The Irony of Colonial Apologetics

Congolese slaves on a Belgian colonial rubber plantation. (Photo: Ultimate History Project)

Congolese slaves on a Belgian colonial rubber plantation. (Photo: Ultimate History Project)

As some formerly colonized countries in Sub-Saharan Africa still grapple with resource disputes and sectarian violence, it is hardly unusual to hear people wonder aloud whether 19th and 20th century colonialism was actually a solution, not a problem, for the non-Western world.  Reveling in their contrarianism, some pontificators eventually conclude that, yes, “almost all of sub-Saharan Africa…[was] better governed by Europeans” and that formerly colonized countries are themselves to blame for favoring an anti-market “grievance culture” over colonialism’s free market values.  Gladly promulgating this view, Daniel Kruger writes that “Africa’s problem today is not the after-effects of colonialism” but rather that many Western universities’ African alumni returned home in the mid-20th century committed to “nationalisation and big government.” And lest we worry that colonialism indefensibly violated the rights of the colonized and punctured the sanity of entire nations, Keith Windschuttle tells us to take comfort in the fact that colonialism actually imparted to colonized people another valuable gift: ideas of “liberal democratic government” and “British concepts of sovereignty and the rule of law.”

These colonial apologetics are not merely wrongheaded and borderline sadistic— they are painfully ironic. For while they praise colonialism’s diffusion of liberal values throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, they willfully ignore the fact that colonial precepts, when actually enacted, wreaked illiberal havoc most places they went.  Moreover, when laissez-faire capitalists like Kruger contend that the West has applied “the values of liberty… most successfully, and grown rich on the proceeds,” they forget that Western colonialism was chock-full of generous government benefits for European settlers, stratospheric militarization and slavery, and governmental subversion of native African economies.

These economic points are worth repeating because, for one, they discredit the idea that Sub-Saharan Africans were simply waiting around for European empires to save them from destitution.  In reality, groups like the Khoi were already herding Nguni cattle and making use of their land when 17th century Europeans settled the Cape.  West Africans produced and sold palm oil in the 1800s, and the Herero of Namibia, widely renowned for their animal husbandry, economically outpaced their German occupiers in South-West Africa all throughout the 1880s.  In contrast, the French, British, and German colonists often made their mark in Sub-Saharan Africa by using “scorched earth” to incinerate civilian villages and agricultural resources.

Colonialism’s economic realities are also worth noting when colonialists are today remembered as self-reliant individualists.  In truth, colonial enterprises were welfare cesspools replete with military protection, relocation subsidies, and exceedingly cheap land for European settlers.  The German government, for instance, paid for German women’s tickets to South-West Africa.  The British violently expropriated hundreds of acres of Kenyan land and then gave it to European farmers for free.  The Portuguese bestowed tens of thousands of acres to families like the Paiva, a clan whose sugar plantation spanned over 45,000 acres in Mozambique.  The Belgians’ breathtakingly lazy and barbaric king, Leopold II, established vast swaths of the Congo as his own private property.

But all of these unearned goodies pale in comparison to the colonialists’ indolent exploitation of native slave labor to build settler communities.  The erection of Windhoek’s extant parliament building, an ostensible “gift” from the Western world, was one such project foisted on the backs of German-owned African slaves.  Private German companies’ construction of Namibian railways, settler homes, and renovated docks in Lüderitz was also slave-based.  The colonial Belgians and French both had similar ideas, enlisting more than 68,000 colonized Africans to build railroads in the Belgian Congo and well over 18,000 more to “modernize” the French colonies.  The Portuguese put forced laborers to work on cocoa plantations in the 1920s, and even the “anti-slavery” British compelled natives to work in Kenya.  Needless to say, these colonial markets were many things— unfair, oppressive, lethal, coercive— but “free” they were not.

The irony does not end there though; colonial apologists who evangelize for classical liberalism lament the demise of a settler movement premised not only on statist economics but also on distinctly illiberal conceptions of human rights. When Captain Curt von Francois ventured to South-West Africa in 1889 to secure German control of the region, he initiated a horrific massacre bearing no signs whatever of human rights awareness.  Impoverished and indebted, the Herero began sparring en masse with their German overseers in 1904 and were eventually forced into the Omaheke desert to die of thirst.  After the government in Berlin ordered the new General Lothar Von Trotha to end his onslaught against the natives, the Germans took the Herero out of the desert and forced them into concentration camps.  By the end of it all, the German colonialists had exterminated more than 60,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama in order to expand the German homeland.

The French, the Portuguese, the Belgians, and the oft-cited British were not much better. As mainstream colonial apologists like Dennis Prager painstakingly assemble laudations for the British Empire’s global dispersal of Lockean values, they avoid the fact that the British interned hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu Kenyans in the 1950s, raped innocent prisoners and “cut off inmates’ ears and fingers and gouged out their eyes. They dragged people behind Land Rovers until their bodies disintegrated.”  The British authorities were by that point masters of the internment business, having led over 20,000 incarcerated Boers and approximately 13,000 black civilians to their deaths during the Second Boer War.

When colonial apologists acknowledge that these facts are facts, they frequently reply that colonialism, however inhumane, was nonetheless preferable to the non-colonial alternatives of despotism, slavery, and savage warfare.  If the colonialists had stayed in business longer, their logic goes, Sub-Saharan African tribes would not have reverted to their inferior, pre-colonial doctrines of authoritarianism.

But reality tells a distinctly different story.  Authoritarian mechanisms like concentration camps did not exist in Sub-Saharan Africa until the British brought them to South Africa, nor did African genocide exist until the Germans initiated it in Namibia. The Herero leadership, revealing a human rights doctrine miles more evolved than that of Namibia’s colonizers, condemned Germany’s indiscriminate attacks and took great pains to avoid killing women, children, and other civilians during the anti-German rebellion.  Nama Chief Hendrik Witbooi similarly took issue with German military tactics, writing that it did not behoove a purportedly “civilized nation” to kill noncombatants so recklessly.  Tyranny and slavery certainly existed in Africa before colonization, but the colonialists, however rhetorically committed to emancipation, hardly improved anything when they themselves mutilated people’s bodies and commandeered African slaves to build lavish communities.  Though an excuse for colonization, humanitarianism usually was not a colonial product.

Sub-Saharan Africa faces a wide set of issues in many different places for many different reasons, but at least one thing can be said of the aggregate region: its problem is not that the “liberal, free market” values of European colonialism have abated.  In the first place, colonialism was a statist movement, meaning that there never were any liberal or free market colonial values to abate; in the second place, the actual colonial values of racism, greed and violence were great detriments to Sub-Saharan Africa, destroying civilian families, psychology and infrastructure.  All of which is to say that colonial apologists, blissfully unaware of their ideology’s sick irony, should take a closer look at their own values and history before insinuating that an extension of illiberal colonialism would have done wonders for the rest of the world.

Tommy Raskin has contributed to The Nation online, the Good Men Project, the Humanist Magazine, and Amherst Magazine. He has also appeared on HuffPost Live and co-hosts The Angle on WAMH 89.3 FM. Send Tommy an e-mail at tommy.raskin@gmail.com.