Commentary Magazine


The Colonial Reckoning, by Margery Perham; and Africa for Beginners, by Melvin J. Lasky

The Dark Continent

The Colonial Reckoning.
by Margery Perham.
Knopf. 204 pp. $3.95.

Africa for Beginners: A Traveller’s Notebook.
by Melvin J. Lasky.
Lippincott. 171 pp. $3.50.

Nobody could have predicted ten years ago the almost indecent rapidity with which the greater part of colonial Africa has been unscrambled. In Britain during the last couple of years we have grown accustomed to the rituals of this process—to the emergence of the charismatic nationalist leader; to the constitutional conferences with their ultimatums, deadlocks, and walk-outs; to the surrealist complexity of the franchise systems which cover the interim “holding” period; to the disturbances, imprisonments, and later releases which finally culminate in the great day of Freedom, Kwacha, Uhuru, or what you will. The event is signaled for us in Britain by second headlines in the popular press and by a fat supplement in the Times from which we learn (most of us for the first time) the nature and extent of the dominion over which we can lord it no longer. One sometimes feels that it is in the expressions of strained interest on the faces of those minor members of the Royal Family whom we spare to represent us at the Independence celebrations that we find our feelings most accurately mirrored.

Indifference and fatigue, a desire to get it over with and see the end of it all—it would not be surprising if these were the feelings of many people in Britain. The constriction in British power is a dreary and vexing fact from which we protect ourselves with a growing apathy. To what end should we British now concern ourselves with Africa? Can’t we let someone else do the worrying? The remaining problems we confront there are of a complexity and toughness against which intelligence seems to operate in vain. As I write, the British face charges of neo-colonialism from the Nigerians and of softness to African nationalism from the white settlers of Rhodesia. Whatever we do is and will be wrong.

That feelings of this kind are common is, of course, an impression rather than a certitude. Nevertheless, there are clues here and there. There was the monumental indifference of the electorate to Africa in the 1959 general election when the Labor party (one sometimes felt that they needed Africa more than Africa needed them) tried to make an issue of it. Again in the reaction of many people to the collapse of democracy in the new Africa and in particular to the excesses of Nkrumahism, one could see signs of doubt and uncertainty—amongst people whose earlier positions had been pleasurably simple and high-minded. Most notably, however—in spite of the large and even disproportionate press coverage which Africa gets—one is frequently surprised by the ignorance among educated people of what is actually happening there. One hopes that both these short books will help to redress the apathy and ignorance which one suspects to be so widespread.

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Miss Margery Perham’s credentials as a liberal and as a friend of Africa have been proved over her thirty years as a student of colonial policy in that continent. Her recent survey of the British colonial experience there is informed by great knowledge and sympathy and by an exceptional measure of fair-mindedness. Although her book is not long, Miss Perham largely avoids any “simpliste” formulations, responding to and reflecting almost painfully the many-sidedness of the issues with which she deals.

She can draw our attention firmly to some of the more distasteful characteristics of the new Africa—to, for example, the overwrought, indiscriminate, and unbalanced vein in much anti-colonialist thinking—and she can do this kind of thing steadily and without undue pique. “The relationship between time, event, and idea,” she reminds us, “is a rather sophisticated and largely Western idea.” If Africans sometimes deploy their arguments against past, present, and future colonialism “unrealistically” and “un-historically,” this is something we must expect and try to understand. This candid recognition of an African deficiency is perhaps unfashionable. If it is, it is because Miss Perham has reacted against the kind of radicalism that can notice only the sameness and not the differences of Africans. The distinction of this book lies in its author’s fine sense of history, her sense of why people—black and white—did what they did and do what they do.

Miss Perham’s principal concern is to understand the phenomenon of anti-colonialism and to illuminate the process—and this is the book’s relevance to Americans—by which even “the very possession of military and economic power is itself to be considered discreditable.” To this end she discusses the special nature of African nationalism (most African nations, of course, have none of the classical “necessary” characteristics of nationhood such as a common language, customs, or religion) and the British response to it. She moves on to a consideration of the problems of white settlement in Kenya and the Rhodesias, a subject which provokes the despairing statement that “there are times when it seems that the problems Africa sets to black and white living together are beyond a rational solution,” a sentiment with which some of Britain’s postwar Colonial Secretaries, harassed and hounded by black and white, would probably agree. Miss Perham concludes by rendering, in spite of some disclaimers about the possibility of doing so, a kind of approximate moral balance sheet on the imperial story. Britain can debit the slave trade, for example, and credit the long tradition of genuine philanthropy which found expression in such bodies as the Aborigines Protection Society. Britain’s record has always been “mixed,” her motives never either entirely pure or impure, but on the whole it is the record of “the most humane of the modern Colonial powers.” As she looks to the future, Miss Perham reminds us that Africa is “vulnerable” and that the next two or three years are likely to be critical. Her prescriptions are unexceptional but generalized. She enjoins the West to understand and help Africa now. There is nothing very new here, of course, but it is not so much the novelty as the force, balance, and comprehensiveness of this book which makes it worth reading.

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“You taught me language and my profit on it is I know how to curse,” says Caliban to the God-like settler on his island. In her chapter on African nationalism, Miss Perham reminds us that in “sonorous English” (there is perhaps the faintest suggestion of humor in that phrase) the African elite invoked “the Bible, Blackstone, Burke and Shakespeare” to enforce their case. Later the case would include the Leninist idea of economic imperialism, itself partly derived from the work of the British radical, J. A. Hobson. Armed with such ideas, the future leaders of Africa inhabited a “mental no-man’s-land” between the tribe and the white communities which rejected them. The trip to Britain for higher education that sometimes followed brought with it an intoxicating sense of intellectual freedom and social release and perhaps for some “the supreme racial compensation of sexual intercourse with a white woman.” Not surprisingly, the return home to rejection by the white man and alienation from the family imposed unbearable strains. Many of the early leaders of nationalist movements, Miss Perham suggests, were in “a pathological state of mind”—and she is wise to draw our attention to this. For it is precisely this feeling—this sense of personal outrage—that gives African nationalism its enormous dynamic, a dynamic without which its immense, and for the most part, peaceful achievements would not have been possible. The dynamic is one which in some parts of Africa white men are still foolish enough to feed. Only a couple of months ago, one heard with dismay that Kenneth Kaunda, the distinguished and moderate African leader in Northern Rhodesia, had been searched and detained for several hours at Salisbury airport.

In her chapter on white settlement, Miss Perham’s sympathies move in both directions, but it is worth looking especially closely at what she says about the settlers themselves. One central and elementary fact about the Rhodesias, for instance, is that the settlers there are settlers and not anthropologists seeing Africans only ethno-centrically in terms of their own European culture. Of course they are wrong in thinking they are “superior” to Africans (though rather less wrong in thinking they can run a sophisticated money economy more efficiently), but Miss Perham rightly points out that it would be equally wrong to “rebound to the opposite extreme and to assume that the incoming Europeans had no reason at all for their view.” This again is worth saying. In Africa one feels that a good deal of the discussion of racial questions is bedeviled by a kind of abstract psychologizing from which are derived such statements as that the European’s “stereotype” of the African is the rationalization of his own needs and the projection of his own fears, etc. It is painfully obvious that this is true, but what is also true is that settlers in their encounters with Africans, most usually uneducated servants and laborers, are daily confronted with signals from the solid, outside world which even the most disinterested person could forgivably misinterpret. It is because she understands this, as she understands many other things less flattering to the white man, that Miss Perham can describe Sir Roy Welensky, with whom she profoundly disagrees, as a “courageous man” (he was once called a “race-crazy engine driver” by the New Statesman) and can even suggest that in theory the White Rhodesian policy of gradualism is sound, even though she must add that at the present juncture it is pathetically irrelevant.

At one point in her discussion of Kenya and the Rhodesias, Miss Perham shrewdly quotes a sentence from Theodore Roosevelt’s book, The Winning of the West. “The settlers and the pioneers have at bottom,” he wrote, “had justice on their side: this great continent could not have been kept as nothing but a game reserve for squalid savages.” This is the kind of sentiment—couched perhaps in slightly more genteel language—which one could confidently expect to hear from the lips of some particularly minor and particularly reactionary settler politician in Africa even now. It is certainly not the kind of sentiment which one associates with the contemporary American presence there. Miss Perham does not ignore the very considerable and beneficial influence of the United States on the postwar liberation of Africa. During the last war, she tells us, she found herself at one point in the United States attempting to qualify the vigor of anti-imperialist feeling there and to correct the “distorted” view of the character of the British Empire which it expressed. With the anti-colonial battle all but won, the need for such American fervor has perhaps gone and it is probable in the future that the United States will anomalously carry the burden of many future charges of colonialism and neocolonialism. In the meantime, to most Africans Americans appear comparatively untainted. They can observe the post-imperial scene with detachment or at least with the attitude ascribed to himself by Mr. Melvin Lasky in his book, which he calls “a complex of curiosity and naïveté.”

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The curiosity is undoubtedly there in Mr. Lasky’s book—in fact it gives his writing about Africa the very quality of energy and appetite so totally lacking by now among the British—but one has doubts about the naïveté. Mr. Lasky is too incorrigibly literate and well-educated to be an Innocent Abroad, as is shown by the epigraphs, chapter headings, quotations, allusions, and literary footnotes which freight his admirable text. Certainly he has read many a book like Miss Perham’s, and if he has added his own to the growing mountain of recent books on the subject, it is because he has felt the need for something which would give detail, substance, and flavor to the kind of general ideas which she and other writers have provided. All this he gives us in abundance: in his pages we can confront an individual, near “pathological” African—listen to the true accent of contemporary anti-colonialism.

Mr. Lasky confines himself to impressions and reportage of Nigeria, Ghana, the Sudan, and Ethiopia, and his pieces—written first for Encounter—are set down hurriedly with an almost boyish gusto and excitement. He doesn’t bother overly much with the physicality of Africa, so we are spared rich, beautiful prose, but what he does set out to capture is its voice. Mr. Lasky’s appetite for written and spoken matter is voracious. He devours the printed word, newspapers, periodicals, hand-outs, pamphlets, even advertising slogans, with a relish he succeeds in passing on. His quotations from these sources are frequent, illuminating, and often very funny. He has written, then, the intellectual’s guide-book, and it is typical that he should describe himself as being “in the thick of things” in Ghana when he simply meant that he had raided the airport newspaper kiosk on arrival and had himself a good read.

He is also an indefatigable overhearer and starter of conversations. Some of the best parts of his book are the reported thoughts, almost a collection of dramatic monologues, of the people he spoke to: Nigerian poet, English expatriate, tribal chief, Lagos woman, foreign expert, Ghanaian Minister, etc., etc. A certain sameness in their conversational styles perhaps reveals the editorializing hand, but for all that the method works well. The handbook’s “vital facts” are lightly interpolated or susceptible to inference, while ideas, attitudes, opinions erupt everywhere, leaving one with a sense of the density and reality of their source. Of the many good things in the book one will recall the refreshingly meaty and un-mystical opinions of the Nigerian intellectual with whom Mr. Lasky discussed the idea of “Négritude”; the sad observation (“I will marry for romantic love and live monogomously. How can I afford more than one wife on £750 a year?”) of the Nigerian civil servant; the impudence of the closely supervized opposition paper in Ghana which ran a serial on “The Assassination of Presidents”; the delight and optimism which Nigeria prompted in the author. Altogether Mr. Lasky’s book is an excellent piece of journalism, as well as a valuable complement to such general studies as Miss Perham’s.

From each of these books one central and inescapable point emerges. To deal with Africa intelligently we must understand and sympathize with the unique cultural experience which Africa has undergone. In dealing with this literally shocking experience, Africans are not likely to behave in ways which we find worthy of unqualified approval. Their task is to create nation-states out of the meaningless entities that have been left to them and to accommodate within these states the pains, the profound humiliations of their past. The sense of outrage will take a long time to heal.

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