The Case Against Historical Anachronism

Throughout human history, few concepts have been debated as passionately as colonialism. Both as a practice and a political principle, colonialism has elicited contrasting perspectives, even before the word came into being in the mid-nineteenth century. As Spanish conquistadors were systematically obliterating the cultures of the South American continent in the name of an ideology inherited from the Reconquest of the Iberian peninsula, the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas delivered in his Short Description of the Destruction of the Indies one of the most damning reports on the consequences of the rule and government of the King of Spain. Two hundred twenty years later, the Abbé Raynal, a leading figure of the Enlightenment, produced a more systematic criticism of European colonial rule in his Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies. Reading any of these writings would easily discourage anyone even remotely tempted by the prospect of resuscitating this mode of governance based on plunder, forced conversion, and cultural destruction. Graphic descriptions of inhuman violence in las Casas, or simply the concluding sentences of Raynal’s text, referring to the “narrow and cruel” spirit of monopoly which has been one of the guiding principles of colonialism, should be more than enough to discourage any form of nostalgia: “When I have laid waste, exhausted, and impoverished one country, I shall always find another.”

Inevitably, the long history of colonialism means that its practice has evolved over time, and the version to which Professor Bruce Gilley’s “The Case for colonialism” refers is the more recent one that spans the era from the early nineteenth century to the decolonization of the postwar period. Even if by then the creed of forced religious conversion (and its corollary, physical elimination should resistance be met) had been replaced by that of the “civilizing mission,” it was far from uncontroversial even as it was unfolding. The enthusiasm of pro-imperial propagandists such as John Robert Seeley in Britain or Paul Leroy-Beaulieu in France never overshadowed completely the opposition of the “Critics of Empire,” as Bernard Porter has shown in the late 1960s for the British case, or as the speeches by French politician Georges Clemenceau in the 1880s attest clearly. Indeed, two of the most violent anti-colonial texts were produced at the peak of the “New Imperialism”: J. A. Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study (published in the wake of the South African war, in 1902) and Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916). These two major contributions ensured the long-term association between radical left-wing thinking and anti-colonialism, which has hidden the many instances when the European Left stood behind the empire – sometimes promoting it heartily (as did Jules Ferry, who sat on the Left of the French Assembly), or intending to reform it rather than suppress it.

The postwar wave of decolonization brought European colonial rule around the world to its knees: not only because the European colonial powers, having indulged in the collective suicide of the Second World War, were unwilling or unable to repress nationalist anti-colonial movements, but also because the very principles that had justified imperial expansion had become invalidated by the mass slaughter inflicted upon mankind by this second global conflict in just three decades. The “civilizing mission” had been badly undermined by the spectacle of the trenches of the Great War; it was fatally smitten by the Second World War. Critics of colonial domination like Albert Memmi or Frantz Fanon, backed by towering intellectual figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre, led to a worldwide moral rejection of colonialism, which has retained the upper ground up to the present day. Apart from a few exceptions (mostly published in the 2000s), the overall direction of travel has been towards widespread condemnation of the wrongdoings of a military and political practice that relied on the forced subordination of populations around the world to the might of half a dozen powers.

There are good intellectual reasons to ensure that no δόξα is embraced uncritically for too long, and re-appraising evidence is one of the tasks that scientists, social or otherwise, do constantly. Colonial rule encompassed such a wide range of practices and situations that it requires a careful consideration of myriad factors, and theoretical dichotomies such as “colonizer/colonized” are not entirely satisfactory when it comes to rendering the inevitable relations of co-existence that the colonial encounter brought about. Likewise, there is no doubt that in many cases, the irruption of modernity was mediated by the arrival of European colonizers. One can only wish for an alternative scenario where paths towards modernity were carved from within indigenous societies in the non-European world, but this remains wishful thinking or, at best, counterfactual history – possibly an exciting intellectual exercise, condemned to remain bound to the realm of abstraction.

Historians have the duty to engage critically with their sources and, if necessary, to revise their hypotheses in the light of the evidence they have gathered. In some cases, that means that the outcome of their research might differ from their expectations, or from accepted “truths.” Yet the exercise becomes much more perilous when it is applied in the realm of political advocacy without precaution. The central thesis of “The Case for Colonialism” is deeply objectionable because it indulges in careless historical anachronism. Beyond the moral implications of Gilley’s suggestions, which are numerous but which I am not discussing here since it is done very effectively by Sahar Khan’s essay, it beggars belief that a “case for recolonization” could be viable in the twenty first century.

The very idea that it might seem desirable, let alone possible, to resuscitate colonialism from its ashes, as if feudalism could be reinstated in Europe or America could be brought back to its pre-1783 relationship with Britain, simply ignores the realities of historical processes: political practices are intricately linked with the period in which they emerge, and they cannot be reproduced. Many nineteenth-century British, French, or Italian pro-imperial decisionmakers might have sought to re-create the Roman Empire and its pax romana, but in doing so they ended up producing the two World Wars. More recently, millenarian beliefs which gave rise to the Islamic State’s fantasy resurrection of a form of theocratic state of the early years of Islam, have met frontally with the realities of the current international situation. Historical events never repeat themselves exactly, and there is no reason why nineteenth-century European colonialism would be an exception. That leaves aside, of course, the question of principle as to whether it would be desirable for colonialism to be repeated. The author of this piece unreservedly thinks not.


Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Sahar Khan argues that classical liberal and libertarian political commitments weigh heavily against the supposed case for colonialism. No matter what affinity we may have for startup societies, colonialism as a historical phenomenon was a gross violation of individual rights. From mercantilism to outright genocide, the various aspects of the colonial project are not worth emulating or reconstructing in the modern world. Rather, we should re-emphasize the case against military intervention abroad in all its forms.

Response Essays

  • Berny Sèbe reviews a few of the key points of the ongoing historical debate about colonialism, from Bartolomé de las Casas through Frantz Fanon. The intellectual case for colonialism has never been strong, he concludes, but there is yet another reason to reject colonialist ideology today: It would be impossible to replicate institutions that were the products of historical conditions we no longer experience. Colonialism is best left in the past for this and a host of other reasons.

  • James Stacey Taylor disagrees with Sahar Khan on only one point - foreign rule, he says, can sometimes be legitimate, though he stresses that in practice it almost never is. He then explains what was really wrong with Bruce Gilley’s case for colonialism - not that it gave offense, but that it misused sources. He cites several examples of sources whose words and actions do not bear out the claims that were made of them, including Michael Hechter, Jan Henryk Pierskalla, and Patrice Lumumba - who was Congo’s first president and a staunch anti-colonialist.