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Colonialism and Progress: Some Thoughts on The Case for Colonialism by Bruce Gilley

Some Thoughts on The Case for Colonialism by Bruce Gilley
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Rasheed Griffith reflects on the recent book by Bruce Gilley, The Case for Colonialism (2023) and considers its arguments when applied to the former British colonies in the Caribbean.

As James Banner, author of The Ever-Changing Past, reminds us, “all history is revisionist history.” The past is gone forever, and we have no direct access to it. The study of history tries to piece together what happened. However, historians are not immune to the world they inhabit. They filter the world through all dimensions of themselves: age, sexuality, nationality, interests, politics, culture, and other features. As time passes, we should often revisit things we thought were settled to take a fresh look.

Bruce Gilley does this with his book The Case for Colonialism. The gut reaction to this topic is often revulsion. But semiotic objections are unproductive. I think Gilley’s arguments are correct in substance.

At its foundation, the case for “Western colonialism”, according to Gilley, “is about rethinking the past as well as improving the future.” Contrary to the current commonly received interpretation of the past, Gilley argues that “the most serious threat to human rights and world peace was not colonialism — as the United Nations declared in the 1960s — but anti-colonialism.”

At its core, the book argues that the developing world was thrown off the path of progress by abandoning the technocratic governance of colonial administrations too quickly. For Gilley, the anti-colonial movement had little constructive thought to offer most new countries since the “purpose was not historical accuracy but contemporaneous advocacy.” In the Caribbean, this was quite evident in the dominant political economy theories of post-colonialism called the Plantation School.

Gilley does not focus that much on the Caribbean in the book. But if his case is valid globally, it should also hold in the Caribbean. So I wanted to give you some brief comments to consider from a Caribbean perspective.

In Development and Stabilization, DeLisle Worrell, former Governor of the Central Bank of Barbados, stated that in Barbados, “although gains have continued to be made in the years since Independence in 1966, the essential transformation was achieved in the 1950s and 1960s,” i.e. pre-independence at the tail-end of the colonial period.

Granted, Barbados is a singular case. However, by the grace of Tyler Cowen’s Second Law, there are more systematic econometric treatments that analyze the impact of colonialism on small-state growth. In a paper by James Feyer and Bruce Sacerdote, Colonialism and Modern Income: Islands as Natural Experiments, they found that each additional hundred years that an island country spent under colonial rule resulted in 42% higher GDP per capita.

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The above chart shows that territories that spent more time under colonial rule tend to have higher economic performance today.

If “time under colonialism” (at least for islands) positively correlates with higher economic performance, then perhaps it follows that current countries that are still colonies (effectively) should outperform independent countries of similar origins and comparable size. This appears to be true.

In Comparing the Economic Performance of Dependent Territories and Sovereign Microstates, H.W Armstrong and Robert Read studied the extent to which dependent territories (“colonies”) can be said to be performing better or worse than independent microstates (population of less than 3 million) in terms of Gross National Product per capita. Think of Bermuda vs Barbados or Guadeloupe vs Jamaica. They found that dependent territories have higher GNP per capita values than their independent counterparts.

Moreover, as reported by those authors, World Bank statistics reveal that independent small states have performed considerably worse than their dependent territory counterparts. According to these data, 18% of independent small states fall within the lowest GNP per capita band, while none of the dependent territories fall into this category. Further, merely 18.6% of independent small states rise to the highest GNP per capita band, whereas over 47% of dependent territories are in this band.

On average, European colonialism has led to more economic progress. However, we can dig even deeper into Caribbean economic history to see how colonial administration improved economic performance.

Jamaica 1865

We assume that the British Empire, in particular, was a homogeneous enterprise. But it was not. Governance diverged so much in places like Bengal as compared to Newfoundland or Jamaica that the historian Jeremy Black suggests we refer to the British Empires in the plural.

I argued in a different post on this blog that you cannot cleanly compare the colonial administration of Jamaica and Barbados just because they can be superficially labelled as former British colonies. This is because they were managed quite differently and, as a result, developed different sets of colonial institutions even before independence in the early 1960s. To add even more nuance to this point, it is also true that often you cannot superficially compare institutions in a single Caribbean colonies to themselves in previous eras.

In his 2018 Ph.D. dissertation at the LSE, Junius Olivier, originally from Saint Lucia, dissects the dramatic difference in public investment in Jamaica between two different kinds of colonial administrations. He shows that the type of administration directly managed by the Crown (the kind of European political control required to meet Gilley’s definition of colonialism) increased public investments toward general economic progress.

From around 1655 until 1865, Jamaica was governed by the plantation owners who settled there and their representatives. This was called the Old Representative System (ORS). However, following various bouts of mismanagement (to put it mildly) by the ORS leading to the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865, the UK parliament decided to bring Jamaica under direct rule where the Governor General (who represents the UK Parliament and the Crown) would now have more significant powers.

By analyzing data from the Colonial Blue books, Olivier was able to show that after Jamaica became a Crown Colony (essentially lasting until independence in 1962), you can see a dramatic increase in public investment by the government.

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In other words, the local settler planters did not care much for the economic progress of the masses. They only cared to enrich themselves. But the British colonial administration invested in enhancing Jamaica’s people. They invested extensively in health, education (shown below), infrastructure, etc.

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Jamaica lagged behind Barbados because this public investment started much later. This goes to support Gilley’s argument that European colonialism had a positive effect on development and economic progress. It was the British government that accelerated developmental spending.

The Governance Watchmen

Let’s remain with the point of better governance via direct rule. More recently, between 2009 and 2012, the UK imposed direct rule on the Turks and Caicos islands because of “systemic corruption” among government ministers and public officials. In 2008, a Commission of Inquiry was assembled to review the government capacity of Turks and Caicos. This review was presented to Governor Wetherell in 2009.

Among many points, the Commission found that:

  1. There was a high probability of systemic corruption in government and the legislature, and among public officers in the Turks and Caicos Islands. It appears, in the main, to have consisted of bribery by overseas developers and other investors of ministers and/or public officers, so as to secure crown land on favourable terms, coupled with government approval for its commercial development.
  2. Over the same period, there had been serious deterioration — from an already low level — in the territory’s systems of governance and public financial management and control.
  3. This deterioration has been accompanied by extravagant and ill-judged commitments by those in public office, primarily ministers, to public expenditure and in their private expenditure at public expense.

Based on the investigation findings, the Commission recommended a “partial suspension of the 2006 Constitution and Interim Direct Rule from Westminster acting through the Governor.” And so it went.

Direct Rule enabled quick adjustments and the removal of corrupt politicians. The Prime Minister at the time, Michael Misick, fled to Brazil to seek asylum, but his plea was denied and he was extradited to Turks and Caicos to stand trial.

Moreover, in 2022, the UK could have imposed Direct Rule on the British Virgin Islands (BVI) after another Commission of Inquiry was published, demonstrating systemic corruption is that territory also. But this was not done – though many called for it. Instead, the governor imposed other reform measures. In this case, the former BVI Premier, Andrew Fahie, was a few weeks ago found guilty in Florida courts on charges of drug trafficking.

In both cases, having the external stabilizing effect of the UK Parliament meant that these small countries could be put back on course when problems arose. The same cannot be said for corrupt independent Caribbean countries. Year after year in Barbados, the Accountant General reports systemic problems with almost all government accounts, but nothing is fixed, and no one is held responsible.

A Civilizing Mission

Gilley agrees that economic progress alone is not enough. What I am calling civil progress can also be framed as moral progress and virtuous progressiveness, but those terms always seem more loaded. If we think about this from an unexpected modern perspective, that of gay rights, we can see an interesting trend.

To say that homophobia is a problem in the Caribbean would be an understatement. Granted, no Caribbean country is as homophobic as Uganda, but it is still a point of tension. I grew up hearing songs on the radio about killing gay men. Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent, Guyana, and Grenada still retain laws that prohibit gay sex (anti-buggery laws). Dominica only struck down such a law in April 2024. Guyana is the only country in mainland South America to maintain this legislation. Barbados got rid of its anti-buggery laws via legislation in December 2022.

“Gay Activists” in the Caribbean often blame the region’s colonial past for current homophobic laws and tendencies. In an article that is an example of this general sentiment, it was stated that “[Caribbean countries] share a cultural legacy of colonialism that incorporates a long history of discrimination towards gender diversity and same-sex sexualities.” In some sense, this is true. These laws were all formed during various iterations of colonial administration.

But it has always struck me as bizarre to claim that independent countries who are in complete control of their legislatures can still blame colonialism for specific laws they retain. The independent governments can change the rules at any point, but they do not want to. They prefer to discriminate against a small number of people if it satisfies the majority. This is doubly odd because the colonizers changed their laws to accommodate homosexual relationships.

However, while gay activists in the Caribbean complain about the “legacies of colonialism” preventing the advance of gay rights in the independent countries, the actual territories that are still dependencies progressed with a push from the former colonizer. The British dependencies in the Caribbean have all decriminalized homosexual sex. These reforms were introduced in 2001 (except for Bermuda, which chose to do it earlier) directly by the UK government as Britain retains the right to impose legislation on its territories. The Caribbean dependencies were dragging their feet on this core tenet of modern civil society, and the UK decided to push them forward.

Moreover, a committee has suggested a deadline for all British territories to ratify gay marriage, though the UK government has declined the proposal for now. Nonetheless, if the other English Caribbean countries were still under British colonial rule, gay rights in the Caribbean would be better respected today across the board. Gilley’s point that colonialism can lead to more civil progress, I think, is valid as applied to the modern Caribbean.

The Caribbean might have been better off with more colonialism of the sort that developed in the later 1950s. Indeed, one of the last imperial projects in the Caribbean—the short-lived 1958 British West Indies Federation—may have been the key to accelerating growth even further in the region. But it failed in 1962, leading to the British Caribbean tumbling down the hill to independence, one by one.

Gilley has written much more that is worth thinking seriously about. In The Case for Colonialism, you will find a rigorous argument that might make you uneasy. But as Gilley makes clear, the importance of colonialism does not diminish simply because it is now politically incorrect. Think about a particular Caribbean country within this context — Haiti.

Rasheed Griffith is Director of the Caribbean Progress Studies Institute in Washington DC.

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Rasheed J. Griffith