It is an ever-growing matter of suspense how long it will take before there is general recognition of the fact that, although the spread of democracy is — next to its irreplaceable contribution to victory in World War II and the Cold War — America’s greatest bequest to the world, most of the world worked better in colonial times. No one could seriously dispute that almost all of sub-Saharan Africa, all of North Africa except Morocco, all of the Middle East except Israel and Jordan and most of the oil-rich states, and the entire former British Indian Empire were better governed by Europeans. The Philippines and Cuba and, during the piping days of the U.S. Marines’ occupations (even if they were deployed at times by the United Fruit Company), Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic were all better off under the Americans.
It was an astonishing feat for the British to rule what is today India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka (Ceylon), and Nepal with only 100,000 people. Gandhi, a British-educated lawyer, knew the British well and knew that passive resistance could not be suppressed so violently by so conscientious a country. Hitler once told then-foreign minister Anthony Eden that Britain should shoot Gandhi and Nehru, and continue shooting the leaders of the Congress party who were agitating for independence, until the agitation stopped. Had Germany or Russia or Japan been the occupying power, independence would have been a long and sanguinary time coming, and the regime would have been much less constructive than it was under the British for 200 years.
In all that time, there was one mutiny, but there were not the terrible violence and corruption of Pakistan, the wars, the tyranny of the Burmese generals, or the Tamil-led civil war in Sri Lanka. The British left a justice system and the English language, and some spirit of market economics, and departed with scarcely any violence, apart from the regrettable episode at Amritsar in 1919, and the sectarian relocations when they left. The French, though less benign than the British, had a “civilizing mission” and were splendid city planners in Saigon, Dakar, Casablanca, Beirut, and other cities. They founded many universities and their territories never suffered the appalling violence that has ravaged post-independence Mali, Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Mauritania, much less Cambodia. There were no Killing Fields under the European colonists, although the Belgians, the Dutch, and, in early South American days, the Spanish were rapacious and often severe. Objections to the cruel exploitations by the Spanish in South America led to the agitations of the Jesuits, and the temporary suppression of the Society of Jesus, except in Prussia and Russia, by Pope Clement XIV in 1773 — a suppression that lasted until 1814, when Pius VII, his mind jogged by being confined and exiled by Napoleon for some years, reinstated the order.
The Belgians were frequently inexcusably heavy-handed in the Congo, but they never generated the horrific casualties that have routinely occurred in the civil strife in that country in 50 years of independence, much less the approximately 1 million dead in a single month in the Rwandan massacres of the Tutsi in 1994. It need hardly be said that there were no Darfurs (another million dead) in the Anglo-Egyptian (i.e., governed by the British) Sudan, once Khartoum was liberated from the Mahdi in 1885 (two days too late for General Gordon). The Dutch were no joy in Indonesia, but the natives did not run amok, as they did in 1966 when 700,000 alleged Communists, including the party leader, D. N. Aidit, were massacred. The Portuguese were relatively enlightened in Brazil and Macao, and not overly bad in Angola and Mozambique, again, in the light of the prolonged civil wars that racked both those countries after they left.
It must be said that the motives for colonialism were discreditably greedy and largely based on racial and sectarian arrogances. In the case of the United States, colonial acquisition was almost an accident, after the hokey Spanish–American War, which was caused, effectively, by spontaneous combustion in the USS Maine in Havana in 1898. The Americans departed Cuba quickly and voluntarily pledged to leave the Philippines after less than 40 years. The U.S., unlike the European powers, had itself been a colony and never had much enthusiasm for that project. President Cleveland revoked Sanford Dole’s fake takeover of Hawaii (before Dole became a famous name in the kitchens of America). But Dole outsmarted Cleveland by embracing Cleveland’s recognition of Hawaiian independence and objecting to interference in the domestic affairs of the islands, in particular his own coup d’état that Cleveland had judged illegal. American annexation was approved in the brief empire-building regime of Cleveland’s successor, William McKinley, conqueror of Cuba and the Philippines.
It is verging on secular heresy to make the point, especially in the week of July 4, but the American colonists didn’t have much to complain about, either. The British pretension that the Mother of Parliaments could represent the Americans although they had no members of it was nonsense, especially as America had 30 percent of the population of Great Britain by the Revolution, and was the most prosperous British entity. But the taxes imposed were less than the British Isles were already paying; Britain gave the Americans a year to propose alternative sources of revenue; and all Britain was seeking was help in reducing the national debt, which had doubled during the Seven Years’ War (largely owing to the effort to throw the French out of Canada, at the insistence of the Americans). The original tea partiers, disguised as Indians, were overreacting to a tax that was confined to tea and was not excessive. Their current emulators are less colorful and imaginative.
The colonists had the better of the argument with the British, but individual Americans did not have substantively more liberties at the end of the Revolution than they had had at the beginning, nor more than the British in the home islands had (then or now or at any time in between), apart from having a resident sovereign government. The whole American notion of liberty came from the British, along with the common law and the English language. If the Americans had maintained their British status, they would control Britain and Canada and Australia and New Zealand now (another 120 million people and over $5 trillion of GDP), have all their energy needs met, and enjoy better government than they have actually endured for the past 20 years. It would have been much easier to abolish slavery and, if there had been a Civil War, it would not have lasted long, nor cost a fraction of the 750,000 American lives that it did. There would have been no World Wars or Cold War, or at least no conflict remotely as perilous as those were. The United States would also have less than its current 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people, and wouldn’t have a legal cartel that devours 10 percent of its GDP. These are matters that, though they verge on secular heresy, Americans may want to consider, in between singing splendid anthems and rereading Jefferson’s defamation of poor old George III and his blood libel on the American Indian in the Declaration of Independence, this national holiday.