And all month long the noise of battle rolled in Oxford, don against don, laptops to the left, laptops to the right. Calumny and detraction stalked the quads. An international brigade of scholars joined the fray. The Great Colonialism Controversy had been started by, of all people, not a Rees-Mogg grade eccentric, but an unassuming and thoughtful Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, Nigel Biggar. He had expressed some thoughts about the history of colonialism and pointed out that it had some positive aspects. The proximate cause of this modest proposal was the five year study of Ethics and Empire that he had been conducting.
I had better admit to some skin in this game. Nigel Biggar gave some lectures on Truth and Reconciliation at my invitation some years back. I’ve written books about the colonial history of Africa. I do not feel personally guilty about British colonialism – I learnt about the pink bits on my geography atlas as a child and was too young to be attacked for being uncritical. Nor would I today want to deny that colonial rule brought about some positive changes as well as perpetrating dreadful atrocities on some subject populations who showed the remotest sign of not enjoying being colonised, and even when they didn’t, sometimes criminally culpable indifference to their welfare. It is just that I am allergic to simplistic binary oppositions, all good versus all bad.
I started studying African history in the late 1960s shortly after it had taken off academically as the new nations began to retrieve their past. In those days you could get books called Catholics, Peasants and Chewa Resistance in Nyasaland [Malawi] published with old photographs, an index and a publisher who seemed to want to market it. The student body of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London was just beginning to switch its top career choice from colonial service to spooks, linguists and anthropologists. In no time some African academics were describing the pre-colonial past as a patchwork of Gardens of Eden, with colonialism as the snake and European ways the apple. But when you discover the number of different Chewa words for jealousy, and you encounter the pervasive fear of witchcraft, you begin to wonder if village life was all that idyllic. And, frankly, it would not have been much fun being a Hutu in pre-colonial Rwanda under the dynastic rule of the dominant Tutsi clans, or being a woman much anywhere.
It is a given of historiography that the perspective of the writer is strongly influenced by the present, by political pressures, and individual bias and interest. Romantic African historians were not bucking a trend. But what is going on when someone cannot express analytically any view without unqualified condemnation or approval? This not simply a question of asking what is wrong with expressing a complex account of motivations, behaviours and their consequences. Nor is it always idle to contemplate counterfactual history, what would have happened if such-and-such hadn’t happened. It is a deeper problem of what makes so attractive turning the past into a binary moral story and “asking the wrong questions, using the wrong terms, and for the wrong purposes” a definition of “bad history”.
The more important question is what is it in the present conjuncture that requires something akin to what psychologists call splitting, the need to present the expression of complexity as “bad history” and oneself, the custodian presumably of “good history” understood as a story about good versus evil; or a balance sheet of good acts versus bad acts, minus ten for some brutal torture or massacre, plus ten for ending the slave trade, five for divorce laws that liberate women. Or plus five for the manner of pulling out of Bechuanaland and the Gold Coast, minus 10 for the massive tragedy of the partition of India. Yes, this calibration is repugnant.
Put in another way why should the expression of complexity in the makings of the past turn the perpetrator into an apologist for one side of the argument or another? After the Rwandan genocide for example it has become impossible to write about its antecedents without readers striving to find “what side are you on?”
Orwell said in 1984:“He who controls the past controls the future, he who controls the present controls the past”. But we are not living in a Stalinist tyranny and the Great Colonialism Controversy does not look like a struggle between the dispossessed and wretched of the earth against the rich and powerful. Rather it seems to be an expression of the contemporary powerlessness to control the future felt by almost everyone in a semi-moribund European political culture of populism and failing democracies. The one thing available is to re-moralise the past as a conflict between good and evil and, because nothing else seems under control, to attempt to control language and discourse. Perhaps there is also a touch of guilt at work but guilt without a firm intention of amendment is not a constructive emotion.
Language, of course, matters. It is our way of being human. It is the texture of civility. But this does not mean that right language can be substituted for meaningful action in moral endeavour. It is an academic conceit to forget that the pen is only mightier than the sword if it inspires and mobilises people around a vision of the future, has an ability to contextualise the errors and horrors of the past, and can integrate both into a meaningful present.