Saturday, July 19, 2014


I have an old atlas - Hammond, 1939 - which we are passing on.  Looking at the map of Africa is particularly instructive. The history of colonialism, plus the history of the 20th, is pretty much on display there.

The countries are color-coded so that we can tell which are British colonies, which are French, and which are Belgian, Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese.  There is also an inset which shows which areas used to be German: Togo, Kamerun, and an eastern and southwestern German territory.  That color-coding covers most of the continent.  Liberia and Egypt are about the only exceptions.  As Liberia was a sort of American offshoot, and Egypt has been more Middle-eastern than African for 3000 years, that's not a lot.

We might hope that by 2060 or so we will look back at the post WWII, pstcolonial era as one of necessary development, however painful, and a Good Thing. Right now that seems to be a mixed grill.  The behavior of the French and Belgians seems to have been so bad that it hardly seems necessary to even compare that era to this.  The Spanish, Italians, and Portuguese attempted to bury the history of their colonies, so those stories are only beginning to be told now.

I am intrigued by the British territories in Africa, and indeed, across the globe.  It has been a key divide since the years I was in school, one group maintaining that the English, however bad, created better conditions than have prevailed since - another group claiming that the behavior of the UK in the thrid world was so abysmal as to be unworthy of comparison with any other governance.  People just sort of have a side of this debate that they are on from the start.

Here is a missing piece:  the English had better writers, on both side of that issue.  There were brilliant defenders of Empire.  There were also writers of enormous skill who recognised how deeply unfair conditions were in the Commonwealth compared to the Chilterns - Orwell comes to mind - who tried to hold fair Albion accountable.  We simply know more about how things proceeded in English colonies, from 1500 onward.  Common language is only a small part of this.

No comments: