Th. Rothstein August 1908

Colonial Civilisation


Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. XII No. 8 August, 1908, pp. 337-351;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford,


While the air is ringing with fiery denunciations of King Leopold’s rule in the Congo, it would be well for those Englishmen who feel themselves carried away by the indomitable Mr. Morel’s agitation, to make sure first of all, that no such crimes and abuses as are laid at the door of the Congo administration exist in the colonies which fly the British flag. No doubt their task will be very difficult. There are in the British colonies no foreign missionaries to pry into the little secrets of the colonial administration. Nor are there behind these missionaries such powerful groups of persons interested in the “chroniques scandaleuses” of the British colonies, as the Lancashire cotton lords are with respect to the Congo. For these reasons and some others an Englishman desirous of studying the state of things in the British colonies will not find the same ample and easily accessible material at his disposal which he has when he wishes to denounce the colonial barbarities of a Leopold or of a Carl Peters. All he has at hand are the official colonial reports, carefully edited with a view to throwing dust in the eyes of the public. Naturally he will not find there anything incriminating against British colonial methods, and may easily run away with the idea that nowhere in the world are colonies administered so well and to such advantage both to the natives and mankind at large as under the British flag.

Yet even from official publications it is sometimes possible to catch a glimpse of the true position of affairs, by exercising some judgment and reading between the lines. Those, for instance, who took note of a case, which was reported in the daily press last year,[1] of the flogging of some natives by a certain Captain Grogan at Nairobi, East Africa Protectorate, will have been prepared to peruse with more than their usual attention the annual reports on that colony which have been issued since then; and if they have done so, they have no doubt found their efforts substantially rewarded by an insight into the working of one of the most typical colonial administrations within the British Empire. I doubt, however, whether many of my readers have ventured upon such a feat as the reading of a British colonial report. I will, therefore, share with them the knowledge which I have gained from a study of these and other reports recently issued by the Colonial Office on this particular “Protectorate,” in order that they may know that not everything which is bad is to be found only in the Congo.

Let me say just a few words on the general condition of this colony.[2] It has an area of 177,000 acres with a native population of some four millions. The number of Europeans is less than two thousand, and it is for the sake of these two thousand that in 1895 the British Government took over the administration of the colony from the hands of the company and, entrusted it, three years ago, to the Colonial Office. Its revenue in 1906-7 amounted to 461,362, and its expenditure to 616,088, the deficit of some 200,000 having been made good by a parliamentary and other grants, that is, by the British taxpayer. These deficits have been going on ever since the commencement of the Colony, so that the British taxpayer has already paid several millions – all for the good of the two thousand Europeans and less who had chosen the Protectorate as the field of their civilising efforts. There is a line of railway nearly 600 miles long between Mombasa and Lake Victoria which has already swallowed over six millions, but the revenue does not yet cover even the working expenses, and the Protectorate, with the aid of the British taxpayer, has to pay the interest and the payments on the borrowed capital out of the Treasury fund. The chief occupation of the native is, of course, agriculture, consisting in the growing of rice and maize. Recently, however, cotton growing has been started for the benefit, in the first instance, of Lancashire, and the natives are being taught to gather rubber, gum, copal and other forest products having a marketable value.

The moral condition of the native races is very primitive and belongs to that stage which was characterised by Lewis Morgan as that of middle barbarism. “The natives of the interior,” says the Governor’s report for 1905-6,[3] “can scarcely be said to have any religious beliefs properly so called. Among many of them a vague and primitive Pantheism or nature worship prevails. The inhabitants of the coast towns mostly profess Mohammedanism, but except amongst the upper class Arabs there is little knowledge of the teaching and tenets of their religion.” Their spiritual wants, says the same report[4] “are attended to by no less than eleven missionary societies, who, however, have had many difficulties to contend with, and their efforts have not yet affected the mass of the people.” They mostly prefer to go about naked, and “curiously enough, connect clothing, so far as their women are concerned, with immorality."[5] In short, it is a very backward, semi-savage country, separated by thousands of years from modern civilisation.

Let us now see how the British are implanting that precious flower in the midst of these races. Labour is naturally made the central pivot round which the work of civilisation turns. “Materially,” it is admitted in the above-mentioned report,[6] “the East African native is well off. Work is plentiful, food is cheap.” The deuce only is, that these natives “are neither thrifty nor ambitious, and are content to satisfy their immediate requirements, which are few, without making an effort to bring about an improvement in their social position."[7] This is certainly exasperating. How can civilisation advance without strenuous work? And so every effort is being made to teach the native the blessings of work.

Let not the reader run away with the idea that the British have introduced a system of forced labour such as exists, for instance, in the Congo. Slavery has become utterly repugnant to British ideas ever since it was discovered that a slave, unlike a free man, has to be fed and cared for irrespective of whether he works and is efficient or not.[8] So far, indeed, from having introduced it after the manner of the Belgians, they have abolished what little there had existed of this institution before their advent. Slave traffic has been suppressed, and a law has been issued by which all descendants of slaves born after August, 1890, are declared free. The practical value of this reform can best be appreciated in the words of the official report itself: “The so-called slaves may be divided into two classes, those who live in their masters’ houses and are practically treated as members of the family, and those who work in the fields and receive lands for themselves which they can cultivate in their spare time."[9] Not much of slavery, is it? The report, however, adds further: “Any slave wishing to obtain his freedom can do so by crossing the boundary which separates the mainland dominions of the Sultan of Zanzibar from the rest of the Protectorate, but it is a significant fact that very few care to exchange the comfort of their masters’ homes for a precarious existence up country."[10] These are damaging words. What they imply is that by freeing the slaves and abolishing the institution itself the British have simply deprived this particular class of natives of “comfortable homes” and delivered them to a “precarious existence.” Perhaps, however, that was the intended object of the “emancipation"?

Indeed, it was. The abolition of slavery was but part of a whole system of depriving the individual native of all his support in life, so that he may helplessly fall into the hands of the white settler. It will be seen from the report for 1906-7,[11] that though there is not a single Government school in the Protectorate, there are not less than 28 prisons, and a force of police exceeding 2,000. Prison and police in a community which has not yet emerged from primitive barbarism! And if we look at the criminal statistics we find that no fewer than 4,569 persons were apprehended by the police during the year under review, of whom 667 were tried for offences against persons, and 1,219 for offences against property.[12] And looking further back we find, to our astonishment, that in this primitive community, where the ideas of right and wrong must be very different from ours, crime is steadily increasing, the number of persons arrested in 1902-3 being nearly one-half of that in 1906-7, viz., 2,892.[13] How could such things happen? Simply because the British have introduced their own capitalist notions of what is right and wrong, have broken up the ancient tribal organisation, with all the moral and quasi-legal superstructure that was based upon it, and substituted in its place a system of individual responsibility which in Europe has been the slow result of the growth of capitalism. “We have introduced an individual law,” said a speaker at a meeting which we shall describe more fully below,[14]. “we have introduced an individual law which has broken the tribal laws,” and he quoted, as an instance of the effects of this revolution, the case of drunkenness among the young men some few years ago. “There were not” – we quote the official report of his speech[15] – “the same number of white men as now, and there was likelihood of some trouble. The chiefs were, however, induced to call these young men together, and, by some play on their superstitions, had managed to obtain their promise that they would not drink for a period of two years. The attitude of the Government unfortunately had at the end of this period robbed the chiefs of much of their power, and it was found impossible to obtain a renewal of the promise for another two months; since then Mr. Wilson (the speaker) had seen in one native hut 30 to 40 men sitting together drinking.” This, then, is the true origin of crime in the Protectorate. The old tribal organisation, with the patriarchal power of the chiefs, having been abolished with one stroke, the individual native found himself face to face with a law and a morality which he did not understand, and at the same time partly free from, and partly unsupported by, the sole authority which he did understand, namely, the authority of the tribe as embodied in the “patria potestas” of the chief. And so, by virtue of his new individual freedom, he turned a drunkard, and by virtue of the new individual responsibility thrust upon him, as against a law which was unintelligible to him, he became a criminal and filled the 28 prisons of the Protectorate.[16]

Now, this wholesale and cruel vandalism of destroying ancient social organisations and imposing upon native races legal systems for which there is no material basis is usually justified, on grounds of humanity, as a measure of “emancipation” from the despotism of the chiefs and the domination of the stick and whip. The plea, however, is nothing but hypocrisy. For one thing, the despotism of the chiefs carries with it also their protection; and for another, the native is only emancipated from it in order to fall under a despotism at least as oppressive,[17] which, moreover, knows no responsibility for his welfare. The tribal organisations are abolished for the same reason for which slavery is abolished – to deliver the native into the tender embraces of the white colonist. It is, by the way, characteristic of the humbug which accompanies the Congo agitation that this very destruction of the tribal organisation of the natives forms one of the main articles of the indictment which Mr, Morel and his fellow “humanitarians” have drawn up against Leopold and his crew.

But tribal organisation is itself but the social expression of a very material fact, namely, communal ownership of land. According to Mr. Morel’s indictment the Congo administration has committed the barbarous act of depriving the native village communities of their tribal land and declaring them “vacant” so as to share them out among the various concessionaire companies. But almost the same is being done by the British administration in the East Africa Protectorate. We say “almost,” because a show is made of reserving a portion of the lands for the natives. Unfortunately we do not know either the quantity or the quality of such lands, and can only surmise from the number of men available on the market for hire that they must be insignificant in both respects. At the same time, however, we see thousands upon thousands of acres of what were formerly native lands, given away to concessionaires to be exploited by means of their former proprietors – in 1904, 197,256 acres; in 1905, 549,828 acres; in 1906, 292,741 acres.[18] In fact, the quantity of land declared “vacant” and given away to companies and individual settlers is only limited by the demand for them and the extent to which the lands have been surveyed. And all this in the teeth of the sacred law of property which is so ruthlessly being enforced against the communistic natives!

By means of these two measures – the application of “individual law” and the wholesale expropriation of their lands – the natives have as effectually been turned into “free men” as the English labourers in their time were by the wholesale enclosures, and, subsequently, by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. Nevertheless, even these measures were not considered adequate to meet the needs of the emancipation. The native has so few wants, and the country itself is so rich, that even when sent into the world without any visible means of subsistence, as a pauper and a vagabond, he could still contrive to live in “laziness,” that is, without going to the white settler for work: Hence, a number of other measures are being applied to supplement the first two, with a view to increasing the stimulus to work. First and foremost is the “hut tax.” In official language it is a tax “in return for the protection which the native receives."[19] In 1905-6 it brought in 44,541, but in the following year its yield rose to 61,292, owing to the increase of the tax from 2 to 3 rupees and the extension of the control over a wider area.[20] This acts as a direct incentive to “work,” since the native has no other means of getting the wherewithal to pay the tax except by hiring himself out to the white settler. In some cases the tax is still payable in labour or kind, but every effort is being made to turn it into a money-tax, and thus teach the native the eternal truth of the universal equivalent of value. “It is a satisfactory sign,” says the official report, “ that .... the natives now prefer to pay in specie. This indicates not only a growing acquaintance with and liking for civilised methods of barter, but an inclination to work for Europeans and others with a view to the acquisition of rupees."[21]

Yet another means is being used to teach the natives to acquire rupees, but this is a moral one. The preceptors in this case are the eleven missionary societies which carry on an active propaganda against the immoral custom of going about naked and not covering one’s sinful body with Lancashire-made clothing. We have quoted already the remark of the Governor about the “curiously” perverted views of the natives on the subject. The Governor, however, does not despair. “Here,” he says,[21] “time and the advance of trade and civilisation will work their own results. Inquiries from Indian merchants in the various stations show that the demand for cotton goods is steadily increasing, even in remote districts, and once this demand can be established it will mean the practical solution of the Labour question and a large increase in the output.” “The tendency,” he says on another occasion,[23] “to make use of European products increases gradually, and it is hoped that in time it may prove strong enough to induce the native to work for longer periods than is the case at present.” To make the propaganda against nakedness more effective, every employer of native labour is enjoined to give their men blankets either as part of their wages or part of their upkeep, and thus to contribute to the progress of civilisation in East Africa.

Such, then, are the methods which the British use in endeavouring to implant in the breasts of the natives a liking for the all-saving article of capitalist faith, work. There is no compulsion to work -oh, dear, no! This is left for King Leopold to introduce, but the British flag is free from such a taint. The natives are only deprived of their means of subsistence and moral support, and are taxed for their protection, as it were, so that it may be in their interest to hire themselves out to the whites. Freedom of contract, just as in England, nothing more.

Still, even with these methods the work of civilisation does not proceed quite smoothly. The natives are very recalcitrant, and are doing everything in their power to avoid work. Sometimes they only work so long as is required to earn the amount of the hut tax, and then return to their reserves and forests. At other times they make the discovery that with all the earnings they can obtain from the whites they might as well not come out from their reserves and forests at all. Then, again, they find that intensive labour, such as is imposed upon them, does not suit their constitution, and they may as well ruin it in prison as on the farms of the settlers. In all cases they find the work that is required of them exceedingly dull and irksome, and whenever they have a chance of escaping from their masters and the police, they do not hesitate to do so. In vain has the Government established a minimum scale of wages for various districts and various trades, in the teeth of all the “best” teaching of economists at home. In vain has it also instituted a special department for native affairs, one of whose chief functions is to act as a labour bureau to supply the colonists with men and catch them when they run away. The natives do not take kindly either to the one or to the other, and shirk their work like regular British loafers. Under these circumstances discontent among the colonists has of late become very rife, and broke out recently in an open revolt against the incapable administration. A meeting of settlers was held at Mombasa at which the grievances were frankly aired in the presence of the Governor, and the latter refusing to comply on the spot with all the suggestions, a noisy demonstration was made under his windows and the crowd shouted “Resign, resign!” The reader will find the interesting details of this affair (which included the suspension of two members of the Legislative Council, Lord Delamere and a certain Mr. Baillie, for leading the “revolt”) in the recently issued “Correspondence relating to Affairs in the East Africa Protectorate “ (Cd. 4,122.) He will also find there a detailed report of the proceedings at the above-mentioned meeting, which it would be to the profit of every Social-Democrat to read. We can only give here the merest outline of the discussion in order to indicate the frame of mind in which the white man views the burden which he bears.

The leitmotiv of the discussion was given by the opener, Mr. Anderson, in the words that “there was a scarcity of labour to-day, and strange to say in a country where the labour was most prolific."[24] “Never,” said another speaker, [25] “had he seen the labour question in such an unorganised or chaotic position as in this colony.” He had three gardeners engaged for six months at the beginning of the month. “After a week,” laments Mr. Stevens, “one disappears, without complaint or warning; three days ago another walked off, and he was daily expecting the third to disappear.” “At Limoru,” was the complaint of a third speaker,[26] “there was no lack of natives, who, however, preferred to loaf on their shambas instead of working.” Such a low state of morality among the natives was deeply deplored by those present. “We read,” piously said Mr. Wilson, whom we mentioned before[27] “we read in the annals of history that a man had a curse put upon him, and by the sweat of his brow he must live. That is so as regards the white man, so that the man who does nothing to induce the native to work .... was, to his mind, criminally culpable. The best thing for the native was work, and as they work they improve.” Dr. Scott, of the Scotch Mission, supported Mr. Wilson’s contention. “To think,” he said[28] “ that the natives have not a duty to the country as well as to the revenue is short-sighted. Every man in the country should do duty, not only by paying, but by working .... Work would undoubtedly be beneficial to them, and in developing the country they would assist to develop themselves. Work supplied to natives is, therefore, a most excellent thing.” He, “as a minister, would protest against all means of forcing labour.” For one thing, he adds in parenthesis, “ arbitrary methods never pay in the long run.” He suggests instead “ some legalised method to encourage natives to work,” such as, for instance, the imposition of a tax equal to a month’s work, which “will associate labour with the tax in their own mind.” This will have a great educational value, and will result in “a considerable increase in the labour supply without any arbitrary methods and pressing men to work.”

This most Christian proposal for the “supply” of work to the natives was warmly supported by many other speakers. Mr. Ward asked:[29] “What was the rock bottom cause of the scarcity of labour? Was it sheer laziness? If so, some system should be introduced to combat this, such as exemption from taxation through work, i.e., that the native should be taxed inversely proportionate to the amount of work for Europeans.” Lord Delamere spoke in the same sense,[30] suggesting also that “indirect taxation, such as a tax on blankets, etc., would certainly bring more into work.” Mr. Wood, another worthy,[31] “suggested a taxation of Rs. 12 per head – not hut – Rs. 9 of which could be rebated for work done.” “We had got,” he continued, “to educate the native to work. We were educated years ago to work; it was, therefore, our duty to teach the natives to come into line as well.”

Others made various other suggestions, as valuable as the first. Mr. Watkins recommended[32] that “they should insist on natives clothing themselves and increasing their requirements.” Mr. Morgan suggested[33] that, inasmuch as the “natives were enjoying such benefits under the British rule and paying nothing for them,” an import duty should be put on blankets, wire, and beads, “so that there would be an additional inducement for them to work for the white man.” Mr. Buckland, again, recommended[34] the adoption of the Glen Grey Act, invented by Cecil Rhodes, “by which a native, if he could produce a pass from a white employer, need not work for one, two, or three months.” Lord Delamere made three valuable suggestions. The one was that the natives should themselves pay for the blankets they obtain. “You have to create wants as far as possible,” he declared.[35] “There is one want in this country – the blanket; but by the new rules the employer has to pay for this, and, therefore, that want is done away with.” Another suggestion was [36] “that the amount of land that the natives are allowed to hold should be absolutely limited; as long as the natives may take their cattle away and put them on new land you will not get a supply of labour.” And the third one was simply that[36] “the price of labour must be lowered, and the lower you keep it the man can buy less with that money, and so has to work longer to get what he wants.” This latter suggestion being a combination of simplicity with genius, the meeting reached the end of its intellectual resources and came, to an end.

It is needless to comment on these proceedings, as they speak eloquently for themselves. They are, nevertheless, highly characteristic as showing what the colonists expect to find when they go out to “civilise” the nigger, and what the real crux of colonisation business, is. The white man goes out to the wilds of Africa with the sole view of making money by means of the labour of the natives, and the whole business of colonial administration has for its aim to supply him both with natural material and labour power at the cheapest rates compatible with the maxim about the goose and the golden eggs.

Those of us who are inclined to take the view that it is possible to moralise colonisation or to introduce a Socialist policy of colonisation, will do well to remember this simple truth. Colonisation has for its basis the subjection and the exploitation of the native, and by sanctioning the former even to a degree you sanction the latter to the full extent. There is no middle course whatsoever. As the covering letter of the Colonists’ Association, forwarding to the Governor the resolutions of the Mombasa meeting, puts it,[37] “it is grossly unfair to invite the settler to this country, as has been done, to give him land under conditions which force him to work, and at the same time to do away with the foundation on which the whole of his enterprise and hope is based, namely, cheap labour.” This is perfectly clear and perfectly true, and those who accept colonisation, while repudiating the exploitation of native labour, simply do not know what colonisation is and what it implies. It is no exaggeration to say that colonisation on any other methods than those of most ruthless barbarism is absolutely impossible, and the amount of human suffering which it brings in its trail is simply incalculable. It plays havoc with the secular institutions and mode of life of the native races, and delivers millions of them to slow torture and death. A very characteristic story, with which we may fittingly conclude our article, is told in the report of another British colony in Africa, which besides its resemblance to an incident of some familiarity to the Christian world, illustrates to us the working of the native mind in the midst of the misery produced by the advent of European civilisation. “ At the moment,” we are told,[38] “.when the depressed state of the home markets began to make themselves felt in Ashanti, a fetish priest at Tekiman announced the speedy advent of a new ‘god,’ who was to bring riches to the poor, and reduce the rich to abject poverty. At his coming the black man was to become white and the white man black. He also let it be known that any man found tapping rubber, farming, or hunting in the forest, on the ‘god’s’ arrival, will be turned into an antelope. Incredible as it may appear, this impostor succeeded in paralysing the local rubber trade. He was eventually arrested, and is at present detained in Coomassie. His ‘fetish’ has fallen into disrepute, and is not now heard of.” A more caustic satire on Christianity could not have been written by Voltaire himself, and we have no doubt that the report of Pontius Pilate on the execution of Christ was drawn up in somewhat similar terms. “The fetish has fallen into disrepute, and is not now heard of.” No, it is not yet heard of; but a Paul is, arising in the shape of the Socialist proletariat, the humble faith of the unknown fetish priest will be incorporated with the larger and grander faith of Socialism, and a new reign will be inaugurated where there will no longer be any sneering governors or slave-driving Romans.

Th. Rothstein.


1. See, for instance, the “Daily Telegraph,” May 1, 1907.

2. “East Africa Protectorate” – Report for 1906 7 (Cd. 3,729-21) supplemented by “Statesman’s Year Book “ for 1908.

3. Cd. 3,285-6, p.30.

4. l.c., p.60.

5. Cd. 3,285-6, p.60.

6. l.c., p.59.

7. 1.c., p.60.

8. “Slavery,” declared Sir Robert Peel, “had been extinguished in most parts of Europe and of the East because it was more profitable to the proprietor of slaves to employ his slave as a free labourer.” In commenting upon this admission, James Bronterre O’Brien, in the course of an article exposing the hollow pretensions of the Abolitionists, explained: “In one case he (the master) employs and feeds the slave only when he wants him; in the other, he has to support him whether he has employment for him or not. Emancipation enables the master to get more work done and to give less for it. Emancipation emancipates the slave from the whip, but it also emancipates him from his dinner; and, as hungry men are no respecters of law, he soon discovers that if he has escaped the whip it is only to stumble upon the treadmill or the gallows.” – (“The Destructive,” June 8, 1833.)

9. Report for 1905-6, p.38.

10. ibidem

11. lc., pp.24,22.

12. Report for 1906-7, p.23.

13. Ibidem.

14. “Correspondence relating to affairs in East Africa Protectorate,” Cd. 4,122, p.13.

15. Ibidem.

16. Exactly the same phenomenon – a steady increase of crime as the result of the destruction of old forms of life – is observable everywhere where the British have introduced their rule, not excluding Egypt.

17. The Nairobi flogging case is an illustration of how the whip has been abolished. Among the legislation issued in 1905-6 was an Ordinance restricting sentences of flogging to 25 lashes. -(Report for 1905-6, p.30.)

18. Report for 1906-7, p.16; for 1905-6, p.24.

19. Report for 1935-6, p.59.

20. Report for 1906-7, p. 7.

21. Report for 1905-6, p.8.

22. l.c. p.60.

23. Report for 1906-7, p.39.

24. l.c. p.8.

25. 1.c., p.9.

26. Report for 1906.7, p.17.

27. l. c., p.12.

28. l.c., p.13.

29. 1.c., p.15.

30.1.c., p.16.

31. l.c.p.17.

32. 1.c,, p.9

33. l.c. p.10-11

34. 1.c., p.15.

35. 1.c,, p.16.

36. 1.c., p.16.

36. Report for 1906-7, p.16.

37. 1.c., p.4.

38. Ashanti Report for 1907. (Cd. 3729-28), p.22.