‘For the last 100 years, western colonialism has had a bad name. It is high time to question this orthodoxy.” So opens “The Case for Colonialism”, an article by Bruce Gilley, a political scientist at Portland State University, which appeared in September’s issue of the journal Third World Quarterly.
Predictably, a perfect storm of protest erupted. As Gilley tells it, 15 of the 34 members of TWQ’s editorial board resigned, two petitions demanding a retraction gathered over 16,000 signatures, fellow academics accused him of promoting “white supremacy”, and the editor eventually withdrew the essay under death threats from Indian nationalists, though it survives on the author’s own website.
What provoked this fury of indignation? Gilley is no simple imperialist. He doesn’t deny that “inexcusable atrocities” occurred under European colonial rule. It’s just that he remembers that they also happened before the Europeans arrived and after they left. With Zimbabwe on our minds, we might remember that the massacre of up to 20,000 Ndebele in Zimbabwe in 1983-4 was perpetrated, not by the British but by that patriarch of African nationalism Robert Mugabe. “The notion that colonialism is
always and everywhere a bad thing,” Gilley writes, “needs to be rethought in light of the grave human toll of a century of anti-colonial regimes and policies.”
Among the virtues of colonial rule, as Gilley sees them, were often the formation of coherent political communities, reliable state institutions and therefore living-spaces where individuals and their families could flourish.