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International Socialism, Winter 1966/7


Martin Chanock

White Washes Whitest


From International Socialism, No.27, Winter 1966/67, p.35.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Prelude to Imperialism: British reactions to Central African Society 1840-1890
Alan Cairns
Routledge, 50s

The writing of African History, though its practitioners are multiplying, is still an activity fraught with problems. ‘History is not all equal,’ said Trevor-Roper, and we cannot afford to ‘amuse ourselves, with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe.’ The accusation of inequality arises out of the obvious problem of sources. For an historian African sources themselves are not easy to use. Archaeological remains and nebulous, undateable tribal memories do not appeal to men brought up on written documents. The natural way out is to turn to the records of Europeans in Africa. Though doing just this, Mr Cairns has taken an unusual course. Eschewing the safety of the government archives of the colonial period, presumably because this would give too European a core to a work about Africa, he has boldly set his sights on a study of pre-imperial Africa seen through the eyes of the missionaries, hunters and traders who roamed the continent still free from European rule.

By any standards the book provides unmitigated entertainment. The attitudes revealed by the rich range of source material show up in startling contrast to the accepted orthodoxy of today. There is an interesting divergence too between missionary and non-missionary Europeans. The missionaries, certain of their religion and of the benencence of their activity, can be ‘excused’ if the merest suspicion of what Mr Cairns calls ‘cultural relativism’ never entered their calculations; they, at least had no doubt of the ultimate equality of the spiritual potential of the utterly benighted savages amongst whom they so bravely went to change tribal ways root and branch. (Though the familiar South African picture of the liberal missionary standing up for his natives against the white man is in startling contrast to Mr Cairns’s Central African Christians praying for the arm of British government to come down and destroy the tribal chiefs who stood in the way of the new religion.)

On the secular side however there was no doubt on what the basis of white/black relations should be. As one prospector confided in his diary ‘to feel oneself under the power of a nigger is worse than being in prison and quite enough to bring on fever.’ And the young Lugard wrote,

‘The whole influence of the European in Africa is gained by this assertion of superiority ... (the European) must at all times assert himself and repel insolent familiarity, which is a thing entirely apart from friendship born of respect and affection. His dwelling house should be as superior to those of the natives as he is himself superior to them.’

Yet he initial problem of method remains unsatisfactorily solved. To write about African society it would surely be better to use African sources, however imperfect. To write about Europeans in Africa it would be more revealing to write about the attitude of those who mattered – in short, the ‘official mind.’ To focus one’s attention on unofficial opinion, without being able to trace directly its influence on the colonial administrators who were the Europeans who did change Africa would seem to be something of a sideshow.

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