The Civilisation of the Savages

On June 21, 2016, in the middle of Brexit campaign, this headline appeared on the front page of the Bristol Post:

Bristol UKIP politician tells Muslim: “We don’t want you in our civilised country.”

Vice-Admiral Sir Harry Holdsworth Rawson, K.C.B. "Fresh from the Channel Fleet."
Vice-Admiral Sir Harry Holdsworth Rawson of the “1897 punitive expedition”

The dominant narrative of the Colonisation project has often been presented as a noble cause of civilizing the savages. This version of events is again being wheeled for public consumption, necessitated by rapid wearing off of former visions of greatness.

Except, the real story of colonialist’s exploits are not entirely noble and the term civilisation, rightly speaking is not a designation only applicable to the more advanced party.

The Anglo-Zulu war is often presented as an alternative singular event to counter the European civilising narrative, except, this incidence is a prototype of a widespread strategy of provocation and instigation to war with the natives.

One such similar story is that of the punitive “Benin Expedition of 1987” when an entire city was burnt and looted by an army led by Harry Rawson. Prior to the attack, Benin traded with foreigners and was known to be rich in natural resources, this became the actual reason for the invasion, rather than the story of rescuing the people from human sacrifice and slavery – which most probably did occur. Here on January 23,Prior to the attack, Benin traded with foreigners and was known to be rich in natural resources, this became the actual reason for the invasion, rather than the story of rescuing the people from human sacrifice and slavery – which most probably did occur. 

Here on January 23, 1897 is how the New York Times reported events:

Headline the day before in New York Times January 22, 1897
Headline the day before in New York Times January 22, 1897

British history repeats itself in the Benin massacre. The familiar procedures by which the blessings of civilisation have been conferred upon so many other barbaric communities are here repeated.
A blackamoor monarch sits in his capital enjoying himself in his own way. He sacrifices a few prominent citizens if the weather is too cold. If it is too hot, he sacrifices twice as many. The bones of his court favorites and other subjects whom he has eaten are scattered about the place. Human sacrifice and cannibalism are practices sanctified to him by ancestral usage, like his policy of discouraging trespass by killing all white men who approached his city. To this surly King a peaceable British expedition was sent out from Bonny, in the Niger Coast Protectorate, to ask that he remove the obstacles he puts in the way of trade with the interior. The King’s men fell upon the expedition and killed all but two of the Englishmen and seven of the natives. Now a British column will be sent to Benin to punish the King, and so a new territory will be added to her Majesty’s dominions.
Undoubtedly British commercial administration will be better for the Benin country than the bloody sway it will displace, though the ravages of plague and famine both at once in her Indian Empire prove that she is not able to bestow all the benefits of civilisation upon her colonial subjects.

The stories told in the past still to this day affects the way most western countries view themselves and in turn foreign policy. It does go a long way to explaining wars of recent years. The interventionism we find in the case of Iraq and Libya shows how this civilising narrative has stuck.

To some, returning to this nostalgic view of the British place in the world presents a very tempting goal, albeit a dangerous one given the means that it was obtained to begin with. Part of the means of countering this dangerous resurgence is to remind this kind of person the other side of the civilising narrative.

On the other hand, there are also those from these former colonies that also want to write their own revised histories, one that establishes the conquered communities as the proper civilisation they really were. These versions of events also wants to play down the real atrocities that might taken place within these civilisations – the complicity of Africans in the slave trade for example.

The problem is that the use of historical narratives for Identity forming always has elements of a propagandist agenda. Even though a positive self-image is not to be dissuaded, we must also be careful that we aren’t creating caricatures of ourselves. The negative stories can be just as important as the grand narratives. Erasing Hitler out of german history might ease  national guilt but it does not ensure such mistakes aren’t repeated. The old maxim remains true:

Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

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