On the “Evil” of Colonialism

There are few better demonstrations of the fact that the term Homo sapiens is an oxymoron then the results of our species’ attempts to “interpret” the innate emotional responses that are the source of all the gaudy manifestations of human morality.  Moral emotions exist.  Evolution by natural selection is the reason for their existence.  If they did not exist, there would be no morality as we know it.  In other words, the only reason for the illusion that Good and Evil are objects, things-in-themselves that don’t depend on any mind, human or otherwise, for their existence, is the fact that, over some period of time, that illusion made it more likely that the genes responsible for spawning it would survive and reproduce.  Recently it has been amply demonstrated that, over a different period of time, under different conditions, the very same emotions spawned by the very same genes can accomplish precisely the opposite.  In other words, they can promote their own destruction.  Mother Nature, it would seem, has a fondness for playing practical jokes.

The elevation of colonialism in some circles to the status of Mother of all Evils is a case in point.  It has long been the “root cause” of choice for all sorts of ills.  Prominent among them lately has been Islamic terrorism, as may be seen here, here, here and here.  Even prominent politicians have jumped on the bandwagon, and we find them engaged in the ludicrous pursuit of explaining to Islamic terrorists, who have been educated in madrassas and know the Quran by heart, that they are not “real Moslems.”  It must actually be quite frustrating for the terrorists, who have insisted all along that they are acting on behalf of and according to the dictates of their religion.  It also begs the question of how, if Islam is a “religion of peace,” all of north Africa, much of the Middle East outside of Arabia, Turkey, significant parts of Europe, Iran, etc., formerly parts of the Christian Roman Empire or the Zoroastrian Persian Empire, ever became Moslem.  Of course, it was accomplished by military force, and the ensuing colonization of these countries resulted in the destruction of the “indigenous” cultures and traditions that were overrun.  Interestingly, we seldom find this Moslem version of colonialism treated as a form of immorality.  Apparently we are to assume that there is a statute of limitations on the application of the relevant moral principles.

Be that as it may, in bygone days colonialism was often also invoked as the “root cause” for the promiscuous massacres of the Communists, and is the “root cause” of choice for the ills, real or imagined, of all sorts of minorities as well.  I have long maintained that Good and Evil have no objective existence.  However, whether one agrees with that assertion or not, it seems only reasonable that the terms at least be defined in a way that is consistent with their evolutionary roots.  In that case, the notion that colonialism was evil becomes absurd.  It is yet another example of a morality inversion, characterized by the whimsical tendency of human moral emotions to stand on their heads in response to sufficiently drastic changes to the external environment.

What were the actual results of colonialism?  We will limit our examination to white colonialism, as colonialism by other ethnic groups, although of frequent occurrence in the past, is not generally held to be such an “evil.”  Rather, colonialism as practiced by other than whites is deemed a mere expression of “culture.”  It would therefore be “racist” to consider it evil.  In the first place, then, white colonialism has led to a vast expansion in the area of the planet inhabited primarily by whites.  They are now the dominant ethnic groups on whole continents that they never knew existed little over half a century ago.  This must certainly be considered good if we are to define the Good consistently with the “root causes” of morality itself.  Interestingly, colonialism was also good in this way for other ethnic groups.  Sub-Saharan blacks, for example, now have a prominent presence over wide territories that they never would have seen in the absence of the white practice of carrying slaves to their colonies.  It is unlikely that, if faced with the choice, blacks would trade a world that never experienced white colonialism with the more “evil” world we actually inhabit.

Even if one chooses to divorce morality entirely from its evolutionary roots, and assume that Good and Evil are independent entities floating about in the luminiferous aether with no biological strings attached whatsoever, it is not entirely obvious that white colonialism was an unmitigated evil.  Indeed, if we are to accept the modern secular humanist take on objective morality, as outlined, for example, in Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, it would seem that the opposite is the case.  According to this version of morality, “human flourishing” is the summum bonum.  I would maintain that a vastly greater number of humans are flourishing today because of white colonialism than would otherwise be the case.  Thanks to white colonialism, the continents on which its impact was greatest now support much larger populations of healthier people who live for longer times on average, and are less likely to die violent deaths than if it had not occurred.  This, of course, is not necessarily true of every race involved.  The aborigines of Tasmania, for example, were entirely wiped out, and there has probably been a significant decline in the population of the pre-Columbian inhabitants of North America.  However, the opposite has been the case in Africa and India.  In any case, if we are to believe the ideological shibboleths that often emanate from the same ideological precincts that gave rise to the latest versions of morality based on “human flourishing,” all these distinctions by race don’t matter, because race is a mere social construct.

I often wonder what makes modern secular Puritans imagine that they will be judged any differently by future generations than they are in the habit of judging the generations of the past.  After all, the vast majority of the inhabitants of Great Britain, France, and the other major colonialist countries did not imagine that they were being deliberately immoral during the heyday of colonialism.  On what basis is it justified to judge others out of the context of their time?  No one has ever come up with a rational answer to that question, for the very good reason that no such basis is possible.

The proponents of colonialism left behind a great many books on the subject.  Typically, they perceived colonialism as a benign pursuit that benefited the colonial peoples as much as the colonizers.  There is an interesting chapter on the subject in Volume XII (The Latest Age) of the Cambridge Modern History (Chapter XX, The European Colonies), first published in 1910.  In reading it, one finds no hint of evidence that the author of the chapter, a university professor who no doubt considered himself enlightened according to the standards of the time, perceived colonialism as other than a benign force, and an expression of the energy and economic growth of the colonizing countries.  Some typical passages include,

The few years under present consideration form a brief period in this long process (of European colonization since the 15th century).  Yet they have seen an awakened interest in colonization and an extension of the field of enterprise which give them a unique significance.  The comparative tranquility of domestic and foreign affairs in most countries of Europe has favoured a great outburst of colonizing energy, for which the growth of population and industry has provided the principal motive.  The growth of population has swollen the stream of emigration; the expansion of industry has increased the desire to control sources of supply for raw materials and markets for finished products.  A rapid improvement in means of communication and transport has facilitated intercourse between distant parts of the world.  A vast store of accumulated wealth in old countries has been available for investment in the new.

In other words, colonization was considered a manifestation of social progress.  The rights of indigenous peoples were not simply ignored as is so often claimed today.  It was commonly believed, and not without reason, that they, too, benefited from colonization.  Epidemic diseases were controlled, pervasive intertribal warfare and the slave trade were ended, and the brutal mistreatment of women was discouraged.  On the other hand, the abuse of native populations was also recognized.  Quoting again from a section of the book dealing with the Belgian Congo, the author writes,

Its history would be a fine tale of European energy applied to the development of a tropical country, had not the work been marred by a cruel spirit of exploitation gaining the upper hand.  The first ten years of its existence were a period of great activity, during which a marvelous change came over the land.  Splendid pioneering work was done.  Experienced missionaries and travelers explored the great streams.  The drink traffic, the slave trade, and cannibalism, were much diminished.  The ancient Arab dominion in Central Africa was overthrown after a hard and costly struggle (1890-3).  Routes of communication were opened, and railway building commenced…

But it was by its treatment of the native peoples that the Congo State attained that evil eminence which accumulating proof shows it to have well deserved.  The system of administration lent itself to abuses.  Large powers were devolved upon men not always adequately paid or capable of bearing their responsibilities.  The supervision of their activities in the interior was impossible from places so distant as Boma and Brussels.  The native was wronged by the disregard of his system of land ownership and of the tribal rights to hunt and gather produce in certain areas, as well as by a system of compulsory labor in the collection of produce on behalf of the State, enforced by barbarous punishments and responsible for continual and devastating warfare… Finally, the Belgian Parliament taking up the question, the Congo State was in 1908 transferred to Belgium, and its rulers have thus become responsible to the public opinion of a nation.

Except, perhaps, during the most active periods of European competition for colonies during the last half of the 19th century, eventual independence was recognized not merely as an ideal but as practically inevitable.  In the last paragraph of the chapter the author writes,

(Great Britain’s) colonial policy has been inspired by an understanding and a wise recognition of facts.  Settlers in new countries form societies; such societies, as their strength grows, desire the control of their own life; common interests draw contiguous societies together, and union creates and fosters the sense of nationality.  Perceiving the course of this development, the mother country has continually readjusted the ties that bound her to her colonies, so that they might be appropriate to the stage of growth which each colony had reached.  Wherever possible, she has conceded to them the full control of their own affairs; and she has encouraged contiguous colonies to unite, so that in dimensions, resources, population, and economic strength, the indispensable material foundations of a self-governing state could be formed.

The author closes with sentiments that are likely to shock modern university professors out of their wits:

Slowly the British empire is shaping itself into a league of Anglo-Saxon peoples, holding under its sway vast tropical dependencies as well as many small communities of mixed race.  Strong bonds of common loyalty, race, and history, as well as the need of cooperation for defense, unite the white peoples.  But the course of progress has carried the empire to an unfamiliar point in political development.  Loose and elastic in its structure, it may well take a new shape under the influence of external pressure, political and economic.

In other words, the author did not share the modern penchant among the “Anglo-Saxons” for committing ethnic suicide.  In our own day, of course, while it is still perfectly acceptable for every other ethnic group on the planet to speak in a similar fashion, it has become a great sin for whites to do so.  Far be it for me to challenge this development on moral grounds, for the simple reason that there are no moral grounds one way or the other.  Similarly, this post is in no way intended to morally condone or serve as a form of moral apologetics for colonialism.  There exists no objective basis for morally judging colonialism, or anything else, for that matter.  I merely point out that the moral standards relating to colonialism have evolved over time.  Beyond that, one might add that colonialism accomplished ends in harmony with the reasons that led to the evolution of moral emotions to begin with, whereas the manipulation of those emotions to condemn colonialism on illusory moral grounds accomplishes precisely the opposite.  That is not at all the same thing as claiming that colonialism was Good, and anti-colonialism is evil.  It is merely stating a fact.

One can certainly choose to oppose, and even actively fight against, colonialism, or anything else to which one happens to have an aversion.  I merely suggest that, before one does so, one have a reasonably accurate understanding of the emotions that are the cause of the aversion, and why they exist.  Moral emotions seem to point to objective things, Good and Evil, that are perceived as real, but aren’t.  I don’t wish to imply that no one should ever act.  I merely suggest that, before they do, they should understand the illusion.

Leave a Reply