A former prime minister of Australia has stirred a storm of outrage by describing colonization as “the luckiest thing that happened to this country” and praising Britain for being a better overlord than other nations ahead of a contentious referendum on Aboriginal representation in the country.
“I do hold the view that the luckiest thing that happened to this country was being colonized by the British,” the former prime minister, John Howard, 84, told The Australian newspaper in an interview this week. “Not that they were perfect by any means, but they were infinitely more successful and beneficent colonizers than other European countries.”
Australia is no longer a British colony, even as it retains King Charles III as its head of state, and Aboriginal Australians continue to face the harrowing effects of colonialism, including significant hardship and discrimination.
In a 2017 petition, a gathering of Aboriginal leaders wrote: “Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.”
The statement added: “These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.”
Australians will vote later this year in a referendum on changing the Constitution to establish an advisory body to represent to the government the views of Aboriginal Australians, who make up about 4 percent of the population.
Mr. Howard told The Australian that he expected the referendum to “go down significantly,” in other words, fail.
His view of colonialism is shared in some circles. In 2017, Bruce Gilley, a professor of political science at Portland State University, argued in an article titled “The Case for Colonialism” that the view that Western colonialism was harmful overall to colonized peoples and countries was overstated. He wrote that colonialism was “both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate” in many places.
The article prompted calls for an apology and a retraction.
Mr. Howard’s remarks came amid a recent flurry of comments by news media figures and policy decisions in the United States that suggest historical atrocities benefited their victims.
On Monday, Greg Gutfeld, a host on Fox News, was denounced for appearing to downplay the Holocaust by claiming that “useful” Jews had survived concentration camps run by Nazi Germany.
“You had to survive in a concentration camp by having skills,” he told co-hosts and panelists on Fox’s “The Five.” “You had to be useful,” he added. “Utility kept you alive.”
The Auschwitz Museum responded in a post on social media: “Nazi Germany’s ultimate goal was to exterminate all the people it considered Jews (Nazis created their racial definition of a Jewish person). Millions of Jews were brutally murdered in execution sites, mainly across the east of occupied Europe, with entire communities wiped out regardless of their usefulness or contributions to society.”
Such comments have becoming increasingly prevalent, Kris Manjapra, a historian of colonialism at Tufts University, said on Wednesday. “I’m struck these days at how often we’re seeing this kind of falsification of the history of empire, which is quite prevalent in many different contexts.”
“It’s really a kind of sadistic fantasy,” Dr. Manjapra added, “the insistence that the historically oppressed actually somehow benefited from the violence, the seizure, the dehumanization, the domination.”
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, faced fierce criticism for an overhaul to the state’s African American history standards that many called a sanitized, and offensive, version of history, with middle schools now planning to instruct students that slavery benefited enslaved people by teaching them “skills.”
Vice President Kamala Harris responded, “How is it that anyone could suggest that in the midst of these atrocities that there was any benefit to being subjected to this level of dehumanization?”
British colonization of Australia is often described as having begun in 1788, when a First Fleet of 11 ships bearing convicts and colonists arrived in Botany Bay, New South Wales, with the intention of settling Australia as a British territory.
Over the two centuries that followed, Aboriginal Australians were subject to dispossession and abuse, and their traditional ways of life were eroded, including through the theft of land, the loss of traditional culture and the denial of citizenship rights.
From 1905 until the 1970s, thousands of Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their parents by church missions and government agencies. They would later be known as the Stolen Generations.
Mr. Howard, who served as prime minister from 1996 to 2007, was asked in 1997 to apologize to those who had suffered and their descendants, but refused, partly on the grounds that the past mistakes were not his.
He also told Channel 7 in 2014, “The Australian public would have a lot more confidence in politicians who apologized for their own mistakes rather than the mistakes of others.”
He added that he did not accept the conclusion of a report that genocide had been practiced against the Indigenous people.
“I didn’t believe genocide had taken place,” he said, “and I still don’t.”