Bruce Gilley

The Good Side of Colonialism: An Interview with Bruce Gilley

27 februari 2018Leestijd: 16 minuten

Political scientist Bruce Gilley wrote a plea in favour of colonialism and was attacked so harshly that it ended up not being published. Elsevier Weekblad paid him a visit and asked him- as the first publication to do so -about his experiences and ideas.

For a man who has thrown something like a fox into the henhouse of political correctness, Bruce Gilley (51) looks quite relaxed. ‘O dear,’ he grins, after parking his green Subaru Outback at the University Place Hotel in Portland, Oregon. ‘This is the hotel where the university stores the people they wish would just go away.’

Escaping the campaign of hatred

That relaxed demeanour is just the outward appearance. Last fall, Gilley used the same Subaru to flee Portland for a forced vacation to escape the campaign of hatred- the ‘shitstorm’, as he says himself- on social media. Driving through the Cascade mountains east of Portland Gilley felt, so he would later write, like Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, who fled with his family through the mountains from Austria to Switzerland.

When later that morning he parks his Subaru down the street in the college district for lunch, he mentions casually that he hasn’t been on university grounds for almost half a year. So relaxed? No.

And all that for one controversial article: ‘The Case For Colonialism’- a plea for colonialism. In this brave essay, written for a British scientific journal, Third World Quarterly, Gilley argues for a historical re-evaluation of (late) colonialism, which according to him brought more good things- and above all: wanted to do good things – than bad.

He felt like Captain Von Trapp who fled fascist Austria

Done more to fight poverty than all post-war development aid

It improved the standard of living for many people in the Third World thanks to better healthcare and better agriculture, brought education and infrastructure, connected economies with the rest of the world, offered people opportunities which they wouldn’t otherwise have had, and in many respects brought social, political and economic progress. ‘The British colonial empire has done more to fight poverty than all post-war development aid combined’.

Besides the rehabilitation of colonialism, Gilley also argues for the introduction in Third World countries, especially in Africa, of forms of ‘good’ colonial governance. He calls this the ‘colonial toolkit’. This has to make sure that after decades of ‘anti-colonial disaster’ the people can finally enjoy decent government, rule of law, parliamentary democracy and a market-economy.

Of course colonial governance can only return with the consent of the country in question, Gilley says. The nationalist leaders in developing countries are probably not eager to see this happen. But the people- given those decades of ‘anti-colonial disaster’- possibly are. With approval Gilley cites a young inhabitant of Kinshasa in the book Congo by David Van Reybrouck, which Gilley admires. ‘How much longer is this independence of ours going to continue? When are the Belgians coming back?’

Normale debate has become impossible since the sixties

That Gilley’s plea is explosive, hardly requires explanation. Colonialism has become so synonymous with racist oppression, exploitation and violence, that nobody seems willing to say anything positive about it. In the Netherlands too, (white) museum directors are busy ‘decolonizing’ their museums, and young (white) history-PhD students eagerly attempt their own ‘mental decolonization’. End of discussion, it seems. Colonialism was bad.

In the United States, Gilley’s plea certainly means academic suicide. That country has, he says, ‘a naive, romantic image of itself as anti-colonial’. In addition to that, academia is in the grip of an aggressive political correctness in which anti-colonialism is, if not the first, then certainly the second or third commandment.

In Gilley’s eyes a normal debate about the merits of colonialism has become impossible since the sixties. His essay therefore is a declaration of war against the politically correct academic literature on colonialism. He finds it politically motivated, scientifically faulty, and often ludicrous.

It’s time to once again advocate for colonialism

His examples are indeed distressing, like an article about women in the Third World who supposedly exhibit more sadomasochism because of colonialism. Or take the whole colonialism-without-colonies literature, as Gilley sarcastically puts it. ‘Articles about the horrors of the colonialism of Switzerland and other countries that never had colonies.’

‘Hundred years of disaster is enough. Time to once again advocate for colonialism’

Gilley emphasizes the atrocities of post-war anti-colonialism. That was in his eyes the great evil. The closing words of his essay echo Multatuli’s novel Max Havelaar, but as an indictment of anti-colonialism, which ‘made a nightmare out of the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the Third World’: ‘One hundred years of disaster is enough’. The time has come to once again advocate for colonialism.

Ten thousand people signed furious online petitions

Well, Gilley now knows the consequences. ‘The Case for Colonialism’ appeared on the website of the scientific journal Third World Quarterly (TWQ), but caused such a controversy that the publisher pulled it after death threats had been made against the chief editor of Pakistani origin who had stuck his neck out for Gilley. Those threats came, according to Gilley, from ‘Indian anti-colonial fanatics’. The article didn’t make the printed TWQ.

Gilley initially offered an apology on this own website. He now says he was simply scared to death. Ten thousand people signed furious online petitions. ‘One colleague said: “you probably enjoy this shitstorm.” She knows me. But no. Such a global mob is truly terrifying.

‘It’s all virtual, yes, social media. But it is easy to find out where I live. When students were busy protesting on campus, someone on Twitter said: Let’s go to Gilley’s house and steal his stuff, let’s see how he likes it!’ In anti-colonial dogma it says: Colonialism= plunder.

Gilley: ‘And these weren’t trolls. There were also professors. Oxford-historians, Harvard-historians. That’s what I found to be most the terrifying. When people with permanent positions in Western universities organise an attack on a colleague, or encourage attacks, the aggression comes very close.’

A racist who believes in white superiority

Hamid Dabashi, a Iranian professor at Colombia University, wrote in the best Marxist tradition of the website of Al-Jazeera that Gilley had to be ‘cast out’ and ‘publicly humiliated’ and should never again be called a ‘colleague’ who had a right to a civilized debate. Gilley was called a white supremacist, a racist who believed in white superiority, and a Holocaust-denier. Because in anti-colonial dogma it says: Colonialism=slavery=holocaust.

As an expert on China, Gilley recognized just in time that he was being sucked into a sort of Maoist atonement: confessing to a sin he had not committed. He retracted his excuse and wrote about his experiences during the end of 2017 in the British magazine Standpoint (‘How the hate mob tried to silence me’). A frightening read.

And now sitting in a ragged seat in a hallway of the University Place Hotel, for his first interview since the whole affair, a man who is both combative and visibly touched. What still hurts is that the university did not publicly support him. Quite the opposite. There is in his words an ‘Orwellian’ investigation underway by the university into his functioning as a teacher, presumably meant to keep him in line.

It’s about modern – late – colonialism

What especially bothers Gilley is that the university president – the Iranian-American Rahmat Shoureshi- has not spoken out. Shoureshi is an exile of the Iranian Revolution who, as an Iranian student, was allowed to stay in the United States in the seventies under an amnesty arrangement. Gilley, bitterly: ‘The president should have spoken out for the liberal system that had saved him. But when academic freedom was threatened, he crouched in the dark.’

In hindsight Gilley believes he has not done some things the right way in his article, like making clear that he argues for the modern- late- colonialism when he calls for colonialism. Like that of Belgian-Congo (1908-1960), when the Belgian government- after the raw wild west period under King Leopold II- made serious attempt to turn Congo into ‘a decent and humane country’.

Gilley: ‘That was the beginning of the most successful era in the history of the Congo. It was the only period in which it had an effective police force and army. The country was being run orderly, was relatively incorrupt and capable of maintaining internal order and of protecting its sovereignty. Only then, under the Belgians, was that the case.’

Continuity: Former residence of governor-general of Dutch Indies in Buitenzorg is now presidential palace of Indonesia in Bogor.

Only anti-colonial voices are counted as authentic

Gilley also says that he insufficiently substantiated his claim that colonialism was seen as legitimate by indigenous peoples. It is hard to prove, for there were no reliable opinion polls back then. Gilley therefore uses diaries and books to collect ‘voices’ from the past that also point to the good sides of colonial governance. He is annoyed that only anti-colonial voices are counted as authentic. ‘Anybody who complains about, say, taxation is retroactively called a proto-nationalist who was resisting colonialism’.

‘Professors organising an attack on a colleague, that’s really frightening’

As an example of an alternative voice he names Ahmadu Bello, a politician from northern-Nigeria who was murdered in 1966. He writes in his autobiography My Life that he as a member of a smaller tribe was used to being conquered. ‘The only difference was that the British really seemed to care about our welfare’.

Before independence Bello became the first and only prime-minister of the autonomous region of North-Nigeria. Gilley: ‘So you can say: That man was a collaborator. But I think he is representative of the indigenous reaction to the British. Now everyone who expresses the anti-colonial sentiment is counted as the authentic voice of conscience. Everyone who speaks out in favour of colonialism, was practicing self-censorship, was insincere, etcetera. That is far too simple for me.’

Colonial world offered more opportunities and protection

‘Colonialism spread rapidly, with relatively little force from the colonial powers and also with relatively few Westerners in the colonies. That is a sign that the colonial regimes enjoyed legitimacy in the eyes of the indigenous population. See also the large numbers of locals who worked for tax offices, police, and the administration.’

‘Then you can say: those people had a bad conscience. But perhaps those people, in that time and context, really believed this to be the best choice for their country. Regardless of its limitations the colonial world offered more opportunities and protection than indigenous governance would have done. And the post-colonial experience has taught us that those people were right!’

‘Colonialism isn’t just railroads. I do not need those railroads in order to defend colonialism. It is also legitimate governance, opportunities, protection, self-development, emancipation. And dignity. Colonialism gave people dignity, for the first time in their life. Regardless of who you are, which tribe you belonged to, or whether you are friends with The Big Man.’

Isn’t Gilley just being nostalgic?

‘People had status as subjects of the colonial empire. Maybe not yet as citizens, with voting-rights, but certainly as subjects who were treated as equals by the institutions and the law. And that was an improvement. That is why the colonial justice system was constipated: people could suddenly go to the judge over a piece of land.’

‘The only difference was that the British seemed to care about our welfare’

Isn’t Gilley just being nostalgic? Isn’t he cherry-picking by only highlighting the beneficial colonial regimes? ‘Good question,’ he says. But no. That is why in his essay he picks out the ‘post-colonial experience’ of Guinea-Bissau. That became independent from Portugal in 1974, which- in the words of Gilley- has a shitty reputation as colonizer. What took it’s place was a Marxist one-party state, and to make a long story short: today the rice production in Guinea-Bissau is one-third of what it had been under the Portuguese, despite forty years of development aid. ‘So the Portuguese weren’t that bad’.

On the basis of these kinds of expressive examples Gilley believes that it is time to state clearly that late colonialism did more good than harm, in spite of the outbreaks of violence. Gilley effortlessly names the massacres, whether they took place in India (Amritsar, 1919) or in Africa (the Namibian genocide by the Germans of the Herero-people, 1904-1908).

Why keep emphasizing only the bad things?

Gilley: ‘Yes, many bad things happened under colonialism. But why would you only emphasize that? Then you assume that without colonialism far fewer people would have suffered, and that is a figment of the imagination.’

Better still: That we know so much about the abuses is because there were investigative commissions and lawsuits. Gilley: ‘So there was a decent system which reacted to these abuses. There were three investigative commissions for the abuses in the Congo under King Leopold II. Why do we know so little about the atrocities in the Congo in the nineties? Because the Congolese government didn’t give a damn about them!’

And if we are going to write history on the basis of the number of victims, Gilley says, then we should also take into account that Germany for example- as a colonial latecomer- developed a remedy to the sleeping disease that saved one to three million lives during the twenties. Without their colonial aspirations that would never have happened.’

The ongoing tragedy of anti-colonialism

It is also difficult to maintain that post-colonial Africa hasn’t seen violence and suffering. The Africans who- oh wry irony- step into rickety boats in order to find a safe haven in the Europe of the former colonial powers, are in Gilley’s eyes part of the ‘ongoing tragedy of anti-colonialism’.

Or take Haiti, which is in the news because of a scandal with British Oxfam-employees. Two centuries after its independence Haiti is still a failed state. Gilley: ‘Academics keep writing about the glorious slave revolt of Haiti (1791-1804). As if it still is the best thing that could have happened to Haiti. But it is the worst thing that happened to Haiti. Ever since the slave revolt against the French, Haiti has been in chaos. Massive human suffering, lasting destruction. Why celebrate that? But no: Let’s hold another conference on that fantastic Haitian Revolution.’

His past as a journalist

‘The slave revolt against the French was the worst thing that could have happened to Haiti’

One cannot deny that Gilley has guts. He likes clear language. His past as a journalist, he admits, plays a role in that. Colleagues at university said: Why did you choose that title? Why not something with “deconstructing the narrative… blablabla”. No one would have made a fuss about it. But yes, the journalist in him prefers clear headlines.

Toned down claims that colonialism ‘wasn’t bad in every respect’, rub him the wrong way. That is what he calls the British moan- the British lamentation. With the posh voice of a retired British diplomat: ‘You know, dear boy, if wasn’t very pleasant, but it wasn’t all bad, you know… Meaningless. No! Colonialism did more right than wrong. Period.’

His views about the good side of colonialism were strongly influenced by his years as a journalist. We has worked in Hong Kong for the Far Eastern Economic Review, an English language weekly with a good audience among the political and economic elite, and a typical product of the British colonial empire, now defunct. It stood for the values which Gilley defends in his essay: Free government, free press, free market.

China was the opposite world

In Hong Kong he got to know the last British governor, Chris Patten, and he saw how this man had the guts to defend ‘the fundamental values of British colonialism’ in the face of a powerful Chinese neighbour. ‘China was the opposite world. If you want to know what Hong Kong would have looked like without the British, you only need to take a look across the border.’


The tremendous fear among the population of Hong Kong prior to the transfer of power to China in 1997 made a big impression. Many fled. What do you mean: British ‘oppression’?

That decolonisation has worked out better in Asia than in Africa certainly has to do with the differences in dealing with the colonial past, Gilley says. ‘Asians are doing more to stay on the colonial track. They don’t say this out loud, but there is far less anti-colonial bombast than elsewhere. They admire the colonials. Go to the national museum in Singapore. “The British did this, the British did that”. All positive.

‘In Asia, the anti-colonial bombast is much smaller than anywhere else in the world’

The so-called ‘African renaissance’

‘In Asia the people who argued for continuity with the colonial institutions became the leaders. In Africa they were imprisoned. Many African leaders started out ostensibly modern, liberal, but began to behave more like traditional leaders- not as a leader who is part of an institutionalized political system, but as the system itself.

‘They opened up their economy, but out of necessity; if it could no longer be obstructed. The same goes for elections: They were held to prevent civil war. The so-called “African renaissance” was only that on the surface. The leaders did not really believe in it.

‘In reality they returned to forms of  mythical, traditional governance. That is how they smashed into the wall. African tradition is irreconcilable with the modern world. Every country will have to break with it’s traditions in order to create a modern society.’

In order to do that, Africa will have to break what he calls ‘a vicious cycle’: Because the leaders don’t modernize, their peoples are deprived of the economic, social and political modernization they need. If only it was to set their leaders aside at a given point and elect other, better leaders.

‘Colonialism for hire’

The lever would have to be pulled by the international community, says Gilley. They would have to rediscover ‘the colonial toolkit’ and throw it at Africa as a ‘lifebuoy’. Gilley proposes three options.

The first is for developing countries themselves to reintroduce ‘colonial governance’, the colonial system of government before independence, including the (re)construction of institutions that were being built, but that were destroyed after independence. Developing countries that cannot handle that, could- the second option- allow parts of their public administration to be ‘recolonized’ by giving up sovereignty in specific fields to a (Western) country: This can be done. ‘colonialism for hire’, Gilley calls this. ‘Look, Soeharto threw out six thousand corrupt customs officials in the harbour of Jakarta and replaced them with Swiss. Soeharto was a modernizer.’

‘Koloniale wereld bood meer kansen en bescherming dan inheems bestuur zou hebben’

The people seem content

What The Hague is doing right now in Sint-Maarten and Sint-Eustatius, namely intervene in parts of the administration, looks a lot like it. The black nationalist leaders cried murder over this Dutch ‘neo-colonialism’, but the people seem content. Precisely what Gilley means.

Gilley also adopts the concept of charter cities, an idea of economist Paul Romer, former chief economist of the World Bank. Those are, like Hong Kong, brand new colonies, in the shape of independent city states inside of developing countries. Models of good governance and development- and if need be safe havens. Femke Halsema’s ‘refugee cities’ look somewhat similar.

Gilley is allergic for euphemistic terms that conceal this (‘cooperation’). ‘Partnership is nonsense. Germany helping Zambia, that is not partnership. That is a superior economic system helping another country improve itself. And that is also what late colonialism was: An embrace of the opportunity to improve the lot of others. But not as equals, no’.

Inequality is the big taboo of our time

In the colonialism of the nineteenth century this inequality had a racial undertone, but that does not play a role with Gilley. ‘Race is nonsense. Just look at the success of non-western economies in for example Asia’. He defines inequality in terms of economic, political and social inequality.

But alright. Inequality is the big taboo of our time. In part because of colonialism Western societies have become multicultural societies, which suppress any suggestion of possible inequality between cultural groups.

Gilley: ‘The ordering of cultural customs, forms of governance and economic institutions as being better or worse does not fit into the modern ethos of equality. We- rightly- want equal opportunities and rights. A positive vision of the colonial past apparently doesn’t fit into that. I mean, my whole university is busy decolonizing! That is the train I slammed into.’

Who is Bruce Gilley?

Bruce Gilley. Foto: Susan Seubert

Bruce Gilley (Montreal, 1966), Canadian by birth, is an ex-journalist and professor in political science at Portland State University. In that charming city in Oregon, where the rain almost never ends, Gilley lives with his wife, a lawyer, and children. In September 2017 Gilley became the focus of a worldwide scandal, after writing his controversial article “The Case for Colonialism” in the Third World Quarterly.


Gilley describes himself as a ‘’classical liberal’’ and ‘’an independent voter’’. During the summer of 2017 he left the American Political Scientist Association amidst protests. Something in him snapped after his proposal for a panel on political diversity was rejected, while a panel called ‘’Pussies Grab Back: Feminism in the Wake of Trump’’, was approved.


Gilley did his masters in economics at the University of Oxford from 1989 to 1991, and went to China to spend a year teaching English. From 1992 to 2002 he worked in Hong Kong as a journalist for the Far Eastern Economic Review. He was there when the British transferred their crown colony Hong Kong to China on the first of July 1997.


Gilley: ‘’Tony Blair had just been elected prime-minister and he and his foreign secretary, Robin Cook, were totally uninterested. In the pouring rain they were looking at the military parade from underneath their umbrella, for the transfer at midnight. Their entire attitude signalled something like: ‘’Can we go now?’’


That was it for the once great British Empire.


Gilley is one a one year sabbatical and is working on a biography about the British colonial administrator Sir Alan Burns (1887-1980). From June 1942 to August 1947 Burns was one of the last British governors of the Gold coast, now Ghana.

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