Colonialism Was a Disaster and Historical Facts Prove It
27 Sep 2017 – Recently an academic article, asserting the historical benefits of colonialism, created an outcry and a petition with over 10, 000 signatures calling for its removal.
The Case for Colonialism, published in Third World Quarterly by Bruce Gilley, argues Western colonialism was both “objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate” in most places where it existed.
Gilley, an associate professor of political science at Portland State University, claims the solution to poverty and economic underdevelopment in parts of the Global South is to reclaim “colonial modes of governance; by recolonizing some areas; and by creating new Western colonies from scratch.”
Understandably, the article faces widespread criticism for whitewashing a horrific history of human rights abuses. Current Affairs compared Gilley’s distortion of history to Holocaust denial.
Last week, after many on the journal’s editorial board resigned, the author issued a public apology for the “pain and anger” his article may have caused.
Whether the article is ultimately retracted or not, its wide circulation necessitates that its claims be held up to careful historical scrutiny. As well, in light of current public debates on censorship and free speech versus hate speech, this is a discussion well worth having. Although this debate may seem as though it is merely academic, nothing could be further from the truth.
Although it may seem colonialist views are far behind us, a 2014 YouGov poll revealed 59 per cent of British people view the British Empire as “something to be proud of.” Those proud of their colonial history outnumber critics of the Empire three to one. Similarly, 49 per cent believe the Empire benefited its former colonies.
Such views, often tied to nostalgia for old imperial glory, can help shape the foreign and domestic policies of Western countries.
Gilley has helped to justify these views by getting his opinions published in a peer review journal. In his article, Gilley attempts to provide evidence which proves colonialism was objectively beneficial to the colonized. He says historians are simply too politically correct to admit colonialism’s benefits.
In fact, the opposite is true. In the overwhelming majority of cases, empirical research clearly provides the facts to prove colonialism inflicted grave political, psychological and economic harms on the colonized.
It takes a highly selective misreading of the evidence to claim that colonialism was anything other than a humanitarian disaster for most of the colonized. The publication of Gilley’s article — despite the evidence of facts — calls into question the peer review process and academic standards of The Third World Quarterly.
Colonialism in India
As the largest colony of the world’s largest imperial power, India is often cited by apologists for the British Empire as an example of “successful” colonialism. Actually, India provides a much more convincing case study for rebutting Gilley’s argument.
With a population of over 1.3 billion and an economy predicted to become the world’s third-largest by 2030, India is a modern day powerhouse. While many attribute this to British colonial rule, a look at the facts says otherwise.
From 1757 to 1947, the entire period of British rule, there was no increase in per capita income within the Indian subcontinent. This is a striking fact, given that, historically speaking, the Indian subcontinent was traditionally one of the wealthiest parts of the world.
As proven by the macroeconomic studies of experts such as K.N. Chaudhuri, India and China were central to an expansive world economy long before the first European traders managed to circumnavigate the African cape.
During the heyday of British rule, or the British Raj, from 1872 to 1921, Indian life expectancy dropped by a stunning 20 per cent. By contrast, during the 70 years since independence, Indian life expectancy has increased by approximately 66 per cent, or 27 years. A comparable increase of 65 per cent can also be observed in Pakistan, which was once part of British India.
Although many cite India’s extensive rail network as a positive legacy of British colonialism, it is important to note the railroad was built with the express purpose of transporting colonial troops inland to quell revolt. And to transport food out of productive regions for export, even in times of famine.
This explains the fact that during the devastating famines of 1876-1879 and 1896-1902 in which 12 to 30 million Indians starved to death, mortality rates were highest in areas serviced by British rail lines.
Colonialism did not benefit the colonized
India’s experience is highly relevant for assessing the impact of colonialism, but it does not stand alone as the only example to refute Gilley’s assertions. Gilley argues current poverty and instability within the Democratic Republic of the Congo proves the Congolese were better off under Belgian rule. The evidence says otherwise.
Since independence in 1960, life expectancy in the Congo has climbed steadily, from around 41 years on the eve of independence to 59 in 2015. This figure remains low compared to most other countries in the world. Nonetheless, it is high compared to what it was under Belgian rule.
Under colonial rule, the Congolese population declined by estimates ranging from three million to 13 million between 1885 and 1908 due to widespread disease, a coercive labour regime and endemic brutality.
Gilley argues the benefits of colonialism can be observed by comparing former colonies to countries with no significant colonial history. Yet his examples of the latter erroneously include Haiti (a French colony from 1697 to 1804), Libya (a direct colony of the Ottoman Empire from 1835 and of Italy from 1911), and Guatemala (occupied by Spain from 1524 to 1821).
By contrast, he neglects to mention Japan, a country that legitimately was never colonized and now boasts the third largest GDP on the planet, as well as Turkey, which up until recently was widely viewed as the most successful secular country in the Muslim world.
These counter-examples disprove Gilley’s central thesis that non-Western countries are by definition incapable of reaching modernity without Western “guidance.”
In short, the facts are in, but they do not paint the picture that Gilley and other imperial apologists would like to claim. Colonialism left deep scars on the Global South and for those genuinely interested in the welfare of non-Western countries, the first step is acknowledging this.
Joseph McQuade – SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for South Asian Studies, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.
Republish The Conversation articles for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons license.
DISCLAIMER: The statements, views and opinions expressed in pieces republished here are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of TMS. In accordance with title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. TMS has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is TMS endorsed or sponsored by the originator. “GO TO ORIGINAL” links are provided as a convenience to our readers and allow for verification of authenticity. However, as originating pages are often updated by their originating host sites, the versions posted may not match the versions our readers view when clicking the “GO TO ORIGINAL” links. This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.
Click here to go to the current weekly digest or pick another article:
- Voices Are Raised Against the NBA Launching Its New African League in Rwanda
- In the Shadow and Shade of Apartheid in South Africa: Post-Liberation Impact on the Rainbow Nation
- A Locust Plague Hit East Africa--The Pesticide Solution May Have Dire Consequences
- United States Withdraws from Afghanistan? Not Really!
- The “Kill a Leftist” Law
- Can Guantánamo Ever Be Shut Down?
- Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan Pick Up 600 More Acres in Hawaii
- The Plight of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Australia
- Analysis--Burma/Myanmar Today
- Are We as Area Studies Scholars Guilty of Negligence in Allowing Genocides to Happen in the Regions We Study?
- Nepal: Inaugural Issue of “Social Inquiry” Published
- Yi Jing - I Ching 易經 — The Book of Changes
- Can the Pope End Corruption?
- Rights Experts Condemn UK Racism Report Attempting to ‘Normalize White Supremacy’
- Collateral Crucifixion – Pressuring for Julian Assange’s Release!
LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN:
- How Venezuela Is Rebuilding Its Industrial Base, One Volunteer at a Time
- Raul Castro Steps Down as Head of Communist Party Ending an Era in Cuba
- Colombia: An Ideal U.S. Client-State in the Western Hemisphere
MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA:
- Iran Welcomes Signs of Reconciliation from Saudi Arabia
- Israel’s Attacks on Iran Are Not Working
- The Middle East: Geopolitical Battleground
PALESTINE - ISRAEL:
- Israeli Man Trying to Take Over Palestinian Home Says 'If I Don't Steal It, Someone Else' Will
- Israeli Apartheid and Palestine Grievances
- Israel Is Trying Hard to Erase Jerusalem’s Palestinians
- How We Can Place the Wellbeing Economy at the Heart of Our Cities
- The Circular Economy: What Is It, Why Is It Important and How Can We Embrace It?
- Listen to the Poets