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READ: Colonial Violence

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. Henry Morton Stanley’s voyage of exploration in Africa is famous. How does the author characterize it?
  2. Why, according to the author, was the initial process of taking control of territory through colonialism so violent?
  3. How did economic goals (production and distribution) lead to violence in colonialism?
  4. How was violence justified ideologically?
  5. What, according to Franz Fanon, were some of the psychological effects of colonialism?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. This author rejects the idea that we can ask whether colonialism was “good” or “bad”, and argues that “it’s hard to measure what ‘good’ could have come of it, when weighed against the much heavier physical and psychological suffering it caused”. Do you think he has made his case? Why or why not?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Colonial Violence

By Trevor R. Getz
Colonialism was all about control. This article examines how colonizers used and justified violence against their colonized subjects.

The issue of colonial violence

Historians ask lots of questions, and sometimes these questions end up on high school history tests. "Was colonialism good or bad?" used to be a popular history exam question. Not anymore. It's not that we can't find small examples of "good" results about colonialism. Rather, it's because we recognize that colonialism overall caused tremendous suffering and violence. Listing what was "good" and "bad" about it, as if those lists could have equal weight, avoids the difficult but important task of recognizing the suffering caused by colonialism. But that certainly doesn't mean we have settled all our questions about colonialism.
Historians still strive to answer a different question: Why was colonialism so brutal? In general, the evidence points to at least three reasons for colonial violence. First, colonialism was all about one group of people establishing control over others, who resisted that control. Fighting and viciousness were part of everyday life. The second is that colonialism was about making money, and colonizers usually needed forced labor to gain profit. The third is that colonialism was a cultural system dependent on the idea that one group of people were better than others. The punishment and discrimination that this thinking justified was often violent. Let's look at these three explanations more closely.
A 1906 critique of colonialism from a German cultural magazine, Simplicissimus. Like the author of this article, the image suggests all kinds of reasons for colonial violence. From the author’s private collection, Trevor Getz.

Violence for control

Henry Morton Stanley was one of Britain's most famous colonial explorers. His months-long trek across central Africa was celebrated at the time as a great act of courage and skill. It was also incredibly bloody. Stanley stole the food he needed from any community he came upon. He and his men attacked villages. They tried to exterminate people who might delay or stop them. Stanley loaded his guns with explosive bullets, an act frowned upon in Europe but somehow permissible when shooting at Africans. Stanley's expedition left a trail of dead bodies across the middle of the continent, and he wasn't afraid to write about it. Was this because he knew that most of his readers in the United States and Britain would agree this was how you "tame" a "savage" continent? What was Stanley's true point of view? Was his behavior desperate acts of a hungry man? Or did he just think it was okay to treat other people—in this case Africans—in this way?
Colonialism was a process of taking control of territory—in Asia, or the Pacific, or Africa, or elsewhere. People already lived in these regions, and they generally didn't want to be colonized. So colonizing people was done by force. Of course, there was violence in all of these places before colonialism. But imposing colonial control was often especially bloody for several reasons. First, whether European, or American, or Japanese, the colonial power usually had modern weapons that were far deadlier than what the locals had. Second, they were generally much fewer in number than the local inhabitants, and felt like they needed to use these weapons to make up for the difference in numbers. Finally, the imperial powers generally had to destroy the governments and systems that already existed in order to turn these countries and peoples into colonies and subjects.
Once colonialism was established, you might think the violence subsided. And to some degree, large-scale massacres and warfare did decrease after conquest. But control still had to be maintained. Specifically, small groups of people were still trying to rule over large groups who mostly didn't want to be ruled. That's why colonialism often remained quite brutal even after it was established. Some actions that would had been forbidden back home were allowed for officials in the colonies. Brutal punishments were common, including whippings and even death for people who resisted the colonial government. Colonial officials were allowed to force locals to serve as laborers and punish entire communities for the actions of one person.

Violence for profit

Let's go back to Stanley's expedition for a second. His violence wasn't limited to local communities. Stanley's European adventurers were supplied with African workers who carried everything they needed. Stanley frequently wrote that he had these workers beaten for not working hard enough, and at one point even executed a worker for running away.
Stanley's treatment of his workers was not that unusual. One of the purposes of colonialism was to make a profit, and that meant making African, Asian, Caribbean, and other colonized people work hard for very little or no pay. Recruitment was often by force—colonizers told local communities to turn over some laborers to work for no pay or face the consequences. Companies and colonial governments also often resorted to beatings and other kinds of violence. Some of the most devastating examples of this violence occurred on big projects such as railroad construction or in the transportation of raw materials from the interior of colonial regions, to the coasts where they could be transported to factories in Europe, the United States, or Japan. In some cases, tens of thousands of laborers died from maltreatment and disease on these projects.
Even where colonial companies and plantations weren't profitable, systems arose to extract money from local populations to subsidize (provide money for) them. One of these systems taxed colonial subjects, and forced them to pay their taxes in the form of cash. The only way to get that cash was to work on plantations or mines, where they were poorly paid. Moreover, the money from their wages, which they paid in taxes, then went to their employers that ran the plantations and mines in the form of subsidies. So it was almost as if they had never been paid at all!
Forced laborers carrying supplies for the building of the Congo-Ocean Railway in French-ruled Central Africa. Public domain.
Sometimes, colonial law technically protected local populations from the worst kinds of violence. In Indochina (today's Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), for example, French law prohibited physical punishment of workers on plantations and public work projects. However, it allowed for other abuses such as forced labor and 15-hour working days with no breaks and poor food and water. And a lot of evidence shows that plantation owners and supervisors often beat workers, ignoring the law. A few officials and owners were punished—fined or even fired— but others got away with it.
The abuses seen in Indochina were pretty common. A more extreme example of colonial violence for profit was the system set up in the Congo, the same region where Stanley had traveled. King, Leopold II of Belgium conquered much of the Congo. He sought quick profit in this region, in particular by extracting rubber, which grew there naturally. The Industrial Revolution created a high demand for rubber, which was used as seals and for belts that drove machinery, and of course for tires. Leopold recruited mercenaries1 from all over Europe, and put them in charge of mostly African troops from other regions. Then Leopold demanded that the mercenaries force the locals to gather as much rubber as possible. Families were forced to work non-stop, or be shot. They could not even gather enough food to feed themselves, but had to constantly collect rubber. If they failed to gather enough, they would be punished by beatings or other atrocities (horrors), including having their hands cut off.
Vietnamese bowing to French troops. Colonialism elevated the colonizers and gave them power over the colonized. The artist who chose to make this image was French. Public domain.
Colonialism gave settlers and administrators an enormous amount of power, with little oversight. Is it any wonder that the system was so abusive in practice?

Civilizing violence

The ideology of colonialism justified violence in at least two ways. For one, colonial racism said that it was okay for self-proclaimed "superior" people to punish those they deemed inferior. People who believed this sometimes claimed that colonial subjects only understood punishment and violence, and nothing else could make them work. However, even those who believed that colonialism had a duty to "civilize" people thought brutality was okay—that it could in fact be a tool of "civilization". They argued that adult colonial subjects needed to be disciplined like children so they would learn to be civilized. And punishment for children in Europe, Japan, or the United States at the time often involved beatings. So it seemed quite natural to use physical punishment. Perhaps this explains why colonial schools, in particular, were incredibly harsh, with children constantly facing beatings if they did not learn their lessons. Many adults today, who were children during the colonial era, tell stories of returning home from school with bruises and scars all over their bodies.
Some violence, however, was less visible—because it was psychological violence. One of the people who first wrote convincingly about this kind of violence was Franz Fanon, a man of African descent who grew up in the Caribbean colony of Martinique. As a psychiatrist working in Algeria, he identified some of the psychological effects of colonialism. Colonial subjects around the world suffered from being constantly told they were inferior, that their culture and language were bad. They were told they should act more like their colonizers. But they were also told that—because of the color of their skin and other factors—they could never actually be equal to their colonizers. This led to a certain self-hatred, for many, and to feelings of inferiority and depression.
These forms of violence made colonies pretty brutal places. Admittedly, this was an era of worldwide brutality and destructiveness. But the violence of colonialism hit deeper than gunfire. It's hard to assess what "good" could have come of it, when weighed against the much heavier physical and psychological suffering it caused.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African History at San Francisco State University. He has written eleven books on African and world history, including Abina and the Important Men. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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