Deluded by our own myths

Fascinated by a TV film last night about Seretse Khama and his wife Ruth Williams. The bland mendacity and patronizing hypocrisy of the colonialists was well and subtly caught.  I don’t think I’ve been shocked by anything so much as Caroline Elkins’ book Britain’s Gulag.  When I was a boy at Downside just before the end of the autumn term Father Ralph would come down to school assembly and urge us to bring back our spent Christmas cards at the beginning of the next term, so that they could be sent out to Africa and the dear Kikuyu, who lived on the slopes of snow-capped Kilimanjaro, could decorate their kraals with them.  It is only now that I discover, as the British Government now admits, the British were castrating and torturing thousands ok Kikuyu in concentration camps during those very years. How naïve we were.


The point of Adam Smith’s free trade was it made both trading parties richer and not in only one sense.  By selling shirts to the French you became financially richer.  But you also got to enjoy camembert in return.  Most of all they absorbed something of our culture and we became enriched by encountering theirs.  Knowing the French made you into a better lover and a better cook. You became a more universal person.  But the British, in the name of free trade would you believe, didn’t trade with the African countries they colonized but subjugated them.  10,000 native warriors fell to the machine guns at Omdurman as opposed to 50 British casualties. ‘Let this never be forgot/ We have the maxim gun and they have not’ wrote Hilaire Belloc.   Before the colonialists came there were rich and sophisticated empires in Africa.  Sixteenth century travellers marvelled at the riches of the courts of Mali, Benin and Ghana.    Benin City, once the capital of what is now Southern Nigeria and its outlying villages were, according to Fred Pearse writing in New Scientist, surrounded by walls four times as long as The Great Wall of China.


In 1691the Portuguese captain Lourencon Pinto reported Benin was the richest and most beautiful city in the world.  He observed:


“Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon; all the streets run straight and as far as the eye can see. The houses are large, especially that of the king, which is richly decorated and has fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses.”


In contrast, London at the same time is described by Bruce Holsinger, professor of English at the University of Virginia, as being a city of “thievery, prostitution, murder, bribery and a thriving black market”.


According to Professor von Luschen of Berlin Ethnological Museum, the bronze sculptures produced by the artists of Benin rival those of Benvenuto Cellini.  Astonishingly, the kingdom was organized on principles of complex mathematical fractals. Ron Eglash, author of African Fractals, writes  : “When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture very disorganised and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn’t even discovered yet.”


At the centre of the city stood the king’s court, from which extended 30 very straight, broad streets, each about 120-ft wide. These main streets, which ran at right angles to each other, had underground drainage made of a sunken impluvium with an outlet to carry away storm water. Many narrower side and intersecting streets extended off them. In the middle of the streets were turf on which animals fed.


In 1897 Benin was destroyed by British soldiers, looted and burnt to the ground.   Hardly a trace remains today.


The Mossi Empire, in today’s Burkina Faso, far from being a collection of mud hut villages, had a highly organized complex hierarchical administrative system with ministers, bureaucrats, court scribes and musicians. Their art, especially in the form of masks, was remarkable.  This was a great trading empire straddling the trade routes across the Sahara from North Africa to the Guinea coast,  exchanging gold, slaves and ivory for salt, horses, beads and cloth.  But in one respect the Mossi Empire, like all those in what is today the third world with the exception of China, was backward in comparison with Europe.  It failed to develop advanced industrial processes.  Because of its primitive agricultural technology, it was unable to produce significant agricultural surpluses.  Long fallow periods were necessary that left three quarters of the land unused at any one time.  The hoe was the most advanced tool and the plough unknown.   Of course, we do not know what would have happened had history taken a different course.  But what would these civilizations have achieved if the western capitalist nations had preferred trade to guns?  It is surely reasonable to think that if the British and French had traded their technologies for the riches that Africa had to offer, the African empires would have developed naturally into strong modern societies rather than the poverty-stricken countries so many of them are today. The irony is that if Adam Smith’s principles had been followed and the African countries had been allowed to develop into independent trading nations, instead of the captive plantations and market gardens to which the colonialists reduced them, not only they but the western nations too would be much better off.  It is trade, Adam Smith tells us, that makes people rich.   The implications of nineteenth century colonialism for the world today are staggering.


Every schoolchild in our former colonies knows that they were exploited by the British. Yet we are still captives of our own imperialist myths.  How many school children in Britain know about the Benin and Mossi empires? Want to stop Islamic terrorism on our streets? Read up slavery in the West Indies, a million and a half allowed to starve in Ireland in the name of free trade, the deliberate destruction of the wonderfully skilled Indian textile industry to prevent it competing with machined Lancashire cotton in the name of free trade,  the Indian/Pakistan partition,  the great late nineteenth century Indian famines when British soldiers were taking the last reserves of rice from the starving peasants so the rice could be sold to those who could pay and the British Government service its debt to Rothschild’s bank.  Free trade. The broken promises to the Arabs after 1918.  People in our former colonies have not forgotten these things.  Is it any wonder after the Iraq war that they fear they will happen again?  It is not so much that we have forgotten them but, deluded by our managed ignorance and our own myths, never knew about them.  Naive then.  And still naïve now.  You can’t undo history.  But you can learn from it.


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