Bethwell A. Ogot in his book History as destiny and history as knowledge, from which the above title is a chapter, writes in the introduction of the book, that
To tell the story of a past so as to portray an inevitable destiny is for humankind a need as universal as tool-making
He defines historicity as the need to picture to oneself what is destined, the belief that the past determines the future while historiography submits its report to the probable and its assumptions to the verifiable.
This blog is not concerned with a review of the whole book but will limit ourselves to one chapter of the book that retells of how the white people saw us, where, us here refers to Africans and specifically to Kenyans. If I should mention other groups, it will only be tangentially.
To start with, he notes that during the C19, a vast amount of negative propaganda and stereotypes about Africans and Africa was generated in order to justify imperialism. Referring to works by Mudimbe and Miller, he notes, from the earliest contact, Africa has been imprinted with European constructs, such that at some moments, Africans were represented as noble while at others monstrous.
People like Lewis Krapf, Rebmann, he writes, came to Kenya to introduce civilization which they mistakenly equated with Christianity. It has been said, and I think correctly, that Christianity was the precursor of colonialization, that the missionaries prepared the grounds for the colonial administration wherever they went.
He notes, one of the areas of contention was what civilization meant. To one group of whites, following the Enlightenment philosophers held the view that it was essentially concerned with the way society was organized. In this view, civilization was equated to capitalism where private property, the state and commerce are fully developed. The other group of whites, like Krapf and Rebmann mentioned earlier, saw the negro as primarily fallen man. Krapf argued that temporal and spiritual benefits could only reach E. Africa through European intervention making him one of the precursors of imperialism.
The representation of Africa as a tribal continent, he writes, is a white people construct. Since ethnic groups exist in societies such as Ireland, Belgium, Spain and so on, one fails to understand why the whites referred to ethnic groups in Africa derogatorily as tribes. For our purposes, it is sufficient to note that ethnic groups and identities are historical creations- they are created by human beings. Ethnicity, in this view, is the consciousness of cultural difference.
To the whites named above and others, regions and people without states are therefore supposed to have no history worth the name. Another Christian missionary working in the Kenyan coast argued slavery was not, after all, the unqualified evil abolitionists thought it was, but that it was better to eradicate it gradually. Another missionary, D Lugard, argued Africans do not appreciate personal freedom.
The idea of Africa as a dark continent, as has been written elsewhere, finds it origins in the philosophies of Hume who wrote there was scarcely a civilized nation of negro complexion while JJ Rousseau proclaimed that blacks were mentally inferior by nature. I want to point in passing that when the Enlightenment philosophers wrote man was a rational being, they limited man to mean white privileged males. Rooted in pseudo-objectivity, male scientists claimed that men were the bearer of reason and rationality while women’s temperament was adversely affected by their dominant reproductive organs which were linked to the central nervous system. Women did not count, they were temperamental and of course, as we have seen already, the negro had no place in their view of nature, in fact, to them, the African was living close to nature. He writes, and I quote
In investigating the savage, the west set up a mirror in which it might find a tangible, if inverted self-image. Non-Europeans filled out the nether reaches of the scale of being, provided the contrast against which a cultivated might distinguish himself. On this scale, the African was assigned a particular base position.
A young Scot, Thompson, travelling through Kenya went even further to rank the different African ethnic groups he interacted with in different evolutionary scales. He, for example, had the Maasai on a loftier position than Wa Kwafi from the coast, who, to him, seemed to have acquired a strain of Negro blood. He didn’t stop there, he ranked the Njemps lower on the scale below Maasais though praised them for their honesty and reliability. The question the author asks at this point is, why should honest, peaceful, hard working agriculturists be ranked lower in human evolution than some thieving, war-like nomads?
The question of nudity, with respect to morality puzzled many Europeans travelers, missionaries and scholars. Dr. Oswald doing some work for the British Museum, was most troubled that despite their nudity, the Luo were a happy cheerful race, living in a state of nature, and at the same time with a high standard of morality. This was only a puzzle because in the European conception of the African, he was immoral. Despite this, he still had space to argue that they were primitive contemporary ancestors of the Scots who should be civilized.
Our author concludes thus
Among the whites in Africa, there was virtual unanimity that in the community of nations Africans were children.
This strain of thought can be seen in many interactions between whites and Africans where they refer to Africans as boy, regardless of age.
To these white people,
The African was emotional, excitable, impulsive, had a happy go lucky nature and lacked forethought.
Krapf, mentioned already, believed
Africans will never achieve anything in philosophy or in theoretical branches of science.
The appropriate end to this post is a quote of Mark Twain
There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man’s notion that he is less savage than other savages.
Or better yet
The only difference between the average civilized man and the average savage is that the one is gilded and the other is painted.