Friday, September 15, 2017

First Thoughts on the Bruce Gilley Controversy

I will probably write something more substantial on my blog about Bruce Gilley's recent article, "The Case for Colonialism" published in Third World Quarterly. But, just a few preliminary thoughts. First, it appears that the editors published it despite the fact that three peer review reports recommended against publication. Second, while a case could be made for reevaluating colonialism he doesn't make it. His examples of places he claims were better under European rule are just about the worst ones possible. He uses Guinea-Bissau which he claims was worse after independence than under the Portuguese and blames it on Amilcar Cabral the leader of the independence movement. Except, Cabral was murdered before Guinea-Bissau achieved independence. So it is hard to see how any failures of the independent state are his fault. Another example he uses is Belgian Congo. Now, most of Congo's time as a modern independent state was under the horrible misrule of Mobutu installed in 1965 with the help of the former colonial rulers and US. But, as bad as he was it is hard to consider it worse than Belgian rule over the Congo where excess premature deaths due to forced labor and other forms of colonial oppression ran into the millions. Another example he uses is Kenya where he explicitly praised the British crushing of the Mau Mau (not Mau as he states in the article) uprising in the 1950s. The suppression of this revolt involved the mass incarceration of hundreds of thousands of not just rebels but Kikuyu civilians in concentration camps. Another million plus were confined to enclosed villages. Arbitrary killings and torture of detainees was routine and qualitatively didn't differ from some of the worst abuses in Nazi and Stalinist camps. Again, independent Kenya hasn't had a perfect human rights record. But, it never put hundreds of thousands of people in concentration camps like the British did not long after they had helped hang former German officials for the exact same crimes against Europeans following the defeat of the Nazis. Finally, this isn't a left vs. right debate. It is hard to classify the Mau Mau for instance as any type of leftist movement. Rather, any evaluation of colonialism including the brutal Soviet version in places like Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia needs to come to terms with the actual history of colonial rule.


derRach said...

Perhaps authors like Bruce Gilley see only what they want to see similar to the cult of Cultural Marxism prevalent in American universities.

Could you write a rebuttal and submit it to the journal in question?

Bijan Parsia said...

Great points.

Mohan Matthen said...

Excellent points. He takes the worst examples of post-colonial rule and pre-independence opposition to colonialism, and uses them to praise colonialism. Even there, he gets the facts wrong. But worse, he takes good examples of post-colonial success, like Singapore, and suggests that the colonists are somehow responsible. Equally false. What was Singapore, or Malaya, under the British?

Scott MacEachern said...

It took about two minutes to find a misrepresentation of a source in Gilley's article. He claims (p. 5) that Guinea-Bissau was "...a successful colonial state that had ... initiated sustained gains in life expectancy since bringing the territory under control in 1936." His source for this claim is Riley, J. C. 2005 The Timing and Pace of Health Transitions around the World. Population and Development Review 31(4):741-764. However, in that article, the only reference to Guinea Bissau (Appendix 1) indicates life expectancy increases starting in the 1940s and 1950s and ending with life expectancy in 2000. There is nothing in his source that supports his claim that the colonial regime was responsible for this increase in life expectancy.

That's of a piece with all of this article.

I'm an Africanist. The idea that this so-called scholar could pretend to be considering the costs of colonialism in Africa without, for example, mentioning the Holocaust-level atrocities inflicted on the Congo Free State and Belgian Congo between 1880 and 1920 is both obscene and fundamentally bad scholarship. His claims about Guinea-Bissau are similarly partial and misleading: he locates the 'start of a guerrilla war' in the country in 1963 - ignoring the fact that this process started in 1959 with the machine-gunning of striking dock workers by the Portuguese authorities. The atrocities carried out by Portuguese forces were extraordinary, as was their use of American tactics in Vietnam, especially the use of napalm and defoliants on rural areas. (This later contributed to the agricultural collapse he claims.)

This is bad scholarship: the fact that it deals in colonial nostalgia doesn't make it daring.

Bill Cooke said...

DerRach, it is of note that you are the only contributor thus far to conceal your real name. Your comment will be discounted accordingly, but please note, this piece and the scandal surrounding are not about US universities. Thank you.