What are the central arguments for and against colonialism?

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There are many arguments against colonialism. Many people argue against it on an ethical basis, saying that it is not the right thing to do to impose one’s culture on another, especially not in the violent way colonizers did it which typically caused the death of innocent people. Also many...

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There are many arguments against colonialism. Many people argue against it on an ethical basis, saying that it is not the right thing to do to impose one’s culture on another, especially not in the violent way colonizers did it which typically caused the death of innocent people. Also many colonizers, like those at the Berlin Conference, divided land with complete disregard for existing distinctions between ethnic and tribal groups. Not only was this unethical, but it also led to years of long-term tensions and violent conflict among natives. The brutality of colonization leads to intergenerational trauma and conflict as well as the erasure of Indigenous cultures and histories.

Some colonizers, particularly during the height of colonization, argued in favor of colonialism, but these arguments are widely regarded as unjust today. For instance, a famous argument in support of colonization was the idea of “the white man’s burden,” that white people had a responsibility to civilize the rest of the world. We see this argument reflected in the rhetoric of many prominent imperialists, such as Jules Ferry, the prime minister of France. In a speech to the French Chapter of Deputies in 1884, he said:

We must say openly that indeed the higher races have a right over the lower races . . . I repeat, that the superior races have a right because they have a duty. They have a duty to civilize the inferior races.

Many people also supported colonization for economic reasons. For instance, the English businessman Cecil Rhodes is famous for making money off of colonization in South Africa, where he exploited labor for diamonds and gold. It is important to note that arguments justifying colonization are rooted in misconceptions of human development as well as systemic racism. There is no evidence at all that one race is superior to another and this claim was only made to justify colonizers’ desire for money and power.

Source:

Jules Ferry, “Speech Before the French Chamber of Deputies, March 28, 1884," Discours et Opinions de Jules Ferry, ed. Paul Robiquet (Paris: Armand Colin & Clie., 1897), trans. Ruth Kleinman, available from the Fordham University/Modern History Sourcebook.

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