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Burden of Empire: An Appraisal of Western Colonialism in Africa South of the Sahara

Burden of Empire: An Appraisal of Western Colonialism in Africa South of the Sahara

by Peter Duignan, Lewis H. Gann

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Since its publication in 1967, Burden of Empire has been widely praised and criticized for its controversial approach to the problem of colonialism in Africa. The authors have challenged the new "orthodoxy" about Africa—the belief that little but evil and exploitation has resulted from the era of European colonialism.

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ISBN-13: 9780817916930
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press
Publication date: 09/01/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 436
File size: 2 MB

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Burden of Empire

An Appraisal of Western Colonialism in Africa South of the Sahara

By L. H. Gann, Peter Guignan

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 1967 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-1693-0


Fallible Yardsticks

The more carefully we examine the history of the past, the more reason we shall find to dissent from those who imagine that our age has been fruitful of new social evils. The truth is that the evils are, with scarcely any exception, old. That which is new is the intelligence which discerns and the humanity which remedies them.

Men's minds are limited, and historians — like everyone else — perforce wear blinkers to see. Theirs is a work of selection, where at every moment objectivity is at stake. Marxist critics have thus claimed that historians are subject to class bias. Psychologists have attempted to show that apparently rational judgments are influenced by subterranean currents of the mind, sometimes forgetting that the relevance of an argument has nothing to do with its psychological mainsprings. However, students of the past are also limited by their raw material. They depend, to a much greater extent than many realize, on a complicated administrative machinery which supplies them with the tools of their trade in the form of files, memoranda, debates, and commission reports. The evidence produced, selected, and preserved by administrators, government statisticians, archivists, filing clerks, and record managers helps to determine the very nature of subsequent research. Even ethnohistorians, who put their trust in the spoken word, depend on an outer framework of government whose existence they sometimes take for granted. Strangers can set up camp only where person and property remain secure; the fact that students of preliterate societies have preferred to work under the Pax Britannica, the Pax Belgica, or a stable indigenous government, rather than in a disturbed province torn by intertribal warfare, has in itself influenced the nature of ethnological research.

Historians moreover are not immune to the general currents of thought that flow through their society; they too are subject to intellectual fashions, and their books are a product of their age. In the early nineteenth century, for instance, as cultured Englishmen became more conscious than their ancestors of social evils in the slums of Lancashire and the plantations of Jamaica, a more humane spirit influenced politics and administration alike. This new ethos produced a bulky literature of royal commissions and commissions of inquiry reports which stood out as "one of the glories of the early Victorian age." Commissions of inquiry, however, stressed evils. They were set up when things went badly, rather than when they were going well, and the literature based on such reports naturally caught something of their critical tone. Moreover, contemporaries used this material to produce further literature in current political battles; Tory gentlemen would retort to assaults from industrialists by castigating conditions in Lancashire cotton mills, of which they rarely had personal knowledge. Such attacks on the "millocracy" gained added fervor from the romantic movement, with writers as different in their outlooks as Marx and Engels and Disraeli and Belloc referring to an idyllic rural England which hardly ever existed, but which appeared, rather, through the mist of time and romantic sentiment.

Many subsequent historians caught this mood. In the nineteenth century they frequently misjudged the realities of "Old England," just as a hundred years later they misunderstood the problems of twentieth-century Africa. Scholars — often unacquainted with the practical side of manufacturing even in their own countries — failed to grasp the difficulties that faced the early millowners. They often made little or no allowance for the relative poverty of early Victorian England and for the lack of financial, administrative, and industrial resources that became available only to later generations. They placed unrealistic emphasis on the grim and destructive aspects of early industrialization. As a result, terms such as the "Bleak Age" and the "Hungry Forties" were absorbed into the folklore of British socialism. Many scholars mistakenly accepted as a fact that during this so-called period of dark misery English people had less to eat, lived in filthier hovels, and suffered more sickness than ever in their country's history.

As the reforming mood of this era spilled over into the colonies, colonial administrators too began to produce reports and statistical abstracts which critics could use as ammunition. In fact, the better administered, and hence the better documented, a colony was, the more glaring its shortcomings appeared. Political parties and newspapers at home used colonial reports to belabor their party opponents in power, and in time this created a new climate of opinion which was sometimes more hostile to the colonial powers than the facts warranted. In 1893, for instance, the pioneer administration of the British South Africa Company in Rhodesia became involved in a war against the Matabele, a warrior people accustomed to raiding their neighbors for women and cattle. The company had a good case for using force to end Matabele sovereignty, but chartered company rule was unpopular with British Radicals and with many missionaries. Humanitarians distrusted Cecil Rhodes as a scheming money maker of boundless political ambitions. Many people disliked the whole theory of allowing so-called backward races to be administered by a commercial enterprise. The chartered company moreover incurred bitter criticism as a rapacious clique of financiers and monopolists determined to do violence to innocent "natives." Radical speakers such as Henry Labouchere contrasted the company's militant methods with the milder means employed by supposedly more impartial imperial officials, overlooking the fact that during the same period imperial administrators were pacifying Nyasaland with methods just as rigorous. A few years later, in 1897, the chartered company thoroughly reformed its administration in Southern Rhodesia. But the reputation acquired in the earlier 1890s clung to the company's name, with the result that a quarter of a century later Sir John Harris, the secretary of the Aborigines Protection Society in London, in pleading for the ending of the British South Africa Company's charter in 1920 could still serve up the same mixture of historical truth and falsehood that had done service in the 1890s.

Europeans also utilized the colonies to criticize one another on national, social, and religious grounds. David Livingstone, the famous Scottish explorer and mission doctor, harshly berated the Portuguese. Livingstone was a patriotic Protestant, a free trader, a keen advocate of permanent white settlement in Central Africa, an ardent believer in Britain's civilizing mission, and in some ways a forerunner of Cecil Rhodes. He detested the Portuguese for their record in the slave trade, for their inefficient or corrupt administration, for their Catholicism, and for their restrictive commercial policies. His books helped to publicize long-standing abuses in the Portuguese colonies, but sometimes they gave an even more depressing picture than was justified by the facts.

The British also incurred a good deal of dislike and envy. Some Continental writers, romantic critics of industrial society, helped to elaborate a tenacious stereotype, the picture of the hypocritical Briton who went to the colonies with a Bible in one hand and a mail-order book in the other, a man who spoke of God and meant cotton.

The tradition of European mutual criticism persisted throughout the imperial period. Early colonization led to abuses, especially in territories which long remained underadministered and inadequately supervised. Reports of these evils were seized upon by critics at home — with material published by colonial reformers used as further ammunition — in political attacks on both domestic and foreign policy. The charges, whether exaggerated or not, tended to stick and created a public image which often persisted long after the elimination of the original abuses; the publications of these reformers thus served to reinforce the stereotype.

German and Belgian colonization provides many examples. In the early 1900s the Germans brutally suppressed a series of uprisings in South-West Africa and East Africa. The rebels suffered heavy casualties and were crushed. In 1906 the German Social Democrats and the Catholic Center Party fell upon the colonial question and used this issue for a series of sharp attacks on the government at home. Bülow, the German Chancellor, had in the meantime appointed a new man to the German colonial ministry, Bernhard Dernburg, a banker of high ability. Dernburg started a major reform program, and under him and his successors conditions greatly improved in the German colonies. But the old image proved difficult to eradicate, even in Germany. During World War I the Allies used German material concerning abuses in the Kaiser's colonies for propaganda purposes, and in the battle of mutual recrimination among the European colonial powers, the reputation of imperialism as a whole became tarnished.

Belgian experience was similar. The Congo Free State long suffered from lack of money and effective administration; King Leopold faced the task of pacifying a vast area with a tiny budget more fit for ruling a county than a country. The administration tried to escape from its difficulties by an unwise concessionary policy; there were atrocities against native people; there was forced labor. Humanitarian critics in Britain as well as in Belgium, Germany, and other countries had a good case, but their stories lost nothing in the telling. The Congo was described as a gigantic slave plantation, run for the profit of a rascally king and rapacious shareholders, who reputedly made enormous profits by robbing and starving the Africans. Leopold's rule was pilloried as so bloodthirsty that the African population in the Congo, it was claimed, had diminished by more than half. The facts, of course, were rather different. There were atrocities, but the Free State did good work in suppressing Arab slave traders and indigenous raiders. Policing, however, was expensive, and the state always lacked money. Its trouble was not that it built up a vast, oppressive state machinery, but that it remained weak and could not control the area. The Congo, a country as big as Western Europe, could not be effectively administered with the slender means at Leopold's disposal; far from being exploited, many tribal communities probably never even realized that they lived under the flag of the Congo Free State, or indeed anyone else's flag. Statistical estimates concerning the effects of the Congo Free State's policy on the native population are quite meaningless; there were no censuses, and even to this day no one knows exactly how many people live in the Congo Republic. In 1904 the Belgians appointed an impartial commission of inquiry. This confirmed the existence of many abuses but put the matter into a clearer perspective. In 1908 the Belgian state reluctantly assumed control of the Congo and initiated a series of important reforms; copper mining rather than the collection of ivory and rubber became the economic foundation of the colony. Once more, however, the original impression of widespread exploitation and excessive profits tended to stick, and the story of "red rubber" became part of anti-imperial folklore. Criticism and countercriticism affected even the most rigorously objective scholarship. Henri Rolin, a distinguished Belgian jurist, thus had fault to find with the Belgian Congo's neighbors. His admirable account of early British administration in Rhodesia, the first of its kind, seems to have been influenced to some extent by the way in which the British had previously run down his countrymen in the Congo. Critiques of colonialism, in other words, were transported into the sphere of national competition.

A further factor was the inclination of nineteenth-century writers to criticize things alien to the traditions of middle-class Europe. African tribesmen commonly had a bad press from missionaries and settlers, but these attacks often had effects very different from those originally intended. Many expatriate clergymen and planters in Africa produced doleful accounts of the way in which black people supposedly idled through the day, supplied with the means of sustenance by bountiful nature. Such tales had little relation to reality; they were born of the difficulties experienced in turning tribesmen into wageworkers. However, they had the unintended effect of making conditions in Africa seem more attractive than they were in reality, and the white colonizers' record sometimes came to be judged by unrealistic criteria.

Many explorers also drew fanciful accounts of new El Dorados in the interior. These stories continued a long-standing Western tradition of the unlimited fertility which the tropical countries supposedly enjoyed and of the boundless wealth to be won from the trade in luxury goods from the gorgeous East. The commerce in spices, silk, gold, and precious chinaware — though speculative and often dangerous — had in the past yielded great profits to the fortunate. Some of these expectations were later applied to the tropical areas of Africa. In the second half of the nineteenth century, for instance, enthusiastic travelers such as Carl Mauch and Thomas Baines wrote of golden riches beyond the Limpopo River in southern Africa and of the long-lost Ophir from whence Solomon reputedly drew his wealth. Such reports, born of a strange mood of frontier romanticism, later found their way into promoters' prospectuses. Financial speculators — some honest and some crooked — wished to attract funds, and in doing so they vastly exaggerated the riches of, say, Central or East Africa; they also played down the amount of capital that would be needed for development purposes for creating the administrative infrastructure required for new enterprises.

Expansionist-minded statesmen such as Chamberlain in Britain and Ferry in France used similar arguments. Ferry was determined to extend the French empire to compensate France for the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, but he met with a great deal of domestic opposition. Colonization was expensive, and he had to persuade unwilling parliamentarians to vote money for imperial expansion. He bitterly opposed the critics who argued that most Africans only wanted to buy guns and liquor and that colonization and trade of any other kind would not pay. Ferry had to paint Africa's economic possibilities in the most glowing colors, and sometimes he became quite unrealistic in his assessments; but Radical and Socialist critics in turn used these very assumptions to censure the doings of white capitalists and administrators in the colonies. Were these new countries not capable of yielding enormous wealth? Why, then, were the natives so poor? Why did Europe allow them to be exploited? Why would colonial administrators not do more for the aboriginal populations? Many European intellectuals, in fact, shared the economic suppositions that made early investors put their money into shaky Rhodesian gold mines. They overestimated the profits that might be made by capitalists and underrated the vast sums required before an underdeveloped country could be profitably exploited. They failed to allow for the cost of transport and other services or for the lack of social capital, which could be built up only over long periods of development. Colonialists and their critics thus fell victim to the same misconceptions, and these misconceptions have lived on to make the task of evaluating the imperial record even more complicated.


Mid-Nineteenth-Century Colonialism

The first of the great social issues in the colonies that exercised the minds of Europe was slavery. The abolitionist movement revealed many features which characterized subsequent imperial reform campaigns. Abolitionism was linked to a growing interest in social welfare at home, to a new spirit of sensitivity to evils long taken for granted, to social conflicts within the metropolitan countries, and to rivalries among the European powers. The campaign began with an attack against the legality of the seaborne slave trade. Denmark made an honorable start by outlawing slave traffic in 1792. After a long struggle the British prohibited slave traffic to their subjects in 1807 and subsequently used their diplomatic and naval influence to prevent foreigners from making profits from the trade.

The humanitarians then turned upon slavery as a domestic institution. The abolitionists now had a good deal of published material to draw on; they started their campaign at a time when conditions in the slave islands were not quite as bad as they had been in the past. Helped by a new climate of opinion, the British abolitionists won all along the line, and in the 1830s slavery was eliminated from all British possessions. The British compensated slaveholders in the West Indies and the Cape; they also made extensive grants to Spain and Portugal in return for engagements to end the traffic from their dominions south of the Equator, shouldered heavy financial responsibilities in founding Sierra Leone as a settlement for freemen, and disbursed vast amounts of money to patrol the coasts of Africa.

British policy backed philanthropy with cash and played a major share in putting an end to slave commerce. France followed suit in 1848, when the newly established republic abolished slavery in all French territories. The final elimination of seaborne slave traffic resolved more and more into diplomatic negotiations concerning the right of search and maritime policing, an issue too technical to arouse the same fervor that abolitionism occasioned in the past.


Excerpted from Burden of Empire by L. H. Gann, Peter Guignan. Copyright © 1967 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Preface to the 1971 Printing

Preface to the Original Printing


Fallible Yardsticks

Mid-Nineteenth-Century Colonialism

Imperialism—The Highest Stage of Nationalism?

The Imperial High-Water Mark and the Turn of the Tide

Pre-Leninist Critiques of Colonialism on the Continent

Lenin's View of Imperialism

The Colonial Debate Between the Two World Wars

Pan-Africanism, Imperialism, and Négritude

Communism, Colonialism, and Neocolonialism


Problems of African Historiography

Africa Before the Partition

Europe in Africa by the Early 1870s

The Scramble for Africa

Dual Mandate

Development or Exploitation?

Businessmen and Bureaucrats: The Growth of State Control

Teachers and Doctors in Colonial Africa

African Townsmen


The Rulers Waver

The Subjects Organize

Winning of the Political Kingdom

Imperial Balance Sheet: A Summing Up

The New Rulers in Charge: An Epilogue




Africa in 1879

Africa After the Peace Settlement of 1919

Africa in 1966

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