This blog post is focused on opening a dialogue about the colonial atrocities of the British empire in Africa; focused on highlighting key events that Britain have tried to eliminate from their history books. The events discussed in this blog post, took place during the British empire - some say the start date of the empire was the 1490s, while other historians date the empire from the early 1600s. The end of the empire came in the years after World War 2, with most of Britain's colonies ruling themselves independently by the late 1960s .British colonization of Africa coincided with the era of "scientific racism" an ideology, represented in the Charles Darwin theory of social Darwinism (survival of the fittest). Social Darwinists believe in “survival of the fittest”— the idea that certain people become powerful in society because they are innately better. This is the fundamental backbone that the British built their colonial empire. This blog post will explore the attitude that was taken, as I think this is what stands out the most about Britain's position in Africa, including the infamous "scramble of Africa". The post is titled, "Inside Britain's colonial mind", because I wanted to draw attention to the way these people used to THINK, and not even so much their actions, which we know are nothing short of brutality. We will look at examples of how the British believed they had superior weaponry, and were therefore more technologically advanced than Africans, enabling to feel an inflated sense of power. They thought this gave them the right to colonize and exploit the resources of African people in the name of promoting civilization.
Below is a diagram of the British Empire and which countries fell into each part:
Many of you may have read my post about Mahatma Gandhi, about his views of black Africans who he called "kaffirs" and about the miseducation of him in our curriculum. If you have not, you can read it here . The reason why I mention that, is because Gandhi had a similar view of Africans to the British war hero Winston Churchill - both of them expressed their hate for "kaffirs" (the blacks) on many occasions. Winston Churchill, is what I view as the last role of Britain's colonial dice, took colonial behaviour by the scruff of the neck as the leader of Britain for a total of 8 years. Churchill never failed to expressed much disdain for the ethnic inhabitants of Britain's great empire. The ultimate question is, how do the two worlds of the great British empire and the dark side of their imperialist nationalism, never cross paths? Were they really worlds apart, where on one hand today, Britain is seen as an enlightened, defensive military state and a leader of the western world. But on the other side, Britain has been the catalyst for the destruction of land, neighbourliness, economic and political stability of many places in the world; at a point in history.
If you are wondering why I called this section "rumours", well its because I came across an interesting tale that sparked me to write this post in the first place. I read that the former US president George W. Bush, left a bust of Winston Churchill near his desk in the White House, because he wanted to identify and associate himself with Churchill's stand against fascism. But ironically, the president who came right after him (Barack Obama) had it returned to Britain. Why the 180?
There are rumours out there, that state that Barack Obama had an underlying distaste for Britain (from a historical point of view). Nothing that he had ever come out and overtly said during his time as president of the United States, by the way. But there are many versions of an explanation behind what motivated Obama to return Winston Churchill's bust to Britain - which IS a fact. Some have stated, that Barack's Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was imprisoned without trial for two years and was tortured on Churchill’s watch, for resisting Churchill’s empire. He was captured by British troops in 1949, and according to his wife who is 90 years old now, she claims that he "still bore scars from his treatment when he died in 1979" (Swaine, 2012), she told an interviewer for the Times that he was extremely thin and dirty with a head full of lice upon his release, "the African warders were instructed by the white soldiers to whip him every morning and evening till he confessed she explained (Bowcott, 2008). However, many has claimed that this is untrue, sources close to Mr Onyango, stated that he was once kidnapped by thugs and stories have been twisted over generations - so we do not know the truth about why Obama really did return that bust of Churchill to Britain. Here's a funny fact though, as soon as Donald Trump took to power in 2016, the Churchill bust was back in the oval office of the white house as per the image below...
There's no smoke without fire though right? So what were the real experiences of black Africans under the glorious British empire ? Lets explore.
I have written about many colonial empires that were owned by Europeans; the Belgians, the German's, French and Portuguese. But what is key about Britain's empire, is the undoubtable superiority complex that they showed. The belief that a group of people are innately better than others - this is what rubs me the wrong way about it, not to mention the physical abuse. To add to that, it's the sheer ruthlessness that they showed in history, to ensure that Africans understood the hierarchical construct, of how life under the British empire was supposed to work. The British had many methods of control across their empire; (of course we are focusing on the African countries in this article) this is what I like to refer to as "tactical colonialism". Among their colonies, the British tended to give power to different groups or institutions over others, to exert control, as it's easier to corrupt one small group rather than trying to get an entire population of people to submit to your rule. These methods are otherwise known as "indirect rule" and "company rule", and we will explore these methods more in this section.
The British showed preference to groups who had a hierarchical and dictatorial system like their own - they did this in all the countries that they colonised. They gave power to private companies, and sometimes different ethnic groups, to subjugate their colonies. "These preferred groups, usually a conservative minority within the country, were supported to the extent that they worked against the interests of their fellow Africans" . For example, the British selected the Arab minority, to rule over the majority of the other Africans in Sudan, and similarly with the Fulani in Nigeria. The leaders of these ethnic groups would then be elected into a colonial military, and often staged coups and removed the democratically elected civilian governments of their countries.
Company Rule - In the early years of the British empire, private companies in Africa were granted territories to administer; these companies were in control of managing and governing large regions. Already that sounds odd, how can a PLC, govern a group of citizens? These companies were: the United African Company & United Trading Company in West Africa, the Imperial British East Africa Company, and the British South Africa Company . Leading directors of these companies, were essentially businesspersons, who were interested only in exploiting and plundering the rich natural resources of the territories of Africa that they were allowed to govern. This in my view, was a structural disaster. It caused much conflict between the administrators and native people; as "the company administration was the source from which all commands (laws) originated" (Madimu, 2017: p.29). Of course there was no way that any African states would develop with this model of leadership, it was clear that the structure was in place to promote extortion.
The Imperial British East Africa Company, founded in 1888, colonized Kenya for Britain, ruling there until 1893. The British South Africa Company, established in 1889 under the control of Cecil John Rhodes, used excessive force and coercion to colonize and rule Nyasaland (present-day Malawi), Northern Rhodesia (present-day Zambia), and Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe); the company reigned over these colonies until 1923. His aim, was "to establish an economy anchored by mining enterprise" (Madimu, 2017: p.28).
So, you can see how Britain tactfully giving control to a large corporation in an area, will work in their best interests for them to make profits and to keep control of a large proportion of people. The companies were large enough to ensure, that Britain has an adequate workforce of Africans, and they were influential enough to impact the livelihood of people who did not want to conform to this way of colonial rule.
Indirect Rule - But Britain took everything one step further. Nigeria is a good example of how Britain practiced indirect rule into areas of Africa. Indirect rule, the invention of the British colonial administrator Frederick Lugard who is in the photo above, became the main system the British used to subjugate their African colonies. Frederick Lugard was a British soldier, a mercenary and a colonial officer. He found great use in African traditional rulers, to work on their behalf and help control their fellow Africans. Although these Africans were technically “ruling" - actual decisions rested with British colonial officers. Lugard first experimented with indirect rule in northern Nigeria, where the Fulani had *already* established the Sokoto Caliphate and emirship. It is important that we note the prevalence of the Sokoto Caliphate, as it existed long before the British came about. It was one of the largest empires in Africa, which developed as a result of the Fulani jihads (holy wars) which took place in the first decade of the 19th century in what is now Northern Nigeria. The Sokoto Caliphate was the centre of politics and economics in the region, until Britain got their hands on it in the 20th century (Yoo, 2009).
As aforementioned in the beginning of this article, the British did not mask their imperialistic attitudes towards their colonial subjects. They did not want to be paternalistic like the French colonialists, they did not want their subjects to be able to identify with British people. Therefore they did not practice assimilation policies like the French did; they weren't bothered about making English people, out of the Africans. Although Lugard would claim that the use of the indirect rule system, was because they wanted to preserve their colonies’ indigenous cultures, and this was their logical explanation for why they placed one group in control of the rest, so that "indigenous culture is not totally lost in the colonial empire" - as if they cared about that. The main reason for indirect rule, was to minimize the cost of actually running the colonies, but still be able to maximising the exploitation of them. It is cheaper to get someone to run a country for you if they are prepared to do it in the way you dictate. As opposed to deploying British mercenaries to Africa for long periods of time and hoping that they can keep natives under control. As the system seemed to have worked in northern Nigeria, Lugard wrongly believed that all the African societies were monarchies and that those that weren't could become so with the establishment of 'chiefdoms'. So, he set to export the system to the rest of Nigeria, but it failed woefully in the Igbo areas of eastern Nigeria. In turn, the British created new leaders (chiefs) who were more likely corrupt individuals than not, who did not always have the interest of all their fellow Africans and were consequently not as respected by the people they were put in place to govern.
The result of Britain's indirect rule were horrible ethnic tensions, where Non-Fulani and Non-Muslim Nigerians were protesting against unfair treatment on them. What is important is to not lose focus, this was all being fuelled by the British. During this time, many genocides and massacres took place in the region. Ethnic rivalries between the major groups in Nigeria: the Igbo, Hausa-Fulani, and Yoruba, (who make up about 65% of the population of Nigeria) were ignited during the British colonial period. Mainly the Yoruba, Igbo and the Hausa rejected the British colonial structure. However, this led to the forming of main political parties, driven by ethnic affiliations... the perfect cocktail for the British, who wanted to cause division.
In Nigeria, The National Convention of Nigerian Citizens, founded by Herbert Macaulay and championed by Nnamdi Azikiwe, was primarily centered in the Igbo-dominated Eastern Region. The Action Group, led by Obafemi Awolowo, was based in the traditional Yoruba area of the Western Region; and the Northern Peoples Congress, led by Ahmadu Bello and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, was dominated by the Hausa-Fulani and based in the Northern Region. It was in the interest of the British to promote ethnic tensions in their colonies. A nation where people are turning on each other and not seeing eye to eye, benefits its oppressors in the end, because they were too busy fighting, they weren't able to detect the British, exacerbating these ethnic tensions to increase conflict and use it as a distraction while they continue to plunder natural resources.
There are many other examples of indirect rule in Africa by the British, I felt that Nigeria illustrates it well, but it was also practiced in Eastern Africa by Lugard, where it also failed miserably and ended in conflict. Although I ask myself if conflict and bloodshed was really considered a "failure" to the British back then. This is how the British used tactical colonialism to govern the British empire.
Ruling By Emperor - The British Way
Britain were victorious in World War II under the leadership of Winston Churchill; the war which involved the entire western world and allies from several other continents, saw Germany (the enemy) surrendering to Britain, the United States and the USSR. But some would say that the victory of WWII, marks the beginning of the end of the Great British Empire. Needless to say that the British recognise him as a "war hero" and someone who spearheading elevating the morale of Great Britain. Churchill was a known 'imperialist' - this is no secret. Meaning his main political ideology since he was a child, aligned with a policy of "extending a country's power and influence through colonization, use of military force, or other means".
Churchill was born in 1874 in Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. Queen Victoria had just been crowned Empress of India, and the scramble for Africa was to commence just a few years after this. At 'Harrow School', then named 'Sandhurst', Winston recalled being told "a simple story: the superior white man was conquering the primitive, dark-skinned natives, and bringing them the benefits of civilisation" (Hari, 2010). As soon as Churchill was old enough, he wanted to play his part in those great little wars against those who he believed were barbarous. As a young man, Winston Churchill supported colonial atrocities all over the world, not just in Africa. For example in the SWAT Valley which is now part of Pakistan, members of the local population were fighting against British colonial rule. Churchill realised that the local population was "fighting back "because of the presence of British troops in lands the local people considered their own,” just as Britain would if she were invaded" (Hari, 2010). Instead, Churchill degraded them further, and labelled their rejection of British power as them simply being deranged, and having a “strong aboriginal propensity to kill”. Churchill visited Africa 3 times, and he wrote about every encounter and occasion that he was there - much to our benefit. Once the SWAT Valleys were destroyed beyond measure, the homes and livelihood of many, burned and decimated to mere scrap - he then fled to conquer Sudan, participating in the Anglo-Egyptian conquest of Sudan, Africa, where he bragged that he personally shot at least three “savages” himself (Hari, 2010). In his book The River War (1899) Churchill described the native Sudanese as 'strong, virile and simple-minded savages'.
Winston Churchill is also implicated in one of the nastiest chapters of British imperial history: the suppression of Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion. The British built a railroad through the Kenya, which at the time was known as 'British East Africa'. They imported labour from India, and built large agricultural sites, "taking advantage of the fertility of the soil and the tropical climate" (Christensen, 2018). In 1920 the country officially became a British colony and named Kenya for its tallest mountain peak. British farmers became wealthy over the production of tea and coffee, and they used the native Kiyuku people as adapting laborers. The British Empire, which Churchill had been inherently involved in and spearheading for much of his life, was in decline. Its colonies were demanding "more" from Britain, and to Churchill this "more" aspect was simply too much for ask for. Some wanted more representation, others wanted complete independence from the empire; this was the situation in Kenya. Churchill’s response to the requests of freedom from British colonial rule, was not to listen to those concerns, or to negotiate; but he decided to eliminate all objection. The Mau Mau rebellion, was a bloody, territorial dispute which turned into a civil war that lasted between (1951-1960). Despite Britain's attempts to eliminate this from their history, the story gained prevalence again in 2009, when 5 elderly Kenyan victims of the Mau Mau suppression, launched a £200m damages claim against the UK. They have reported that their people were raped, tortured and killed in the camps ran by the British. Although massacres were committed on both sides, by the Mau Mau in retaliation to people being thrown into concentration camps and the British Army bombing Mau Mau territory.
Solicitor Martyn Day told the BBC:
"They were put in camps where they were subject to severe torture, malnutrition, beatings. The women were sexually assaulted. Two of the men were castrated. The most severe gruesome torture you could imagine. Britain's insistence that international human rights standards should be respected by governments around the world will sound increasingly hollow if the door is shut in the face of these known victims of British torture."
A British writer named Caroline Elkins, published a study named "Britain's Gulag', chronicled how the British battled the anticolonial uprising. The book details how some 1.5 million Kenyan people were placed into a network of detention camps and heavily patrolled villages. It was a tale of systematic violence and high-level cover-ups. Of course this study did not come without backlash - some branded Elkins, a "self-aggrandising crusader whose overstated findings had relied on sloppy methods and dubious oral testimonies" (Parry, 2016) , whereas others commended her for breaking the silence.
That's what we are trying to do more of, breaking the silence and encouraging Britain to be more transparent in the part that they played in colonial Africa. I have noticed personally, a real air of carelessness when it comes to addressing African affairs by Britain, the country doesn't openly comment or get involved. I am not saying it is their place to do so, but the silence is telling. I think the silence comes from a place of guilt, and shame - that the morally conscious, civilised, multicultural Great Britain as we'd like the world to know it today, could be such a dark pillar in the history of Africa.
I might do a part 2 to this, let me know if I should in the comments.
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