Counting the Cost of Decolonisation

In recent years Bruce Gilley has acquired a reputation for fluttering the dovecotes of academe. In 2017 the eminently leftist journal Third World Quarterly published his article “The Case for Colonialism”. It caused conniptions among the journal’s anti-colonial devotees, and became one of its most widely read articles ever. The virtual flash mobs generated two protest petitions of some 16,000 signatures. They included the names of tenured professors at Western universities who, in their outrage, flouted their institutions’ commitment to free speech and called for the retraction of the article and for Princeton to revoke Gilley’s PhD. Death threats were made against the editor and his team in London. Fifteen members of the editorial board resigned, ignoring the plea of Noam Chomsky to engage in a rebuttal. This was too much for Hamid Dabashi, Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University: 

[Chomsky] has as usual refused to denounce Bruce Gilley, offering his habitual bourgeois hogwash that the professor has the right to say what he said and that he too publishes things that offend people. This, of course, is highbrow gibberish—shifting the issue to the domain of censorship and freedom of speech … [Gilley] must be ostracized, publicly shamed and humiliated, and never ever called “a colleague” who should be politely invited for a “civilized debate”. Against that “civilized” gathering of morally compromised scholars, I will proudly form a band of barbarian dissidents.

Gilley seems to have been surprised by the violent reaction to his article. He apologised for it on his personal website and even thought of asking the editor to withdraw the article. But he was fully aware that this is “what grovelling teachers did in the Cultural Revolution, hurriedly writing obsequious letters of contrition and hoping to survive”. Apparently, the UK’s Committee on Publication Ethics prevents the retraction of articles for political reasons. Yet, this is what happened. Citing threats against its staff, the journal withdrew the article.

So, is it now the case that if a reader violently objects to an article in a journal it will be withdrawn? Has fear of the mob triumphed in academe? Gilley’s piece was eventually republished in Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars (of which he is the Oregon state chapter president) in 2018 and by the History Reclaimed website in 2021. Gilley was a tenured professor at Portland State University so he could not be fired, though his colleagues were partly appeased when he seemed to recant. But did he? Judging by this collection of essays, The Case for Colonialism, including the notorious article, which have been republished by the New English Review Press, Gilley is still fighting his corner. 

Why has Gilley so enraged the academy? His sin was to point out, based on rigorous social scientific research, that many ex-colonies (especially in Africa) had been better off under European rule than under the post-independence governments. During the late colonial period, from the 1920s to independence, “populations were growing, food supply expanding, life expectancy leaping upwards, government administration improving, wages and living standards bowling upwards, and plans for self-government unfolding”. Gilley cites the praise of the great gods of the anti-colonial movement, Gandhi, Lumumba and Mandela, for the benefits brought by European, and especially British, colonialism. What is striking is that none of them lived long enough to judge the results of the independence of their countries. As intelligent men they could not but have been horrified.

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In many cases, decolonisation has been a disaster, especially in terms of the body count. The European colonial powers, exhausted by the Second World War, handed over their passive and inarticulate populations to a set of rapacious ideologues, schooled in the anti-colonial doctrines of Lenin and Hitler, as interpreted by European intellectuals of the Left and Right. The result was political tyranny, civil war and economic collapse in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, the Congo, Vietnam, Morocco, Algeria and the Sudan. The first president of Guinea, Ahmed Sékou Touré, who styled himself the “Terror of International Imperialism, Colonialism, and Neo-Colonialism”, was given to hanging his cabinet ministers. He managed fifty-eight in one session in 1970. 

Barely a month after Prince Philip attended the independence celebrations on Zanzibar in 1963, two black rebel leaders from the mainland instigated a rebellion which led to the slaughter of many of the Arabs and South Asians on the island. As one of these thugs later wrote with pride in his memoirs, in his comfortable retirement, he had ordered his gangs of criminals “to fire in all directions and to kill whatever came before them—men, women, children, disabled persons, even chickens and goats”. In just two days, between 5000 and 10,000 people were murdered, often by machete, as the gangs moved from house to house. 20,000 “stooges” were thrown in prison, while 100,000 mostly middle-class persons fled the island. Some 43 per cent of the population were either killed, imprisoned or went into exile in a coup which their perpetrators, and their Western apologists, tried to present “as a local uprising against colonial legacies”. 

And the horror continued. In 1969 a group of militia arrived on the neighbouring island of Jongowe, seized the village leaders of the local Tumbatu people as supposed traitors, took them back to Zanzibar and executed them. Their children were then forced to attend a rally and applaud in song the execution of their parents under a banner which read: “Slaughter, slaughter, slaughter all traitors. Slaughter, slaughter, slaughter all the Tumbatu and their leaders”. Even after one of the rebel leaders was expelled back to the mainland and the other was assassinated, Zanzibar remained a nightmare island for the next forty years. 

Gilley quotes the American historian G. Thomas Burgess, that the revolution in Zanzibar resulted in “confiscations, shortages, surveillance and fear”. It “swept away much of the substance of the legal bureaucratic order of the colonial state”. The new regime “sat atop an extensive, East German-trained security apparatus and was able to rule by personal decree”. The clove and coconut plantations were nationalised and promptly collapsed, devastating the island’s prime export trade.

One of the Arabs who managed to escape from Zanzibar was Abdulrazak Gurnah, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021. Although he had previously condemned the abysmal record of the revolutionary regime, he seems to have found it convenient, for reasons of publicity, to play up to the expectations of the Nobel committee who, in their commendation of his work, put the disaster that had overtaken Zanzibar down to “the effects of colonialism”.

As Gilley sums it up, the “blame must be laid at the feet of Prince Philip and all he represented”. The black population of Zanzibar have been brainwashed into celebrating the revolution as a national holiday, while academics “churn out books … with chapters on ‘the ambiguities of remembrance’, the ‘reconstructed self’ and ‘patterns of interpretation’”. 

“The legacies of colonialism” is the catch-all term used by anti-colonial intellectuals to excuse the genocides that have been perpetrated in Zanzibar, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Rwanda and Sri Lanka, not to mention the collapse of Zimbabwe since 1980, South Africa since 1994 and Hong Kong since the handover to China in 1997. One would have thought that the humanitarian disaster that has been decolonisation for so many peoples would have been the cause of regret for the intellectual exponents of “Third Worldism” and that it might have spurred them to reassess colonialism and its benefits. Not so. They have doubled down on their refusal to confront reality and invented a whole new dream-world of jargon-laden belief called “post-colonialism” which seeks to blame the continuing ills of the Third World, now called the Global South, on the colonialists and their successors. Why do so many Western intellectuals engage in this ostrich-like pose? Gilley has hit on the nub of the matter: 

Most anti-colonial critics will roll their eyes when you try to engage them in questions of social scientific research because their real motivation is not getting history right, but getting the present right. Either they reject research findings as yet more evidence of Western imperialism and the need to “decolonise” research and replace it with some sort of ideologically progressive form of story-telling, or they fear that formerly colonised peoples have such fragile psyches that they could not withstand an encounter with facts that make them uncomfortable.

And those who offend against the canon will be reprimanded. After a visit to Singapore, which along with Malaysia, Botswana and Belize, are examples of former colonies which have been successful in building on “the legacies of colonialism”, Helen Zille, the former premier of Western Cape province in South Africa, tweeted that South Africans should follow suit instead of betraying their inheritance. In 1993 the average Singaporean was 4.5 times wealthier than the average South African. Today the difference is seven-fold. For pointing this out, Zille was vilified in the press, disciplined by her party and found guilty by South Africa’s ethics board of “improper conduct”. Citing with approval the academic mob response to Gilley’s article, the board declared that all such pro-colonial viewpoints should be banned. 

What is to be done about this wilful refusal of Western and Third World intellectuals and policy-makers to recognise the positive legacies of colonialism? Gilley believes that the “intellectual turn will require a massive Enlightenment” which can only really come from a reassessment of the historical record of colonialism, based on proper research rather than ideological bias. Given that the global Left are trying to trash the reputation of the real Enlightenment, this will take some doing. Gilley also advocates borrowing and replicating the “governance functions embedded in a country’s colonial past”, effectively “re-colonizing the failing parts of the Third World”. Western governments and companies could even share in certain sovereign functions, such as public finance and law and order, as they have done recently in some Asian and African countries. 

For instance, Indonesia’s exports surged after the government fired 6000 corrupt inspectors at the Jakarta port of Tanjung Priok and appointed a Swiss firm to rebuild the customs service. This replicates European control of the customs in the colonial era, especially in nominally independent countries such as Venezuela, Egypt, Persia and Imperial China, usually to repay the international debts of these countries. Gilley is an advocate of the founding of charter cities by the British on land leased for ninety-nine years from host governments, in the hope that they might in the future turn into the likes of Singapore. 

But is there any appetite for such actions among Western and the host governments, given the cost and the prevailing anti-colonial ethos? The United Nations should have handled such matters, as it has been a decolonisation machine since 1945, mass-producing more than one hundred countries. But its slow-grinding organisational wheels are fouled by the sludge of anti-colonialism.

Now that the nationalists who were responsible for the horrors of decolonisation have died, does the solution lie in the hands of the new generation of Africans who seem to be more interested in a “creative” rather than a “protest” identity? There is a renewed interest among them in the achievements of the great figures of European colonisation—Livingstone in Zambia, Lugard in Nigeria and de Brazzaville in Congo.

The British military intervention in Sierra Leone in 1999 and subsequent rebuilding of the police force went down well with the population who, according to a local journalist, wanted “the Brits to stay for as long as necessary, because of the helpless condition of the country”. For such an intervention to work, however, there would seem to be a need for a popular local leader and advocate. Such was the case in Liberia where President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf supported the post-2005 Government and Economic Assistance Management Program (GEMAP) which devolved considerable spending and budgetary powers to external actors. This went down well on the garbage-strewn streets of Monrovia. As a shopkeeper, Henry Williams, enthused to a Times journalist, with approving nods from his customers: “We love GEMAP. It will stop the politicians from stealing from us.”

This illustrates the core reason why colonialism proved acceptable to so many people in Africa and Asia, and is perhaps the key to its revitalisation. Many saw European rule, whether direct or indirect, as providing them with security in all aspects of their lives and the means of self-improvement through education and employment. Instead of fleeing to Europe to achieve it, would it not be better for Europeans to return to these countries in some form and use the billions spent each year in international aid to help rebuild them and offer their inhabitants some hope for the future? It would certainly be better for Europe, which is being inundated with young Africans and Asians in search of work who seek to bring their families with them. Yet the faint-hearts who misgovern us are too timid to embrace such necessary measures. 

This is why Gilley’s brave prescription for a new colonialism is unlikely to take off. Still, one can hope that as long as he can get published, he will continue to expose the idiocies of anti-colonialism by his careful studies of colonial rule. This is much in evidence in this book with his essays on the Europeans in the Middle East, the Congo, Malaya, Aden and North America. The big question will be whether his views will percolate through to the denizens of the academy, for many of whom he is now a bête noire, to be shamed, cancelled and even expelled. As his experience shows, the academy has become a very dark place.

The Case for Colonialism
by Bruce Gilley

New English Review Press, 2023, 322 pages, about $50

Saul Kelly is Visiting Reader of International History at King’s College, London.


6 thoughts on “Counting the Cost of Decolonisation


    Colonization has been going on relentlessly in human history. The kind talked about in Saul Kelly’s article is a kind of Pax Romana in which case Roman soldier colonizers brought peace through the application and enforcement of law and order. They also brought the benefits of superb engineering, the principles of which we still benefit from today. The Roman conquest also relied heavily on the maintenance of border protection. Today, unfortunately for many countries of the West like the US, UK, EU and Australia the borders are wide open, both front and back doors. This has resulted in colonisation of a devastatingly different kind where law and order is breaking down due in large part to profligate immigration policies. In many EU countries, for example, Britain and France, and to a lesser extent in other countries like the US and Australia, law and order and the benefits of the old order are being eaten up by a revitalized Pax Islamica, propagated through a new type of colonization called hijrah which is foisting its own version of peace, law and order on countries and territories thus colonized.

  • Adelagado says:

    The sun will have well and truly set on the British empire by 2050. According to Google, England’s population will be 51% Muslim in 2050.

    • James McKenzie says:

      The agenda is the Koran: no comprise. 20/80 applies.

    • Farnswort says:

      But this mass movement of non-assimilating people into the United Kingdom (and other Anglosphere countries, including Australia) is not called ‘colonialism’. Rather, it is described as simply ‘migration’ – a benign term.

      Adam Ellwanger in The American Mind observes how the Left treats ‘migrants’ very differently to ‘settlers’.

      “So, what differentiates migrants from settlers? Nothing but the crooked moral calculus of the Left, who don’t simply say that the influx of foreigners to western nations is justified—they say it’s good. Their arrival is good because they’re migrants, and they’re migrants because their arrival is good. Israeli Jews are settlers because their presence is deemed bad, and it’s bad because they’re settlers. Need the math to be simplified? Any mass movement into historically-white, Western countries by people from elsewhere is migration, while any white or “white-adjacent” peoples who come to live in nations inhabited by other groups will be deemed “colonizing settlers.”

      At bottom, “Decolonization” is a cynical, rhetorical ploy: hypocrisy drenched in moralistic sentimentality, aimed at advancing the geopolitical objectives of Left elites who are consumed with what Roger Scruton called oikophobia. That is, a fear and hatred of the place they call home—a pathology which can only be sated by total surrender to those who will eventually make home unrecognizable. Add in a carefully cultivated sense of guilt for historical wrongdoing, and it creates a powerful appetite for cultural and demographic suicide.”

      Settlers Versus Migrants –

  • Daffy says:

    Gee, if someone told me to retract an article, I’d suggest they take a long walk off a short plank. No, actually, I’d lapse into Australianisms of the utmost bluntness! You know, like the computer on 2001, with its “I can’t do that Dave…”

  • bruce_ploetz says:

    Dinesh D’Souza’s book about Barak Obama, “Obama’s America” identifies Obama as in essence an anti-colonialist. His father from Kenya wrote a paper espousing 100% income tax, and seemingly the apple fell not far from the tree,

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