C.L.R. James 1936

“Civilising” the “Blacks”; Why Britain needs to Maintain Her African Possessions


Source: New Leader, 29 May 1936;
Transcribed: by Christian Hogsbjerg for Marxists.org 2007.


Never was a book more timely than George Padmore’s How Britain Rules Africa (Wishart, 12s. 6d). The chapter on South Africa is particularly relevant. By false documents, by making chiefs drunk, by setting tribes against each other, by missionaries preaching religion, by every sort of dishonesty, and when that failed, by ruthless conquest, all of which is described in this book, Dutch and British brought the natives under their control, steadily fighting each other meanwhile. The British defeated the Boers, and both British and Dutch settled down to joint exploitation.

The native proletariat on the mines live in huge concentration camps, guarded night and day. They sleep like cattle on the concrete floor. After a meal of cold mealie porridge they are in the mines at 3 a.m. They may have to work in water to the waist for days. The white miners have tall rubber boots, stand in dry places, and order about and kick the blacks who do the work. If the black does not do his quota, the whole day’s pay is forfeit.

Why We Are Concerned

At 4.30 work stops, and the native gets a warm meal consisting of the same mealie with beans – once a week three-quarters of a pound of meat. His wage is 36 a year, and ‘skilled labour’ gets on the average 376 a year. But by law no native may become skilled.

The British worker may say, ‘I am sorry for these poor beggars, but I can’t take the troubles of the whole world on my shoulders.’ He would be wrong. In the last twenty-five years the mineral wealth of South Africa alone has produced for British and allied capital 1,578,541,929. The annual income of the gold-mining industry is over 65 millions per year. Some of Britain’s share, but very little, goes in the form of super-tax towards the social services. Some goes seeking investment elsewhere and laying the basis for Imperialist war.

But its most important function is to swell the ranks of the parasitic petty-bourgeoisie at Brighton and Southport, to give good wages to certain workers who create a firm support for Citrine, Attlee, Bevin, Morrison, Lansbury and Co., and thus, in the last analysis, keep the great millions of British workers in firm subjection. And that is why Mussolini will risk his regime for Abyssinia.

The book relentlessly exposes the ‘civilisation’ lie. In South Africa 1,800,000 whites have stolen 80 percent of the best land, 7,000,000 Bantu have 8 percent. After that you only have to tax him, and to pay the tax he must come to work at whatever wages you want to pay. Out of the funds raised by native taxation the South African Government spends 650,000 on the education of 500,000 native children, but out of general revenue, contributed to by white and black, 10 million on 400,000 Europeans. There are today in South Africa, after 300 years of European domination, but five native doctors.

Lies and Hypocrisy

Except in parts of West Africa and Uganda, where the Europeans cannot settle, the tale is the same. In Rhodesia and Kenya the natives are paid fourpence and fivepence a day, and then taxed to help educate European children. The imperialists strive to keep him ignorant. They educate him through missionary schools which confuse him with talk about suffering and obedience and the life to come. In Kenya the natives tried to organise their own schools. The Government closed them down. In Tanganyika they forbid English in the schools, lest the native might learn things not good for him.

Tyranny and oppression in the Colonies, and lies and hypocrisy at home, in order that the British worker may be acquiescent and peaceably assist in forging his own chains. In West Africa the native has his land, but in 1930 Imperialists paid 29 16s. per ton for cocoa at Lagos and sold for 35 12s. at Liverpool. So capitalism, by its control of prices at home and abroad, keeps its profits up though people buy less.

The book is not easy reading; it could have been better arranged; it badly needs an index. But as a picture of Africa today, economic and political, it is a masterpiece of reliable information, knowledge and understanding, and easily the best book of its type that has yet appeared.

Workers’ Co-operation

It is on the future of Africa that the author, himself a man of African descent, is grievously disappointing. He heads one section ‘Will Britain Betray Her Trust?’ as if he were some missionary or Labour politician. In the true tradition of Lenin, he insists on the rights of the African people to choose their own development. But, astonishingly, he welcomes the appeal of ‘enlightened far-sighted sections of the ruling classes of Europe with colonial interests in Africa’ to co-operate with Africans. That is madness. How does the lion co-operate with the lamb?

Africans must win their own freedom. Nobody will win it for them. They need co-operation, but that co-operation must be with the revolutionary movement in Europe and Asia. There is no other way out. Each movement will neglect the other at its peril, and there is not much time left. The great cracks in the imperialist structure are widening day by day.

Africa Answers Back, by Prince Nyabongo (Routledge, 7s. 6d.), himself an African educated at Yale and Oxford, describes the native life of an East African tribe. The book, authoritative and written with disarming simplicity, is a powerful satire on the imperialist claim that it ‘civilises’ Africa. It was an enormous success in America, and will be here also.