Liminal

Megan Vaughan

  • The Coloniser and the Colonised by Albert Memmi, translated by Howard Greenfield
    Earthscan, 197 pp, £12.95, October 2003, ISBN 1 84407 040 9

Is there a distinct social psychology of colonialism? Albert Memmi certainly thought so when he published The Coloniser and the Colonised in 1957. He was not the only one. Octave Mannoni’s Prospero and Caliban had appeared in 1950, and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks in 1952. And while Memmi had mixed feelings about Fanon, and Fanon had bitterly attacked Mannoni for his theory of colonial dependency, they shared an emphasis on the colonial relation which implied an attention to the mind of the coloniser as well as to the predicament of the colonised. In this, all three writers anticipated post-colonial theorists’ understanding of colonialism, not only as an economic and political system, but as a psychic one too. And despite their differences, each believed that there was something pathological about that system. All three were Francophone writers, drawing on their varied experiences of French colonialism. Mannoni had served in the colonial service in Madagascar; Fanon was born in a French colony, Martinique, and spent much of his adult life in French North Africa; Memmi was born in the Jewish ghetto in Tunis, and now lives in Paris. Their writing contrasts markedly with its Anglophone equivalents, such as J.C. Carothers’s The African Mind in Health and Disease (1953); the British version of the psychology of colonialism in Africa paid little or no attention to the experience of the coloniser, focusing instead on the question of native psychopathology. The relationship between coloniser and colonised was not their concern.

One way of accounting for this difference is to point to the greater influence of psychoanalysis on Francophone intellectuals; another is to refer to the peculiarities of French colonial rule and the theories behind it. The Revolution had promised liberty, but this presented a few difficulties in a colonial world dominated by slavery. Later generations of French colonial rulers would claim that colonialism was a system of government committed to the advancement of the Revolutionary ideals. Colonialism, that is to say, was a form of liberation – an idea which finds some belated echoes today.

Colonial rule would not only advance the French ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity: it would also promise to its colonial subjects that they could participate fully in French civilisation – that they could become French, no less. This programme of ‘assimilation’ was later downgraded to one of ‘association’, but the basic idea remained the same. The way to be assimilated was to disavow your own history and absorb a lot of French history until it became your own. Though on the ground and in the day-to-day running of things, French and British colonial practices were probably quite similar, the British never promised ‘assimilation’ to their colonial subjects. Recognising differences and then reifying them was more the British style. While the French taught in French, the British frequently taught in local languages (a mixed blessing). For the British colonial rulers, the ‘civilised’ native was often regarded with suspicion – we preferred our natives clothed in customary dress, pursuing an older sort of politics. It followed that when the British worried about the psychological effects of colonialism they did so predominantly by referring to the terrible consequences of ‘deculturation’ for native peoples. If colonial subjects were going mad in increasing numbers (as some suspected they were) this was not because of colonial domination, but because of their inability to adapt to modern life and the loss of their customs. ‘Civilisation’, according to some British colonial psychiatrists, was not the cure: it was the problem.

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