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It’s Time To Tell The Truth About Colonialism In Africa

Historian Bruce Gilley’s provocative book, ‘In Defense of German Colonialism,’ makes a compelling case that many historical narratives surrounding Africa are motivated by politics, not facts.


America is inundated with narratives about the nobility of pre-colonial Africa. Hollywood’s “The Woman Queen,” is about an all-female warrior unit that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey, has elicited lavish praise from corporate media this past summer. High school curricula such as that peddled by the 1619 Project or the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Teaching Hard History” excoriate the West for disrupting (and terrorizing) supposedly peaceful traditionalist African societies. And thousands of African American U.S. citizens have abandoned the nation of their birth by moving to countries such as Ghana in search of a better life — and a connection to their own ancestry.

These trends are perhaps unsurprising given what most Americans for generations have been learning about European colonialism. When I taught high-school history about 15 years ago, the Virginia public school curriculum portrayed European colonialism in Africa as nothing but exploitative and capricious brutality. In college, one of my history courses offered Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” as an exemplar of the dystopian terror of the colonial experience. My own public high-school English and history courses more than 20 years ago taught much the same. Yet is that actually true? And what effect, if any, do these narratives have not only on the American understanding of the West’s relationship with Africa, but our own self-understanding as a nation?

Portland State University professor of political science Bruce Gilley has invested quite a bit of energy in trying to answer such questions. He has argued, quite controversially, that European colonialism was objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate. Publisher Rowman & Littlefield withdrew his book “The Last Imperialist: Sir Alan Burns’s Epic Defense of the British Empire,” after a petition of more than 1,000 signatories accused Gilley of promoting “pro-colonial” and “white nationalist” views (it was later published by Regnery). His latest book, provocatively titled “In Defense of German Colonialism: And How Its Critics Empowered Nazis, Communists, and the Enemies of the West,” pushes the envelope still further.

An Unexpected History

I confess I was quite skeptical about Gilley’s book, given the needlessly incendiary title. Defending German colonialism, given that any story of late 19th and early-20th century German history will inevitably be wrapped up in that country’s condemnable behavior in two world wars, seems a curious intellectual enterprise for a professional academic (and for readers with more liberal sensitivities, it’s likely to be downright offensive). Not only that, but in a time when America’s post-Cold War foreign policy has been defined by constant overreach that has exacerbated various crises (e.g. regional political instability, anti-American Islamic extremism, migration), it seems a bit tone-deaf to be arguing that Western intervention around the world — especially when the West’s power is diminishing — is something to be encouraged.

Nevertheless, regardless of the strength of Gilley’s defense of German colonialism, the story he tells, substantiated by extensive historical documentation, does quite a bit to undermine popular narratives in America about pre-colonial Africa and the African colonial experience. For starters, the peoples inhabiting what would become Germany’s African colonies were far from innocent peoples living in harmony with each other and nature. Human sacrifice was common among at least one of the tribes of Cameroon. Slavery was common across both Namibia (southwest Africa) and what would become the colony of German East Africa (present-day Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and part of Mozambique).

The Nama and Herero peoples, both of whom had migrated to Namibia only a generation before the Germans (and displaced other indigenous African tribes such as the Damara people in the process), were engaged in bloody, genocidal warfare. In 1850, the Nama massacred a fifth of the Herero population in a single day. The Herero raided native Damara and Saan villages, killing all but the young and strong, whom they exploited as slaves. Many escaped to the Germans. Writes Gilley: “Even if left to their own devices, the Herero and Nama would not have lived in idyllic bliss tending healthy herds of cattle and hosting multiethnic community barbecues.”

German Colonialism Brought Benefits

Our anti-Western conceptions of colonial Africa are equally misinformed. In 1904, a policy in German East Africa decreed that all children born to slaves beginning in 1906 were free. Moreover, between 1891 and 1912, more than 50,000 slaves in the colony were freed by legal, social, and financial means. By 1920, slavery had virtually been eradicated from the region.

German East Africa was also environmentally conscious, codifying laws prohibiting unlicensed elephant hunting and creating the first game reserves. It promoted education by natives: By 1910, there were more than 4,000 students in state schools. “The Germans have accomplished marvels,” noted a 1924 British report on local education initiatives. The education system in German colonies provided instruction in local histories, cultures, and geographies, as well as technical subjects common in German curricula. Because of this, local language media prospered. “German transformed Swahili from a coastal language of Muslim elites to the lingua franca for the future country of Tanzania,” writes Gilley.

The Germans provided free and accessible medical care for many Africans. They engaged in extensive agricultural and infrastructure projects in Namibia, including roads, railways, water holes, and port facilities. A German scientist developed a vaccine that saved native cattle from a catastrophic illness. The Germans built a 1,250-kilometer railway linking Lake Tanganyika to Dar es Salaam, which to this day “remains the lifeblood of Tanzania’s economy and of Zambia’s trans-shipment traffic.” Economies previously based on slavery transitioned to coffee.

Repudiating Common Narratives

“A final quirk of German colonialism was that it did not have much support at home,” writes Gilley. Bismarck had little interest in colonial enterprises, and German officials and capitalists viewed colonial acquisitions as a waste of time. It was not a centralized strategic plan but happenstance that led to Germany’s first colony: A failed tobacco merchant from Bremen set up the German flag on a thin strip of land on the coast of southwestern Africa in the early 1880s, and the German government offered the small colony its official protection. Even Hitler, who came to power after Germany had lost all of its colonies during World War I, had no real interest in the colonies. So much for “white supremacy” explaining the origins of German colonialism.

Even the damnable German actions against the Herero uprising were triggered by the Herero killing 120 German settlers. Indeed, the Herero battle cry was “Kill all Germans!” Although anti-colonial academics accuse the Germans of genocide, both the Herero and the tribes allied with the Germans suffered population loss during that period, due to migration away from conflict zones, falls in female fertility, epidemics, and reduced food supply. In other words, the population losses suffered by the Herero have less to do with German atrocities than other factors having to do with political and economic instability.

What Does This Have to Do with America?

Of course, German colonialism, which ended more than a century ago, may seem pretty far removed from the debates and issues of 21st-century America. Yet as our public school curricula, Hollywood stories, and media narratives prove, how we understand the West’s interaction with the wider world — including the brief German colonial experience (totaling only 30 years) — is directly related to how we view ourselves and our own history. We are a civilization increasingly antagonistic toward our forefathers and how they interacted with indigenous peoples, whether in Africa or the Americas.

Nevertheless, narratives that seek to portray indigenous populations as innocent — or “enlightened” in comparison to villainous Western settlers  — have little basis in history. As Gilley’s book demonstrates, native peoples were capable of great cruelties toward each other, and European intervention often curbed such evils as human sacrifice, misogyny, and slavery.

That doesn’t necessarily mean colonialism was an ideal political and economic venture or that Western patronage of the developing world should be reinvigorated (I have deep doubts about that). But it does mean we should be suspicious of simplistic, Manichean narratives that present the West as evil and exploitative, and indigenous populations as noble and innocent. Africa is not, and was never, a utopia. Indeed, as Americans now jettisoning their wonderful intellectual, spiritual, cultural, and economic inheritance will learn, historical narratives motivated by contemporary politics often prove illusory.

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