outline of African colonialism by Dr. Stephen Davies

SportsNightOne of the characters on the brilliantly written Sports Night, Casey McCall, whenever he was asked a question, would preface his complex reply with something like this: "Let me answer that in three parts with the second part first."

Here’s love-interest Dana teasing Casey for this quirk:

Casey: How am I conversationally anal-retentive?

Dana: Let me answer that question in four parts, with the fourth part first and the third part last. The second part has five subjects —

One of the reasons my wife found this routine funny was that it reminded her of me. I never did quite the same thing (and was therefore never quite as amusing as an Aaron Sorkin–created character), but I do find it helpful to communicate structurally. Not everyone does.

BenSteinIn high school, our American-history teacher was infamously dull. He spoke in a monotone, almost like the Ben Stein character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I’d been dreading 11th-grade American history since I’d first been warned about him in 9th grade. But when I finally sat in his class, I loved it. He communicated in outline form, all the information pre-organized for us. He wasn’t charismatic or entertaining, but if you happened to find his subject interesting, then what he had to say was both fascinating and easy to absorb. At least if you find it helpful to think structurally. Not everyone does.

Jeffrey Tucker recently tweeted a video of Dr. Stephen Davies, program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies and education director at the Institute for Economics Affairs in London, giving a talk at the Mercatus Center on different views of history. This was my introduction to Davies, and I spent the long weekend listening to his lectures (after converting a bunch of them from YouTube to MP3). I am immediately a fan, and I marvel that I didn’t know Davies’s name before a few days ago.

AfricanLibertyHis talks are funnier and much more entertaining than the lectures of my high-school American-history teacher, but no less fascinating and no less structured. If you’d like a brief example of the sort of structured communication I’m talking about, check out this 10-minute interview he did with AfricanLiberty.org. He’s asked three questions, and he answers each one in outline form.


  1. Is there a link between a lack of economic freedom and underdevelopment in Africa?
  2. What part did colonialism play in the history of Africa?
  3. What part did the slave trade play in the history of Africa?

I’ll address the second part first …

The impact of colonialism was, says Dr. Davies, quite negative, but not in the way people generally suppose.

The common notion is that colonial powers profited significantly by looting Africa of its raw materials. That is not true.

You need to remember, first of all, that direct rule of Africa does not start until the 1890s. Until the Berlin Conference at the end of the 1870s, most of the European powers only had control of the immediate coasts and not very far inland at all. It’s only at the beginning of the 20th century that you begin to get significant control of the interior exercised by colonial powers, starting in places like the Congo with the appalling policies of King Leopold. So we’re talking about a policy that only lasted about 70 years.

Secondly, African colonies were not particularly profitable (if indeed they were profitable at all) for the European powers. The great European overseas profits in the 19th century were not made by investing in Africa but largely by investing in the United States — also in Russia and certain parts of Asia.

The damaging effect of colonialism on Africa does not come about through exploitation or the creation of a peripheral economy, as is commonly supposed.

The real damage arises from these things:

First, the way in which the Berlin Conference leads to Africa being carved up on a totally arbitrary basis, establishing borders that have no relationship with (a) demographic, (b) geographical, (c) economic, or (d) political realities. So entire large African nations such as the Kingdom of Kongo are carved up between three states:

  1. Congo-Brazzaville,
  2. the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and
  3. Angola, in roughly equal proportions.

Similarly, completely separate and distinct political entities such as the Kingdom of Buganda are lumped in with lots of other territories to form a completely artificial entity, in this case the British Crown Colony of Uganda.

This creates political entities that are fundamentally unnatural and unstable, and this is the main reason, in Davies’s opinion, it has proved so difficult to construct stable, orderly systems of government and law. "In the aftermath of independence, you’re dealing with totally arbitrary and unnatural entities."

The second damaging effect of colonialism is the way in which colonial governments (not always deliberately) undermined traditional, indigenous institutions and forms of governance and rule of law, and replaced them with either (a) legal codes imported from Europe, or, even worse, (b) a leadership consisting of Africans who had been educated in very misleading and mistaken ideas — socialist ideas — at institutions such as the Sorbonne and LSE.

So when independence came, the Europeans handed over not to indigenous people and indigenous institutions (whether market-based or otherwise) but to deracinated elites who had been brought up in the doctrines of socialism in Paris or London. "And the combination of that with the completely arbitrary demarcation of borders was disastrous."

Finally, the third really disastrous legacy of colonialism was the introduction of the standing-army principle, which created an institution totally contrary to African traditions, that gave predators enormous power and access to the means of violence on a large, organized scale — and disarmed the majority of the population, leaving them at the mercy of the predators.

You can watch the video to hear what Davies has to say about present African economic policies and the impact that slavery had on African history.


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