From their plush apartments, over groaning dinner tables, pseudo-intellectuals have the luxury of depicting squalor and sickness as idyllic, primordially peaceful and harmonious. After all, when the affluent relinquish their earthly possessions to return to the simple life, it is always with aid of sophisticated technology and the option to be air-lifted to a hospital if the need arises.
Is there any wonder, then, that “the stereotype of colonial history” has been perpetuated by the relatively well-to-do intellectual elite? Theories of exploitation, Marxism for one, originated with Western intellectuals, not with African peasants. It is this clique alone that could afford to pile myth upon myth about a system that had benefited ordinary people.
What is meant by “benefited”? Naturally, the premise here is that development, so long as it’s not coerced, is desirable and material progress good. British colonists in Africa reduced the state of squalor, disease and death associated with lack of development. To the extent that this is condemned, the Rousseauist myth of the noble, happy savage is condoned. Granted, Africa’s poor did not elect to have these conditions, good and bad, foisted on them. However, once introduced to potable water, sanitation, transportation, and primary healthcare, few Africans wish to do without them. Fewer Africans still would wish to return to Native Customary Law once introduced to the idea that their lives were no longer the property of the Supreme Chief to do with as he pleased.
It “is an absurdity to assert that cannibalism, slavery, magical therapy, and killing the aged should be accorded the same ‘dignity’ or ‘validity’ as old-age security, scientific medicine, and metal artifacts,” noted anthropologist George Peter. While old habits die hard, most “people prefer Western technology and would rather be able to feed their children and elderly than kill them,” he notes in Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress. And the West largely eliminated “many of the worst endemic and epidemic diseases in West Africa.” Ask Moeletsi Mbeki, the brother of South Africa’s former president Thabo Mbeki. He has admitted that “the average African is poorer December 1, 2022 than during the age of colonialism.”
Even so—and whether they stay or go—the blame for all the ills of this backward and benighted region falls on Westerners. One dreadfully off-course notion has it that the colonial powers plundered Africa and failed to plow back profits into the place. This manifest absurdity is belied by the major agricultural, mineral, commercial and industrial installations throughout the continent. The infrastructure in Africa was built by the colonial powers. Far from draining wealth from less developed countries,” as P. T. Bauer richly documented, in Equality, the Third World, and Economic Delusion, “British industry helped to create it there.”
Another widely canvassed, equally implausible, accusation is that the West, which was streaks ahead of sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia well before colonization, got rich on the backs of poor nations. How then do we explain the fact that the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland and Australia, have achieved some of the world’s highest living standards? After all, none of these nations had any colonies (except Australia, which after World War I acquired sovereignty over the former German territory consisting of what is now Papua New Guinea). They were rich without any meaningful ties to the undeveloped world. The wealthiest and most advanced countries were themselves colonies once: North America and Australia. As Bauer conclusively proved, the West’s human resources, and not any exploitation of the backward world, account for its innovation and achievements.
Much less is it legitimate to claim that contact with entrepreneurial Europeans and Asians has enervated Africa. Regions that have had the greatest commercial contact with the West are far and away more developed than regions that had little such contact. Compare the people of West Africa, parts of East and Southern Africa, and the inhabitants of Africa’s ports, with desert and rainforest dwellers like the Bushmen and pigmies. Or, with never-colonized Liberia, Afghanistan, Tibet and Nepal.
We can’t lay the blame for Africa’s tragedy on the much-deplored exploitation of natural resources either. Most natural resources are useless lumps of nothing. Without the ingenuity of men—iron, aluminum, coal and oil would lie purposeless and pristine in the wildernesses, and the matter and energy abundant on earth would come to naught. Such a state of affairs describes pre-colonial Africa, to which the colonial powers introduced the wheel and wheeled transport.”
Much of British colonial Africa was transformed during the colonial period,” writes Bauer, also in Equality, the Third World, and Economic Delusion:
In the Gold coast there were about 3000 children at school in the early 1900s, whereas in the mid-1950s there were over half a million. In the early 1890s there were in the Gold Coast no railways or roads, but only a few jungle paths. Transport of goods was by human porterage or canoe.
Before colonialism, sub-Saharan Africa was a subsistence economy; because of colonialism it became a monetized economy. Before colonialism, there were only bush back roads through which men trekked with goods on their backs. During colonialism roads were built. In pre-colonial times the absence of public security made investment in Africa too risky. Post-colonialism, investment flowed. With the colonial administrations came scientific agriculture, introduced by the colonists and by “foreign private organizations and persons under the comparative security of colonial rule, and usually in the face of formidable obstacles.”
“In British West Africa public security and health improved out of all recognition … peaceful travel became possible; slavery and slave trading and famine were practically eliminated, and the incidence of the worst diseases reduced. Mortality fell, population increased, communications and ‘peaceful contact within Africa and with the outside world’ increased in British colonies.” As uneven and problematic as progress often was, “everywhere in Black Africa modern economic life began with the colonial period.” “Economic modernity could not have been effected without a mediated imperial structure,” maintains economist Niall Ferguson. In Africa, colonial governments encountered “conditions unfavorable to material progress,” to wit, civil and tribal war and slavery. By establishing the rule of law, protecting private property and enforcing contractual relations, building infrastructure, and organizing “basic health services,” and introducing modern financial and legal institutions—the colonial powers enhanced, rather than hindered, progress. Although—or perhaps because—all these advancements interfered with traditional customs, they also advanced the continent materially.
Clearly, political independence doesn’t go hand-in-glove with material progress. But grievance-based explanations have a way of evolving. Before independence, Africa’s backwardness was attributed to colonialism. After independence, neocolonialism replaced colonialism as the excuse du jour for the failure of African leaders to ameliorate their people’s plight. Neocolonialism encompasses any unhappy condition that can no longer be attributed to colonialism. Pizza Hut opening an outlet in Lima can easily be framed as the modern equivalent of Pizarro descending on the Incas, to paraphrase journalist Henri Astier.
On rare occasions the interests of an African politician and his people will converge. On one such occasion, and in desperation, the former president of Sierra Leone, the late Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, where life expectancy is just forty-nine years, “asked a visiting British politician, in the presence of journalists, if it might be possible for his country to become part of the British Empire again.”
When all is said and done, the West is what it is due to human capital—people of superior ideas and abilities, capable of innovation, exploration, science, philosophy.
Human action is the ultimate adjudicator of a human being’s worth; the aggregate action of many human beings acting in concert makes or breaks a society. Overall, American society is superior to assorted African and Arab societies because America is still inhabited by the kind of individuals who make possible a thriving civil society.
Adapted from Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America From Post-Apartheid South Africa (2011) by ILANA Mercer.