Political Science Professor’s New Book Reconsiders the Legacies of Colonialism, Slavery and Abolition in the Global South

Book cover of, "Ruling Emancipated Slaves and Indigenous Subjects"

Villanova, Pa – Colonialism is far more complex than most people realize. Although straightforward in concept, colonialism generated vastly different long-term consequences in various regions and even different areas within a single country. In his new book, Ruling Emancipated Slaves and Indigenous Subjects, Olukunle Owolabi, PhD, associate professor of Political Science and Global Interdisciplinary Studies and director of the Africana Studies program at Villanova University, reshapes the common understanding of colonialism, slavery and abolition in the Global South.

In Ruling Emancipated Slaves and Indigenous Subjects, Dr. Owolabi argues that forced settlement and colonial occupation were distinctive methods of imperial control that generated very different patterns of state-building and postcolonial development across different parts of the Black Atlantic world. It is the first scholarly book to systematically examine forced settlement—areas where European colonists established large-scale agricultural plantations with imported and enslaved African labor—versus colonial occupation—areas where Europeans extracted the labor and natural resources of indigenous non-white populations—across multiple colonial empires and more than 90 postcolonial states and territories. Dr. Owolabi’s research finds that forced settlement colonies have outperformed colonies of occupation on key development indicators including educational attainment, economic growth, life expectancy and postcolonial democratization. He argues this is the result of liberal institutional reforms that expanded the political agency and legal rights of emancipated Afro-descendants following the abolition of slavery in the New World. By contrast, most colonies of occupation developed repressive and arbitrary native legal codes to control indigenous non-white populations.

“Previous studies have traditionally emphasized the importance of national colonial legacies, which has generated a widespread belief that British colonialism was advantageous (or at least, less destructive) than French or Iberian colonization,” says Dr. Owolabi. “My book pushes back against this narrative. Rather than evaluating the pros and cons of the different European colonizers, I argue that colonialism generated very different patterns of state-building in different geographic regions, and that one can find more successful and less successful patterns of state-building and postcolonial development in each colonial empire.”

The book is intended for scholars and graduate students in political science, development economics, sociology, history and Africana studies, but it also has something to offer to general readers and undergraduate students who are interested in the enduring impact of colonialism, slavery and abolition on state-building and long-term development in the Black Atlantic world. It challenges traditional views and narratives and encourages readers to approach the subject matter with an open mind.

While some readers may find parts of the book upsetting, Dr. Owolabi urges them to take a break and come back to it later, as the subject matter is quite heavy. “I had many ‘Aha!’ moments when making historical connections that were emotionally distressing,” explains Dr. Owolabi. “I also had a few moments that were exciting and exhilarating. I had to take several prolonged breaks, but I’m glad that I persisted until the end. It allowed me to make sense of my family’s history, my own experiences and childhood memories from Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago, and Canada.”

Dr. Owolabi has made significant contributions to the political science field and beyond. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto, a master’s in Latin American Studies from Oxford University, and a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Notre Dame. As director of Africana Studies at Villanova, he is committed to teaching the constructs of Blackness and making the program more global. In addition to his academic work, Dr. Owolabi enjoys playing the piano and organ and regularly performs for weekend masses at the St. Thomas of Villanova Church. His passion for music, specifically African music, played a role in his interest in studying the legacies of colonialism and slavery in the Global South.

About Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Since its founding in 1842, Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has cultivated knowledge, understanding and intellectual courage for a purposeful life in a challenging and changing world. With more than 40 majors across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, it is the oldest and largest of Villanova’s colleges, serving more than 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students each year. The College is committed to a teacher-scholar model, offering outstanding undergraduate and graduate research opportunities and a rigorous core curriculum that prepares students to become critical thinkers, strong communicators and ethical leaders with a truly global perspective.