European colonialism left a few cancerous lesions upon society that fester to this day, but it wasn't all evil. White guilt and white-shaming won't heal anything.
We cannot deny the cancerous lesions left upon our society from slavery. I often hear white-shaming statements brought up in the context of European colonialism and for most of my life I believed this past was something to be ashamed of. This is white guilt. But then I actually learned a few things about history.
For centuries, white European monarchs dominated the globe through a system of colonial influence, trade, and military power, and subjugated just about every other nation. And this, apparently, is proof that white people are evil, self-serving monsters.
The problem with this narrative is that it’s written in the same racist tone as the previous version which held that Europeans simply had better weapons and were destined to rule over the uncivilized masses of bush people. Think about it: change “superior, civilized, European powers ruled over lesser brown people and brought them out of the stone age” to “superior, civilized, European powers brutally lorded over lesser brown people and forced them out of the stone age.”
Neither is correct. Both omit the realities upon which the European colonial era began, and both neglect the interplay between civilizations that goes far beyond one side dominating the other. Point blank, one nation rises, another falls; this has been the way of things since the dawn of history. The Rise of Europe was no different in principle than the rise of any previous global power, including China, Islam, Persia, and Mongolia.
The Basis of Dominance
Central to our understanding is the basic premise that when one culture has a superior sociopolitical structure to its neighbors, that culture tends to dominate. It’s often tempting to examine military technology, resources, and other factors, and these factors do play a role. But ultimately, these factors are directly influenced by the ability of a people to adapt positively to change and instigate positive change. These abilities come directly from the social and political realities that make up a society.
We have seen that checked monarchies are superior to absolute monarchies because in an absolute monarchy, there is often no vehicle to change. Shifting tides don’t often reach the listening ears of the ruling class, and before long the rulers grow distant from the realities affecting their charges, leading to rebellion, and collapse of infrastructure and security. This, historians call ‘an empire in decline.’ Rome arose because it had a sociopolitical system that was superior to those of its neighbors, and Rome fell when its neighbors developed a sociopolitical system that was superior to Rome’s.
When a foreign influence enters a system that has a more just way of doing things than the local system, it’s more likely to be accepted. For example, look at the Majapahit Empire that ruled over Indonesia and dominated the passage between the Pacific and Indian oceans from 1293 to circa 1500, the remnants of which were later controlled by the Dutch (a European colonial power). One of the ‘rules’ governing this empire was that the king could, as he goes out, take any girl he wanted for himself.
While this may seem like a great idea if you’re the king, I can’t imagine it going over well for the girl, or her family, or her village, or basically anyone else. This was a common abuse among absolute monarchs from China to Europe to Africa to the Americas, and is but one of the myriad of ways in which absolute monarchs abused their power to create a system that is patently unjust and fails to serve the people.
Genghis Khan led the Mongols to build the largest contiguous land empire in history. A large part of his success was his disdain for hereditary aristocracy; he favored people who were good at what they did. He promoted governors based on their ability to govern rather than those born to influential families. He promoted military commanders based on their ability to command the military. This may seem common sense to us, now, but to the world at Mongolia’s feet, this was radical. Unfortunately for Mongolia, Genghis Khan did not extend this to his own family, and ended up naming a successor of his own son, who named his own sons, who then tore the empire apart. This shows that a strict meritocracy is an inherently superior sociopolitical structure to hereditary privilege. Without this key advantage, Genghis Khan would never have made it out of the steppes.
The United States prevailed over the Soviet Union, similarly, because it had a superior sociopolitical construct. There were two distinct advantages to the American system: freedom of speech and of the press, and a two-party system. Any governmental system is bound to generate a certain degree of corruption, and it’s the system’s ability to minimize corruption that separates it from inferior systems. By encoding free speech and an independent press, the United States possessed a system whereby corruption is more likely identified, made public, and subsequently dealt with. Exhibit: Richard Nixon was initially brought down by the Washington Post. The Soviet Union also had corrupt officials, but without the ability to cast spectacle on that corruption, it festered until it ultimately destroyed the state. The Soviet Union also employed a one-party system of governance. This proved highly efficient because it minimized political gridlock. However, in a two-party system, as soon as one party starts to lose touch with the people’s reality, that party loses favor. This forces both parties to adapt to changes in social climate. To contrast these sociopolitical structures in summary, a one-party rule is efficient, whereas a two-party rule is adaptable.
Christian West vs Muslim East
Islam introduced to the world a system of eternal, codified justice in the Qur’an. Unlike in an absolute monarchy, the Caliph, along with government agents at all levels, were held accountable to the Qur’an. Relative to the rest of the world, this new system was vastly superior because it created a check against corruption. Anyone who could read the Qur’an had access to the basic laws outlining the way government officials were supposed to act and hold them accountable. Because of this inherently superior sociopolitical system, the Islamic Empire in a few generations erased the Sassanid Empire (Iran) which was an absolute monarchy, wreaked havoc on the crumbling Roman Empire, a two-party monarchy, and went on to conquer all of North Africa and much of Europe including Visigothic Spain.
One gripe I hear, Bin Laden and other Jihadists used to talk about this a lot, was the Crusades. In furthering the paint of white people as monstrous conquerors, we are told of how the Crusades were some effort on Europe to force Christianity upon Muslims. But this, too, is a false narrative. The Crusades began as any other military campaign began, with one king trying to gain allies to go up against another king. Less than a generation earlier, Muslims under the rule of the Seljuk Turks had conquered much of Byzantine lands in the Levant and Anatolia. Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus sought to take back those lands and asked Christian leaders in the West for help.
The Crusades ultimately failed because the sociopolitical structure of the Byzantine Empire was little changed from ancient Roman times and therefore offered the people little in terms of social justice and economic opportunity. For the average citizen living in the Levant, there was no reason to support Byzantine rule over Turkish Muslim rule. The Crusaders were, in fact, much worse.
Fast Forward many centuries, and the bulk of Islamic lands were held by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans held at one point the most powerful, most advanced military in the world, and had conquered much of Central Europe. Under the fist of a strict Islamic Monarchy, however, the Ottoman sociopolitical system stagnated, while Europe’s improved.
The Role of the Catholic Church
The Catholic Church created a check against European monarchies that didn’t exist in non-European monarchies. Put simply, a European monarch had to appear pious and avoid passing laws that went against canonical Christianity. Beyond disallowing a king from taking any girl he wanted; he had to appear monogamous. If a king went against the Church, the Church would find a new king. Period. Because of this there were numerous abuses prevalent in an absolute monarchy that a European monarch couldn’t get away with. Like Islam, the church served as a check against abuse and corruption. Unlike Islam, the Catholic Church was a political entity unto itself.
But who checks the checkers? The Catholic Church didn’t start out as the global power it became during the European colonial era. It wasn’t even that powerful in Europe. The Church grew over centuries from its early days in Rome by forming alliances and making deals. But the abuses were legendary. Many people know of the horrible ways in which the early Catholic Church exerted power, and the relationship between the Church and the monarchs was one of shared debauchery. Then in 1517, Martin Luther started off the Protestant reformations, which led to a century and a half of unmitigated war across Europe.
The end result was a Catholic Church that was forced to behave itself to a certain degree, knowing that failure to uphold the tenets of Christianity meant a monarch could easily convert to Protestantism. It was around this time that European colonial powers truly began to dominate the globe.
In 1519, Hernan Cortez under the flag of Spain landed in modern-day Mexico. The traditional, racist narrative I often hear is how the Spanish through superior weaponry and firepower, conquered the Mexica (Aztecs) and forced Christianity upon them.
At the time Cortez found his way to Mexico, the Aztecs had built a large tributary empire. Spain was only able to rule because its sociopolitical structure, specifically its relationship to the Catholic Church, was vastly superior to that of the ruling Mexica. By all accounts, the pre-colombian Mexica started out as a cult; their leader was violent, charismatic, isolationist, had a *special* connection to the spirit world, spoke in prophesies, and consistently felt persecuted. He led his people through multiple migrations until they found an isolated piece of land no one else wanted. There, through unfathomable brutality, they were able to subjugate the surrounding areas. The God of the Mexica, Huitzilopochtli, demanded the Aztecs carve someone’s heart out and burn it at the altar every day to make sure the sun rose. The Aztecs usually got these victims by waging war, and the Mexica were in a constant state of war in order to feed their god’s bloodthirst. You have to imagine living under the yoke of such a religion, knowing what would happen to you and your family if you acted out of line. Then one day, a foreigner brings guns and says, “Jesus already paid that; you’re good.”
Fifty-thousand men attacked and destroyed Tenochtitlan, ending Aztec Rule. About one-hundred-fifty of them were European.
It’s important to remember that Europe didn’t colonize the world because it was powerful. Rather, through gathering ideas from throughout the rest of the world and incorporating those ideas into their way of doing things, Europe grew powerful.
One white-shaming narrative I often hear is that Europe brought guns and firepower and used that to conquer everywhere else. This may have been partially true in places like Peru, but the truth is that a lot of the areas Europe managed to take over had their own guns; this included most of Africa, Asia, and India. You see, a ‘colony’ didn’t typically begin as a platform to conquer a region. Rather, it started out as a small trading post. The colony would trade with the natives and then sell those goods to ships heading back to Europe, then take those European goods and trade them with the natives. As natives interacted with foreigners, they began to notice European ideas on governance and human rights: checks against the corruption of absolute monarchy, and saw the cracks inherent in their native systems.
By the 15th Century, there was a nation in East Asia that was wealthier, more powerful, and more advanced technologically than all the European countries combined. While Europe burned in internal wars and strife, China enjoyed a golden age of prosperity. About a hundred years before the European age of exploration, tales are told of a massive fleet of ships built by one influential Chinese minister with plans to explore and perhaps ‘Chinafy’ the world. This was a century before the European nations got their act together. Then, unexpectedly, the new Emperor ordered the fleet scuttled.
Unlike Europe who thirsted for contact with the rest of the world, the Chinese emperor shunned it. To any observer with the benefit of hindsight, China could have ruled the world. Because of this, it was thought that contact with inferior peoples would dilute superior Chinese purity. They didn’t need to colonize because they had everything they needed at home. The result of this isolationist attitude was that this major world power didn’t grow while their rivals did. This was the state of atrophy when trade conflicts grew between the Chinese and the British. In resolution of these conflicts, the British military should not have proven more effective, but it did. Both had guns, both had cannons, both had organized command structures based on meritocracy. The British soldiers believed they enjoyed human rights and economic opportunity that surpassed any other system one could live under while the Chinese military had poor morale as evidenced by the rampant opium abuse within their ranks, which I suspect was directly related to the abuses inherent in living under an absolute monarchy.
The idea that one human being can actually, literally own another human being is at least as old as the Bible. The existence of slavery therefore predates European colonialism by at least three-thousand years. But during the transatlantic slave trade led by European colonial powers, never before had the world seen slavery on such a massive scale.
Absolutely, this is true, but relatively, it is not. The Romans enacted mass enslavements, as did many of the Greek city-states before them. As did Egypt. As did every other empire of the ancient world when faced with a severe labor shortage. Nearly twelve-million people were brought from West Africa to the Americas during the European transatlantic slave trade between 1500 and 1800. This is a profound source of white guilt.
Prior to the European dominance over the slave ‘industry,’ the title was held by Islam. Just as the European slave trade decimated West Africa, the Islamic slave trade decimated East Africa centuries before. As many as twenty-eight million Africans were bought and sold in Arab slave markets throughout the Middle East between 700 and 1900. We don’t see many African communities in the Middle East is because Arab traders typically castrated their slaves. The Arab slave trade was so extensive that there were white European slaves in West Africa if the chronicles of Ibn Battuta are to be believed (apparently she had a nice ass and was… well… snug; my guess is she was either Mediterranean captured by Barbary Corsairs, or she came from Irish or Balkan slave markets which were frequented by Arab traders).
This is not a ‘whataboutism.’ To say that other civilizations’ participation in mass slavery justifies Europe’s role in the transatlantic slave trade would be a gross fallacy. The transatlantic slave trade may have been the largest the world had ever seen in terms of scale, but it was also the last. This again was partly due to the Catholic Church which during the 17th Century began to issue edicts demanding certain basic human rights for slaves and continued through the In supremo apostolates issued by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839 which condemned slavery outright.
By the late 19th Century, slavery was abolished throughout Europe and throughout European colonies. Meanwhile, it persisted elsewhere. This created a unique opportunity to observe the impact on an economy of a system that included slavery against a system that did not. The result? The economic impact of abolition cannot be understated.
By the beginning of the 20th Century, every country in Africa was under European colonial rule with one exception: Ethiopia. Ethiopia resisted Italian colonial rule because Ethiopia was a modern nation with an advanced, modern military that Italy grossly underestimated. Ethiopia was so advanced and so modern, that itshould have ruled. On the surface, one can imagine that a neighboring country such as Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, or Eretria ought to have preferred liberation by a fellow African leader to oppressive colonial rule by racist white people from Europe. They had the manpower, they had the weapons, and they should have had the racial high ground. But Ethiopia did not have the economy to support large-scale wars of conquest because Ethiopia still sold slaves.
Slavery absolutely destroys an economy. As a sociopolitical construct, a slave economy is strictly inferior to a slave-free economy. What I find interesting is that following abolition, European thought took a closer look at the role of labor within an economy and finally began to see the problems inherent in exploitation of the labor class whether through slavery, serfdom, underpayment, or abuse, and pioneered changes in how labor is balanced against the upper class.
It Wasn’t Asymmetrical
How does one retain the adaptability of a participatory government without sacrificing the efficiency of a one-party system?
The most ingenious solution to this question comes from the Haudenosaunee: by having a codified system of rules and procedures that all participants agree to which includes a system of checks to prevent one party from gaining so much control as to invite corruption, and also ensures every voice is heard. In short, a constitution. European colonists who observed the Haudenosaunee sociopolitical construct liked it so much they copied it. Then it was copied throughout Europe. This began the period of European power on steroids; a constitutional government is a strictly superior sociopolitical construct. Then, it was copied elsewhere. While wealthy and invincible China inverted and suffocated, poor and vulnerable Japan adopted a constitution and went on to devastate three European powers, conquer most of China, and dominate half the Pacific.
In addition to constitutional governance, the European colonial powers brought ideas and resources from everywhere to everywhere else, not just Europe, and a whole lot of people benefited from it. The Suez and Panama canals, both built by colonial powers, today represent a massive stream of income for both countries and improve shipping for everyone, not just Europe. A myriad of commodities represent an agricultural windfall for countless regions throughout the world that would not have existed had Europeans not brought these things from one colony to the next; it was Europeans who first said, “gee, I wonder if coffee would grow in Colombia—seems like everything else does.” Modern financial structures, technology, and public education systems exist in parts of the world that didn’t have these things before.
We cannot deny that the impact of colonialism in some areas was ultimately devastating. Rules established by the European powers grew harsh and oppressive, leading the natives to understand they were better off on their own. During the 20th Century, Europe did as world powers have always done and grew complacent in their prosperity. In most cases, colonies developed sociopolitical structures that were superior to colonial rule and overthrew them. In their place, we see constitutional federal republics throughout the world. And where it exists, it’s prosperous.
The transatlantic slave trade left a disgusting mark on society, and many of those scars still fester. France today struggles to reckon with the definition of what French identity is. Brazil and the United States struggle with the economic disparities left behind by a century and a half of racist policies installed by white people who couldn’t get over abolition. And Xenophobia has woven its ugly threads into every corner of European politics from Hungary to Britain to Denmark.
But white guilt and white-shaming are not the answer; no combination of guilt and shame ever is. The European colonial era, as with any other period in history, brought about wondrous change alongside terrible atrocities. If we take the good with the bad, then it’s a heritage to be proud of. It isn’t racist to be proud of your heritage; it’s racist to tell someone they shouldn’t be proud of theirs.
Michael Patrick Lewis is a teacher, math nerd, and exhausted father of two. Check out my latest book, A Dance to Remember, a gripping tragic romance that will leave you in tears. You can also find me on Twitter @fakeMikeLewis.