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It’s wrong to say that European colonialism was an exceptional evil

This article is neither a moral justification nor a moral condemnation of colonialism. In fact, I will try to avoid making moral statements altogether. What I will present here is a collection of facts that demonstrate that the history of empire and colonialism has bequeathed different parts of the world with a mixed legacy that continues to have consequences today.

That an article like this is even necessary speaks to the fact that an entire generation of academics and students seem to have become incapable of objective and rational debate when it comes to the subject of colonialism. Instead they resort to an emotional and wilfully oversimplified view of history that places ‘Western imperialism’ as the great evil of the modern era, which can then be contrasted with the morally sainted position of ‘post-colonial’ studies in the academic world. The problem is that drawing moral lines across an empirical and amoral history creates damaging intellectual inconsistency. Strangely, for instance, few of these same academics have much to say about the moral implications of pre-modern empires, especially those which originated in the non-European world, and this point will be addressed later.

Undoubtedly, colonialism had devastating effects on those parts of the world that it affected, and while there is not enough space to examine them in full detail here, consider the damage wrought to indigenous peoples in Americas and Australasia. This occurred largely through diseases unwittingly carried by Europeans for which these populations had no natural immunity. Moreover, to enable easier governance of local and imported populations, colonial powers utilised slavery whilst creating and exaggerating ethnic divides. These policies have continuing and visible cultural legacies, especially in the United States and Africa.

Pre-modern empires shared many of the features of their European successors, including the use of slavery

European colonialism also brought beneficial features to some states, however, particularly those in East Asia. The structures of colonial government were retained to an extent in many former colonies, enabling the effective administration of larger areas, and the marshalling of increasingly large amounts of resources for infrastructure projects on a scale and size that would not necessarily have been possible in the pre-colonial era. In addition, Western ideals of enlightenment and scientific rationalism have often been adopted in the post-colonial world, leading in some cases to rapid economic development and the alleviation of disease and poverty. In general, the places that embraced the modern global economy with all its benefits whilst rejecting the violence-based and racialised power structures of colonial rule have prospered. Those that utilised and worsened these same power structures are some of the poorest and most violent places in the world.

Much criticism of colonialism as a process is rational and reasonable, but the debate around the topic often shifts to the individuals, nationalities or races responsible for its implementation by moving to new areas. Given that many academic critics of colonialism are strong supporters of unrestricted migration, there is a strange contradiction here in their view of which groups are allowed to move freely, and which aren’t. Worse is the shocking naivety on display amongst people who are supposedly the best educated in the world. The reality, as we know, is this: more powerful groups and individuals have always perpetrated acts of oppression and violence against less powerful groups since the dawn of human civilisation.

An emotional and wilfully oversimplified view of history that places ‘Western imperialism’ as the great evil

Such is the dark side of human nature – the willingness to dominate and exploit others for one’s own benefit.  Societies that do not adapt quickly enough to external threats have generally perished with a degree of inevitability. Suggesting some groups are particularly susceptible (or immune) to these psychological characteristics is at best scientifically inaccurate and at worst racist. Furthermore, to argue that some peoples, societies and empires are morally superior to others is an exercise in intellectual dishonesty.

Pre-modern empires shared many of the features of their European successors, including the use of slavery, unequal racial relations and the exploitation and destruction of indigenous populations. There were unique aspects to the European empires of the modern age, being perhaps unparalleled in both size and scope. But their brutality, self-interest, and inherent violence, as well as their economic, administrative, and scientific advances, are legacies not just of previous empires, but of human civilisation as a whole.

– An opposing take on the teaching of colonialism can be found here:

Comments (2)

  • glad you’ve cracked history pal, let us know how it turns out for you

  • 700 words to say “colonialism wasn’t exceptional if you carefully ignore all the ways it was exceptional, also my professor upset me by telling me something i was taught was wrong”, absolute trash

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