The human costs of colonialism were staggering. Slavery was integral to the political economy of imperial powers from the 16th to 19th century, because of the huge profits that it generated. At times France received more wealth from slave production on the small colony of Haiti than from any other of its colonies, including New France. In King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild has described how perhaps half the population of Congo -roughly 10 million people- died during Belgian rule in the 1880s.
From Australia to the Americas Indigenous Peoples were dispossessed of their lands, and confronted by a cultural genocide that lasted centuries. Some native peoples of the Caribbean nearly vanished during a horrific period of epidemic disease, land loss, and overwork. The experience of the Spanish conquest was so terrible that many Indigenous families in the Caribbean simply chose to stop having children after the Spanish arrived (or were unable to maintain families), so that their populations declined with stunning speed. In Potosí, Bolivia thousands of Indigenous Peoples and African slaves died mining the silver that funded Spanish wars and palaces. While epidemic diseases devastated Indigenous communities, so did the entire structure of colonialism, which led to a demographic collapse throughout the Americas. This was so extreme that it lasted for centuries.
These peoples’ sufferings were only one part of a vast legacy of European domination, which imperial
powers justified in both religious and racial terms. Then in the aftermath of World War Two, when European powers were bankrupt and devastated, colonized peoples rose against their European masters in bloody wars from Algeria to Asia. Despite appalling human suffering, they won their freedom.This history has deeply shaped world affairs today. In my “Foundations of Global Studies theory” class, students often find that post-colonialism is a powerful tool to understand racism, inequality, development and other contemporary issues.
Incredibly, nearly 40 years after the Marxist Bill Warren wrote Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism, colonialism still has its academic defenders. Nathan J. Robinson has a recent article, “Why Colonialism was Bad” in Current Affairs, which is a valuable reminder of colonialism’s horrors, and why they must not be forgotten. Warning- the article contains a disturbing photo.
Shawn Smallman, 2017