The Case for Belgian Colonialism? Excerpts from: ‘The Case for Colonialism: A Response to My Critics’. By Professor Bruce Gilley.

Professor Bruce Gilley

I respond to scholarly critiques of my 2017 article “The Case for Colonialism.” I find that my critics mostly misread my article, used citations they had not read or understood, failed to adhere to basic social scientific principles, and imposed their own interpretations on data without noting the possibility of alternatives. I note that a failure to adhere to academic standards, the main charge levelled against my paper, is rife among those who have levelled such charges.

The use of their critiques to impose professional penalties and punishments on me as a scholar bespeaks the fundamental problems of ideological monoculture and illiberal censorship in academia today. I conclude that the problems of most research on the colonial past are so deep-rooted that nothing short of a complete rewriting of colonial history with appropriate scientific conditions will suffice in most cases. The same is likely true of many other topics in the social sciences.

I make clear in the article that I define “colonialism” as referring to “British, French, German, Belgian, Dutch and Portuguese colonies from the early 19th to mid-20th centuries.” This temporal separation of European expansion from the earlier 15th to early 19th century phase follows Abernethy who, along with others, argued that only in this second phase — which he dates to the 1824 Anglo-Burmese war — was formal “political control” the dominant mode of European empire while the industrial revolution made the modes and scope of empire qualitatively different than in the first phase (Abernethy, 2000, p. 81)

Klein is thus careless in claiming that my naming of Libya, Haiti and Guatemala as countries that can be used as counterfactuals to colonial rule was among my “errors” (Klein, 2018, p. 40).

Guatemala became independent in 1821 while Haiti revolted against French rule in and was granted independence in 1825. Libya remained independent throughout the second phase of European colonialism until 1912, when Italy briefly laid claim to this fragment of the Ottoman Empire. I am therefore correct in citing these three, along with China, Ethiopia, Liberia, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand, as countries that “did not have a significant colonial history” as I defined it. Thus, while I believe that there is an equally compelling case for Anglo-settlement colonies in North America and the Antipodes, and for Spanish and Portuguese colonialism in the New World, those are separate historical issues and not what I defend in this paper

I am also correct in excluding from my analysis the private estates in the Congo of the Belgian king Leopold II which he held from 1885 to 1908 until the area became a colony of Belgium.

While popular critics of my article, and undergraduate students, can be excused for this, it is a puzzling mistake for credentialled scholars.

Klein, for instance, in arguing against the use of corvee labor under colonialism writes of “Leopold’s minions” as an example (Klein, 2018, p. 43).

Likewise, Brandon & Sarkar refer to “Belgian Congo under Leopold’s rule” and “the trail of bloodshed that the small European nation left behind in the vast African country.” (Brandon & Sarkar, 2019, pp. 80, 83).

MacWilliam too complains that I make “No mention…of imperial Belgium’s rule in the Congo Free State,” which is true because there was no such thing (MacWilliam, 2018, p. 15).

Klein, like others, cites the American journalist Adam Hochschild’s best-selling 1998 book, King Leopold’s Ghost. While carrying the sub-title A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Hochschild acknowledged that control of the private plantation “was shared in no way with the Belgian government” (Hochschild, 1998, p. 87).

This was the same conclusion reached by an investigating magistrate at the time who wrote: “The state of Congo is no colonized state, barely a state at all but a financial enterprise.” (Cattier, 1906, p. 341). The Belgian Congo was never under Leopold’s rule and the 52 years of this colony from 1908 to 1960 were the only period of good governance that this benighted region has ever known.

This is not a technicality. Quite the opposite. King Leopold’s private fiefdom in the Congo was precisely the counterfactual to colonial rule and the best argument for colonialism. His inability to control his native rubber agents who continued their pre-colonial business of slave-trading and coercive rubber harvesting showed the problems that would arise if European freelancers allied with native warlords and slave-traders to establish regimes with no outside scrutiny.

The idea that there was some feasible good governance model available to this region from indigenous sources is preposterous. The Batambatamba Afro-Arab slave traders of the area?

The African warlord Msiri whose compound decorated with human remains was the inspiration, along with a similar compound of the king of Benin, for Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (transposed onto a white trader to elicit the predictable outrage from white readers)?

The feared Arab slavers Tippo Tip or al-Zubayr? Belgian colonization of the Congo in 1908 put an end to “independence” for the Congo and thank goodness for that. In making this small mistake, my critics open us to the wider world of their misunderstanding of colonial history.

Kendhammer cites Vansina in support of the claim that “Central Africa lost as much as onethird of its population during the early years of colonial rule.” Vansina’s article is about the cosmology of the peoples of the Western Bantu language group not about mortality rates relating to colonial rule. Kendhammer is referring to a single sentence where Vansina writes: “Central Africa may have lost half of its population and certainly more than one-third during the conquest.” (Vansina, 1989, p. 344)

Vansina’s citation is to a section of a Harvard study concerning the Belgian Congo colony founded in 1908 (Buell, 1928). That section is not about the entire swathe of Central Africa from the Cameroons to Mozambique. Looking at the reference itself, Vansina himself has misquoted it.

The report quotes an earlier report on the Belgian Congo of 1919 which claimed that the population “has been reduced one-half.” It quotes this claim in order to state that it is almost certainly false. That is because population estimates for the Belgian Congo varied widely and remained pure guesswork. They were of “little value in drawing any precise conclusions.” The only firm conclusion it reached was that population was not increasing. The causes were multiple, including sleeping sickness, inter-tribal warfare, poor nutrition, female trafficking, polygamy, and the working conditions for men in European industrial and commercial enterprises (Buell, 1928, pp. v.2: 568, 570, 573).

Kendhammer’s vast condemnation of European colonialism as a near-genocidal enterprise thus refers to a study that reaches no such conclusion and, according to a review at the time in the American Sociological Review, “is not grounded in sentimental antiimperialism” given the “not infrequent praise for good results accomplished.”(Scott, 1929, p. 129)

What interests me in the responses is that my quotation of the black young man in Congo from van Reybrouck — “When are the Belgians coming back?” which he reports was “a widely heard lament” that he heard “countless times” when he was there in 2010 (Van Reybrouck, 2014, p. 255) — has invariably been put into my mouth by critics like Brandon and Sarkar (Brandon & Sarkar, 2019, p. 83) as well as my university’s faculty union (PSU-AAUP, 2021).

They clearly cannot face the fact that many former colonial peoples wish their countries could return to colonial rule. Colonial rule, was for these people, not some philosophical idea but a practical alternative that needed to be weighed against other practical alternatives and was often found less wanting in comparison. Such “dangerous thoughts” clearly need to be policed by the scolds in the faculty lounge lest they become widely known.

Other critics took up the “divide and rule” critique of colonial rule in rebutting my claims that colonialism advanced self-government and democracy. Khan for instance wrote: “The British exploited differences between the Hindu and Muslim communities in the sub‐continent, creating deep resentments and divisions that persist today due to the 1947 Partition. Similarly, differences between the Hutus and Tutsis that led to the Rwandan genocide were created and exploited by Belgian colonizers.” (Khan, 2017a)

It is true that many scholars argue that these divisions were created or institutionalized by colonial rule and but for colonial rule would not have erupted into inter-ethnic conflicts and later problems for democracy as they did.

However, other scholars argue that this is not the case, and that colonial rule reduced, rather than worsened, this threat, and in turn made democracy more rather than less likely. I don’t believe these is any value in my sending a volley of lazy reflective citations in defense of the latter view, except to note that they are numerous and scholarly.

Khan also stipulates a consensus where none exists. “Burundians, Rwandans, and outside specialists of the region disagree almost totally on the nature of precolonial social…[and on] the impact of colonization…There is no scholarly consensus on answers to these questions.”(Uvin, 1999, p. 254)

Khan’s claim is certainly consistent with mainstream opinion in the dorm rooms of liberal arts colleges. But to claim I have mistaken this because I am out of step with the scholarly consensus is plain wrong.

Several critics were peeved by my quotation of the autobiography of Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, published in French in 1961 just months before he was killed (and in English posthumously in 1962).

In it, he praised Belgian colonial rule for “restoring our human dignity” and “turning us into free, happy, vigorous, and civilized men” (Lumumba, 1962, pp. 12- 13).

As someone celebrated as an anti-colonial hero in the contemporary academy, it is often forgotten that Lumumba was an active “collaborator” in Belgian colonial rule by any measure: a postal clerk, the head of a local trade federation, and an insider in colonial society as head of Stanleyville’s Association des Évolués.

His book was written in 1956, a year before anyone even talked about creating an independent country. Taylor insists that “there is considerable doubt as to whether it represents Lumumba’s true views.” (Taylor, 2017, p. 26)

I know of no evidence of this. While scholars have speculated about why he became an anti-colonial radical, no one doubts that he saw himself as a moderate and as a supporter of Belgian colonial institutions during the colonial era. As Catherine Hoskyns, who undertook a study of the first post-colonial Congo crisis for the Royal Institute of International Affairs in 1962 to 1964 (Hoskyns, 1965), wrote reviewing the book: “Those who expect from it an exposition of the dynamic nationalism for which he is now the symbol will be disappointed. Lumumba at that time was a self-conscious évolué and an exponent of gradualism, much more concerned to mediate between the Belgian colonial system and the mass of Congolese peasants than to demand immediate independence.” (Hoskyns, 1963, p. 130).

The Achebe and Lumumba examples highlight the trained incapacity of contemporary scholars to even imagine, much less acknowledge evidence of, the subjective legitimacy of European colonial rule. With that as background, it is hardly surprising that they found my suggestion to the contrary to be “offensive.”

The entire 41 page publication: “The Case for Colonialism: A Response to My Critics” by Professor Bruce gilley, can be found here: