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How the hate mob tried to silence me
December 2017 / January 2018

I was sitting in a coffee-shop with a recent Afghani refugee that my family is helping to resettle in Portland, preparing to take him to a job interview, when I received a “high priority” email from an Australian colleague: “You are lighting up my Facebook page with hate mail. Well done mate!” Abdul, the father, saw my concern and gave me a questioning look. My reply was automatic: “Just like the fanatics you escaped from, Abdul!”

First, let me be clear that the article has generated a kind outpouring of support for my position on substantive grounds. That is, many scholars and friends have spoken out in favour of the proposition that a substantive body of empirical work generated over the last half-century has validated the claim that colonialism’s benefits usually exceeded its harms in most cases. And, just as important, it was supported more than opposed by host peoples. I have made many new friends in India, Africa, south-east Asia, and the Middle East, and we are now working on several joint projects to summarise colonial contributions to human flourishing. A new friend in Guadeloupe stepped in to prepare a French translation. “The people of the Third World all thank you,” a new friend in India wrote.

A second outpouring of support came from those who, while disagreeing to varying degrees with the substantive claims, vigorously defended the importance of the paper being published and debated. The paper quickly appeared on the syllabi of fall courses, often as an object of criticism but clearly filling a need. Graduate students at UC San Diego took it up as a case study of publishing controversial positions. Bloggers took up the questions of counterfactual history that it raises. The paper was read 16,000 times within weeks of appearing, becoming overnight the most widely read paper in TWQ history. As a leading medical researcher in the US of South Asian heritage wrote to me, the suppression of heterodox ideas is “frightening if you think of the structure of scientific revolutions. What does this indicate for new theories, new knowledge, new ideas?”

Still, the hate campaign was Maoist in its ferocity. Words like “utter”, “total” and “absolute” filled the soundings. Needless to say, with rare exceptions, critics did not engage the substantive findings of the paper. Who after all would really want to make an argument that Guinea-Bissau was better off without colonialism? Who would seriously argue that Hong Kong and Singapore are not great achievements of colonialism? Did I misquote Achebe? The serious critics wondered why I had not listed all the atrocities committed under colonial rule, of which there are many. It was for the same reason that I did not list all the atrocities committed before and after colonial rule: like it or not, the question facing most peoples was which rulers were less likely to commit atrocities. When they migrated en masse from non-colonised to colonised areas, they made a prudent choice in favour of regimes likely to commit less, and likely to investigate and punish those that occurred. For instance, after Belgian colonial rule began in the Congo in 1908 to correct the gross abuses of the private fiefdom of King Leopold II, natives streamed into the colonial centres.

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July 23rd, 2018
3:07 PM
@sam butler great blog. @Bruce Gilley: hero. You sir have given me a new direction in life. A new respect for my ancestors and myself. I am a proud barbarian and I will build the hoard. Fear us.

January 6th, 2018
5:01 PM
According to the journal website the article went through double blind peer review. HELLER DOES NOT MENTION THIS IN HIS COMMENT ABOVE.

Prof. Kevin Heller
December 27th, 2017
11:12 AM
Not surprisingly, the author fails to mention that, according to the 15 members of TWQ's Editorial Board that resigned, the article did not pass peer review, but was in fact rejected by three separate reviewers, including one that was given the essay after it had already been rejected by the editors of the Special issue in question.

Prof. Kevin Jon Heller
December 27th, 2017
8:12 AM
Call me crazy, but ignoring all of the substantive criticism of the essay and arguing "some of my best friends are colonial peoples" might not be the most effective rhetorical strategy.

Sam Butler
December 20th, 2017
3:12 PM
I'm grateful to Bruce Gilley for his bravery. Here's a minor contribution to the debate:

Lawrence Jamess
December 5th, 2017
8:12 AM
I have encountered many Indians who appreciate the value of British rule. Its denigrators are most Indian academics who have created a cosy myth of a stable progressive pre-imperial sib-continent. One assumes, perhaps wickedly, that they would be happy to see the return of dacoits, the cults of thagi and sati, and the rule of a Muslim dynasty,

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