Category Archives: Imperialism

For the Joy of Reading: Secure the Base

This collection of essays by Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a meditation upon Africa and its place in the modern world. There are two facts that underpin all these essays and they are the two fundamental facts about African history: the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism. It is impossible to consider the history and development of Africa into post-colonial independence without having a grasp of these issues. It is impossible to understand what independence in the post-colonial era actually entails without taking these two facts into account. They are the building blocks on which the history of modern Africa has been built.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s argument starts from a base that should be obvious, although it is brushed under the carpet. The Atlantic Slave Trade was a crime against humanity. It allowed the burgeoning capitalist economies of Western Europe and what became the United States. It was driven by the need to have cheap labour to produce sugar, tobacco and cotton. Slaves only needed enough food, clothing and housing to keep them, literally, producing the goods, and if they died more slaves could be purchased. Ngugi recognises that the kingdoms of the West African littoral by waging war on their neighbours, seizing captives and selling them to European traders, whether they were Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch or English. [The Scots did not benefit from the slave trade until the Act of Union of 1707, but they seem to have taken to it like ducks to water. Glasgow is built on money from the slave trade and the slave plantations]. Obviously, this loss of population and the disruption it caused had a detrimental effect on the development of Africa.
One of the things that Ngugi argues should be considered is the trauma to the African psyche. This was compounded by the trauma of colonialism, and the barbarity with which African societies were destroyed so that resources could be extracted from the continent for the benefit of the colonial power. Part of the consequence of colonialism was that European languages became the languages of power, and that is still the case in sub-Saharan Africa, even in countries where an African language, or more than one, has been given official status. [Arabic is a separate case. It is not in origin an African language but it has been spoken in the continent for something like 1,500 years].

In these essays, Ngugi issues a call to arms. He calls upon African intellectuals to write in their own tongues. He asks for schools to teach in African languages. He challenges the use of the word “tribe”, and asks why 40,000,000 Yoruba form a tribe, but 300,000 Icelanders or 5 million Danes form a nation. The answer is both obvious and inherently racist. All you have to do is look at racial classification in apartheid South Africa where 5,000,000 whites, despite speaking different languages, formed one racial group whereas Nguni speakers, despite using variants of the same language, formed, I think, 5 racial groups.
Ngugi argues that Africans need to accord their own languages respect. The argument that there are no words in African languages for the technological advances that have been made over the last two hundred years, is one that he demolishes as nonsense. He points out that the same was said of English and French, when they began to replace Latin as the language of intellectual discourse. He could also have pointed out that there is no English word for “television”. It is derived from Greek and Latin. Words can be invented and they frequently are. Shakespeare was an expert at this.
Ngugi also argues that African achievements are overlooked in the world. He rightly argues that the greatest threat to our planet is nuclear weaponry, and that the most pressing need for securing the future of our planet is the decommissioning of those weapons. He then adds that two countries have already done this, and that they are both African countries – South Africa and Libya. One has never been credited with doing so, and the other was invaded, its infrastructure destroyed and an ongoing refugee crisis created. I remember someone on Facebook arguing in 2014 that if Scotland became independent it would be the first country to decommission its nuclear weapons, and I replied that this would not be the case because South African and Libya had already done it. The argument was based on ignorance, but it is symptomatic of the fact that Africa, when it does something good, does not get coverage in the western media.
Another argument that Ngugi puts forward is that the world is divided between the wealthy and the poor. He argues that, if the world is to live at peace and in prosperity, then those resources must be shared equally. He argues that this cannot be achieved by tinkering with the world economy, as the Christian missionaries die in the colonial period and as the NGOs do now, but needs a structural change. He argues for a world without borders, or, at least, the kind of borders that we have in place now. He argues for a world in which we ensure that the hungry are fed, the poor clothed, the homeless housed, the sick are healed and the refugees are welcomed. He argues against the expenditure by the rich nations of this world on armaments. This is a cry from the heart against the neo-colonial world in which we live. It is an argument that we have a duty to consider. I think he is right.

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For the Joy of Reading: The Baghdad Clock

If you were going to pick somewhere to be born in the late 1980s, it is hard to think of somewhere that would have been worse than Baghdad. Except Afghanistan. A child in Baghdad, in 1991, had to endure “Desert Storm”, the First Gulf War. [And let us be honest, the name “Desert Storm” is a misnomer. Iraq is not a desert. It is the valleys of the Euphrates and Tigris. It has been a centre of civilisation for nigh on 4,000 years]. This is the story of two girls growing up, Nadia and the unnamed narrator. It begins when they meet in an air raid shelter, during the first Gulf War. It continues through the sanctions imposed by President Clinton to the attack launched by President George W. Bush. It is the story of the attempt to lead a normal life in the midst of war and the threat of war. It is the story of a neighbourhood around the landmark Baghdad Clock.
It is the story of Nadia and her friends growing up in the midst of war, then devastating sanctions, then war again. Unsurprisingly, people did not want to, could not endure all the dangers and privations that they were subjected to living in the area around the Baghdad Clock. So slowly but surely, families begin to leave fleeing north and west to supposed safety in cities like Mosul and Damascus. Where, of course, they will not be safe for long.
We meet characters like the soothsayer, who can predict what is going to happen to the people around the Baghdad Clock. We meet Biryad, the dog who makes his home in the neighbourhood and who is loved by everyone until they and their families move away, leaving him behind. We meet all the women called Umm (mother), in the Arabic tradition, followed by the name of their eldest child, and all the men similarly called Abu (father). We meet Ahmad and Farooq, the boys that Nadia and her friend fall in love with. With meet Uncle Shawkat and his wife, Baji Nadira. We learn to be happy with them and to cry with them when things go wrong. And how could they not go wrong with Saddam Hussein as President, and President George W. Bush lusting for revenge?
This is the story of a terrible 30 years, and of the people who suffered both war and privation. It is a story that shows the humanity of ordinary Iraqis, and the horror of what has been inflicted on them. It is a story of the triumph of ordinary people and of hope, in the face of adversity. It is uplifting. It is triumphant because people survive.
That is what makes this book a must read.

For the Joy of Reading: Devil on the Cross

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a phenomenal writer.   It is such a great shame that so many people will not even attempt to read him because they cannot pronounce his name.   That is just so foolish.   he is one of the seminal writers currently living, and Devil on the Cross is extraordinary.   It is partly a satire of post-colonial Africa.   It is certainly a denunciation of neocolonialism.   It is devastating in its critique of capitalism as it works in Africa and across the world.   This may be the real reason why people do not want to read Ngugi wa Thiong’o.   They do not want to confront what has been done to Africa, and the racism that is endemic throughout the capitalist world, the so-called First World.   Ngugi wa Thiong’o forces on his readers, not through a tirade, but by carefully presenting his story.

This is the story of Wariinga, a young woman, full of ambition until she meets a rich old man, who seduces her and leaves her pregnant.   She does this with difficulty, but one day is a disaster.   She loses her job because she refuses to become the mistress of another old man and loses her home by an illegal, violent eviction.   So she decides to make her way to Ilmorog, her parents’ home.   On her way to the taxi rank, she receives an invitation from the Devil to a thieves’ convention in her home village.   She gets a matatu (a minibus) to her home, meeting various people who decide collectively that as they are going to Ilmorog, they may as well accept the invitations they have all received to the event.

The thieves at the convention are all stealing from their own people to enrich foreign corporations and are the stewards of capitalist exploitation in Kenya.   Ngugi wa Thiong’o introduces us to the corrupt, the venal, the exploitative, the oppressive and the downright murderous capitalists of modern Kenya.   He shows us, through Wangari, another passenger on the matatu, how the ideals of the Land Freedom Army, who fought for the independence of Kenya, have been betrayed in the post-colonial neocolonial settlement.   He shows how the collaborators with British colonialism came to dominate the government, through control of the structures of government.   He shows through Muturi, a further matatu passenger, how resistance is possible.   To that extent it is a highly political novel.

But it is also a love story.   Wariinga meets Gatuiria, a young man, on the matatu.   Slowly, they fall in love and decide to get married.   Gatuiria encourages Wariinga in her ambition to become a mechanic, in which she succeeds.    Then they go to meet Gatuiria’s parents, and that is the climax of the novel.

One of the things that comes through quite clearly is that Ngugi wa Thiong’o has a very good grasp of the New Testament.   Much of the thieves’ convention narrative is a riff on the parable of the Talents, and it does not make comfortable reading.   That also applies to the Devil’s version of the Beatitudes.   Ngugi wa Thiong’o exposes our shame in using the Bible to dominate.   As Desmond Tutu put it, “when the whites arrived, they had the Bible and we had the land.   Now we have the Bible, and they have the land.”

The final thing to say is that the women characters, especially Wariinga and Wangari, are very strong.   And the ending is a feminist battle-cry.   This is an extraordinary book by a consummate writer.   You would be very foolish to decide not to read it because you cannot pronounce the names.   That would be your parochialism and your loss.

For the Joy of Reading: The Silk Roads

The first thing that has to be said about this book is that it is a delight to read a history of the Eurasian landmass that does not treat a peripheral group of islands on the western extremity of that landmass as central to the history of the world, until that actually became the case, at the end of the sixteenth century, to be generous.   It is also interesting that it treats the western, European end of that landmass as peripheral, until Columbus and Vasco Da Gama opened the sea routes west and east at the end of the fifteenth century.   As an addendum, it is interesting that Columbus had not had a clue about what he had done, and that it was not until the murderous conquests of Cortez and Pizarro in the early sixteenth century that the balance of the world was altered, and the contribution of Columbus to the imperialist destiny of Europe became clear.

It is also interesting that the Silk Roads were not roads, or at least not in the modern sense.   They were trade routes, and the goods that were transported across them came on the backs of camels, donkeys and mules, and sometimes by sea.   The great centres of civilisation were China and India, and they exported their surpluses along routes around the high Pamirs and the Taklamakan desert, through the steppes to Persia, to the civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt and then on to Rome, and its successors.

The steppes were also important because it was here that the beasts of burden were bred.   Two-humped camels are called Bactrian because they were bred in the province to the west of modern Afghanistan, and they were vital because they had the ability to carry vast amounts of water in their two humps.   The steppes were also home to vast horse herds, bred by nomad tribesmen and it was on horseback that the nomads swept time and time again to conquer – Huns and Avars and Turks and Mongols.   The names of their leaders are legendary – Attila, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane.   Genghis Khan conquered the biggest land empire that the world has ever known.   The Silk Roads were the conduit for his armies.

But they were more than that: they were conduits for ideas and technologies.   The Abrahamic religions spread along the Silk Roads.   Silk manufacture and papermaking came along the Silk Roads from China.   Peter Frankopan sets out the central role of the Silk Roads as the main arteries of trade and civilisation from the time of Cyrus the Great and the Persian Empire of the Achaemenids to the present day.   Peter Frankopan sets out the case that the Silk Roads are the arteries leading to the heart of the world, and that heart is not Europe.   It is a necessary lesson.

This is a complex tale, well-told by Peter Frankopan.   It is very ambitious.   It covers a timespan of 2,500 years in 521 pages.   There are times when I wished for a bit more detail.   For instance, why did the Mongol expansion stop when Ogodei Khan died unexpectedly in 1241.   The answer, of course, is that it didn’t.   It was merely that Subadei Khan withdrew from the Danube, with his armies, to take part in the election of the new Great Khan.   Kubilai then moved into China, and Khulugu moved south into Persia and destroyed Baghdad.   It was Qutuz, the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt who stopped the Mongol advance westward at the Battle of Ayn Jalud, but this was only decisive because Khulugu was engaged, more profitably, elsewhere and did not challenge the Mamluk victory.   This, however, is a small criticism of what must have been editorial decisions to keep the story moving along without making it unintelligible.

No-one could accuse this book of being unintelligible.   The author guides you through the story with great skill, and keeps your attention from Alexander the Great to Mossadeq and Ayatollah Khomeini.   If you want to understand the world in which we live, this is a book that you should read.

For the Joy of Reading: Inglorious Empire

The first thing to say is that this is not a history of the British Raj.   It is a book that arose from a debate at the Oxford Union.   It is a deconstruction of the arguments out forward that the British Empire was, in some way, good for the countries that were conquered.   That means that it is controversial, but it does not make it wrong.   It is obviously nonsense to argue that people are prepared for independence by robbing them of their independence, and when the arguments for the benefits of British rule are that stupid, it really is not necessary to refute them.

So let us look at the arguments, and see if we can test them.   This is what Tharoor sets out to do, and it is very instructive that the arguments advanced for the benefits of British colonialism do not generally hold up.

When Queen Elizabeth I signed the royal charter for the English East India Company (Scotland being a separate country at the time) it was not that she envisaged the creation of an Empire.   This would have been ridiculous.   Her contemporary, ruling most of the Indian sub-continent, was the Mughal Emperor, Akbar.   He ruled one of the most populous and prosperous states in the world at that time.   The Mughal Empire was one of the great intellectual centres, and the Mughal army was formidable.   Elizabethan England, along with their Dutch allies, were involved in a long and debilitating war with the Spain of Philip III.   He, as King of Portugal, controlled the East Indies spice trade.   The Dutch East India Company had been making inroads into this monopoly, and Elizabeth wanted to secure her share of the profit at no cost to herself.   So she issued a royal charter and sent an ambassador to Akbar the Great.

Throughout the seventeenth century there was very little change.   The British, under Charles II, secured Bombay as the dowry for his Portuguese wife, and opened some trading posts in the South Indian states, independent of the Mughal Empire.   But very little changed until the enfeeblement of that Empire was demonstrated by the invasion of the Persian army under Nadir Shah, the storming of Delhi and the seizure of Mughal treasures, including the Koh-i-noor diamond and the Peacock Throne.   Meanwhile, the French had arrived in Pondicherry and came into conflict with the British in South India, based at Madras (now Chennai).   The decisive moment came when the British East India Company and the French were allowed to recruit armies in the Indian sub-continent.

This is one of the areas where I would argue with Tharoor.    If the British had not colonised India it is likely that the French would have done so, and that would have altered the course of European history.   The riches of India would have poured into Versailles, not London.   It is probable that the French monarchy would not have been forced, because of bankruptcy, to reconvene the States-General and the French Revolution would not have happened.   The prospect of an India not subject to colonisation does not seem likely to me.   That however is a minor quibble because history deals with what happened, not the various possibilities that did not happen.

There are a number of factors that changed British attitudes to India.   Clive’s victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 gave the East India Company the control of Bengal.   With that came a rapacity that drained India of resources, in which Clive himself led the way.   The sudden access to wealth of the employees of the East India Company made them good marriage material, and so young women arrived by the boatload, in what became known as the “fishing fleet”, in search of suitable husbands.   This changed attitudes considerably.   Young men had, prior to this, formed liaisons and even married Indian women.   This stopped.

But how the Raj was created is not Tharoor’s subject.    His subject is how it behaved.   The argument of the apologists is that it gave India good government, democracy, peace and security, transportation, an international language and cricket.   Tharoor demolishes this.   It is no accident that the term that the British used for themselves in India, the “Sahib Log” was translated as “master race”.   Indians were denied access to the higher echelons of government and when they were employed, they were paid at a vastly inferior rate to the British counterparts.   As for democracy, this depends on how you define it but for most of the period that the British ruled India, the electorate in Britain was limited to men of a certain income.   The British also ensured that Indian industry was impoverished by exporting raw materials (jute, cotton etc.) from India to places like Manchester and Dundee, converting them into sacking, clothes and other goods, and then selling them back to India at vastly inflated prices.   This was why the railways were built, not to facilitate the transport of ordinary people.   Where the transport of people was concerned it was in moving people, mainly women, from the heat of Calcutta (now Kolkata) to the cool of Simla in the summer months.   This is the society described by Rudyard Kipling in his “Plain Tales from the Hills”.   The British also exacerbated through their policy of “divide and rule” the religious differences between Sikhs, Hindus and Moslems.   This was to have disastrous consequences during the Partition of 1947, because it made partition a certainty and left millions stranded on the wrong sides of the border in both the Punjab and Bengal.

As for giving India an international common language, this was because the colonial masters could not be bothered to learn the already existing languages of government in India.   They also wanted to impress upon Indians joining the governing classes the “superiority” of British culture.   [Tharoor does not say this, but when the English settled in what became England in the fifth and sixth centuries (Common Era), they called the natives Welsh, which means foreigners, in the land where they had lived for thousands of years.]   Their attitude to Indic languages was one of arrogance, dismissing the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Vedas as insignificant and primitive.

This argument is developed over the 249 pages of the book, and is backed up with extensive footnotes.   The basic attitude of the Raj can be summed up quite easily: We are white, and they are not.

This is not a book that will go down well with Brexiteers, with those nostalgic for the glories of Empire, with Daily Mail readers and others of that ilk.   If, however, you do not fit those categories, it is a book that will give you many a moment to pause and think.