View/Print PDF

In Defense of Colonialism

Rather than feel guilty about the legacy of Western colonialism, modern-day Westerners should recognize that it made the world a better place.

When Qantas flights now land at Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, the Australian pilots and cabin crew do not leave the aircraft. They remain on board while their plane is cleaned, refueled, and boarded by return passengers. The crew do not even venture to take the few steps across the tarmac to the airport's international terminal. The reason is the state of lawlessness that has engulfed Papua New Guinea. Any white person seen on the streets or in public buildings seriously risks mugging and robbery and, if female, rape. In the past decade, there have been so many cases of murder and assault of Australians that the substantial expatriate population that once ran government services, health, and education has now largely abandoned the country. The few white employees of mining companies and the handful of media correspondents live in heavily fortified bunkers from which they venture forth only when accompanied by armed guards. The only people of European descent who still readily mix in public are church missionaries in the highlands and north of the country.

Papua New Guinea was a British colony administered in the twentieth century by Australia until granted independence in 1975. In theory, it is a parliamentary democracy of 4.5 million people with a market economy and a military and judiciary independent of the government. In practice, it is politically corrupt, economically stagnant, propped up by Australian foreign aid, and riven by tribal violence and frequent army mutinies. For the past decade its standards of health and education have been in serious decline. Four-fifths of the population still live by subsistence agriculture. Although the country has so far been spared any major civil war, a secessionist revolt on its island of Bougainville in the late 1980s permanently shut down what was once the world's richest copper mine, which accounted for half the country's export earnings. Its quality of life has not been as bad as some former African colonies but its Human Development Index still only ranks it 129 out of 174 "developing" nations.

Although the United Nations, the United States, and the rest of the world applauded Australia's decision to grant independence when it did, it is clear that the lives of the great majority of the population would have been significantly better had the country remained a colony much longer. In retrospect, it was a big mistake to presume that a modern nation could be forged overnight from several hundred different tribal groups, many of whom still engaged in constant, small-scale internecine warfare. Ideally, Papua New Guinea should have remained a colony for another fifty years, until it developed modern and stable national institutions with their own traditions. But such a scenario was never a possibility.

Assault on Colonialism

Since the Second World War, the world has gone through a period in which colonialism was regarded everywhere as indefensible. Western political sentiment, especially in the United States, held that every people had the right to become a nation. The grip on much of the world held by the old European powers was seen as defying the principles of liberty and democracy by which the West itself was constituted. No one could credibly mount a moral or political case in favor of colonialism. The rationale of the nineteenth century, that the British Empire was bringing civilization to its subjects, was widely regarded as hypocrisy masking economic exploitation and political subjugation.

The British Empire effectively ended more than fifty years ago, with the independence of India in 1947, an event that soon triggered a run of imitators. One might have thought that, at this distance, we would by now have been able to make a dispassionate assessment of it. Yet there is still a great deal of intellectual cachet to be gained from blaming the ills of most of the globe on this now-faded phenomenon. In the United States, leftist intellectuals such as Edward Said and his followers have made whole careers out of blaming Western imperialism for problems that were endemic to many societies both before and after their experiences as European colonies. Throughout the American higher education system, the "postcolonial" movement in the study of history and English literature thrives as never before. The most violent of all the anti-imperialist authors, Frantz Fanon--the man whose book, The Wretched of the Earth (1963), contained the blueprint for Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia--still earns scholarly respect and citations throughout Western universities. Even some conservative writers who recognize their status as major beneficiaries of the imperial process, such as Indian-born Dinesh D'Souza (who has written an important recent revisionist article on the subject), can still only manage two cheers for colonialism.

In fact, with the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Western intellectual liberals have taken up the imperialist critique with renewed vigor, especially at this time of rapid globalization of trade and investment. Some long-discredited Marxist academics have revived their careers by taking this tack. Globalization, these authors claim, is a euphemism for American imperialism. They argue that, just as the British financed their Industrial Revolution by exploitation of the colonies, so America further enriches itself through the investment policies of the International Monetary Fund and the free-market policies of the World Trade Organization.

For example, in his book ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (1998), one of these Marxists, Andre Gunder Frank, rejects the thesis that European entrepreneurship, ingenuity, and technological innovation were responsible for the commercial and industrial revolutions between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. "Europe did not pull itself up by its own economic bootstraps," Frank writes, "and it was certainly not thanks to any kind of European 'exceptionalism,' of rationality, institutions, entrepreneurship, technology, geniality, in a word--of race." Instead, he claims, "Europe climbed up on the back of Asia, then stood on Asian shoulders--temporarily."

Reconsidering Colonialism

Fortunately, we have also seen the emergence of some very fine scholarly analyses that show that colonialism cannot be understood in terms of exploitation and underdevelopment. P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins argued in their persuasive work, British Imperialism (1993), that after the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, England became the first country to develop a modern financial and banking system. The city of London then set out to become the financier to the world, providing short-term credit for trade and long-term credit for investment. Within a century, Britain underwent the Industrial Revolution, which gave it a surplus of low-cost, factory-manufactured goods for which it sought world markets. As the world's leading force in finance and manufacturing, and as the dominant European naval and military power, Britain had every reason to expand across the globe and few forces to prevent it from doing so. From the vantage point of hindsight, we can now see that the principal artifact Britain exported to the world was not "civilization," as many thought at the time, but modernization.

In terms of economics, this meant the systems of finance, transportation, and manufacturing that Britain had developed at home. Rather than a form of plunder that depleted the economies that came under its influence, British imperialism injected many of the institutions of modernization into the territories it controlled. British investment financed the development not only of white dominions in North America, Australia, and South America, but also India, Africa, and east Asia. It provided the infrastructure of ports, roads, railways, and communications that allowed these regions access to the modern world, plus a legal system to ensure that the commerce thereby generated was orderly.

One of the problems of summing up the historical impact of European colonialism is that it was a different process under different imperial powers. Some historians still like to show how closely the English version resembled the Spanish, thereby tainting the British Empire with the brutal reputation of the conquistadors. Both empires, they argue, wanted to convert the heathen of the New World to the Christian faith, and both, they say, employed the same form of persuasion: conquest. It is true that in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries Britain did imitate Spain in both word and deed. Its initial intentions in Virginia were to copy the conquest of Mexico and Peru. The royal charters of the Virginia Company in 1606 authorized the invasion of any legitimate ruler's territory and the seizure of its property. The governor of the Roanoke colony of Virginia in 1608, John Smith, admired the "unparalleled virtues" and "mountains of wealth" of the Spanish imperialist adventure.

However, as the seventeenth century unfolded, the two powers moved far apart in both imperialist theory and practice. While Spain retained its original rationale and objectives, the British colonies in America became sites of economic development, commercial enterprise, trade, and investment. Cain and Hopkins argue that the financial houses of London had close ties to the government and the military and helped to promote the forces of British investment, commerce, and migration, to the ultimate benefit of both colonists and colonized.

In contrast, Spanish America remained largely a site of imperial expropriation. Until it lost most of its American colonies in the 1830s, the Spanish crown's principal economic concern had been the extraction of precious metals, which it regarded as the only fully reliable source of wealth. However, this form of colonialism, and the cost of defending it, sapped the imperial power more than its subjects. Spanish misrule eventually impoverished the home country. The founder of the Bank of England, William Paterson, observed: "The Indies, properly speaking, may be said to have conquered the Spaniards, rather than having been conquered by them."

The radical divergence of the economies of the two colonial empires derived from, and in turn fed into, their equally different legal and religious foundations. In his comparative study of the ideology of the principal European empires, Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France c. 1500-c. 1800 (1995), Anthony Pagden argues that the Spanish crown was as much concerned with its potential rights over the American Indians themselves (as a source of labor) as it was with their property. The grants made by the crown to settlers in Spanish America were known as encomiendas, or feudal titles to labor. This attitude was in marked contrast to the British concern with commercial rights to property, especially land. British culture legitimated the ownership of things, not people.

Another contrast, Pagden says, was that British liberal thought regarded conquest as both indefensible in theory and unsustainable in practice. Since 1066, the British political culture had been committed to the "continuity theory" of constitutional law, in which the legal and political institutions of the conquered were deemed to survive a conquest. By the late seventeenth century, this meant colonial invasion could not be sanctioned. "Conquest," John Locke wrote on the eve of the revolution of 1688, "is as far from setting up any government, as demolishing a House is from building a new one in the place."

This reasoning made the British colonists virtuous in their own eyes. Their arguments were not merely abstract salves for their consciences; they had profound practical implications, especially in determining their attitude toward indigenous peoples. In America, it meant that they initially chose to settle on vacant land with the consent and, usually, the co-operation, of the local native population. When William Penn organized his colony of Pennsylvania in 1681, for example, he drew up a charter of concessions and conditions aimed primarily at securing the good relations he already had with the local Indians. Hence, the British regarded their settlements as peaceful exercises, mutually beneficial to both colonist and native. Rather than an evangelizing mission to convert or coerce the natives into accepting their religion, the early British objectives toward the indigenous people were primarily to trade useful products and, at most, to demonstrate by example the benefits of the civil and polite customs of Europe.

One thing the British could not have predicted was the rapid reduction of the indigenous populations. Most critics of imperialism today look at the demise of the American Indians and the Australian Aborigines and attribute most of it to violent confrontation. Since the 1960s, radical anthropologists such as Henry Dobyns have inflated the pre-1492 population of the American hemisphere to extraordinary levels, putting it as high as 110 million, greater than that of Europe, in order to make the subsequent decline appear all the more dramatic and damning. However, recent critics such as David Henige (in Numbers from Nowhere: The American Indian Contact Population Debate, 1998) have demolished these claims, accusing their authors of selective and careless use of sources, questionable mathematics, mistranslations of the original documents, implausible epidemiological assumptions, and countless instances of unwarranted speculation. Moreover, the death toll from colonial warfare and imperial atrocities pales before the biggest single killer of indigenous peoples: infectious disease. Even the Parisian theorist Tzvetan Todorov, who claims, in The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (1985), that Spanish actions in the New World amount to a genocide far worse than anything perpetrated in the twentieth century, has to admit that the number of direct killings during the conquest was "relatively small" and that the great majority of the native population were actually eliminated by disease. In this case, political and moral indignation are inappropriate and indulgent responses. It makes as much sense to blame the conquistadors for Mexican deaths from European diseases as it does to condemn the Aztecs for all those who subsequently died from the venereal diseases that originated in Mexico. Neither side had a germ theory of disease nor any knowledge of the workings of the human immune system; hence, neither can be held responsible for disease outbreaks.

Demise of Colonialism

As this survey suggests, most contemporary critics of colonialism still operate under a very simplistic notion of imperial history. They have not moved beyond the old nationalist assumption that the process was one of conquistadors subjugating natives, of foreign devils vanquishing traditional authorities. In India and in the Near and Middle East, however, rather than a stable indigenous society being overturned by external aggressors, the process involved one imperialist replacing another. Islam, for example, began to penetrate India in the eighth century, and by the early 1500s the Mughals of Persia had conquered much of the previously Hindu territory of the subcontinent and consolidated Muslim rule. Before their reign had lasted three hundred years, the British displaced them. Like most imperial powers, the British gained their position thanks to the enthusiastic support of a large segment of the indigenous population: in this case the Hindus, who wanted to throw off their Muslim overlords.

The situations were similar in North Africa, Palestine, Mesopotamia, and the Persian Gulf. Since the days of Alexander the Great, Egypt had known only two centuries when it was not subjugated by a foreign power. From the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, the Ottomans (a people originally from the steppes of Asia) ruled from Constantinople a vast territory that had been formerly controlled by Arabs, who had, in turn, captured it from the Roman Empire of the East. These lands subsequently came under British control, in many cases with the approval of the Arabs themselves.

Moreover, the British were by no means fully in control of these events. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain was involved in a struggle for supremacy with its Great Power rival, France. Each operated on the assumption that a gain for the other would be a setback for itself, and so a kind of territorial arms race eventuated. The British takeover of India actually began with a series of small trade wars with the French, which soon escalated into a struggle for dominance on the subcontinent. In Asia, Britain was attempting to stem the expansion of its other rival, Russia, which had recently extended its domain eastward all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The British knew that without their military presence in India, the Russians would attempt to take their place.

At this distance, it makes sense to try to look on these events dispassionately, to attempt to understand, rather than evaluate, the interests and pressures on the various players. Nonetheless, no matter how obviously anachronistic it is to impose our own values on people who lived two or three centuries ago, imperialism still seems to compel moral judgments today. Historians have long been bound by this habit, no less than politicians, churchmen, and other opinion makers. And the most difficult moral issue in colonialism has been the sharp division between the political rights accorded to people of European descent and to those of other races.

The most apparently hypocritical stance of the British Empire was the different attitude it took toward self-government in those countries populated largely by white immigrants from Britain and those where an indigenous majority still prevailed. After the American colonies achieved their independence in 1776, two very different types of British political rule emerged. On one side were the areas of European settlement that were evolving representative governments. On the other were areas where colonial government was, at best, a form of enlightened despotism. In India, for example, the British ruled a vast population and made no attempt to introduce representative institutions. This political dichotomy prevailed for the life of the Empire, and the double standards it involved provoked an equally long resentment among those non-Europeans whose countries were denied the status of the white dominions. Without having to agitate for it, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand gained a large measure of self-government by the mid-nineteenth century. But for the next one hundred years, British governments resisted transferring the same authority to India, Southeast Asia, Africa, the West Indies, and the Middle East, until forced either by the pressure of opinion at home or by open revolt within the colonies themselves.

In the light of subsequent events, however, the political reticence of some of the old imperial rulers has been vindicated in many places. They predicted that, without the presence of an outside authority, the relations between many of the people they governed would quickly descend into violence. This proved especially true in those countries where substantial populations owed allegiance to that most imperialist of religions, Islam.

By the 1920s, the British Empire embraced more than half the Muslim peoples of the world, and it was the context in which many Muslims experienced the transition to modernity. In the attempt to end colonialism in the Islamic world, however, the British faced the problem of merging the modern political device of the nation-state with traditional ethnic and religious identities. In the diplomatic settlements at the end of the First World War, Britain had to resolve the position of the former Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. It created three new, highly artificial states: Iraq, composed of Shia and Sunni Muslims, a large number of discontented Kurds, and a host of tribal groupings; Palestine, a country without a historical identity, carved out of three separate Ottoman districts and which for nearly two thousand years had been little more than a geographic expression; and Transjordan, a state with no administrative region, no specific people, and no historical memory. In Africa, two other artificial states were created: Nigeria, hopelessly divided between Christian peoples in the south and Muslims in the north; and Sudan, with similar antagonisms between a Muslim north and Christian south. Of all these states, only Transjordan has, since gaining independence, escaped the fate of a long succession of internal violence involving quasi- or outright civil war, political assassinations, military takeover, and chronic economic disruption that has led in several cases to recurrent food crises and widespread starvation.

Perhaps the most reckless British move of all was the last-minute decision in 1947 to create two nations out of India, one predominantly Hindu, the other Muslim. Instead of remaining in authority until a satisfactory internal political settlement could be reached, the British created the independent state of Pakistan and entrenched the very conflict they sought to avoid. Unlike the artificial states Britain created in Nigeria and Sudan, India had experienced several centuries of cohabitation between different religions. The relations between Muslims and Hindus might have been politically and institutionally accommodated had Britain had the will and the time.

Legacy of Colonialism

In short, the transition to independence of a sizable part of the British Empire was a badly botched mess. However, the blame for this lies not so much with imperialism but with its critics, in both the homelands and the colonies, who were more concerned with ending its rule quickly rather than wisely, and who were even less worried that the boundaries of several new states would inevitably saddle them with problems unresolvable except by violence. While it might not have been representative or democratic, British imperial rule in many parts of Asia, Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific, before the rush to disband it, was nonetheless orderly, largely benign, and usually fair. For all their faults, most British colonial officials delivered good government--or at least better government than any of the likely alternatives. The lives of millions of ordinary people in these countries would have been much better had the British stayed longer.

Moreover, colonialism left a lasting political legacy in many of these countries in the form of British concepts of sovereignty and the rule of law. As William Roger Louis, the editor of the recently published five-volume Oxford History of the British Empire (1998, 1999) has observed, the very idea of colonial independence derived from British concepts. "Indians, as well as French Canadians and Afrikaners quoted John Locke, Lord Durham and John Stuart Mill." The nation-state system was part of the European colonial legacy, and standards of British law and liberal-democratic government were goals to which many anti-colonial movements themselves once aspired. Democracy in India is the most notable product of this legacy.

Today, the former subjects of the European empires have had almost half a century to try their own prescriptions for independence. The fact that many of these countries have not progressed toward modernization can no longer be blamed on imperialism, for at least one highly obvious reason. Western investment and Western political models gave them a kick-start, and those who have taken advantage of it, such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, have shown that it is possible to transform a politically backward, underdeveloped country into a prosperous, modern, liberal democratic nation in as little as two generations. Many of those nations that still wallow in destitution do so not because of Western imperialism, racism, or oppression but because of policies they have largely chosen themselves. For instance, India's post-independence flirtation with the Soviet bloc and socialist economics needlessly condemned the country to Third World status and consigned much of its population to grinding, humiliating poverty. Had India stuck with British liberal economic policies from the outset, it could have been by now a much greater power than China.

I am well aware that in making these comments I am displaying all the signs of Enlightenment progressivism, Eurocentrism, Western hegemony, and the many other ideological offences that postcolonial intellectuals today routinely condemn. In this, however, I am not alone. Most people of the world are now voting with their feet in the same direction. It is the borders of the West that are crowded with would-be immigrants, not the cordons of Islam or the walls of Communism. Given a choice, most people want the fruits of the Western Enlightenment, even if they still hope to shape them to their own cultural molds.

If postcolonial intellectuals were honest, they would acknowledge that probably the most damaging of all the exports from the West to its former colonies has been their own mindset: the predilection for assuming victim status and blaming others for the ills caused by their own bad decisions. When nationalists in these regions were struggling for liberation, blaming Europe was a useful political tool with which to create a local constituency. Since independence, however, this stance has acted as a cover for failure. This is especially apparent in Robert Mugabe's current use of the concept in Zimbabwe, but everywhere it survives it remains an ideology of debilitation. A far better course would be for the former colonies of the world to frankly acknowledge the benefits they gained from the imperial era. It is also important for those of us in the West to shed the guilt we still harbor for our past and recognize that, despite all their mistakes and insensitivities, our imperial forebears left the world a better place than they found it.

American Outlook

Jay F. Hein
Editor in Chief

Wesley Cate
Managing Editor

Beverly Saddler
Production Coordinator

Tim Varnau

American Outlook is published by Sagamore Institute, 2902 North Meridian Street, Indianapolis, Indiana 46208. 317.472.2050. Copyright © 2011, Sagamore Institute, Inc. All rights reserved.

Letters to the Editor:
Send all "Letters to the Editor" to

American Outlook Archives

American Outlook Archives

View the original American Outlook archives, from 1998-2005.

  • Find us on Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Subscribe via RSS

Sagamore Institute

2902 N. Meridian Street, Indianapolis, IN 46208 | 317.472.2050 |  | 501 (c)(3)

© All rights reserved.  |  Library  |  Contact  |  Donate  |  Subscribe