Since half of the country is trying to save Christopher Columbus from being erased with the rest of our history and the other half is busy trying to tear him down as a genocidal war criminal, Columbus Day offers a chance to contemplate that era in history. I was reminded of this when reading a piece at the Washington Post about a journal which published and later retracted (deleted, erased, wiped from history) a paper arguing in favor of the merits of colonialism.
Bruce Gilley, a political science professor from Portland State University, penned the paper, “The Case for Colonialism” which was published at Third World Quarterly. After coming under fire from outraged academics for roughly a month it was recently pulled.
Bruce Gilley’s essay argued that countries that were colonized by Western powers “did better” than those that were not. He also said that colonialism was generally “beneficial” and “subjectively legitimate.” The essay’s abstract said: “For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name. It is high time to question this orthodoxy.”
Some scholars immediately decried the article as racist and others disliked it because they said it was based on faulty data. It was published at a time when several cities, including Los Angeles and Minneapolis, have opted not to mark Columbus Day because of its colonialism overtones and instead celebrate indigenous people. There’s also a push in some cities for the removal of Columbus statues.
Lacking a copy of the original essay, let’s explore the underlying question. Was colonialism in the age of exploration ultimately justifiable, producing a better end result for the colonized lands than what they could have expected were they left in isolation? Was it, in the long view, generally beneficial and subjectively legitimate? Or was it simply an excuse to engage in slavery, slaughter, rape and wanton plundering?
I’ve been pondering it for a while now and if you think there’s a crystal clear answer to that general line of inquiry (no matter which answer you pick) I’m not sure you’ve got it all figured out.
On the one hand, it’s pretty much impossible to argue that the immediate, short term result for the less technologically advanced people being “discovered” and colonized was pretty much uniformly awful. You could be talking about indigenous peoples of North and South America, South Africa, Australia or even India in the early days of British Colonization. Those who acceded to the newcomers too quickly were frequently enslaved or at least driven off their lands. Those who resisted fought ruinous wars where superior technology generally crushed them. What little they had of value was frequently plundered and God help you if you had a stockpile of gold you’d beaten into some ornaments. Even if none of those things were happening at any given moment, new, exotic diseases they had no natural immunity to wiped them out in droves.
So colonialism was abjectly bad, right?
Well… it was almost always bad for the natives in the short run. But what of Gilley’s premise that over the long haul the colonized lands “did better?” I’m thinking of the condition that the native people of the Americas were in when Europeans began arriving in significant numbers to stay. (We’ll skip over whether or not the Vikings were here first. But they probably were.) One of the most remarkable things about the indigenous people in the western hemisphere is how little technological progress they had made despite having had at least tens of thousands (and some argue hundreds of thousands) of years of cultural evolution opportunities.
The people here were still living in the stone age. None of them had figured out how to smelt metals. The ones with ready supplies of raw gold near the surface managed to beat it into pleasing jewelry with rocks, but that’s about it. They hadn’t domesticated animal stock for either riding or draft service. (They hunted all the horses to extinction and ate them.) They hadn’t invented the wheel. Granted, some of them in South America mastered some fairly impressive stone monuments but they crafted it by hitting softer stones with harder ones.
Sub-Saharan Africa was a tad bit better, having begun some crude iron smelting around 1500 BC, but in most other areas they were technologically way behind the curve. The history of the aboriginal people of Australia in terms of when they first arrived and how many waves of new people joined them is complicated and not entirely clear, but they weren’t doing much better in terms of development.
What if the Europeans (or eventually Asians) had never shown up? The initial clash of cultures was devastating to be sure. Their populations plunged precipitously and some, like the Australian aboriginals, went close to extinction. (Estimates hold that their population of roughly 1.2M in 1788 shrank to around 50,000 by the 1930’s.The Native Americans in North America didn’t do much better.) But later, new civilizations grew and thrived, sometimes composed almost entirely of the colonizers, with others absorbing the natives. When you look at the lives of the few tribes in the Amazon which are still basically beyond contact with the modern world, is that a better life for them?
Not saying I have 100% defensible answers to those questions, but I’d be surprised if anyone does. But think of it in these terms: if the Europeans had never come to North America there wouldn’t be a United States of America. Would the world be better off if that were the case? (Your answer to that one will, I’m guessing, break down almost perfectly along party lines today.)
Anyway, just a few things for you to ponder this Columbus Day.