Did Colonialism Impoverish Africa and Asia? Perhaps Not
Revisiting the legacies of colonialism to indict Western imperialism has become a fashionable pastime for leading academics. Many argue that colonialism erected permanent roadblocks to thwart the progress of ex-colonies. Western colonialism is so vilified that any attempt to present a balanced overview is deemed improper. Bruce Gilley’s controversial essay, “The Case for Colonialism,” spawned a firestorm of criticisms that led the journal, Third World Quarterly, to retract the piece.
Gilley sought to demonstrate that in several cases, colonialism brought positive benefits, and he even suggested that some places would prosper if they were recolonized. Recolonizing independent territories is fraught with tension and seems impractical, but Gilley is correct in pointing out that colonialism led to some favorable outcomes. More recently, he published the book, In Defense of German Colonialism, and his intellectual ally, Nigel Biggar, released Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning to offer an objective appraisal of the British Empire.
Gilley and Biggar are charting a new course so that critics and defenders of Western imperialism can engage in an evidence-oriented debate. Because the debate is so emotionally charged, consumers are fed empty platitudes and anecdotes rather than empirical data. Politically correct academics and their minions might find the idea of foreign rule troubling, but that is an irrelevant footnote. On the other hand, libertarians view colonialism as a violation of sovereignty, and this assumption is accurate for those who oppose foreign rule.
It is undeniable that European countries presided over atrocities in former colonies; however this does not make the European brand of colonialism more morally repugnant than its Islamic or African counterparts. Frequently, the imperial history of non-European powers is omitted from the debate. Hence people are led to think that colonialism was strictly a Western project. Therefore, because Western colonialism is rarely compared to other versions of colonialism, we cannot say that it was exceptional in benevolence or cruelty.
However, researchers have amassed anecdotes and empirical data revealing positive outcomes of Western colonialism. For a long time in academia, the consensus was that on average Western colonialism was a favorable event, but then this course was reversed by the revolutionary politics of the 1960s and ’70s. Today, colonialism is blamed for every conceivable ill in the developing world from poverty to environmental degradation.
Bashing Western colonialism imbues speakers with moral status, but anecdotes and empirical evidence contradict their arguments. Deepak Lal opens his lecture defending empires with an 1881 letter from African kings to British Prime Minister William Gladstone requesting that he restore foreign rule:
We want to be under Her Majesty’s control. We want our country to be governed by British Government. We are tired of governing this country ourselves, every dispute leads to war, and often to great loss of lives. . . . We are quite willing to abolish all our heathen customs. . . . No doubt God will bless you for putting a light in our country.
Europeans exhibited a greater capacity to impose order in colonial societies by suppressing tribal politics. In Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, Nigel Biggar avers that even in India, natives invited the British to lead because local opponents were more hostile. The colonial world was marred by tribal politics, and local governments lacked the authority to pacify warring groups. As outsiders, Europeans could exploit trust deficits among tribes to legitimate their rule and impose order.
In the Journal of African Military History, Eginald P.A.N. Mihanjo and Oswald Masebo note that Germany’s subdual of African warlords had a profoundly positive effect on the well-being of natives in Tanzania. Establishing order safeguarded the commercial and political interests of Europeans in their colonies, but the creation of more peaceful societies also redounded greatly to the benefit of natives, who were the victims of warfare. Saying so is politically incorrect; however in several circumstances, Europeans were more benevolent than the overlords they overthrew.
On the other side of the debate, it is parroted that countries are worse off because they were colonized, yet this is not shown by studies. Researchers argue that hostility to colonial interventions predicts lower development. Research gathered by Elise Huillery concludes that prosperous areas in French West Africa were displaced by newcomers because by resisting colonialism, they limited access to colonial investments. Although such areas did not become poorer, they lost their precolonial advantage and were deprived of investments in health, education, and infrastructure.
Similarly, an analysis by African scholars concurs with Huillery that African resistance to European colonialism has led to adverse effects. In contrast, regions that were more amenable to European intervention benefited from better public services, superior schooling, and higher-quality healthcare. Results for Asia are also similar, according to a 2022 paper indicating a favorable link between European settlements and social outcomes in Indonesia. Evidently, some ex-colonies were made better off by importing European human capital and institutions.
Based on the data, it is obvious that colonialism led to some favorable conditions. So, although berating the colonial history of Europe is fashionable, it is indeed true that many places are better off precisely because they were colonized by Europe. Without colonization, they might have experienced development. However, colonialism may have provided a jumpstart for some ex-colonies.