Colonialism and imperialism at the present time are usually discussed in very simplistic moral terms. Are you – and the books written about them – ‘for’ or ‘against’? The fall-back position for most commentators is that imperialism was an unrelieved evil, responsible for many if not all of today's problems in places like Africa. Hence my interest, as an imperial historian, in this contribution to a blogsite I subscribe to (USA Africa Dialogue), by an African scholar, Oluwatoyin Adepoju, dealing with some of the questions about colonialism that ought to be asked.
If Africans were not colonised, what would have been the implications for scribal literacy, which was low on the continent?
If Africans were not colonised, what would have been the implications for the unquestioned dominance of classical African religions, as opposed to the greater pluralism, the range of choices, opened up by the current co-existence of these religions and Christianity?
Without passing through the colonial experience, would we be using an international language, English and chatting on the Internet?
All contemporary Africans are shaped by colonialism, particularly poignantly so those deeply invested in the globally dominant educational system, which has its origins in Europe and has little input in its methods and understanding of reality from learning systems from other cultures.
Would any such person prefer a classical African education to the Western one? Under what circumstances, outside the forceful coercion of colonialism, would an informed choice between them or to integrate them have been possible?
Colonisation birthed the Universities of Ibadan and Makere, for example, pioneers in post-classical African scholarship, more critically oriented, more international in range of reference and communicative scope, than the earlier classical African systems of Ifa, among others.
Is the current challenge not one of synergy between these systems?
The creative possibilities represented by these developments are possible without colonisation but colonisation is the historical trajectory through which they emerged.
Ursula le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels visualise encounters between a space faring Terran civilisation and non-technological cultures, in which the Terrans are scrupulous about not interfering in the local culture on the planets they find themselves.
Its also true, I think, that Africans were visiting Europe before colonisation.
How best could we have benefited from what Europe had to offer, without having to pass through the still reverberating agonies of colonisation?
Perhaps I need to understand the colonial experience better. While not justifying the self serving so called civilising missions of the colonisers, I think colonialism in Africa and perhaps Asia needs to be appreciated in more complex terms than that of binary good and evil.
A painful journey but one whose every segment is vital, in my view.
It pains me to hear the illogical argument
that colonialism was necessary for literacy.
Malians and others in the Sahel have written
more than a million manuscripts over the
centuries in Arabic. Should these be
discounted as non existent? You don’t have
to be Arab to write in the Arabic script.
Similarly you don’t have to
be Phoenician to innovate on the Phoenician
Writing system and produce a script that
we now call the Graeco- Roman script – that
many of us are using right now. Are you
Phoenician, Toyin? And by the way, where
did the Phoenicians get those symbols from?
For those who carelessly use the label
“pre-literate” and “non-literate “for Africa
as a whole, are you discounting the millions
of manuscripts produced by Africans over
a five thousand year period? Ancient
northeast Africans produced countless
manuscripts in Geez, Meroitic and
Hieroglyphics. Writing systems in fact
emerged in various parts of the continent
over time and would be used in diverse
We have had this argument before, so let me
not reinvent the wheel, and let us not
continue to repeat the same Eurocentric
errors. Let us soar above simplistic, structural
Socrates does not have a single piece of
written paper to his name. His rhetoric
and orally delivered
argumentations endeared him to his associates
and students, including Plato and Aristotle.
So let us also not discount the power of orality.
As for the transfer of technology from
Africa, Asia and the Americas to Europe-
well that would take up the entire day,
and much more.
Abridged response from “usa dialogue”
Professor Gloria Emeagwali
Prof. of History/African Studies,
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Agreed. In re-posting this piece, of course, I was simply putting the case for discussing these issues.
Counter factual speculation on imperialism and colonialism, like other events, can help in taking a more a more balanced view, and incorporate the social contructs of memory and recall. What was ‘done’ to the colonised can never be one-sided, and many benefited, or feel they did, from the colonial experience. This may have been influenced by pre-colonial conditions such as local petterns of power and dominance, collusion with the colonizing power, favoured relations with the corporate interests,and missionary influence. The colonial benefits for some continued after decolonialisation, and exist today in paterns of wealth and influence among others. The children of these beneficaries can be educated in America and Europe, and they or their children can speculate and write about the benefits of colonialism in a more detached manner, such as ‘Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World’ (Kwasi Kwarteng, 2012)
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I haven’t found the “what if” route particularly useful in my own life, with its multitude of bifurcations. I dare say something similar might apply to wider perspectives. I find it interesting to reflect, but more profitable to exploit current opportunities and new directions.
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But for historians the ‘What If?’ question is crucial. Eg. in seeking the causes of the First World War: ‘What if the Archduke hadn’t been in Sarajevo’ then? Then, of course, you go on to consider other factors, which ‘IF’ they hadn’t existed might have made a difference. And that way you might be able to narrow the possible ’causes’ down. It’s our equivalent to the scientist testing his/her material and hypotheses under different conditions.
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