Tuesday, February 10

Defending colonialism

In an earlier post I pointed to a string of posts by Wild at Bleedingbrain on his return to Africa. Mentalacrobatics fisked him on his attitude towards Africa "He crossed the line so many times I had to be harsh."

Wild, not one to avoid hot topics, steps back into the arena with a defence of colonialism. Not wanting to be left out of the fun this time around, I'm responding.

I began thinking about the continent of Africa through history and in doing so, began to re-think the European colonial model that was imposed on Africa.

The problem is Africa is a pretty big place. Its always easy to try to generalize, but here you really cant. The history of Africa is diverse, and the "colonial model" was as well.

I had always believed that the colonization of Africa was an evil thing and that it represented the brutal exploitation of one people by another.

Do you mean exploitation of black people by white people? This has become the defacto image of colonialism. There were however many groups of people involved. It was in fact far from being so clear cut, and example can easily be found across Africa of just about everyone exploiting someone.

Africa's population was organized into small tribal groups that were self-contained administrative and economic entities.

This is a gross oversimplification.

At various times and places there were empires, kingdoms, theocracies, oligarchies, towns, cities and nomads groups so small calling them a tribe would be ridicules. Ethiopia was never colonized. Egypt one of the founding nations of modern civilization. The Zulu kingdom and Afrikaner republics, while defeated and colonized, gave the British Empire at its height a pretty good fight.
The biggest problem was that such small groupings made the Africans very vulnerable to foreign invasions. From every direction, people and companies came to take what they could from Africa. The small groups of people were not organized in ways that could have fended off the invaders. When slavers came to harvest humans for sale, these African societies were utterly defenseless.

This is again an oversimplification of what was happening in some parts of the continent. Slavers usually bought slaves from local people, who made a tidy profit during the days of the slave trade. Africans were also not unable to protect themselves, and slavers did not have a safe or easy job. Some parts of Africa saw no slave trade, even though they traded with Arabian merchants.
When the Europeans divided Africa into colonies, was that a good thing or a bad thing?

Are you really looking for a single answer? The Hareros of Namibia, driven into the desert at the turn of the century by the genocidal Germans, would certainly give a different answer to the people of Botswana next door who enjoyed the cordial protection of the British (from Boer expansion).

You list a number of negatives to colonialism. To these I would like to add
-The losses to public and civic society as organizations such as political parties are not allowed to form.
-The loss of ownership of the land and companies that make up the economies of a country.
-The distortion of the goals of a society, as getting rid of the colonizers becomes the overriding goal of society, to the detriment of everything else.

In your positives you list that colonialism formed nation states that are able to fend of threats from outside. This is not true in many cases. The colonial powers were able to enforce these boundaries with their force of arms, but once they left these illusions evaporated. The Congo is a good example. It is in no way a viable country, and only the arrogance of the smallest country in Europe, Belgium, to own the largest colony in Africa made it so. Africa’s current adherence to colonial borders is not always a boon.

To your positives I would like to add that ‘some’ colonial governments (i.e. the British) started building the infrastructure and bureaucracy that form the basis of the modern state. British colonies fared much better generally.

This involvement came at the price of accepting permanent settlers into African nations, which some nations rejected violently (to their cost).

There are many people who would argue that colonialism injured Africa and yet I am inclined to think otherwise. Without doubt, the small tribal groupings would have had a very hard time coping with the global economy that was destined to envelope the rest of the world. Africans, had they stayed in the condition they were in prior to the arrival of the European colonizers, would have existed in a precarious position. They would not have been educated (in the usual meaning of the word) and they would have been less plugged into the world economy than they are now. These two factors are ingredients for perpetual poverty and subservience

Your argument, as I have pointed out, is oversimplified. There are many examples where a people were colonized, and are still in perpetual poverty and subservience with no education or hope. There are people who benefited from being colonized and there are people who rightfully resent the imposition on their freedom and who rightfully believe that they were much better capable of running their own affairs then people dedicated to only their own benefit.

Even though colonization caused untold pain to the Africans, it forced the people of Africa into fairly strong grouping from which their advancement could be played out

Unfortunately that grouping has also caused much of the misery that you see in Africa today.

It is true that it is not playing out very smoothly in many part of Africa but there are some signs that the Africans nations are maturing (emerging democracy and stability) and this means that the once highly vulnerable tribal groups are now ensconced in larger national identities that are less vulnerable and more likely to provide a context of cultural and economic success.

Or they are involved in brutal civil wars against other tribal groups for control of the larger national identity because the borders imposed by their colonizers ignored local realpolitic?

The questions arises: Would Africans have formed these national identities without the help of Europeans?

Africans did form national identities without Europeans. Some African groups that hadn't would have, others would have failed and been conquered and colonized anyway. Would it have been less bloody and painful? Probable not. Would Africa have been a better or worse place? We’ll never know, so it no use crying now.

Is colonialism a stick used to beat ignorant guilty liberals with? None better.

Update: A pretty lively discussion. Missed it at the time.


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