"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


facts matter

Conrad Black has a new piece up over at the National Review. I'd encourage you not to give it anymore hits; the central argument of the piece is that colonization was the West's great gift to the world. Here is the money quote:
No one could seriously dispute that almost all of sub-Saharan Africa, all of North Africa except Morocco, all of the Middle East except Israel and Jordan and most of the oil-rich states, and the entire former British Indian Empire were better governed by Europeans. The Philippines and Cuba and, during the piping days of the U.S. Marines’ occupations (even if they were deployed at times by the United Fruit Company), Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic were all better off under the Americans.
Now, I could certainly dispute this claim, but this is Mr. Black's opinion and he's certainly entitled to it. What I'd like to dispute is the evidence he presents in support of his argument, specifically with respect to the part of the world that I know best, Africa's Great Lakes region: 
The Belgians were frequently inexcusably heavy-handed in the Congo, but they never generated the horrific casualties that have routinely occurred in the civil strife in that country in 50 years of independence, much less the approximately 1 million dead in a single month in the Rwandan massacres of the Tutsi in 1994.
That's quite a lot of factual errors for one, 52-word sentence. A few points:

  1. The Belgians, um, inexcusable heavy-handedness actually amounted to an incredibly brutal forced labor regime under Leopold II's direct rule. We don't know how many people actually died under this period of terror - in which Congolese villagers were required to collect rubber for the colonial authorities, and had their hands chopped off if they didn't make their quotas. The best estimates are that it killed about 10 million people. Which, inconveniently for Mr. Black, adds up to more than the 6 million killed in Congo's most recent war and those killed in the post-independence violence. The Belgian regimes (and it's really more appropriate to speak of 2, the one under Leopold II that governed 1885-1908, and the Belgian government's regime from 1908-1960) were NOT better respecters of human rights than the regimes that have governed Congo since. Never mind the colonial regime's use of extrajudicial killings in the period leading up to independence...
  2. That's not to say that post-independence Congo has ever been well-governed; it hasn't. But every knowledgeable explanation as to why makes it clear that the bad governance of the colonial period (see above). Did it not occur to Mr. Black that dictator Mobutu might have learned his governance skills and norms from the colonists? Because that's exactly what happened.
  3. The 1994 Rwandan genocide lasted three months, not one. The best estimates are that it killed about 800,000 people. Not all the victims were Tutsi.
  4. It is unlikely that the Rwandan genocide would have happened had it not been for Belgian colonization, because the Belgians were precisely the ones who crystallized what has previously been a feudal-style system of ethnic/class identity into the Tutsi/Hutu dynamic they used to divide and rule the territory. Prior to that, one could move between classes based on personal fortune.  The reason Hutu resentment of Tutsis was so high at independence was that the Belgians specifically favored the Tutsi over the Hutu, which meant that most Hutu were officially shut out from opportunities to gain a high school education, get good jobs, or advance economically in meaningful ways. This resentment against the Tutsi fermented for decades under the colonial regime and exploded at Rwanda's 1962 independence, when some Hutu chased much of their Tutsi ruling class out of the country and slaughtered those they could. We cannot properly understand the 1994 genocide without understanding this history of manufactured class conflict. And it was manufactured by the Belgian colonial regime.
There are a lot of other errors in this piece (eg, Darfur definitely didn't kill 1 million people, try closer to 300,000), but I don't have time to parse them all. @NRO, please fact-check before you run pieces like this again. Because if you're going to run  an unpopular and controversial argument, it probably should be supported with actual facts. Or perhaps there aren't any to support this nonsense.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Laura,

* resentment against Tutsi did not explode at independence in 1962. It started before in 1959 and triggered an enormous amount of refugees towards neighboring countries.
Furthermore, Belgian policy in Rwanda was reversed in the 1950s. From then onwards they started supporting Hutu over Tutsi, which also helped the political awakening of Hutu within Rwanda.

* to be really correct, the Congo Free State under Leopold II was not "really" Belgian, as it was Leopold's personal belonging, and many of the officials in it came from all over Europe. Also, stating that the "best estimates" are that it killed about 10 million people is a bit simple. In fact, the figure is heavily debated, and I would not say that many scholars agree that 10 million is "the best estimate".

This is some nuance to the complexities you already add in your blog, and even what I wrote is a bit simplified. But I do agree that nobody benefits from simplistic or erroneous historical accounts about the Great Lakes region, and especially not the kind Conrad mentions.

Kind regards, G.

Thursday, July 05, 2012 3:06:00 PM

Blogger CurmudgeonlyTroll said...

A couple of photos for Mr. Black to contemplate


Thursday, July 05, 2012 3:25:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Moreover, Belgians killed more people in a country that was less populous than now.

Thursday, July 05, 2012 11:43:00 PM

Anonymous David Week said...

Good stuff.


• given the notion that post-colonialist governments often learned bad habits from their colonial predecessors, and

• the US governments clear governance issues,

• has anyone analysed whether the US government learned any of its bad habits from its own colonial predecessors?

For instance, are lobbyists the conceptual descendents of courtiers?

I'd be curious to know.

Saturday, July 07, 2012 11:35:00 AM

Blogger Vijaya said...

Goof god. Are people really still trying to pretend that colonization was a gift to the savages? Really??

Monday, July 09, 2012 3:34:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice posting.. thanks for sharing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012 11:18:00 PM


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