In my Nigerian secondary school, I remember that our history teachers steered clear of anything but cursory mention of Nigeria’s 1967-70 civil war, which might seem illogical considering it was the foremost event in the country’s recent history and resulted in more than a million deaths.
Most of the people killed in the war were from a particular ethnic group – the Igbos – who had attempted to secede from freshly-independent Nigeria and were brutally prevented from doing so. Nigeria’s post-war leaders thus believed it in the interest of “national unity” to speak as little as possible about that particularly painful episode in the country’s history.
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There is some logic in the strategy, since how do you teach a nation an aspect of its history that is inherently divisive? Years later, when I asked my British university class what they had learned at school about colonisation, “Nothing really!” was the chorused reply. “In A-level history, I learnt a bit about the British Empire, all positive stuff,” one student offered. “There was a little on colonialism in India, but nothing about Africa.” I teach a pretty mixed bunch, coming from various parts of Britain, and the suggested education gap on this subject strikes me as problematic.
The calls to “decolonise” the curriculum have returned this year, intensifying in the weeks following the killing of George Floyd and the attendant heated debate about race. But with something as consequential as British colonialism, I think the question should not be whether to teach it — yes — but rather how to teach about it.
This presents no small challenge, the problem being that Britain is inhabited both by the descendants of those who were conquered, and those who did the conquering. One’s story of victorious expansion is the other’s reminder of humiliating subjugation.
My Nigerian secondary school teachers had it easier on this front. Everyone in the school — teacher and pupil alike — was Nigerian. We were thus all automatically united on one side of the colonial divide, the side of the colonised. This provided teachers with a clear perspective from which to teach colonial history, with an emphasis on prominent Nigerian anti-colonialists, stretching from the early 19th-century resistors to the pro-independence leaders of the Fifties. It was obvious to us all who the heroes of the colonial story were, and who were its villains (the British of course).
But the demographics are different in the UK; unsurprisingly, so are attitudes towards Empire. According to a 2019 YouGov poll, 32% of Britons are proud of the British Empire, 19% are ashamed of it, 37% are neither proud nor ashamed, while the rest don’t know what to think. On top of this, 33% of Brits believe former colonies are “better off” for being a part of the British Empire, compared to 17% who think them “worse-off”.
There clearly exists an expectation among some scholars demanding more education about colonialism that this would dramatically shift British public opinion against Empire. I wouldn’t be so sure.
This expectation underestimates the human desire to feel strong, the powerful psychological appeal for many, not just in Britain, in taking pride in the conquests of their ancestors. It offers a sense of collective strength they can tap into as individuals. If they, of whom I am one, could be so triumphant in the past, surely I too possess triumph in me?
The morality of taking pride in ancestral conquests involving the killing and subjugation of other human beings is questionable, but its psychological appeal is undeniable. People want to feel strong and they often grab at whatever gives them that feeling of strength. According to YouGov, as many as 50% of Dutch people feel proud of their past Empire; the French are only slightly less proud than the British of theirs, and less prone to shame about it.
This is not just a white people thing; the same YouGov survey showed that only one in five Japanese today are ashamed of their imperial past, despite its disastrous consequences. Turks enjoy emphasising their role in the powerful Ottoman Empire, with current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan even declaring modern-day Turkey a “continuation” of the Ottomans.
Hence, while I think it important to teach about British colonialism because of its consequences for present-day history and while it is difficult for me, the son of a Nigerian father, to view colonialism and Empire positively or even neutrally, I understand why some (white) Britons feel differently. However, what complicates matters for me somewhat is that some Africans who actually experienced British colonialism had mixed feelings about it, a theme rarely explored in current debate.
I emphasise that British colonialism is what I am referring to. No one was ambivalent about the barbaric rule of the Congo by the Belgian King Leopold II, whose savagery cost some 10 million lives, as documented in Adam Hochschild’s heart-wrenching King Leopold’s Ghost. I cried reading that book, and experienced intense feelings of animus towards white people, even though my own mother, being Polish, was white.
But in a country like Nigeria, Britain’s largest African colony, feelings towards colonialism were more complicated. In his 1947 book Path to Nigerian Freedom, Obafemi Awolowo, considered one of Nigeria’s Founding Fathers for his role in the independence struggle, offered a frank assessment of the challenges in mobilising his compatriots against British rule at the time. “Given a choice from among white officials, [Nigerian] chiefs and educated Nigerians as the principal rulers of the country, the illiterate man today would exercise his preference for the three in the order in which they are named. He is convinced, and has good reasons to be, that he can always get better treatment from the white man than he could hope to get from the chiefs and the educated elements,” Awolowo wrote.
According to this, while Nigeria’s educated elites wanted Britain out as fast as possible so they could start running their country, many regular Nigerians seemed to sense a fairness in the British exercise of power that they were not so sure of in their own leaders. Awolowo did not put this down to what was called “colonial brainwashing” but said that he felt many Nigerians had “good reasons” to think this way.
Of course, because British colonialism was hypocritically justified as stemming from concern (bless their good hearts) for the supposedly “savage” conditions of life in pre-colonial Africa, African anti-colonialists had little strategic choice but to construct a counter-narrative strongly negating this depiction, one portraying Africans in a positive light. This led to what Nigerian historian Toyin Falola described as the “simple but seductive thesis that Africa used to live in peace and innocence until its contact with Europeans”. And so the one-sided, sweeping colonialist narrative was countered with a one-sided, sweeping anti-colonialist narrative. But this did not mean that regular folk on the ground lost all memory of the past.
Obviously, as Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s famous 1958 book, Things Fall Apart, brilliantly portrayed, the disruption colonialism brought to the lives of everyday Nigerians was massive, and in my view, ultimately indefensible. Imagine foreigners come to your homeland, kill some of you, and tell the rest everything you ever believed is rubbish. Your religion is rubbish, your traditions are rubbish, your values are rubbish, the way you organise your entire economy and life is wrong.
The assault on African ideas was so severe that the continent is still trying to recover its identity; still trying to figure out an idea for modern Africanness that would not be an imitation of Westernness or so focussed on resisting Eurocentrism it ends up defining Africans in opposition to Europeans, thus ultimately being Eurocentric itself. Post-colonial Africa is still searching for an identity that explains who Africans are, not who they are not.
Yet in an interview a few years after independence, the same Achebe who had highlighted colonialism’s disruptive nature stated: “I am not one of those who would say Africa has gained nothing at all during the colonial period…this is ridiculous – we have gained a lot. But unfortunately, when two cultures meet . . . what happens is that some of the worst elements of the old are retained and some of the worst of the new are added.”
Intellectuals such as Achebe clearly recognised the identity crisis colonialism triggered. They also knew about British atrocities such as the looting and destruction of the ancient Benin Kingdom in southern Nigeria, among others. Yet on the other hand, Achebe believed that Africa benefited from the introduction of Western education, technology and medicine, as well as liberal European ideals such as “democracy” and “equality”, which had not necessarily been popular beforehand.
It is, however, important to emphasise that even between British colonies, there were significant differences in the actual practice of colonialism. It was significantly more brutal in Kenya than in Nigeria, for instance, with the former witnessing bloody events such as the Mau Mau Uprising in which thousands of Kenyans were slaughtered as late as the mid-20th century.
I know some fear that if we start allowing for nuances in our assessments of colonialism, then we are opening the door for white people to shed any guilt whatsoever over the entire affair. That even more Britons will start asserting, humiliatingly for us, that colonialism left our ancestors “better off”. That saying anything “positive” about it is tantamount to justifying it.
I understand this line of reasoning, but I ultimately refuse to live my life in fear of what some people may say or think. That is the quintessential post-colonial complex: living dominated by anxieties over how white people see us. Instead we should liberate ourselves from the shackles of these historical complexes that yes, were thrust upon us, but that only we can shake off ourselves; those complexes that limit what we feel we can say about ourselves once white people are listening. Discussing colonialism frankly is a sign of strength, not weakness.
So for British teachers wondering how to teach the subject, it is important to cite various perspectives, including, crucially, the perspectives of the colonised; not in a wholly arbitrary manner seeking to buttress this or that grand narrative, but in a way revealing the complexities and contradictions of Britain’s colonial encounter with Africa.
This does not mean truth-seeking can be an excuse for insensitivity. The reality is that colonialism is an inherently emotive subject for millions of black and brown people in this country. We need more frank and open debate about it, definitely, but that debate should always serve the ultimate purpose of helping build this nation rather than tearing it apart.