‘Do they eat people here much still?’ ‘Rarement. Très Rarement.’
At Thomas Hodgkin’s memorial service, in 1982, Christopher Hill, formerly Master of Balliol, used the pulpit of the college chapel to give an address entirely free of religious reference, quite a feat in view of Hodgkin’s Quaker roots and Hill’s status as historian of the Puritan revolution. ‘God was dead all right when you wrote that speech,’ I said to Hill afterwards. ‘God died in the middle of the 17th century,’ he solemnly replied. The part of the address I remember best was Hill’s description of Hodgkin – like Hill a sophisticated Marxist – returning to Balliol in the 1960s and becoming the much-loved friend of even the most conservative fellows. ‘He showed a tolerance not just for the more right-wing fellows but even for the outright reactionaries which I, for one,’ Hill observed, ‘found deeply shocking.’ Hodgkin was endowed with an almost unlimited gift for friendship and had a sweetness of disposition and a sense of humour which almost no one could resist.
These qualities are amply represented in this collection of letters from Hodgkin’s first travels in Africa, which resulted in his classic works, Nationalism in Colonial Africa (1956) and African Political Parties (1961). At a time when others had not begun to treat with full seriousness Africa’s rejection of colonial rule, Hodgkin wandered across the continent, chatting to camel drivers and future presidents, missionaries and marabouts. He avoided planes, travelling by choice on boats, trains, camels and the backs of lorries – not just because he always operated on a shoestring but because he felt he learned more that way.
Usually when fifty-year-old documents about Africa are brought to light, one has to make allowance for language which now seems embarrassing: talk of male domestic servants as ‘boys’, for example. There is none of that here. Thomas treated everyone as his equal. ‘Just had a friendly word with the nightwatchman,’ he writes from Enugu, Nigeria. ‘He walks around with a bow and arrow in case of thieves.’ From Rabat he writes of the ceremony that accompanied the Sultan of Morocco’s reception of King Feisal of Iraq: ‘though not (as you know) much in favour of Kings and Queens in general’, he mingles with the crowd, which was, ‘of course, a good deal more interesting than the royal procession’.
One of the best passages describes Hodgkin’s epic trip into Mali by camel in 1952. ‘My main problem is to make my camel trot. I seem to remember difficulties over that in Sinai in 1936.’ Making the camel lie down is also a problem.
This is done by dropping the cord, beating his head with a stick and talking to him gently. It doesn’t always come off. Also the worst crime is to lose one’s stick. It’s like losing one’s oar at rowing. By tradition one is fined a sheep for doing it (I did it three times I’m ashamed to say).
He developed a warm admiration for his guide, Mohammed Abdullah.
Of course it’s notorious that Englishmen love Bedus because they will behave as if they’ve been to the best public schools. But, even allowing for this, M.A. was a truly admirable chap . . . We had a nice conversation about England last night. How much do rifles cost? What sort of game is there? How many of the English are nomads? (Answer a few thousands.)
Finally, they arrive in the dying Saharan town of Walata – the next water 18 days away, the next inhabited settlement, Taodini (the ‘city of salt’), 27 days away. Hodgkin, inevitably, finds that the town’s Muslim elite reminds him of ‘any Oxford (male) Senior Common Room. Highly civilised donnish characters, whose life seems to be spent almost entirely in food and prayer, and remembrance of things past.’ When he chances on a black lawyer violently opposed to Nkrumah, the man is ‘obviously a Girondin of the most property and class-conscious kind’, while a frustrated teacher near Kumasi is ‘like the young Russian intellectuals in the novels of Turgenev’.
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Vol. 23 No. 2 · 25 January 2001
R.W. Johnson suggests (LRB, 14 December 2000) that Africa’s present misery is its own fault, or the fault of its leaders, and that we should consider ‘recolonisation’ as a way out of the ‘impasse’. This is a little like asking the burglars back in to sort out your insurance. In something like eighty years we Europeans managed to screw up Africa’s political structure, kill much of its population through disease, and severely damage its environment. What is even more dismaying is that not only do we not recognise the scramble in and out of Africa as one of the great crimes of humanity, but we are also beginning to feel nostalgic about it. ‘There were no wars,’ Johnson elegises, ‘everything worked (more or less), countries were developing quickly’ – but now the same countries have ‘gone backwards, looted and almost destroyed by the nationalist elites which came to power in them’. Hang on. Who imposed nation states on a complex of tribal areas? Who educated those elites? And if we’re talking about looting – who set the example?
Anyway, as Johnson surely knows down in Johannesburg, we Europeans never really left. Lord Lugard at least put it transparently: ‘For two or three generations we can show the Negro what we are: then we shall be asked to go away. Then we shall leave the land to those it belongs to, with the feeling that they have better business friends in us than in other white men.’ Britain, unlike France, carried this out with such characteristic minginess that the difference was still clear, I remember, in Cameroon in the 1970s: the health and education infrastructure in the ex-British part was pitiful in comparison with the ex-French part. The problem is that Lugard underestimated our mendacity; business-wise, the land (and the sea, for that matter, with its gargantuan European trawlers) belongs to the whites. Take the timber trade as an example. The richest long-term resource in equatorial Africa is the forest. It stretches over six countries, was made literary (and symbolic) by Conrad, and is known officially as the Congo Basin Rainforest. Ninety per cent of its creatures and plants have yet to be discovered. It is the size of twenty Englands yet day after day we Europeans are busy getting rid of it. Most of the damage is done by European mining and logging companies, and most of the clientele are European – lovers of mahogany wardrobes and all-weather teak (iroko) tables. According to the latest UN report, ‘deforestation has been halted and reversed in parts of Europe and North America,’ but the African forest is well on the way to disappearing. It covers around 200 million hectares, and some 50 million hectares have been felled in the last twenty years – which gives Conrad’s ‘invincible’ wilderness until around the middle of this century. (Since the Yaounde Forest Summit in March 1999, a few tiny spots – five million hectares – are theoretically ‘protected’.) Nigeria, once a major exporter of timber, now has to import the stuff. I remember standing on a beach in the Côte d’Ivoire and marvelling at the way the white sands were beetle-browed by the misty forest; now there is scarcely a shred left in the country.
Matters are made worse by new roads that have been driven through the bush to areas that were inaccessible a few years ago. Poachers bounce down them in their 4x4s, armed with high-powered guns that turn everything that moves into bush-meat. Animals such as gorillas, chimps and rare types of antelope are being driven to the brink of extinction, and aboriginal forest-dwellers like the Baka of eastern Cameroon or the BaMbuti of north-eastern Congo into roadside hovels. And who funds these roads? The EU, of course, doing their bit for trade. When the absence of trees causes the inevitable change in coastal monsoon patterns, bringing drought to West and Central Africa, will the EU still be there, plump wallet in hand?
Properly harvested, discreetly tapped of its oils and medicinal plants, even of the odd mature bole, the forest could make money, too, for the countries it lies in. At present these countries make next to nothing out of its destruction: a mature mahogany is worth about $30,000, of which some $30 goes to its country of origin. No wonder African leaders talk in utopian terms about ‘restructuring’ the world financial system, as Johnson scoffingly reminds us. So Africa ‘still needs Europe’s assistance’? Well, yes; the way a Sicilian restaurant owner might need the Mafia’s.
Vol. 23 No. 3 · 8 February 2001
Adam Thorpe (Letters, 25 January) is quite right about the scramble for Africa involving a great deal of looting. That wasn’t all: in Namibia it involved genocide. No one would wish to justify any of that. My point was rather different. By the 1950s, this sort of thing had pretty much stopped. Colonialism had seen a large increase in per capita income and life expectancy throughout the continent. It had also set up a rudimentary physical and educational infrastructure and was responsible for a degree of law and order which had not existed in pre-colonial times. Africans were and are perfectly aware of all this – which is why many African countries were in no particular hurry to get independence, why many of them see the colonial past as part good as well as part bad, and why many African leaders today plead for greater Western involvement.
Thorpe inveighs against the deforestation now taking place in Africa. don’t Africa’s elites have any responsibility for that? If it was happening in Britain, I’m sure he would – quite rightly – blame Blair. And he inveighs against the EU’s funding of new roads because poachers use them. But that doesn’t mean new roads are bad, does it?
Malaysia, India, Singapore, Australia, Canada and the US were all once colonies, too. No one there is complaining about the West having ‘imposed nation states’ on them. They seem to like it – and it doesn’t seem necessary to them to blame everything on colonialism because they have been getting on pretty well since independence. That’s the real difference: much of Africa has gone backwards since independence. Which is why there is such a frantic search for scapegoats – and why I felt I had to ask the awkward questions I did.
Adam Thorpe’s letter on the pillaging and deforestation of Africa takes a sideswipe at the British colonial record as compared with the French. It is not quite fair of him to use Cameroon as an example. I spent four years in the ex-British part in the 1970s teaching in an educational institute controlled by Yaounde University in the ex-French part. The much smaller Anglophone region of Cameroon had been administered as an outlying area of Nigeria by the British since the Germans had had to relinquish their colony at the end of World War One. It was certainly neglected, but this had good as well as bad results. Improved infrastructure is not generally provided by external powers without some interest in the exploitation of raw materials, as Thorpe indicates with his indictment of the EU’s ‘plump wallet’. I don’t suppose the recent introduction of tarred roads into the beautiful Bamenda highlands, where I used to live, will improve the chances of that area’s natural environment surviving – or indeed its traditional social structures.
What Thorpe describes as Britain’s ‘minginess’ might also have the effect of curbing the other European vice he describes: that of never really leaving Africa. This is surely most characteristic of the French. In the 1970s, and again during the Anglophone political upheavals in the 1990s, what Anglophone Cameroonians most often taxed me with was the British failure to stay involved as the French had done. The 1961 plebiscite which produced the decision to join the Francophone part of Cameroon instead of Nigeria was regarded as the consequence of local inter-ethnic fears. The minginess of the British came much lower down the grievance list.
Vol. 23 No. 4 · 22 February 2001
Blaming European imperialism, as Adam Thorpe does (Letters, 25 January), for the wretched condition of so much of Africa today is absurd. I spent four years in the Sudan, as a university lecturer, in the early 1960s. Travelling widely in the Northern Sudan, and speaking Arabic fluently, I almost everywhere met with happy memories of British rule and those who had administered it. Yet it appears that the country has reverted to a condition of barbarous and fanatical tyranny, with the slave trade again active in the South and the infrastructure neglected or in ruins. Does Thorpe seriously blame the British for this state of affairs, forty-five years after the end of the Condominium?