Politically Incorrect Truths about Colonialism and the Third World
Philip Vander Elst
At a time when left-wing “anti-racist” activists are seeking to remove statues of Cecil Rhodes and other historical figures associated with what they deem to be the shameful colonial past of Western democracies like Britain, there is a need to set the record straight and challenge the ignorance and double standards fuelling this movement. To that end I reproduce below a slightly expanded version of a speech I made in an Oxford Union debate in the autumn term of 2009, opposing the motion that “This House would make reparations for colonialism.” Open-minded readers willing to study the controversial issues I raised in my speech in more detail should read the books I mentioned. And to that list should be added Ghanaian economist, George Ayittey’s seminal book, Africa Betrayed, an excoriating and copiously documented indictment of post-colonial African tyrannies.
Opposing: “This House would make reparations for colonialism”
Thirty-six years ago, Mr. President, I stood at this despatch box to oppose the motion “That the power of the State has increased, is increasing and should increase still further.” As a classical liberal who remains distrustful of government, I am the last person to take a rosy and uncritical view of Western colonialism. All too often it has been associated with the worst abuses of State power. But it is a disservice to historical truth, Mr. President, to dismiss the entire colonial era as an unrelieved tale of imperial greed, racism, and exploitation — with no compensating achievements or benefits.
If this House wishes to consider a more balanced view of the Western colonial era and its impact on the Third World, I invite it to study the writings of the late Professor P. T. Bauer, one of the great development economists of the 20th century according to contemporary Asian scholars like Deepak Lal, Parth Shah, and Razeen Sally. I also urge you all to read the works of African-American economist Thomas Sowell, particularly his two books, The Economics and Politics of Race and that most recent, Conquests and Cultures: An International History.
If you do this, you will find that whilst both Bauer and Sowell are often extremely critical of the colonial authorities, they emphasise two basic historical facts: (1) the material backwardness and barbarism of much of the pre-colonial Third World, and (2) the role of the Western colonial powers — especially the British — in establishing peace and order, and with it, the material and organisational infrastructure of modern economies and societies — roads, railways, ports, factories, schools, hospitals and universities. Sub-Saharan Africa, Mr. President, offers the clearest illustration of all this.
According to Sowell, the development of pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa was gravely handicapped by the lack of navigable rivers and natural harbours, the ravages of the tsetse fly (whose parasites are fatal to draft animals), and numerous tropical diseases which debilitated and decimated Africans. As a result, almost no pre-colonial African community south of the Sahara managed to harness draft animals to pull ploughs and wagons. “The pre-colonial technology of the region,” writes Sowell, “was incapable of using wind or water power for milling grain. Tribal warfare, military raids, slavery, and serfdom were widespread throughout the area.” [i]
Western colonialism, by contrast, brought progress. To quote Bauer, who spent many years living and working in Asia and Africa:
“. . . the basic ingredients of modern social and economic life, including public security and health, wheeled transport, modern forms of money and scientific agriculture, were brought to sub-Saharan Africa by Westerners in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They were introduced by the colonial administrations, or by foreign private organisations or persons, under the comparative security of colonial rule and usually in the face of formidable obstacles. . . . The coercion and the hardships, though far from negligible, seem slight when we think of both pre-colonial and post-colonial Africa. . . . The number of Africans who lived longer, more securely, in materially better conditions and in peaceful contact with their fellow men was much greater, probably by several orders of magnitude, than the numbers who were harmed.” [ii]
Colonialism Brought the Rule of Law and Economic Progress: African-American economist, Thomas Sowell, reaches a similar conclusion to Bauer. Whilst acknowledging that not all parts of the colonised world were primitive, and that the coming of Western civilisation did not always represent progress in all aspects of life, Sowell concludes:
“By and large European colonialism brought to the Third World what Roman imperialism had brought to Britain: (1) a reduction or cessation of internal fighting that had plagued these regions for centuries, holding back economic and social progress, (2) a unified system of law as a framework for stable expectations and the security and individual planning that law makes possible, (3) features of a more advanced system of technology and organisation, and (4) contact with a wider world, enabling creative potential to emerge from the restrictions of insularity.” [iii]
My opposition to this motion, Mr. President, is not simply due to a belief that it is based on a distorted and one-sided evaluation of Western colonialism. It is also fuelled by the conviction that the demand for Western reparations is morally compromised by double standards, as well as being backward-looking and unfair to contemporary Western taxpayers.
The case for Western reparations involves double standards, Mr. President, because it overlooks the fact that nearly all ethnic groups, tribes, and nations have engaged, at one time or another, in wars of conquest, land seizures, slavery, and genocide. If Western taxpayers are expected to pay for the sins of previous generations of Western colonialists, for which they were not responsible, should modern day Zulus and Apaches pick up the bill for the tribal wars and massacres perpetrated by their ancestors in southern Africa and North America? Should the present-day inhabitants of Mongolia and the Arabian Peninsula offer financial compensation for the wars of conquest waged by Genghis Kahn and Arab-Islamic rulers in Asia and the Mediterranean?
Anti-Western Double Standards Absurd in Relation to Slavery: Anti-Western double standards about the past, Mr. President, are particularly absurd when it comes to the subject of slavery. As Asian-American scholar, Dinesh D’Souza, points out in his massively documented 700-page critique of politically correct multiculturalism, The End of Racism: “. . . slavery was widespread in Africa from antiquity” and also existed among the native Indian tribes of North America, many of whom also owned black slaves.
“The three powerful medieval kingdoms of Ghana, Songhai and Mali all relied on slave labour. Nor were these slaves exclusively black Africans. . . . The Ashanti of West Africa customarily enslaved all foreigners.”
African complicity in the slave trade, states Dinesh D’Souza, was
“. . . epitomised in the proposition advanced to Europeans by an African chief in the early 19th century: ‘We want three things: powder, ball, and brandy; and we have three things to sell: men, women and children.” [iv]
Perhaps the most poignant comment on African participation in the slave trade, Mr. President, are these words of Zora Neale Hurston, the great black feminist writer of the Harlem Renaissance, in the early part of the 20th century:
“The white people held my people in slavery here in America. They had bought us, it is true, and exploited us. But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw was: my people had sold me. . . . My own people had exterminated whole nations and torn families apart for a profit before the strangers got their chance at a cut.” [v]
What, by contrast, it is important to note about the West, Mr. President, is that principled opposition to the historically universal institution of slavery primarily emerged from within Western culture. Starting with the Quakers and the Methodists, and continuing with the great anti-slavery campaign of William Wilberforce and his Evangelical friends, a vast humanitarian movement came into existence in the 18th and 19th centuries, which not only stamped out slavery in most places, but established the foundations of that very concern for human rights and national self-determination to which everyone pays at least lip-service today. To quote Thomas Sowell’s tribute to what he describes as Britain’s leading role in the destruction of the international slave trade, and then of slavery itself:
“The magnitude of this achievement is hard to appreciate without first recognising that slavery was a worldwide institution, entrenched on every inhabited continent, subjugating people of every colour, language, and religion, and going back thousands of years.” [vi]
Arab Slave Trade Depopulated Whole Regions of the Congo: And before we leave the subject of the slave trade, it should be noted that it was particularly destructive in Central Africa. There its cruelties and massacres, mainly the work of Arab slavers and their Muslim African allies, and exposed to international opinion by Dr. Livingstone and other eyewitnesses, depopulated whole regions of the Congo. [vii]
It is therefore appropriate, given the constant and one-sided attacks on the Belgian colonial record, to recognise that it was in fact the Belgians who liberated the Congo from the genocidal ravages of this Arab-dominated slave traffic. Indeed, the very same independent investigative judicial commission whose 1905 report rightly condemned the serious abuses of the early years of Belgian colonisation, credited the early colonial administration with having put an end to tribal warfare, cannibalism, and the slave trade.[viii]
Patrice Lumumba’s Little Known Tribute to the Belgians: Even Patrice Lumumba, who became the Congo’s first black Prime Minister when independence was granted in 1960, paid this tribute to the Belgian suppression of the slave trade in his 1958 book, Congo, My Country:
“When we pass the graves of those heroes who gave their lives for our safety, and thanks to whom we can now utter the words ‘independence — autonomy,’ let us be silent for a few moments and bow our heads respectfully in their memory. . . . Other countries — which were more powerful than Belgium — remained indifferent to our fate and left us to perish. Belgium, moved by a very sincere and humanitarian idealism, came to our help, and with the assistance of doughty native fighters, was able to rout the enemy, to eradicate disease, to teach us and to eliminate certain barbarous practices from our customs, thus restoring our human dignity and turning us into free, happy, vigorous, civilised men.” [ix]
The problem with this motion, Mr. President, is not only that it is based upon double standards and an unbalanced historical perspective. Its exaggeration of the evils of colonialism also evades the glaringly obvious fact that so much of what has gone wrong in the Third World since the 1960s has been due, not to Western exploitation, but to the aggrandizement and abuse of State power by corrupt and frequently incompetent post-colonial ruling elites. This has been true of countries like Algeria, Burma, and others in Asia, and the Middle East. Above all it has been true of Africa.
To quote Ghanaian economist, George Ayittey:
“One word, ‘power,’ explains why Africa is in the grip of a never-ending cycle of wanton chaos, horrific carnage, senseless civil wars, and collapsing economies; the struggle for power, its monopolisation by one individual or group, and the subsequent refusal to relinquish or share it.” [x]
At Least 13 Million Africans Killed by Own Leaders since 1960: That, Mr. President, is why, as George Ayittey, points out, more than 13 million Africans have been killed by their own leaders since 1960.[xi] That is why of the 180 African heads of state who held power between 1960 and 1998, only 20 relinquished it or retired voluntarily.[xii] That, too, is why, according to the African Union’s own estimates, Africa loses $148 billion a year — a quarter of its entire GDP — to corruption. [xiii]
Some years ago the distinguished Guinean novelist, Camara Laye, lamented that all too many African leaders:
“…do not serve Africa. They make Africa serve themselves. They are far from being builders, organisers, city administrators, but are rather jailers who deal with the men, women, and children of our people as if they were cattle.” [xiv]
As you ponder these words and reflect on the way dictators like Robert Mugabe use anti-colonialist rhetoric as an excuse for their crimes against their own people, ask yourselves whether giving credence to the demand for Western reparations would really help the poor and the oppressed of the Third World.
Mr. President, I beg to oppose!
1 Thomas Sowell, The Economics and Politics of Race, (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1983), p. 26.
7 For more information on this subject, see: (1) Belgian explorer and naturalist, Jean-Pierre Hallet’s semi-autobiographical history of the Congo, Congo Kitabu, (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1967), pp. 62-68, & pp. 414-416. (2) George Martelli, Leopold to Lumumba: A History of the Belgian Congo 1877-1960, (London: Chapman & Hall, 1962), pp. 126 & 175. (3) Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures, p. 110, (4) Dinesh D’Souza, op cit, p. 74.
11 George Ayittey, “Dr Ayittey offers a quick response to the questions addressed to him by Sadiq Manzan,” (http://www.utexas.edu/conferences/africa/ads/273.html), 2006.