Recently I interviewed my old friend Julian Pellatt. We were students together at University of Cape Town and he came away from that once august institution having learned a lot more about the English language and African history than I did. I wanted to know more about his views on the origins of European colonialism and I was not disappointed.
Christianity paved the way for the colonisation of Africa, a process that reached its peak in the 19th Century. Catholic missionaries were amongst the first Europeans to infiltrate the continental hinterland following the early voyages of discovery by Portuguese navigators like Bartholomew Diaz and Vasco Da Gama who sought trade routes via the southern African coastline to the profitable spice and silk markets of East Asia. Although their primary goal was to convert Africans to the Catholic faith and to save their souls from eternal damnation, they assessed and reported on opportunities for developing trade, especially in relation to gold. The creation of the nuclear family and the doctrine of monogamy was a particular creation of the Catholic Church that became the foundations of capitalism that ultimately defined the successful development of Western Europe and fueled its eventual quest for exploiting new markets through the era of colonialism.
He goes on to explain the importance of the Reformation triggered by Martin Luther that brought about the rise of Protestantism. In contrast to the ‘externalised’ Catholic faith which demanded herd obedience, Protestantism emphasised the internal, individual nature of Christian faith, especially in the Nonconformist denominations. These new dimensions of Christianity place great importance on the ethos of hard work (which fuelled the capitalist evolution), but also focused the Christian conscience on ‘the poor’, the underdog, the oppressed for which the fruits of honest labour were to be deployed in God’s name. Here we have the two main drivers of colonialism, especially the British variant in Africa: commerce and concern for the underdog. “Blessed be the poor for they shall inherit the earth.” In our modern, woke era, this seems eerily prescient!
The initial colonisation of North America by Walter Raleigh’s expedition and the subsequent emigration of the ‘Mayflower’ Quakers to the New World set about a chain of events that would result in the construction of the most successful country in history – the United Sates of America. From the Age of Enlightenment that emerged in the 18th Century came the Romantic movement. One of its proponents was the French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose concept of ‘the noble savage’ (i.e. innocents inhabiting gardens of Eden, untainted by the complexities and evils of civilisation) continues to reverberate through Western politics to this day. Indeed, it is the melding of this idea (preoccupation) fused with Marxist doctrine that fuels the woke formula of the early 21st Century: namely, Black = good, White = bad.
The colonisation of southern Africa in the 19th Century was substantially associated with and influenced by David Livingston. First arriving at the London Missionary Society’s main station in Kuruman, Livingstone was the epitome of the fervent, Protestant missionary whose twin aims were the eradication of the evils of slavery (in reality Africa did not exist in a state of noble savagery!) and improving the lives of those whom he considered to be primitive peoples who suffered from the lack of civilised benefits available to the peoples of Western Europe. Livingstone’s vision was the colonisation of southern and central Africa by British settlers. They would invest in the economic development of the land whereby native Africans would access great improvements in their existence and the Mother Country would benefit from expanded trade opportunities and new natural resources. His ideas were hugely influential within the British corridors of power and paved the way for the colonisation of southern and central Africa and the ultimate creation of ventures like Cecil John Rhodes’ the British South Africa Company that occupied Mashonaland in 1890.
In southern Africa British colonialism was largely benign in nature. Legislation was enacted in the UK and in colonial governments (such as the self-governing colony of Southern Rhodesia, created in 1923) to protect the interests of native populations, to respect tribal laws and customs and to establish development and education programmes to develop these people from primitive, isolated tribal communities into societies of modern citizens. This is in marked contrast to the British approach adopted in the United States of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand where native populations were cruelly decimated and reduced to powerless minorities and thereby became the most successful colonies of all time. Such policies would have been unthinkable in Southern Rhodesia where the native population burgeoned in every respect. From an estimated total population of c.400 thousand in 1890 when the British occupied Mashonaland, the native population expanded massively to an estimated 16-17 million by 2015.
The point is the people at the vanguard of the move to colonise Africa were not only motivated by personal gain but also by a fervent to stop the endemic violence and savagery that bedevilled the continent, stop slavery and improve the lives of the native population by introducing the benefits of ‘Western Civilisation’. This notion is now widely ridiculed because in the Woke world we live in we are not allowed to believe that any superior ideas ever emanated from Europe, Britain especially. The fact is, if population growth is accepted as any yardstick of a successful foreign intervention, then colonisation was a success because in all countries that came under the imperial yolk, populations numbers grew rapidly, with the exception of the four ‘successful colonies that survive to this day.
Against this backdrop I read an article by Professor Nic Cheeseman of the University of Birmingham who is an Africa specialist in which he attacks Aidan Hartley of The Spectator who recently penned a piece trying to explain why many countries choose to support Vladimir Putin and Russia in the face of strong Western opposition to the invasion of Ukraine.
Following the conventional wisdom, he refers to African countries having “suffered some of the greatest injustices in global history’. He does not explain this in any detail, but I am sure this is a reference to the colonial era which is always a good way to garner support from a readership because few people are brave or thoughtful enough to disagree with this statement.
Cheeseman criticises Hartley’s “blinkered and colonial attitude that fuels support for those who are seen to stand up to Western political domination.” This smacks of the usual retort from those who refuse to blame Africans for any of their current ills, but this is to be expected from Professor Cheeseman because he also sits on the board of Oxfam. Oxfam, like many of these NGO’s has a stake in the ‘poverty business’, and countries that succeed don’t generally need his services or those of his colleagues. When Robert Mugabe embarked on a racially motivated campaign to destroy the commercial agricultural sector in Zimbabwe, in the process making the country food dependent, I don’t recall Oxfam voicing any criticism.
In the same tone it is the ever blameworthy, “West’s willingness to sacrifice democracy and human rights on the altar of national security that helps to explain why many African states do not want to get sucked into the current confrontation.” Just how the West has become a safer place by suppressing democracy and human rights in Africa is not clear to me but maybe he knows something I have missed. In my experience I have seen the contrary; exhaustive efforts have been made by Western powers to encourage democratic governance but in most cases their efforts have been thwarted by greedy despots and this is where they have historically found comfort in the clutches of the Russians (Soviets of the past) and the Chinese. He lauds the supposed will of African countries to be non-aligned. He must have missed the fact that most of Africa is indebted to China and hardly in a position to claim ‘non-alignment’; the Chinese, unlike the Brits and Europeans, expect a return on their money.
He refers to Africa as being one of the ‘world’s most economically exploited regions’ but again gives no details. Just why Africa is more exploited than other countries, particularly those as rich as many in Africa, is also not clear to me. The countries of the Middle East are heavily exploited, but they appear to use the dividends more prudently; compare Angola and Nigeria, both oil-rich, to Saudi Arabia and Oman.
The fact that Africa is not better developed is nothing to do with ‘exploitation’ and everything to do with appalling governance, which people like Professor Cheeseman are reluctant to criticise for fear of being accused of having a ‘colonial attitude’ or worse still – of being a racist. And it this very fear that lies behind British and European politicians’ reluctance to criticise African governments and demand accountability that has facilitated the squandering of hundreds of billions of dollars of financial support showered on the continent leaving hundreds of millions of people immeasurably poorer. This failure now manifests itself in the growing number of Africans seeking refuge in the UK and Europe as they flee the hopelessness of their homes.
Professor Cheeseman insists that a better relationship between Africa and the West can only eventuate through “efforts to build and strengthen solidarity..” which “‘must begin with respect, humility, and mutual understanding.” Weasel words indeed! Well, in my view, the post-colonial approach to Africa from Britain and the West has been one of grovelling obsequiousness laced with mountains of cash and the place is an utter mess. I’d like to know from him what more he expects.