What was the human toll?

On the whole, whatever the specific defeats or prolonged resistances, an idea of which is provided by reading the catalog of British colonial conflicts during the Victorian era (see table on this page), the colonial wars produced, for considerable results, few human losses on the European side.

China itself was not able to resist, not in 1840-1842, nor in 1860, nor in 1900. France triumphed in Algeria and in Tonkin, as it did against Samori Touré in the African west. The Russians won in Daghestan despite the fierce resistance of Shamil’s mountain people. After hard combat, the British succeeded in overcoming the Maoris in New Zealand and the Zulus in South Africa. Significant loss of lives occurred only in the war against the Boers, where the British declared more than twenty thousand dead (including many from injuries and/or disease).

Throughout the entire colonial period, Europeans played on ethnic, tribal, or religious divisions and used local back-up troops. The British Indian Army was exemplary in this respect.

The US Army, during its only colonial experience overseas, in the Philippines, regrouped the rural populations (1899-1902) before practicing the techniques they had used in their recent conflicts with native American Indians (1870-1890).

Colonial campaigns were waged, except in very few cases, with great brutality, and there was very little concern over the losses inflicted among the adversaries. The Germans were particularly heavy-handed in their repression in Tanganyika of the (Muslim) Maji Maji rebellion (1905-1906) as they had already been when they nearly exterminated the Hereros (1904-1907) in the southwest of Africa. By 1907, little more than fifteen thousand out of eighty thousand Hereros had survived. General Lothar von Trotha, who was responsible for the genocide, was summoned back to Berlin.

This brief reminder of the nature and conditions of colonial wars helps to measure just how much, in the past decades, conceptions and perceptions in the West have changed. And, it should be added, only in the West. Gone are extreme repressions, massive massacres in good conscience, and Western public opinion’s relative indifference of what might happen to populations of “color,” or “savages.” The last events of this kind that did not raise widely shared indignation go back, for France, to Sétif (1945) and the repression in Madagascar (1947).