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On “A Case for Colonialism”


This post is written by Jane Shaw Stroup, a non-degree post-baccalaureate student in the History Department.

It should not be surprising that a column titled “The Case for Colonialism,” which appeared in the journal Third World Quarterly in September, would spur criticism. But it was surprising that 15 members of the journal’s editorial board resigned, more than 10,000 people signed a petition seeking a retraction, and the article was in fact withdrawn.  

The article by Bruce Gilley, a professor of political science at Portland State University, was withdrawn by the publisher, due to “serious and credible threats of personal violence” to the editor who had decided to run the piece:

“The Case for Colonialism,” which is not on the quarterly’s website but available elsewhere on the Web, speaks favorably of colonial history. In fact, it recommends that new methods of colonialism be tried, citing as an example “charter cities” proposed by Paul Romer, chief economist of the World Bank. Romer has suggested that a Third World nation could lease some land to a more stable foreign power to create a thriving economy, following methods similar to those that spurred Hong Kong’s growth.

“The notion that colonialism is always and everywhere a bad thing needs to be rethought in light of the grave human toll of a century of anti-colonial regimes and policies,” wrote Gilley. He argues that “many or most episodes of Western colonialism” led to “expanded education, improved public health, the abolition of slavery, widened employment opportunities,” and provided other benefits.

He contrasts that to post-colonialism in many countries. “Anti-colonialism ravaged countries as nationalist elites mobilised illiterate populations with appeals to destroy the market economies, pluralistic and constitutional polities, and rational policy processes of European colonisers.”

The article outraged many readers, including a group on the editorial board of Third World Quarterly. In their resignation letter, they wrote:

We all subscribe to the principle of freedom of speech and the value of provocation in order to generate critical debate. However, this cannot be done by means of a piece that fails to meet academic standards of rigour and balance by ignoring all manner of violence, exploitation and harm perpetrated in the name of colonialism (and imperialism) and that causes offence and hurt and thereby clearly violates that very principle of free speech.

The board also initially accused the editor of not following proper peer review. The publisher, Francis & Taylor, denied that, and published a detailed description of the editorial process for that particular article. Gilley had first submitted it as an article for a special issue on colonialism; it was turned down for that, but following peer review, it was published as a heavily documented “Viewpoint” column.

The online petition seeking retraction can be found here.

Gilley, who has a Ph.D. in politics from Princeton and an M.Phil. degree in economics from the University of Oxford, is reported to have asked the article to be withdrawn, on the grounds that the issue should be addressed in a “more civil and caring manner.”

It would be disappointing, to say the least, if retracting articles becomes the way to deal with controversy. Gilleys article was a little out there in recommending that some troubled countries seek colonial oversightundoubtedly, thats why the editor wanted it to be a Viewpoint. But colonialism, like most aspects of history, is worthy of analysis. 

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