HUMAN RIGHTS (Western Colonialism)

Human rights abuses and protests against them have been a major issue in European overseas expansion from its inception. The abuses themselves indicate a significant aspect of the nature of colonialism: its tendency to treat non-European peoples as alien ”others” and thus subject them to various forms of exploitation and suppression. The protests voiced by both Europeans and colonized populations against such abuses were sometimes used as attacks against the very idea of colonialism. However, these criticisms have also served to justify and inspire many new forms of colonialism as well as their continuation into the postcolonial era.

In tracing the historical links between colonialism and human rights, one must review a rather complicated series of events, motivations, and responses. The abuses that resulted from efforts to extract wealth from Asia, Africa, and the Americas often occurred at the hands of perpetrators who attempted to rationalize their actions by references to the inhumane practices of the indigenous societies in these regions. However, even the protesters against such European atrocities as the Atlantic slave trade often proposed in their place new colonial regimes devoted to human rights-based “trusteeship” rather than exploitation. Colonialism thus developed, alongside its political economy, a moral economy driven by human rights concerns.

This article examines five major cases of colonial human rights abuse with the resulting protests and the way such protests could produce new forms of colonialism. A more complete catalog of the abuses themselves can be found in the compendium Le livre noir du colo-nialisme.

In considering claims to associate colonialism with human rights, we first have to consider how this concern for overseas territories may also have served—or even been determined by—more self-interested economic or political motives. However, the moral economy of colonialism had a life of its own. In almost all instances such human rights campaigns were immediately justified as a response to very real social problems in various parts of the world. Often these problems resulted from a prior European colonial presence, although the targets could also be indigenous practices. Within Western society these efforts were further driven by the need to validate Europe’s religious heritage, its secular Enlightenment humanitarianism, or the moral consciences of modern individuals.


The sufferings of Native American populations during the first centuries of Spanish trans-Atlantic expansion are among the best known episodes of colonial human rights abuse. Just in terms of population, Mexico alone lost somewhere between 25 and 50 percent of its population between 1500 and 1600. During the same period almost all of the indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean islands of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica also disappeared.

The main cause of this demographic catastrophe was not intentional Spanish action but rather the introduction of new diseases, especially smallpox, into a region with no previous exposure to such illnesses. However, the violent attacks upon local peoples by early Spanish explorers and conquistadors, eager to find gold and other sources of quick wealth, also contributed to population decline. Even more significant was the postconquest mistreatment of Indians who were forced to work for the Spaniards under a system known as encomienda, which required many natives to pay tribute in money or labor to conquerors or other powerful settlers.

These abuses became known throughout Europe because one of these Spanish colonizers, the missionary friar Bartolome de Las Casas, wrote about them in a widely circulated work, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1552). Even before his book came out, Las Casas and other Spanish clergy had publicized the plight of Spain’s Native American subjects and debated publicly with other priests, who claimed that the Indians deserved punishment for their barbarous customs of human sacrifice and refusal of conversion to Christianity. The defenders of the Indians reformed and tamed the encomienda and officially abolished slavery in 1542. It was ultimately in the material and political interest of the Spanish Crown to preserve its newly acquired subjects and maintain some control over European settlers in the New World, whose encomiendas at first provided a kind of feudal autonomy. However, such reforms proved difficult to enforce overseas and were challenged many times by colonial interests in Spain.

Las Casas is justifiably recognized as one of history’s greatest champions of human rights and his BriefAccount challenged the basic legitimacy of a colonial regime responsible for such massive atrocities. At the same time he continued to search for a more humane way to continue the colonial project and tried to understand Native American culture as a stage on the way to Christianity. Moreover the moral and ultimately economic crisis of the brutal Spanish attempts to exploit New World Indians produced other forms of colonialism that raised their own human rights issues. The quick translation of Las Casas’s book into a number of European languages created the Leyenda negra (Black Legend) of Spanish colonialism and thus provided propaganda for rival powers, most notably Britain, France, and the Netherlands, to launch their own initiatives in overseas regions claimed by Spain. In the Caribbean these new settlements completed the near annihilation of the indigenous population. Las Casas at first recognized that if Indians should not be enslaved, Africans could easily replace them. He later recanted this judgment.


The Atlantic slave trade ranks among the greatest atrocities of European colonialism. Over three and one-half centuries (1500-1870) it brought somewhere between 11 and 12 million involuntary migrants from Africa to the New World. Approximately 15 percent of the Africans forced upon slaving ships died under the horrendous conditions of the “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic. Many more lost their lives in wars and raids within Africa and on the often lengthy foot journeys from the interior to the coast. As workers in the New World, particularly on the Caribbean and Brazilian sugar plantations, which were their most common destination, slaves had low life expectancies, bore few children (two-thirds of those purchased were males), and thus had to be replaced constantly.

Detailed information about the Atlantic slave trade (including a digitalized database) exists because sophisticated European entrepreneurs conducted the entire enterprise as a highly organized business. They purchased the vast majority of slaves under peaceful market conditions from African middlemen who either captured slaves themselves or bought them from other Africans. The high demand for such labor in the New World and competition among various European buyers meant that the prices offered to African suppliers rose steadily throughout the history of the trade. However, most of the profit went to Europeans who controlled the oceanic shipping as well as the production, processing, and sale of valuable plantation goods.

African societies subject to slave trading found various means of resisting or at least evading such horrors, although their efforts appear, at best, to have diverted and extended the routes used by their captors. Historians like John Thornton have argued that, in its earliest stages, when the scale of European demand was still modest, this commerce fit easily into African economic conceptions, which centered upon ”wealth in people”; that is, the accumulation of human dependents and supporters rather than control over land. Whether or not one accepts such an explanation, once the slave trade reached the high numbers of its last two centuries (1650 and later) the competition among Africans for European goods (now needed to retain any significant body of supporters) and firearms (required for defense as well as aggression) made it difficult to drop out of this commerce. African oral tradition contains a strong version of what historians understand to be a human rights critique of the slave trade: Those ancestors who delivered people to the overseas servitude are depicted as witches who drew their wealth from killing others or transforming them into zombies.

The termination of the slave trade (and eventually plantation slavery) came about in the nineteenth century as the result of actions in the larger Atlantic world. One important force was resistance by captured Africans themselves. Whether still aboard ships or installed in the New World, slaves frequently fled or revolted against their conditions. However, given the profitability of the plantation system, until the 1790s European authorities were able to mobilize the necessary resources to overcome such threats.

At the end of the eighteenth century two new factors contributed to the demise of the slave trade: the growth of an abolitionist movement within Europe and the 1791 slave revolt in the very rich French colony of St. Domingue (which became, in 1804, the independent Republic of Haiti). These two developments cannot be entirely separated, because the Haitian revolt occurred in the turbulent context of the French Revolution, which embraced abolition along with other radical reforms. Haiti encouraged further revolts among New World slaves but also strengthened the resolve in some places, such as the United States and Cuba, to maintain strict controls of their still highly productive servile laborers. Moreover, post-emancipation society within Haiti proved to be anything but a model of human rights. The initiative in antislavery thus remained with the citizens of those nations that had organized and prospered from the Atlantic plantation complex.

Historians often view the abolitionist movement as the first international human rights campaign. Its secular ideology drew upon the same Enlightenment beliefs as the French Revolution. However, the major base of anti-slavery was in Britain, where it also found support among new, invigorated Christian churches—first Quakers and evangelical sects but later more established Protestant denominations and eventually Roman Catholics (including churches in continental Europe). During the nineteenth-century heyday of abolitionism Britain was the center of the wealthiest and most extensive empire in the world. Thus British sponsorship of such a crusade has raised a number of questions about the relationship between human rights and colonialism.

For many proponents and opponents, antislavery involved a major sacrifice of colonial interests and for this reason was resisted not only by British planters but also by broader interest groups in France, Portugal, Spain, and the United States. Others saw slavery as economically outdated because of its incompatibility with the free trade and free labor values of a new industrial order, which also had little need of colonies. Finally, in the overseas spaces of slavery and the slave trade, abolition required active intervention by human rights proponents, resulting in strengthened and even expanded colonial responsibilities.

The debate about the costs of colonialism and its compatibility with industrial capitalism has centered around the writings of Eric Williams, both a major historian and leading figure in the decolonization of his native Trinidad. Arguing against a long tradition of extolling British self-sacrifice, Williams asserted that the Atlantic triangle had made critical contributions to British industrialization but was then jettisoned when sugar colonies became unprofitable and industrial interests saw them as an obstacle to the development of new global markets. While there is still considerable debate among scholars about how important colonial trade was to Britain in the eighteenth century, few historians would support Williams’s view that plantation slavery was economically moribund in the first half of the nineteenth century. The booming export of slave produce from Brazil, Cuba, and the southern United States made this clear. Even liberal economists of the time recognized that in regions with low ratios of population to land (including tropical Africa) some kind of constraint over people was necessary in order to provide affordable labor to large agricultural enterprises.

The outlawing of the slave trade (1808) and then slavery itself (1834-38) did, in fact, cost Britain significant sums of money. Plantation production in British colonies was hampered, ex-slave owners received generous compensation payments, domestic consumers were required to pay extra import duties on slave-grown foreign sugar, and the Royal Navy was mobilized to enforce prohibitions against the slave trade, thus also undermining British commercial domination over the rich territory of Brazil. However, Williams was not entirely wrong, since the British could now afford such a price given both their great prosperity as the first industrial power and the much smaller role that the plantations system now played in their economy. The bottom line seems to be that changes in the economic valuation of colonies only permitted, rather than drove, the antislavery movement so that human rights concerns remain a significant force in this change.

It is possible to see an ideological link between the needs of an industrial society and antislavery. Industrialization was accompanied by great displacement and often severe hardship for the working classes of Britain and the image of slaves, still worse off than they were, might have reconciled them to their situation as legally free laborers. Contemporary observers like the novelist Charles Dickens sometimes caricatured antislavery advocates as people more concerned with sufferings in distant “Borrioboola-Gha” than the situations immediately around them. However, to be fair to Victorian reformers, they did intervene in domestic as well as foreign matters. Moreover, the British working class appropriated antislavery rhetoric to emphasize the hardships rather than the freedom of their own conditions.

There are other domestic purposes served by human rights campaigns, particularly in maintaining the relevance of religious institutions that might otherwise be seen as out of touch with the modern world. The stress created from the breaking up of families as the primary evil of slavery (as depicted by Eliza fleeing across the ice with her baby in the global bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s) also reinforced the ”cult of domesticity,” a major mainstay of Victorian middle-class morality. Victorian domesticity meant that women whose husbands could afford to support them should focus their energies upon creating a proper home. However, antislavery was one of the causes that allowed middle-class European and American women to move from their homes out into public life and thus laid the groundwork for women’s rights efforts.

In the case of antislavery, colonies were not abandoned but rather given new attention. The same evangelical and dissenting Scots churches that played a leading role in antislavery agitation at home also sent missionaries out into the Caribbean colonies as well as regions of Africa that were not yet colonized. Under the motto of ”Christianity, Civilization, and Commerce” such efforts combined evangelization with efforts to promote economic enterprise that might provide a positive alterative to slave trading and slavery.

In the New World plantation colonies, the urge to convert the local working force did not necessarily spring from abolitionist sentiments. In Catholic colonies, slaves had always been made into at least nominal Christians without any thought of freeing them. In the British Caribbean, however, the earliest Methodist and Baptist missionaries arrived only late in the eighteenth century. Although these groups took no public stand against slavery, they had close links to abolitionists at home and were always under suspicion by planters. As a result they found themselves caught between the politics of strengthened colonialism and anticolonialism. To fend off the attacks from local whites, who enjoyed considerable autonomous rule through their own assemblies, the missionaries allied themselves with official colonial authorities. At the same time the teachings of the missionaries encouraged slaves and the small number of free blacks to demand greater rights and even to establish their own churches, which became the organizing centers for revolts in the last decades before emancipation.

After emancipation missionaries played a more overt and direct secular role in helping ex-slaves establish farms and villages independent of their former plantations. But planters again opposed them by blocking access to land, and in 1865 another major revolt broke out in Jamaica, for which missionaries, as before, were blamed. The British government now had the option of loosening its control over this and other islands, as had already been done with white settlement colonies such as Canada. However, this would have meant either leaving whites in charge and inducing further violence or enfranchising a significant part of the black majority, which Britain was then unwilling to do. The choice instead was to take away existing self-government privileges and impose a more authoritarian colonial regime on most of the Caribbean islands. Here the cost of human rights (for both local subjects and the British government, which now had little economic interest in the Caribbean) was trusteeship, with decolonization postponed for almost a century.

The Torturing of Native Americans by Spanish Explorers. This mid-sixteenth-century print by Theodor de Bry illustrates reports of the torture of Native Americans in Florida by the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and his men.

The Torturing of Native Americans by Spanish Explorers. This mid-sixteenth-century print by Theodor de Bry illustrates reports of the torture of Native Americans in Florida by the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and his men.

During the era of the slave trade, tropical Africa had not been colonized beyond a few small territories around European trading posts. During the nineteenth century new exports (mainly vegetable oils) were found to sustain trade with the outside world, but none had the strategic importance of slaves. Some European nations like Holland and Denmark thus abandoned their African holdings. The British, however, not only retained their old positions but found a new naval and diplomatic mission in policing both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans against slave trading. Three new colonies, Sierra Leone (British), Gabon (French), and Liberia (United States), were founded to accommodate either Africans rescued from illegal slaving vessels or freed slaves from North America.

Meanwhile missionaries and explorers, usually motivated to some degree by antislavery, brought an entirely new European presence to large portions of Africa. The most famous of these figures, David Livingstone, both a missionary and explorer, carried on relentless propaganda against the slave trade whether practiced by yet-unreformed Europeans (Afrikaners in South Africa, the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique) or a new non-European target, Muslim Arabs and Swahilis in East and Central Africa.

In retrospect, all the antislavery efforts of the earlier 1800s appear like a prelude to the abrupt colonial partition of tropical Africa at the end of the century. The immediate reasons for these moves must be sought in the Great Power political rivalries and domestic European economic and social anxieties. However, antislavery initiatives provided bases for claims to particular territories and an additional justification at home for such heavy commitment to territories of little or no proven commercial worth.

Once colonies were established mission societies greatly expanded their activities in tropical Africa, combining efforts to win converts with social services, especially education and medical care. In this sense they provided a kind of humanitarian justification for colonialism. However, the missions also took responsibility for exposing human rights abuses, sometimes within African societies (such as female genital cutting in Kenya) but more publicly by colonial regimes, most notably the Belgian Congo, the Portuguese territories, and British Kenya. Even more than in the Caribbean, such interventions aimed less at the removal of colonial rule than at shifting power from private European entrepreneurs to government officials, presumed to be more committed to trusteeship than exploitation. The model for such a moral colonial regime first emerged at the same time as the antislavery movement, in British India.


The end of the 1700s witnessed a kind of “moral turn” throughout the European colonial world. Not only did plantation interests in the Atlantic have to contend with abolitionism, but the administration of the British East India Company (EIC) went through a radical reform. In the case of India, the field for human rights intervention was not an established colonial order but rather one that had sprung up, even more sensationally than in Africa a century later.

The British EIC was one of the most important players in the British economy of the early and mid-eighteenth century but at that time controlled only a few coastal enclaves in India itself. Between 1750 and 1765 it suddenly became the territorial ruler of Bengal, the richest state within India, and engaged in local warfare that would eventually give it dominion over the entire South Asian subcontinent. This transformation at first provided a great boost to the EIC’s revenues, but the company soon fell into bankruptcy, due to corruption and high military costs. As a result, its affairs came under the direct supervision of the British Parliament.

In the ensuing British debates about Indian reform, human rights issues played a major role, since the EIC servants had clearly abused both their employer and its Indian subjects in order to amass great personal fortunes. The solution imposed upon the EIC by the Cornwallis Reforms of 1787-93 created a civil service entirely independent of the Company’s commercial functions but whose senior ranks were restricted to British, as opposed to Indian, membership. The new civil servants were required to sign covenants guaranteeing their probity and received sufficiently high salaries and benefits so as to dissuade them from the temptations and risks of corruption. Because of the attention stirred by Indian issues in Britain, many of these officials were recruited from the same Evangelical circles as those of the antislavery movement. Thomas Babington Macaulay, the great British historian, also served in the Indian administration and was the son of the first governor of the Sierra Leone colony. The ethos of the early Indian Civil Services has thus been described by historian Francis Hutchins, in terms very similar to the antislavery movement, as ”an atonement for original sin” (Hutchins 1967, p. 5).

In the first stage of their rule in India the British did not attempt to impose their own ideas of human rights upon anyone but British administrators themselves. Instead they tried to understand the indigenous Sanskrit and imported Muslim culture that had been used to govern the subcontinent previously. Although these ”Orientalist” researchers provided the basis for modern scholarship on India, contemporary historians claim that they froze tradition in such a way as to make institutions like caste discrimination, communal (Hindu-Muslim) division, and sati (widow burning) more abusive than they had been in the past.

From the early 1800s until the uprising of 1857, men from an Evangelical and Utilitarian background, who wanted to propagate British culture and its values more directly, dominated Indian administration. As stated in Macaulay’s famous minute on educational reform, the object was to produce ”a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” In this period sati was abolished and a school system was established, both of which eventually created the basis for what Macaulay called ”the proudest day in British history” (Stokes, 1959, pp. 45-46) when Indians would be prepared to take over their own governance.

Even for Macaulay, however, such a day was seen as very distant, and it was postponed still further by the great Indian uprising of 1857. On the side of both Indian rebels and British avengers, the rebellion involved horrendous atrocities against civilian populations. Colonial authorities responded to these events by strengthening their political control over India, but did so with less intervention into local culture, which they presumed to be one of the causes of the uprising. The initiative in human rights advocacy thus shifted to Western-educated Indians. The major demand among these elites was self-rule, but under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi both the methods and goals of nationalism came to be associated with nonviolence, concern for the poor, and the building of bridges across divisions of caste and religion.

When Indian independence was finally achieved in 1947, it fell far short of these standards. The partition of the former British Raj, along Hindu-Muslim lines, into India and Pakistan produced massive population displacements accompanied by killings that cost between 500,000 and 1 million lives. Gandhi was assassinated the following year by a Hindu fundamentalist. However, his example continues to inspire human rights activism in India and has been a major influence on efforts against oppression in other parts of the world, most notably the civil rights movement in the United States.


Examples of colonial moral economy have concentrated upon the British Empire for two reasons: British overseas possessions far outstripped those of other European countries through most of the modern era and religiously inspired moral reform played a greater role in metropolitan British life during this period than for the other major colonial powers, the Netherlands and France. The Netherlands is a particularly interesting comparison, since the country shared a good deal of the Protestant culture and commercial orientation of Britain and also transformed its East India Company into the ruler of a large Asian territory, in this case the future Indonesia.

During the late 1700s and early 1800s, human rights discourse played little role in Dutch colonial affairs. Slavery was not abolished in the Dutch West Indies until 1863 and the far richer East Indies (Indonesia) was very profitably exploited as a kind of state plantation under the notorious cultuurstelsel (cultivation system). Some protests began to emerge in the 1850s against the excessive demands made upon Javanese peasants but it was only in 1860, with the publication of Multatuli’s (Eduard Douwes Dekker) novel, Max Havelaar, that the issue really drew wide public attention. In a rare case for Dutch literature, Max Havelaar was translated into all major European languages and became perhaps the most widely read work on colonialism in the nineteenth century. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to which it is often compared, it uses very romantic and sentimental literary devices to depict the plight of its victims, in this case Javanese peasants.

In the wake of such bad publicity, the cultivation system was abolished in 1870. However, the new economic regime that replaced it still relied upon European-run plantations, as opposed to the more independent peasant farming advocated by most humanitarian critics in the Caribbean and tropical Africa. At the end of the 1890s the Dutch announced their conversion to an ”Ethical Policy” in the East Indies, meaning a greater investment in indigenous welfare. However, the colony continued to be seen and operated as a major economic asset of the mother country. The Dutch showed little tolerance for nationalist movements and only departed after the violence of Japanese occupation and a brief but bitter war for independence.


France was the center of Enlightenment thought and its revolution produced the first formal Declaration of Human Rights in 1789. However, such ideas were not extended to the colonies under the succeeding Napoleonic regime and the restored monarchies of the nineteenth century. By this time France had few overseas possessions left after losing a long series of world wars to Britain. Moreover, political authorities and the Catholic Church associated abolitionism, the main project of colonial humanitarianism at the time, with the radical excesses of the French Revolution and the continuing British threat. Slavery in the French sugar islands of the Caribbean and Indian Ocean was only abolished in 1848, during the brief Second Republic interlude between the monarchy and the Second Empire of Louis Napoleon.

The monarchy had, however, bequeathed to France a new colonial realm, Algeria, which raised its own set of human rights issues. French colonialism in Algeria followed a pattern similar to that of South Africa: Much of the land and most government resources were devoted to white settlers but the already large indigenous Arab and Berber population did not fade away, as in much of the Americas and Australasia, but instead grew in size and discontentment.

France’s most liberal solution to colonial problems was not, as in the British case, to grant local self-government with loose membership in the empire-commonwealth, but rather to assimilate colonies to the mother country. Thus the entire population of the old plantation colonies became French citizens, with representation in the Paris National Assembly. These policies could not be fully applied to tropical Africa or Indochina, regions that thus gained eventual independence; the former mostly peacefully, the latter after a violent but distant war. In Algeria the white settlers (as well as native Jews) were granted full citizenship rights by 1870. However, the majority Muslim population could only attain such privileges by accepting French civil regulations of their personal status; since this amounted to abandoning Islam, only a tiny number undertook it.

The initial imposition of French rule in Algeria, as well as later concessions to settlers, had produced many episodes of violent confrontation with the local population. But these clashes only came to be viewed as a major human rights issue during the 1954—62 war for Algerian independence, which cost somewhere between 350,00 and 1 million lives. Violence took the form of terrorism against civilian settler populations and native collaborators on the part of Algerian nationalists, and counter-terror, including bombing and torture, by the large number of French troops sent to enforce European rule.

The Algerian forces never won a military victory, but the war created a disastrous divide among the French. On one side were metropolitan leftists and liberals, appalled at the moral costs of repression; opposing them were Algerian settlers and right-wing elements within the army, who joined in a rebellion that overthrew the Fourth Republic. The man brought in to establish a new regime in France, Charles de Gaulle, first appeared to represent those monarchical and imperial traditions that favored national interests over human rights. But after assessing the forces at work in Algeria, De Gaulle shifted toward granting independence. This move unleashed a last wave of right-wing terror in both Algeria and the Metropole, but at the end France finally disengaged from its North African colony.

Algeria, like Haiti before it and many other former European colonies, experienced horrendous violations of human rights in the decades after its independence. There is clearly some historical connection between the colonial heritage and abuses of postcolonial regimes against their citizens and various ethnic and religious groups against one another. However, with very few exceptions, most notably Iraq in the 2000s (where human rights was not presented as the main basis for an American-led invasion) Western powers have not returned to impose their own regimes. Instead it is the human rights movement, based in various religious and secular non-governmental organizations (NGOS), that mounts protest and offers various kinds of social and material aid. These bodies are the heirs to the moral mission of Bartolome Las Casas, the Enlightenment, and the anti-slavery campaign. Whether such efforts are the basis for a more just and egalitarian world order or an ethnocentric continuation of colonialism remains open to debate.

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