocking (these scholars have a “metropolitan flaneur culture of attitude and performance”). Gilley must intend to provoke people to rage: postcolonial countries should be like Britain, which “embraced and celebrated its colonisers”; anticolonial thought was about “advocacy” rather than “accuracy”; colonialism was not just legitimate but “highly legitimate”; and we should “build new Western colonies from scratch” and “colonial states should be paid for their services” by the colonized.
I expect Gilley wants the following to happen: people will be outraged. They will call for the article to be retracted. Then, Gilley will complain of censorship, and argue that lefties don’t care about the facts, and that his points has been proved by the fact that they’d rather try to have his article purged than have to refute its claims. This is a dynamic that has occurred many, many times. It’s what Milo Yiannopoulos did: he would say things that were truly upsetting and outrageous (including bullying and mocking individual students), then when people got upset and outraged and tried to shut him down, he would complain that “SJWs” were trying to censor him because they can’t deal with facts and arguments. The same thing happened when conservative law professors recently published an op-ed blaming the “rap culture of inner-city blacks” for cultural decline, with one of them lauding the “superiority” of white European culture. People got upset, for obvious reasons, and students objected to having to be taught by a white supremacist. But when one of the professors went on FOX News, he declared that “there were no allegations that anything we said was incorrect.” (There were plenty of such allegations.)
It’s a predictable pattern: A conservative publishes something that is both factually duplicitous and morally heinous. The liberal reaction focuses on the moral heinousness. The conservative says that the liberal doesn’t care about facts. I have a sneaking fear that Bruce Gilley is going to end up on Tucker Carlson’s show, whining that the left wants his article retracted because they refuse to confront the true facts of colonialism and because they are biased against white Europeans.
And so I’m worried about how the response to this article may play out. I am not signing the petition to have it retracted, because I believe that the journal shouldn’t retract it simply because there was public pressure. I am also very concerned that this could be a PR coup for the right, as so many of these things are. It’s tough, of course, because for the reasons I’ve outlined above, the article shouldn’t have been published. Gilley did not meet the standards that should be expected of an academic. He falsified history. When evaluated by a fair standard, he has not upheld the honesty and rigor that should be expected of someone in his position, and the article is a factual disgrace as well as a moral one. But it would be very easy to fall into a certain predictable trap, where the left calls Bruce Gilley a racist, and Gilley declares that they simply can’t handle the truth. And while I’m sympathetic to the argument that we should avoid that by Not Even Addressing Such Rubbish, bad arguments fester when they go unaddressed. (This is why I put myself through the ordeal of reading The Bell Curve.)
I think, then, that all responses to this article should be rigorous and careful. I think everyone should try to read the full thing, to know what Gilley argues and what he doesn’t argue. And we must repeatedly emphasize that the reason Gilley’s piece is so wretched is not just because it advocates something that contradicts our sense of justice, but because he has deliberately produced a false version of history. I am sick and tired of people on the right saying those of us on the left simply Can’t Respond To Their Arguments. I’ve read their arguments, and they’re bad.