As others saw us- being an analysis of grassroots imperialism in 19th and early 20th century Africa.

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.

About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

51 thoughts on “As others saw us- being an analysis of grassroots imperialism in 19th and early 20th century Africa.

  1. Tish Farrell says:

    Good to have Mark Twain bringing us safely back to earth.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Veracious Poet says:

    Mak, let’s just assume that the European philosophers, authors, missionaries and colonial officers were all wrong about Africans. So why haven’t we developed? Ghana’s independence was 61 years ago yet our problems persist or have rather multiplied. You see when one wants independence and financial support from the colonialist at the same time, one appears to be a child. Sometimes we have to face our own bitter truths before we can begin to move towards a solution.

    Will appreciate if you can spare some minutes to write a review about the ebook I mailed you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Arkenaten says:

      I would ask … have you personally developed? It certainly sounds like it.
      Do you consider Mak has developed? I do, but at the risk of sounding condescending, he still has to prove that development by becoming a fan of Liverpool.

      So perhaps the question to ask is not why haven’t ”we” developed but rather how did you and Mak manage?


    • makagutu says:

      Several questions; the first being is technological advancement the full measure of development? Can we come up with other models of what development might be?Angola at the height of oil boom, I hear was busy constructing these expensive condos and high-rise buildings but the people remained poor.
      There are many reasons that can explain the current situation in most African countries.
      I will do a review of the book next week.


      • Veracious Poet says:

        I think we will be mistaken if we try to compartmentalize models of development. In complex social systems everything is connected. So I think it begins with indigenous technological advancement which creates efficiency in trade/commerce/industrial activities which leads to economic boom. Once the quality of life improves, the social and cultural rennaisance sets in. Everyone will have enough so people will be less greedy/corrupt. True, many other reasons explain what’s happening in Africa but it’s foremost because Africa stopped building itself economically and depended on finished goods from Europe. Different societies may also have forces moving in different directions, but I believe any sustainable advancement begins with creating economic value and social equity.

        Good to hear of the review. Really appreciate your time.


        • makagutu says:

          I am not suggesting that we give the words new meanings. Of course not. Development to make sense must translate to better livelihoods. Freedom from servitude among others.


        • basenjibrian says:

          Funny, V.P., but we Americans must not be human, because our 1%, who have more wealth and power than \almost any population in history, do not seem to be less greedy/corrupt at all. Can a Donald Trump even comprehend spending all the loot he has acquired, yet his presidency seems to be little more than a chance to loot MORE. 🙂


      • basenjibrian says:

        “The people” remain poor. Is there such a thing as “the people”?

        I would imagine that SOME people, those with specialized skills needed by the oil multinationals and those people with ties to the “socialist” party that runs Angola are doing quite well. Along with the Expats.


        • makagutu says:

          We have had the discussion before on who are the people, but always an interesting question.
          Oh yes, those with ties to the government must be doing extremely well, the majority of the population, I am not so sure


          • basenjibrian says:

            Almost always the case with “resource extraction” economies. I understand the Niger River Delta in Nigeria is hell on earth, with all the money going to a corrupt class in Lagos????

            Plenty of money to be made in internet scamming, though. 🙂


  3. jim- says:

    I can’t think of an indigenous people that have thrived under colonialism without having to sacrifice their heritage and join a way of life that in not only unpleasant but continually stressful. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Ghana as an independent nation could only be compared fairly to how Ghana was prior to colonialism. Africa never needed our help until we showed up, and judging progress based on how well they fit in an undesirable circumstance is confusing at best when they probably don’t want anything to do with this way of life.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The Twain quotes squarely hit the mark.

    “Africans do not appreciate personal freedom.” – good grief!

    I firmly believe that the past is key to the future; or, as philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist George Santayana wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”


    • Veracious Poet says:

      Bob, believe me, the indigenous African is a freedom fighter. Before the British finally took over the Gold Coast they fought three wars in which they won only on the third. It was called Anglo-Ashanti wars. They suffered heavy losses. The British army commander (S. C. MaCarthy) was wounded and he killed himself. Another was captured and beheaded by the natives. All this happened in the name of personal freedom because the British imposed too much taxes on them. Eventually the Ashantis were defeated. The capital town of Ashanti was burned down. Ashantis are just one tribe in West Africa. I have not spoken of the Somalis, the Berbers, the Sudanese, the Fon, the Chiwara etc.

      To cut long story short, the indigenous African was more courageous, he loved his freedom and his lifestyle was more in tune with his realities and conditions of life than the African of today. Note that there are three broad classes of Africans today namely Leadership class, middle/Europeanised and indigenous. I went to the remote parts of the country recently and most indigenous people live the same way they lived in precolonial times, they believe in themselves and remember their past only they have less power/influence now.

      Liked by 1 person

    • makagutu says:

      Shocking, if you ask me. I want to meet that person who doesn’t appreciate personal freedom.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. renudepride says:

    I find it interesting t how many uninformed myths surrounding the African peoples remain after all these years. Clearly, the imperialistic minds have not evolved one inch beyond what they were a hundred plus years ago! Evidence: President Donald Duck and his notorious shithole list of countries. The bigots don’t fall too far from the tree!

    Naked hugs, my Kenyan brother!


  6. UnRelatable says:

    I hate to say this, but aren’t Black people primitive? Not now.
    But just look at it from a white perspective, you’ve just come from a country with roads, buildings, carriages, the invention of electricity looming, sewer systems, paintings, clothes, ships, books, developed medicine, astronomy… and then to Africa where the majority still played with sticks and stones?
    I can’t blame the Whites for their small-mindedness and I can’t blame them for continuing carrying out this belief because, honestly I’m embarrassed by the so called ‘progress’ We have made since independence. We have nothing to offer the world as a black race and I’m sick and tired that for us Africans to do something we have to constantly rely on the ‘Whites’, in science, in our economy and now even our culture has been westernised. So I really don’t blame them.
    The day we’ll gain full self-independence not as a republic but in our economy, sciences, culture is when we’ll overcome this prejudice otherwise yapping about how the whites see us as less won’t do us any good.


    • basenjibrian says:

      That’s an almost willfully blind description of the situation, UnRelatable. Africans certainly had paintings, clothes, books, medicine, astronomy, etc. Africans had boats and ships for certain. Many of the world’s original advanced societies (including Egypt) were African. Read the link I provided about how the Colonial masters destroyed local economies and societies.

      Africa had art of astonishing variety, and the sculptural arts were certainly as advanced in their way as European. In fact, modern European artists drew upon Africa.

      Can’t defend your current leaders. I would merely note that I live in a country that elected a criminal grafter and bankrupt, Donald Trump, and whose business leaders set out 40 years ago to deliberately destroy the American manufacturing economy in the pursuit of short term paper profits. A country who has bombed more people, caused more misery, than the worst religious fundamentalists and terrorists. So, your leaders don’t look all that bad, actually. They are just petty thieves and autocrats. They would need to step up their game and irradiate two entire large cities to even compete.

      I am not African, so I will defer to the Africans to really respond. This just struck me, as white American, as really unfair.


    • makagutu says:

      I realize that if I were to respond to this, I would struggle to be polite.


    • Veracious Poet says:

      I think ‘Unrelatable’ has some point except I don’t agree that we have nothing to offer the world. Africa has more natural resources than any other continent in the world. In the Katanga region of Congo alone there is more diamond and other minerals than anywhere else. Why do you think the Belgians seized Kantanga from Lumumba? Consider the diamond mines in Sierra Leone, rubber plantations in Liberia, Gold in Ghana and SA, Uranium in Niger, Cocoa in Ivory Coast, Coffee in Ethiopia and the list goes on and on. Even in terms of human resource F.W.D. Lugard states that the African can achieve more with less incentives than most races, which in my observation is true. So I think we have a lot to offer the world. We just don’t know how to go about it. And speaking of “civilisation” it begun in Africa, possibly by dark skin races (related to Nubians, Egyptians or Ethiopians etc.) though it now means a completely different thing like transmitting one’s nude photos/videos through satelites to other parts of the world for viewing. Civilization is part of the problem of the world.

      On this blog, if I’m not mistaken, we have even debated “what is art?” or “what is beauty?” before. You shouldn’t expect African Art to look like European Art. Again Eco houses are a hallmark of refinement and civility today. But our African ancestors built eco houses made of palm/adobe more than 1000 years ago. So again, what do you mean by “primitive or civilized?.” I suspect you’re examining African life through European lenses.

      Liked by 1 person

      • makagutu says:

        I think I agree with your conclusion that the problem is the lenses she is using

        Liked by 1 person

        • basenjibrian says:

          I am in such a gloomy space right now w/r/t the glories of American Civilization, that I could not help but respond to her comment.

          right now, we are hearing in the media followed by a scary percentage of the population that the communist liberals hired fake children to pretend to be school shooting victims, just so said liberals can take away all of their GUNS GUNS GUNS.

          The son in law of our President is apparently selling secrets to the Russkies.

          Poland is making it illegal to even hint that some Poles were involved in the Holocaust.

          The head banker in Latvia has been found to be corrupt to the core.

          Shameful. Just shameful.

          So…a disparagement of “African Civilization” when compared to “Western” seems premature.


  7. I remember something my Western Civilization I professor said to me back in undergrad. He said that defining the word civilization is a difficult thing; it’s more than just writing, art, roads, or political entities. There are people who have made art, but never built a house, along with the opposite.

    One thing I can say is that civilization isn’t a contest. Nobody can even agree on what the point of having a civilization is. That reminds me of a quote from Seneca, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”

    Sometimes I think we’re all just lost in the same boat.

    Liked by 2 people

    • makagutu says:

      I think your professor was on to something.
      When the Romans referred to others as barbarians, it was because they didn’t speak Latin, nothing else.
      When we call others uncivilized, we should ask ourselves according to who?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […] Bethwell A. Ogot. It is my hope that you did find the first installments here, here, here, and  here and that they were worth your […]


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