In a previous blog post, “The Problem with Africa,” I mentioned that I didn’t think blaming colonialism on all of Africa’s problems was valid. I said it “smacked of racism” and was “lazy.” It’s time to explain what I mean by that. Although colonialism is a thing of the past, it had pervasive effects on the world that continue to shape international relations, so it’s worth going into on this blog.

Too often, the long history of colonialism is dismissed as a period of aggressive white racism and power-mad imperialism, a benighted era in Earth’s history when a small batch of powerful men in a corner of the world thought they had the God-given right to take over everything. It’s considered exploitative, destructive, and even foolish, because the colonialists were far outnumbered by the colonized. The liberation movements from colonialism are lionized as steps in the right direction heralding a new, more hopeful era of more equitable power arrangements.

I think this does colonialism a great disservice and distorts the historical record. It’s mostly the product of the great academic revamping of the 1960s that restored non-white voices to the discourse and opened up the study of history to the non-white majority of the world. Although I’m all for this change — focusing only on what white people did, even in those parts of the world with rich histories of their own, is narrow-minded and probably racist — going so far as to paint all of colonialism as an oppressive, exploitative system that ruined everything is a crude oversimplification. History is more complex than that, and it deserves a more nuanced analysis.

The fact is that colonialism did a lot of good. The first and most obvious benefit is probably infrastructure. Europeans developed much of the world, even in challenging environments. Roads were built through jungles, railroads tunneled through mountains. Ports were built in strategically vital places like Singapore to conduct global trade. Telegraph and then telephone lines were stretched far into the interiors of continents. Roads were paved, buildings were built, cities sprang up where there were none. Power and sewage systems were introduced. Bridges spanned rivers. In probably the most dramatic example, canals in Panama and Egypt shortened travel times (although these weren’t actually built by colonists).

The modern global economy dates to the colonial era. Global trade existed before — think of the Silk Road across Asia, or the camel caravans crossing the Sahara Desert — but Europeans bound the world together in a complex trade network. This goes back to the first wave of colonization in the 14 and 1500s, when Spain and especially Portugal set up trading posts all over the world and began tapping into foreign economies. A big driver of the last wave of colonization was a quest for markets overseas; thanks to colonization, Indians, Africans and Chinese could buy Europe’s manufactured goods and sell their products on a global market. Many of the trade links that define the world today date back to this era.

Another important feature of colonialism was “the rule of law.” Europeans imposed their legal systems and notions of rights and due process all around the world. This led to huge cultural clashes, and Europeans would enforce their idea of what was right, natives be damned. But it helped get rid of some cultural practices that are usually considered barbaric today. Slavery was a big one, although of course Europeans practiced it too, at first. Human sacrifice and cannibalism was another. The traditional Hindu practice of sati, when widows burned themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres, was abolished by British edict; Europeans were horrified by the old Chinese custom of foot-binding, prompting Chinese to think of it differently. And although legal systems existed in the colonies before the Europeans arrived, European practices were often more “liberal” — that is, they championed individual rights, free speech, equality, and opportunity.

It’s also important to remember that European rule wasn’t always oppressive and omnipotent. In many colonies, Europeans were clustered in cities or coastal areas. Out in the villages and the interior, European influence could barely be felt. Most Africans never saw a European in their daily lives; Spanish colonists in the Philippines blended into the local population and spoke local languages. In India, the British protected the ancient Hindu code (which is mostly considered very illiberal by today’s standards) and kept numerous Indian princes and landowners intact. Local rulers were often left alone if they proved too troublesome to conquer or allied with the colonists; examples include the emperor of Vietnam, the chief of Buganda in Uganda, and the sultan of Sokoto in Nigeria.

And then there’s the cultural aspect of it. Colonialism blended cultures in a fascinating way, especially in the trading hubs that it operated from. The architecture of colonialism is an indelible part of the world’s heritage, and beautifies cities from Peru to Tanzania, from South Africa to Malaysia, from Algeria to India. French, Spanish, Portuguese, and above all, English were spread around the world and helped link together widely diverse and scattered peoples. The clash of cultures that came when white people lived with races of completely different backgrounds produced great literature, music, and ways of life. Places like Trinidad and Tobago or Mauritius, where Indians, blacks, Europeans, Chinese and Arabs are all mixed together, wouldn’t exist.

Europeans didn’t always set out to oppress and exploit the natives either. A big factor behind colonialism was simple curiosity and a spirit of adventure — white men wanted to see what was beyond the horizon, over that distant ridge, on the other side of the vast desert. A spirit of exploration and adventure animated the whole enterprise. Many colonists were genuinely interested in the natives they came across, learned their language, and documented their traditions. A great deal of the information out there on pre-colonial societies comes from early European explorers, traders or missionaries reporting on what they found. Some Europeans even admired the places they visited; Chinese and Indian civilization was especially awe-inspiring, and discoveries of ancient American and African ruins stimulated awe and respect for the people who built them. And Europeans would often step in and criticize each other when they realized the brutality of their own system: Bartolomé de las Casas in the Caribbean and Multatuli in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) are 2 great examples.

Despite the title, I’m not trying to argue that colonialism was necessarily a great thing for the world. On the contrary, it did a lot of harm as well. (I’m not trying to call all those liberal academics and non-whites liars.) The economic systems colonizers constructed were preeetty lopsided, and tilted in a way to funnel as many resources from the colonies into the mother country as possible. Only a relatively small elite in the colonies could afford the goods from Europe the colonizers brought; most of the locals were kept poor, ill-educated, and overworked. Any analysis of the oodles of post-colonial conflicts will turn up some stupid, short-sighted colonial arrangement that fell apart once the colonists left; the Anglo-French division of the Ottoman Empire after World War I is a classic example. Most borders in Africa don’t make a lot of sense.

The worst, most noxious, most repulsive legacy of colonialism, and the main reason why it’s so despised in hindsight, is that it was built on racism. Colonialism was the ultimate expression of white supremacy: it amounted to white people taking over the world. Colonizers rationalized their empires by claiming that everyone else was beneath them and needed to be taught how to do everything. The legal systems I extolled earlier weren’t usually applied fairly. Barriers between the races, either official or informal, kept the people who actually lived there from the higher living standards of the Europeans. In the worst cases, like in the US and the Caribbean, the locals were simply killed or exiled, usually with the help of diseases. Colonists never stopped reminding their subjects that their rule rested on force, and colonial history is littered with incidents like the massacre in Amritsr in 1919, the incident in Denshaway in 1906, the bloody conquest of Tenochtitlan in 1521.

The upside of all this is that Europeans left a powerful legacy in their colonies to inspire the locals. After a few generations, the local elite could read the Europeans’ books and learn about the rights of man, the revolutions in Europe, the struggle against slavery, and the empowering gospel of Christianity. They could see how revolutionary capitalism, technology, and weaponry were. They came to appreciate democracy and the European legal system. They realized how much railroads, post, and shipping had transformed their countries for the better. That meant that not only could that elite use the Europeans’ doctrines against them, but that once the overlords had been tossed out, they could build off of the Europeans’ system rather than start all over.

Colonialism is a natural process. Some countries are big countries and others are small countries and that is a fact (to quote China’s former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi). Before the modern era, Greeks and Phoenicians set up colonies around the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Ambitious Indian princes would sail across the Bay of Bengal to set up colonies in Southeast Asia. It’s just another form of imperialism, which happened all the time in world history. It was as inevitable as any other process in world history — Europe was swollen with power, advanced technology, a booming economy, and restless young people at the time, and very few other countries could stand against it. The ravages of the world wars reduced this disparity and the power imbalance evened out. But there’s a (dim) possibility that colonialism could return, especially if a certain country grows swollen with power without any serious rivals in the neighborhood. China’s recent interest in Africa has provoked fears that a new colonialism could be coming.

I’m not in favor of it. Colonialism is racist and condescending and mostly imposes one culture’s values on another’s. But it’s important to remember that it had a lot of benefits as well. Think of how many wars broke out after colonies declared independence compared to before. Think of how dismal the living standards in many former colonies are. Think of what the human rights situations in much of the world were like before colonization. All I want is for teachers to take a balanced, clear-eyed look at colonialism. Some colonies were mostly good; some colonies were mostly bad. All in all, it was a little bit of both.


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