Nationalism and imperialism in British Africa Essay

The term ‘imperialism’, which was coined in 1858 to mean ‘despotism’, changed in 1881 to take on the meaning ‘principle or spirit of empire and advocacy of imperial interests’ in 1881 (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary 1959). To this could be added Lord Rosebery’s definition, ‘greater pride in Empire’ (Eldridge 1978:3). The history of anti-colonial struggles is often divided into what is called “primary resistance” and “secondary resistance”. The first are the struggles of African political communities against colonial invasions and incursions. The second are movements of anti-colonial liberation that developed within the colonial context. Identity is another issue in settler societies. Louis Hartz, in his seminal work, “The Founding of New Societies” (1964:11-13, 53-4), observed that identity formation by European settlers in a new land is a complex process. Changes in Europe and the presence of ‘native’ peoples in the new land make it difficult to maintain identification with the old country. The ‘racial element’ becomes an integral part of settler consciousness and national identity in a way that does not occur in Europe.

Colonial presence became established first, in the West African Settlements (Sierra Leone, Gold Coast etc.). It brought, as a by-product, Christian missionaries (White and Black!) and Enlightenment ideas of freedom and self-determination to Africa. However, it also brought the idea of the “Other” with it and dispossessed the Africans from their sense of the “Self”. Edward Said in his “Orientalism” (1984) focused on the idea of discourse. He categorically explained the discursive practices of the “West” since the beginning of the Renaissance and their “Humanist” attempts to situate themselves into a historically, anthropologically, socially, psychologically and economically dominant and “subject” position that would forever dispossess the native “orient” being from their own history and claim to history within the Western canon. Not only that Fanon in his “Black Skin White Masks”, talks about the psychological dislocation of the native due to the complete eradication of African identity from educated native. Incase of the masses the dislocation was physical – through the dislocation of their lands. Thus, anthropologists such as Madison Grant or Alexis Carrel built their pseudo-scientific racism, inspired by Gobineau’s “An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races” (1853-55). This ruse of superiority was used from the nineteenth century onwards, to begin the ‘civilizing mission’ which legitimated imperial conquest and control brought to the fore the issue of ‘native policy’. The ‘white man’s burden’ meant that, in imperialist theory and to some extent in practice, ‘native policy’ involved the role of the Colonial Office as guardian of ‘racial’ minorities and ‘backward’ peoples. In the mixed colonies, however, it continued to mean principally the legalized theft of ‘native’ land and the use of ‘natives’ as a source of cheap labor. Settler societies were therefore quick to seek political autonomy in order to deal with the ‘natives’ in their own way and acquire what territory they wanted. Hence, the nineteenth century saw a further divergence between colonial and imperial ideology. Two contradictory sets of principles were on a collision course within the settlements: the concept of trusteeship within the imperial philosophy of a non-racial empire, and the settlers’ determination to create a ‘White Man’s Country’ (Huttenback 1976:21).

After the ‘scramble for Africa’ in the 1880s, there was a brief age of self-conscious imperialism when the British empire was vaunted as the strongest, largest and most benign the world had ever seen, and flags and banners became sacred symbols of the nation. However, this could not hide the savagery of the war that was being used as an appropriate civilizing mission. In South Africa, three groups struggled over the land. In the early 1800s, the Zulu chief Shaka fought to win more land. Meanwhile, the British won control of the Dutch colony on the southern coast. Many thousands of Dutch settlers, called Boers, moved north to escape the British. They fought the Zulus, whose land they were entering. At the end of the century, Boers fought a vicious war with the British. The Suez Canal and South Africa heightened British interest because they appeared to be two financially beneficial opportunities. The British also plotted long to annex Transvaal both for diamonds and gold and the Boer war continued. The Boers won in 1881, as they defeated the British. In 1895, Cecil Rhodes tried to overthrow the Transvaal government, but failed. The outbreak of the second Anglo-Boer war in 1899 had disastrous results for the Boers who lost in 1902. The Boers lost, and they joined the British-run Union of South Africa.

Strategic rivalry with the French and Portuguese and Germans, financial gains and gaining better control of the colonial India were among the better reasons for introducing an “indirect rule” in Africa unlike the French motto of “assimilation”. Thus, an effort to identify some of the broader implications of these historical revolts against the British colonizers in Africa emphasizes the natives’ conceptions of freedom not as a Nation, but as individual tribes or linguistic clans who were related by a sense of ownership. This ownership was prevalent by virtue of their common interest in their land and having common roots in language, rather than the ideology of the country as a whole, that later became the drive of a pre-independent Africa, much later and after importing the western ideology of the nation state. This, later, may have even amounted to such counter-revolutionary sensibilities of Pan-Africanism, but that was the ideology of a bourgeoisie class dispossessed of their language by English or French. Thus they were effectively countering that element of “symbolic” displacement with an ideal idea of pre-colonial Africa that actually does not exist in reality (in terms of similarity in skin tone or location or essentialist ideas like reinforcing stereotypical ideas of their continent that is not quite so uniform in characteristics). Finally, Christian missionaries supported imperialism. They thought that European rule would end the slave trade and help them convert native peoples. European powers met in Berlin in 1884~85. They agreed that any nation could claim any part of Africa simply by telling the others and by showing that it had control of the area. They then moved quickly to grab land. By 1914, only Liberia and Ethiopia were independent of European control.

Thus from a physical domain the counter-revolution entered the psychological domain. The savagery of Britain’s governance in Kenya in the 1950s and early 1960s are shown in the book, “Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire,” by David Anderson. Another recent study compiled in the “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya,” by Caroline Elkins, give shocking accounts of Britain’s desperate attempts to secure its imperial rule in African states. The devastations wrought by the British colonizers, on the Kikuyu people of Kenya and the horrible accounts of the guerilla wars termed the Mau Mau Revolution in Kenya show the violent nature of the British rule that gave way to a distinctive set of local anti-imperialistic reaction all over its African colonies. Lessons from such armed struggle on the need for unity, and the growing urban conditions made it necessary to complement the struggle with a political (nonmilitaristic) resistance. A united (intertribal) front became necessary to stand up against colonialism that had sown its clever political plot of dividing and ruling a nation that was already diverse in its language, geography and political built. A national struggle was the main call everywhere. It was at this stage that the call for evoking an anti-British and anti-colonial sentiment was fully concretized. The Mau Mau revolt came close to a national movement, which suggested mass revolt that sought to displace the imperial roots from their lands and tried to erase any false assumptions about any political compromise that the colonizers would try to extend, as was its imperial policy (as had happened with the Boers). Unfortunately, this rebellion led to the declaration of a state of emergency by the British when they prosecuted the Kikuyu rebels on unfounded trials and sent them to prison and barbed-wired detention camps (picture present day Cuba). The goal of Mau Mau was a return to the free economic and political institutions, which characterized the Kikuyu before the coming of the imperialists, and it was fitting that their slogan was simply “Land and Freedom!”

The shrewd manipulation of the British colonizers of the colonial states led to a sense of disruption within the people who completely lacked a sense of collective identity. The lack of identity thus could not foster a sense of patriotism or nationalism that gave way to a helpless sense of loss of place and anxiety amongst the colonized people. The parliamentary victory of Afrikaner nationalism in 1948 led towards decolonization in Africa. A series of discriminatory laws established, was racist, subordinating and only helped in consolidating the power, authority and superiority of the whites. The Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 banned any expression of revolt against the white settlers. All the democratic privileges of the governments were denied to the “black” Africans through such absolute oppression. The policy of apartheid, nullified any natives fundamental urge and political power to unsettle the government. Thus the only answer was mass struggle as was pointed out by Amilcar Cabral in his “National Liberation and Culture” originally delivered on February 20, 1970:

The liberation movement must furthermore embody the mass character, the popular character of the culture–which is not and never could be the privilege of one or of some sectors of the society. [In addition, he adds] As a result of this process of dividing or of deepening the divisions in the society, it happens that a considerable part of the population, notably the urban or peasant petite bourgeoisie, assimilates the colonizer’s mentality, considers itself culturally superior to its own people and ignores or looks down upon their cultural values…A reconversion of minds–of mental set–is thus indispensable to the true integration of people into the liberation movement.”

Thus resorting to mass struggle was the only answer. The African Congress was formed by joining forces of such dissenters who did not commit to such humiliating imperialistic ideologies and hegemony. National strikes and continuous campaigns against such inhuman and forceful hegemony led to the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. The British led government thus became responsible in making the natives of Africa outlaws in their own country, terrorists and guerillas who were led to commit to strategies of insurrection, guerrilla warfare, armed invasion and all sorts of underground movement by which they gave the government enough reasons to torture them to great lengths. It was devoid of any theoretical guidance until then, forced to the fringes and marginalized orders of the society, gave way to a political instability of the oppositional pan-African liberation movement rebels and ensued border disputes, economic ruin, and massive debts that continue to plague Africa to this present day.

Nevertheless, the most crucial legacy of the war was its political galvanizing effect. It brought Africans, West Indians and black Americans together. Negritude, initially a cultural movement and movement of ideas, evolved into an anti-colonial forum, which strived for the decolonization of black people. This movement, which had profound effect in the Francophone world, also exerted influence on Anglophone writers and the Pan-African movement. However, the movement itself was also influenced by upheavals like the Garveyite Back-to-Africa movement of North America. The movement had wide international ripples and reverberations. It is also interesting to note that though Aime Cesaire coined the term “Negritude” in 1939, the Revista de Advance promoted “Negrismo” in Spanish speaking Cuba as early as 1927. A confusion of mythology and history, philosophy and idealism, but above all one of dauntless struggle and optimism, were instrumental in bringing closer the dream of continental unity or at least that of creating an African organization committed to this vision in the early 1960s. It rendered the movement populist in its conception of independence from colonialism, and as a result, very few if any questions were raised about the kind of society that was to be brought into being. The racial consciousness led to a popular expression of interests that reflected no more than a desire for the Africanization of existing structures. Finally, during 1994, a democratic political system in South Africa under an ANC-led government was established as the last step towards controlled change in the Southern African region.

Works Cited

Cabral, Amilcar. “National Liberation and Culture” originally delivered on February 20, 1970, retrieved from < > as on 26th March 2007

Fanon, Frantz, “Black Skin White Masks” Translated by C. L.Markham,, 1986 Pluto Press

Hartz, Louis. “The Founding of New Societies” (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964), (pg 11-13, 53-4)

Huttenback, R. A. . The British Empire as a “White Man’s Country”-Racial Attitudes and Immigration Legislation in the Colonies of White Settlement The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Nov., 1973), pp. 21

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