Colonialism And Exceptionalism
By John Scales Avery
America different, what makes us exceptional, is that we
are dedicated to act." (Barak Obama, speech, September,
October 10, 2013 "Information
- It seems
to be possible for nations, and the majority of their citizens,
to commit the worst imaginable atrocities, including torture,
murder and genocide, while feeling that what they are doing is
both noble and good.. Some understanding of how this is possible
can be gained
by watching the 3-part BBC
documentary, “The History of Racism”.
The series was broadcast by BBC Four in March 2007. and videos
of the broadcasts are available on the Internet. Watching this
eye-opening documentary can give us much insight into the link
between racism and colonialism. We can also begin to see how
both racism and colonialism are linked to US exceptionalism and
Looking at the BBC documentary we can see how often in human
history economic greed and colonial exploitation have been
justified by racist theories. The documentary describes almost
unbelievable cruelties committed against the peoples of the
Americas and Africa by Europeans. For example, in the Congo, a
vast region which which King Leopold II of Belgium claimed as
his private property, the women of villages were held as
hostages while the men were forced to gather rubber in the
forests. Since neither the men nor the women could produce food
under these circumstances, starvation was the result.
Leopold's private army of 90,000 men were issued ammunition, and
to make sure that the used it in the proper way, the army was
ordered to cut off the hands of their victims and send them back
as proof that the bullets had not been wasted. Human hands
became a kind of currency, and hands were cut off from men,
women and children when rubber quotas were not fulfilled.
Sometimes more than a thousand human hands were gathered in a
single day. During the rule of Leopold, roughly 10,000,000
Congolese were killed, which was approximately half the
population of the region.
According to the racist theories that supported these
atrocities, it was the duty of philanthropic Europeans like
Leopold to bring civilization and the Christian religion to
Africa. Similar theories were used to justify the genocides
committed by Europeans against the native inhabitants of the
Americas. Racist theories were also used to justify enormous
cruelties committed by the British colonial government in India.
For example, during the great famine of 1876-1878, during which
ten million people died, the Viceroy, Lord Lytton, oversaw the
export to England of a record 6.4 million hundredweight of
Meanwhile, in Europe,almost everyone was proud of the role which
they were playing in the world. All that they read in newspapers
and in books or heard from the pulpits of their churches
supported the idea that they were serving the non-Europeans by
bringing them the benefits of civilization and Christianity.
Kipling wrote: “Take up the White Man's burden, Send forth the
best ye breed, Go bind your sons to exile, To serve your
captives' need; To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and
wild, Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and
half-child.” On the whole, the mood of Europe during this orgy
of external cruelty and exploitation, was self-congratulatory.
Can we not see a parallel with the self-congratulatory mood of
the American people and their allies, who export violence to the
whole world, but who think of themselves as “exceptional”?
John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and
an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied
theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was
awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus,
Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University
of Copenhagen. He can be reached at
This article was originally published at
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