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

Bruce Gilley: Target of a vicious and ignorant campaign

In 2012, I bought a copy of the late Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s last published book There Was A Country, a memoir of the inter-ethnic Biafra War that killed between one and two million people in Nigeria between 1967 and 1970. I recall the moment, standing at the bookseller’s table, when my eyes grew four sizes reading what Achebe had written:

Here is a piece of heresy. The British governed their colony of Nigeria with considerable care. There was a very highly competent cadre of government officials imbued with a high level of knowledge of how to run a country. This was not something that the British achieved only in Nigeria; they were able to manage this on a bigger scale in India and Australia. The British had the experience of governing and doing it competently. I am not justifying colonialism. But it is important to face the fact that British colonies were, more or less, expertly run.

I was bowled over. As I read further, Achebe kept coming back to the British period with fonder memories and greater praise. His “articulation of the unsayable”, as a Malawian scholar put it, was astounding coming from a man with totemic status in anti-colonial ideology. I went back and read everything he had written and said about colonialism. It turns out he had been saying positive things from the start, as well as negative things. When I published “Chinua Achebe on the Positive Legacies of Colonialism” in African Affairs (the top peer-reviewed academic journal in the field) in 2016, I braced for a storm. There were a few critics. But mostly, I received thanks, especially from African intellectuals who were well aware of this great teacher’s complex views.

In the process of writing the Achebe article, I stumbled upon Sir Alan Burns. He was one of the last governors of the Gold Coast (later renamed Ghana). Then for ten years, until 1956, Burns was a member of the British delegation to the United Nations, dealing mainly with colonial issues. His pugnacious defense of the colonial endeavour at the UN and in many writings (especially his 1957 In Defence of Colonies) made him a made-in-heaven object of the anti-colonial scorn that captured the world’s intellectual imagination for the subsequent half-century. Dinosaur. Reactionary. And, of course, Racist.

As I dug deeper into Sir Alan’s life, I found a well-liked and intelligent person who has been forgotten. I tracked down his family, a delightful bunch, scattered around the world. With their help, writing his biography became my major preoccupation. As I finished the research and prepared to write, I wanted to reformulate his thinking in a schematic way. We all want human dignity and flourishing. Why has a system that, by and large, provided more of this to subject peoples than they would otherwise have enjoyed (especially for women and non-dominant groups), and, importantly, was largely accepted as a result, been so roundly denounced? Why is the question of colonialism no longer a social scientific one and instead a doctrine to be hammered into the heads of undergraduates?

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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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