Western Colonialism Did Some Good

And we shouldn't be shy to say so.

By William M Briggs Published on July 11, 2018

Those who lived where the Aztecs once ruled must thank God for Western colonialism. If it wasn’t for the glorious religion of the Spanish, Mesoamerican governments might still be cutting the beating hearts out of prisoners.

That good — the ending human sacrifice — came from Western colonialism. Yet to say that any good came from colonialism is academic heresy. To speak it is a felonious thought crime and an offense worthy of banishment from the Ivory Tower. Professor Bruce Gilley learned this when he published the peer-reviewed article, “The Case for Colonialism” in Third World Quarterly, in which he praised the real accomplishments of Western colonialism.

Academics reacted to the article in their usual calm fashion. Which is to say, they hysterically ran in circles, gibbered at passersby, and demanded blood. Petitions were launched. Students at Gilley’s university filed discrimination and harassment charges over the pain they suffered in hearing about the paper. Who knows how many actually read it. Threats of death were made against Gilley’s publisher. The paper was withdrawn. 

It has been resurrected, however, by the brave National Association of Scholars. It may and should be read at their site.

Heads and Hearts

Gilley investigates countries which benefited from colonialism, like Singapore, Botswana, and Belize. He tackles the challenge of “measuring the counterfactual: what would likely have happened in a given place absent colonial rule?”

His approach is scholarly and deep. But it misses some low-hanging skulls. Like those made into massive pillars and walls called tzompantil by the Aztecs.

Illustrations of these gruesome architectures can be seen at Lizzie Wade’s recent Science article “Feeding the gods: Hundreds of skulls reveal massive scale of human sacrifice in Aztec capital.

Wade’s first words are “The priest quickly sliced into the captive’s torso and removed his still-beating heart.”

Now that sounds like the sort of thing that needs discouraging. But Wade urges us not to judge. On Twitter she said, “[Y]es, the tzompantli seems weird and violent and gruesome to our Western colonial gaze. But don’t for a second think that’s the only way to see it, or the ‘right’ way to see it.”

Western colonial gaze? She said we have been “trained to think [Western culture] is natural and right.” Just as the Aztecs thought it swell to engage in stone-scalpel surgery. She continued:

It’s hard for me to imagine that people *wanted* to be sacrificed, but that’s my own biases and cultural conditioning talking. How I see the world, filtered through centuries of colonial oppression and destruction, is irrelevant to understanding how they saw the world.

Don’t Judge Me For Judging You

Wade fights against saying wholesale slaughter to non-existent deities is bad. She thinks we should be non-judgmental. But that implies the cultural attitude of not judging human sacrifice is superior to the cultural (and colonial) attitude that human sacrifice is evil and should be stopped. This proves she believes some cultures are superior to others. Indeed, it is impossible not to believe some culture is superior. Not necessarily on all matters, of course, but some.

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If some cultures are superior, it is not wrong in principle for one culture to assert its values over another’s. At least under certain conditions. And as sometimes happened during the colonial period.

Don’t Forget the Marshmallows

People not embarrassed of colonialism used to quote General Sir Charles James Napier. He was the Colonial Governor of Scinde, India, in the mid 1800s. Napier disliked the Indian religious practice of suttee. This is where the live widow of a deceased man was burned to death on her late husband’s funeral pyre.

Napier’s brother Sir William said Napier “made it known that he would stop the practice.”

The priests said it was a religious rite which must not be meddled with — that all nations had customs which should be respected and this was a very sacred one. The general affecting to be struck by the argument replied. “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

What Sir William said next proves the colonial benefit: “No suttee took place then or afterward.”

Good for the Gander

What makes us so special? An excellent question. Maybe America could use a dose of positive colonialism. One that would put an end to our sacrificing of millions of our youngest citizens to unknown gods. Perhaps the construction of gibbets outside Planned Parenthood offices would be as sufficient a disincentive as was Napier’s threat.

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  • Ah, but when you run the logic that lands on, “If some cultures are superior, it is not wrong in principle for one culture to assert its values over another’s,” you fail, my friend. Not in your logic — it’s impeccable. Your failure is in thinking that logic makes a difference to anyone involved.

    But then I know you well enough, Mr. Briggs, to know that you knew that full well when you wrote it. And that the real failure lies with those who don’t care what’s rational, only what’s academically au courant.

  • Ken Abbott

    “Low-hanging skulls.” Heh. Indeed, you shall know the tree by its fruits.

  • Tim H

    More Charles James Napiers please!

  • James

    The Aztecs were conquered by a few Spaniards—and a whole lot of other Natives who HATED the Aztecs.

  • Paul Douglas

    The silly thing about this is if there were no colonization, Europeans would be at war with each other like they were before colonization and exactly like they were after, world war one and two. Colonization didn’t stop the imagination of burning people in mass ovens.

  • True, it did some good. The bad part – Christian religion carries the mark of “oppressor’s religion”, especially in the East.

    • Alice Cheshire

      So being under Sharia law will be very, very good for the country and be judged wonderful, I’m sure.

    • David Marshall

      Baloney. It was precisely Christianity which was the active ingredient in much or most of the progressive influence –against suti, against foot-binding, for education, for medicine and democracy.

  • Alice Cheshire

    What will the future say about the pillaging and destruction of cultures by the evil academics who cared nothing about education and only about being the gods of society? Better yet, what if we actually APPLIED their theory and decided to use some ancient ritual that hung academics poisoning the minds of society in the center of town in stocks? After all, other cultures are wonderful.

  • Mike Ozanne

    Academics will go to almost any length to ignore evidence when it comes to benefit from colonialism.

    As a case in point.

    Once upon a time was given Simon Schama’s 3 part History of Britain. Sir Simon being a well regarded academic historian. I read the thing and it was mostly OK if tending towards pinko-bedwettery. Eventually I got to the bit where he’s arguing that the British in India did absolutely no good whatsoever. As en exemplar he dismisses the Thug gangs as an orientalist fantasy fed by a popular panic, bit like the Satanic abuse nonsense.. His sole source when I checked the footnotes: “Confessions of a Thug” a work of fiction written by a European.

    Now Thuggee is something I actually knew something about. Many years ago I’d wanted to include such a thing in an RPG campaign and being a pedantic cuss, I’d loaned a wedge of contemporary books from the British Library to research exactly how it worked. So I l had read William Sleemans letters to the Times of India trying to draw attention to the issue (Satanic Panic there was not massive indifference was his problem); Ramaseeama, Reports on the Thug gangs, and some of the trial transcripts.

    There was no witch trial flummery involved, although many were convicted by informants testimony at the base of each trial was a foundation of proper police work. Tracking victims movements, discovery and forensic examination of their bodies, recovery of stolen property either possessed by the accused or traceable to him through the fence where it was traffiked. Urban legend fantasies do not produce forensic and material evidence on this scale. Schama must have chosen to ignore it or deliberately not gone in search of it because it didn’t fit the story he wanted to tell. Still he’s a Knight of the Realm now….

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