Saturday, January 3, 2015

Whose History?

The 'possessions' of the European powers c. 1790.
Portuguese, French, Spanish, English, Dutch,
Danish, and Turkish claimed regions.
Africa in the millenia leading up to the colonial era.
A largely uncivilized and sparsely inhabited continent available for the taking - that was the thinking that made colonial conquest seem right, I suppose.

In 1910, the coloring shows the possessions of the
European powers.  Independent states are uncolored.
Only Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and a few other areas remain
independent in 1910.
The first European explorers knew nothing of the civilizations and cultures of Africa that preceded their own by more than a thousand years.

Africans had established nations and trade, economies and relationships. Towns along the Niger River had collaborated for the common good for more than 1600 years before the first European arrived.  It wasn't eden, but neither was it empty.

Conquest and colonization followed along with the imposition of political boundaries by western rule.  The Atlantic slave trade, as inhumane as it was, was not the worst of what Europe brought.

Artificial boundaries separated tribes, 'divide and conquer' by arbitrary segregation that pitted one against another. Service was indentured, in-country servitude reduced local people to the status of slave labor, and the high mortality rate of such an existence introduced the requirement to replenish the work force from the surrounding regions. Population declines resulted across the continent as the demand for male slaves increased. The horror of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was equaled by the local repression within the African 'possessions', the colonies.

The demographic impact on the continent was crippling.  Population growth stagnated while Europe boomed.  The export of so many people was a disaster that left Africa permanently disadvantaged compared to other parts of the world.  The colonial focus on low-cost manual labor and resource extraction meant that Africa did not participate in the industrial revolution that launched developing economies elsewhere which largely explains the continent's current lagging behind and poverty.

The results persist today
Most colonial governments were not rich. The European colonial powers were not willing to fund the governing of their colonies in Africa fully. Each colony was responsible for raising most of the revenue (money) needed to fund the operations of colonial rule. Wealth flowed from the colonies to Europe.  No matter how rich in resources a colony was, the government lacked the income and revenue necessary to develop a government system able to go beyond maintaining law and order. This meant that colonial governments were not able to provide basic infrastructure, such as roads and communication networks, nor were they able to provide basic social services such as education, healthcare, and housing.  The results persist today.
The results, unfortunately, do indeed persist today.
The streets of my favorite west African locale, 2012.

The legacy of it all? Maulana Karenga explains, "the morally monstrous destruction of human possibility involved redefining African humanity to the world, poisoning past, present and future relations with others who only know us through this stereotyping and thus damaging the truly human relations among people of today."  He cites that it constituted the destruction of culture, language, religion and human possibility.

Africa isn't the only venue for the quest for land and rule and wealth, of course.  The Americas are yet another story of similar conquest and the death of millions at the hands of those who would advance themselves at the expense of another.  Today, Wall Street is headquarters for the same quest.  Is there a lesson here that can be learned?  Can we actually make a difference?