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If one were to search for a dictionary definition of the term ‘history’, it’s fairly likely that what they would find would be something along the lines of “the study of past events”. While at a glance, this may be considered a fair definition, it only takes very basic knowledge of history as an academic subject to realise that this is a gross oversimplification. History is much more complex. It is something that is used and often misused to support a political cause or to cement a ‘myth’ in the minds of the population, particularly considering the acutely Eurocentric nature of taught history. As such, many tales in history, written by the alleged winners, are very often misleading or downright false. Take the myth surrounding Richard the Lionheart for example, which enabled the current perception of Richard as a valiant warrior king who epitomises the British spirit. When in fact, King Richard was a useless leader who treated England as his cash-cow, spending only 6 months of his ten-year reign in the country and on top of that, barely speaking a word of English.
It is myths like these that enter the public consciousness and unfortunately become very difficult to uproot. So, we find that perhaps the most damaging historical myth still remains: the myth of the systematic demonisation of the African continent which persists due to the European nations’ blatant refusal to address the looming legacy of their colonial past and its present-day impacts. Resultantly, this has led to the damaging portrayal of Africa as a ‘Dark Continent’, giving rise to Europe’s most significant taboo.
Colonialism itself is broadly defined as “any area or group of people that is controlled by a separate group or power.” While European influence in Africa dates back to the first half of the 19th century, it wasn’t until the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 that the scramble for Africa began and the continent was geographically split and annexed by the European powers as colonies. The Berlin Conference itself is a historical event that is criminally under-taught given its magnitude and implications.
Moving on to the chronology of historical events: the period of colonialism after the Berlin Conference roughly lasted until the 1960s. However, countries such as Eritrea did not gain full independence until the 1990s. As a result of colonialist practises which involved the systematic oppression of indigenous populations and the upheaval of local customs in favour of Euro-centric ideas, local economies and cultures were damaged and heinously overshadowed.
This brings me to claim that statehood as a concept is really one invented by and for Western (now the Global North) powers. Many African states such as the Asante Kingdom (situated in what is now Ghana) governed themselves based on historical and ancestral boundaries. But when the colonisers arrived, such relatively peaceful, but more importantly, locally adapted systems of governance were undermined and demolished. The local populations were oppressed based upon the fundamental idea that white Europeans were inherently racially and ethnically superior to those living in Africa. This ultimately led to colonialism being justified as exporting civilization to the African continent. It is this colonial mentality that both simplifies Africa into just one entity, and portrays the continent as a poverty-stricken and underdeveloped region in the contemporary era. And this false characterisation not only unfairly damages the reputation of a vibrant, culturally rich and diverse continent, but allows Europeans, in the present day, to deny the true legacy of colonialism and turn a blind eye to the systemic racial persecution that seems to define the perception of Africa, tracing back to colonial times.
Clearly, therefore, the lingering ramifications of colonialism are visible for all to see. Yet, a more significant and pertinent question to ask is why have European countries, with a particular focus here on the United Kingdom, repeatedly failed to come to terms with their colonial heritage? Naturally, such a question doesn’t have a straightforward answer and the potential reasons behind this failure are multifaceted. It could easily be argued that both hubris and the aforementioned colonial mentality have contributed to this situation. As such, the implications of British colonialism are far broader than just a general ignorance pertaining to it. But most problematically, this failure has enabled countries like the UK to distance themselves from the collective guilt of imperialism. This has, therefore, meant that the direct effects of colonialism such as political instability are simply branded as “Africa’s problem” which, in turn, has led to increased isolationism. Such a point seems particularly pertinent given the rise of the Omicron COVID variant in recent weeks, which essentially came to be because of the West’s hoarding of vaccines in their response to the pandemic. And it would not be unreasonable to argue that this incident is strongly related to the divide that the colonial mentality, which regrettably continues to latently pervade, has caused.
Tackling the misinformation and biases spread about the period of colonialism through education then is indispensable to increase awareness regarding colonial crimes. But, it must be facilitated in the correct manner, meaning that we shouldn’t simply teach colonialism because there’s a sense of guilt surrounding the whole period. Instead, history education should celebrate the rich cultural history that can be uncovered across the continent of Africa. Undermined and previously neglected perspectives should be taught in conjunction with the otherwise popular narratives on colonialism in Africa. Whether this be through studying the colonial encounters between people in the Sokoto caliphate of Nigeria or by analysing the history of norms surrounding sexuality in sub-Saharan Africa, by increasing our collective awareness and knowledge of the continent will foster and mobilise better informed and positive perceptions of the region.
Through increased sensitivity to the nuances of the different cultures that exist in the African continent, Africa will hopefully no longer be commonly seen as a continent but as the multiple nations, myriad of traditions and peoples who all deserve to be distinctively recognised. Moreover, if colonial history is to become a mandatory part of education, it must be seen for what it is: one of the greatest, if not greatest atrocities in human history. To quote the first African-American US President, Barack Obama, “The worst thing that colonialism did was to cloud our view of our past.” And in Britain, education must fervently work to bring this fact to light instead of allowing colonial superiority to implicitly and even furtively cultivate. The lexis of the ‘positives and negatives’ of colonialism simply has to stop, and with the apt and detailed historic education, this can be made possible.
Over the past 50 years, European countries have created a propaganda machine that has sought to rid the odour of colonialism from our collective past. And although changes are now being made and high profile figures such as Akala are making significant progress, in Britain we must strongly work to change the historic educational curriculum to prevent future generations from harbouring colonial mentalities. Colonialism needs to be treated as a retrospective crime against humanity because that’s exactly what it was. It is more than time that we alleviate the responsibility of teaching African history from its original, i.e. the African, perspective. It is time for us to put the onus on ourselves to at the least tell historic tales truthfully, if not rectify the great tragedies of our past.
Article by Richard Cooper Smith