Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Livingstone200 and African History

They mean well.  But that makes it no less frustrating.

A statute of Livingstone at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
It is, in case you hadn’t got it marked in your calendar, the 200th anniversary of David Livingstone’s birth.  Livingstone was a missionary who launched his fame by travelling through eastern and central Africa.  He was more successful, by all accounts, as an explorer than as a proselytiser.  He was less brutal than many other European explorers who came before and after his time, and he worked to eliminate the slave trade which formed a significant element in the regional economy.

Nonetheless, he was an agent of colonialism.  He embroiled himself in local disputes, and like missionaries before and after (and not unlike the British East India Company and parallel colonial institutions), sought to pick winners and losers and impose his version of ‘Christian law and order’ on the societies he encountered. 

In spite of his role in expanding European (and particularly British) domination over this part of Africa, Livingstone remains largely revered amongst most the people I’ve spoken to in countries like Zambia and Tanzania.  Some people there tend to see him and his fellow missionaries who campaigned against the slave trade and criticised the “excesses” of British rule as 'good guys'. 

So if those commemorating the anniversary of his birthday were happy to remember Livingstone as a man with a mixed legacy, I could live with that.  But Livingstone 200, the organisation set up to stage-manage celebrations(!), is intent on portraying the man as “Africa’s first freedom fighter”, a sham with which the media appears willing to play along. 

The Scottish government, a sponsor of the Livingstone 200 bonanza, is picking up on this narrative, keen to appropriate the doctor as one of their own and thereby drive a wedge between Scottish participation in and culpability for the horrors of the British Empire.  It’s certainly fair to say that much of the Scottish experience of Empire was shaped by their own experience being colonised by the British.  Nonetheless, it would be something of a stretch to pretend that the Scots were the warm and fuzzy face of Britain’s subjugation of millions of people in Africa, Asia and the Pacific.

What is more detestable than the perhaps-understandable efforts of the Scottish government to embrace Livingstone as an exemplar of a certain Scots ethic is what Livingstone 200 does to set back the cause of telling African history.   They buy into what has been called the “White Saviour Complex”, well-exemplified by the Kony2012 saga, partially-documented in this article. In the narrative developed by this “complex”, Africa is a dark, savage, dangerous, blighted place, which requires intervention and salvation by outsiders (there is no sense of how those outsiders might have contributed to some of the real problems facing people on the continent).

This Anglican church on Zanzibar contains a cross supposedly made from the wood of the tree beneath which Livingstone died.
Now this is not to say that all was or is rosy in east and central Africa.  Like anywhere in the nineteenth century, it had its share of problems, some related to European colonialism in South Africa, others stemming from the brutal empire-building undertaken by a variety of African kingdoms.  But those ‘problems’ were historical problems which grew out of earlier historical experiences.  African history, like history anywhere else in the world, stretches back as far as people have been generating records—whether through their writing, art, monumental architecture, other material remains, or economic production.  It is therefore nonsense to claim that if, for thousands of years people have been grappling with social, political, and economic complexity, Livingstone could possibly be the “first freedom fighter”.

Not only does the claim make a mockery of the cultural, religious, social, and economic enslavement that he hoped to usher in as the vanguard of British colonialism, it does a dreadful disservice to those who combatted the slave trade, overthrew empires, forged new societies, and resisted earlier waves of colonialism. 

Part of the old Fort at Zanzibar, representative of an earlier history some would ignore.
The claim pretends that the European arrival in Africa marked year-zero where the continent’s history is concerned.  It is no better than the fantasy of European archaeologists, like Richard N Hall, who wrote in 1905 in “The Great Zimbabwe and Other Ancient Ruins in Rhodesia” that the huge stone structures he encountered in what is now Zimbabwe must have been constructed by historical peoples of Mediterranean or Arab origin, rather than by Africans, who Europeans considered incapable of building monumental architecture.  These fantasies ignored the myriad of empires which rose and fell over periods of centuries across west, central, and eastern Africa, not unlike their European counterparts.

The cultural, social, political and economic experiences of Africans in all of these areas of the continents produced the same array of heroes, villains, exploiters, exploited, to say nothing of countless men and women who went about their everyday lives, entirely unaware that, in centuries to come, they would be regarded as unhistorical peoples, who would need European conquest and conversion to be “saved” from the great evil that in the fevered imaginations of Europeans, cast the African continent into darkness and out of history.

It is a shame that these fantasies endure and continue to be validated by sloppy reporting and thoughtless commemorations of this type.

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