You are on page 1of 8


Jones Jesus College

Did colonial rule before the Second World War modernise Africa?
[I]t cannot be too strongly emphasised that the various sides of Gikuyu life here described are the parts of an integrated culture. No single part is detachable; each has its context and is fully understandable only in relation to the whole.1

When Jomo Kenyatta wrote Facing Mount Kenya, he attempted to show that his native Gikuyu culture was not inferior to that which the colonial settlers championed, only different.2 His monograph, read by few at the time, did not have a large impact on contemporary thought, but has been seized upon by modern analysts of interwar Africa. The need for holistic understanding can be applied to diverse African cultures, and possibly even tentatively to Africa as a whole. In order to comprehend what processes were occurring within Africa in this period it is important to assess various different elements in relation to one another, whether industrial, agricultural, infrastructural, social, or otherwise. Only by doing so can one uncover the complex effects that colonial rule had on Africa between 1918 and 1939. Whilst it introduced some trappings of European-style modernity to the continent, it did so in a very inconsistent way, and in a manner that invariably addressed colonial interests before those of the various peoples of Africa. There are a number of issues within the titular question, which must be addressed before colonial rule in the interwar period can be examined. Foremost amongst these is the problematic notion of modernisation. There can be little doubt that this is a normative term; it assumes a standard of modernity to which a process is tending, a standard that must be defined in relation to a particular society or culture. Mahmood Mambani has written about the dangers of a structuralist approach to modernity, warning that without consideration the term can come to assume a supra-historical telos that is unhelpful in examining what actually occurred in the past.3 His account, however, does not seem to provide a viable alternative, at least not for the period in question. This exploration shall be focused on the extent to which colonial powers succeeded in bringing their own versions of modernity to Africa. It shall follow the trend of the bulk of historiography in focusing on sub-Saharan African experiences. In doing so it shall of course be necessary to examine what modernity meant to the native African population, but to simply state that Africa was already modern in the eyes of men such as Kenyatta does little to inform the historical discourse. Importantly, there must not a confusion of modernisation and betterment, for the two unfortunately are not interchangeable terms. It shall be seen that colonial powers succeeded in bringing some of the trappings of modernity to the African continent, but the systems they created could hardly be considered modern by their own standards. They introduced a very particular form of limited African modernity. Certainly there are many accounts of the interwar period that stress how colonial rule resulted in the modernisation of African industry by technological and systematic developments. Gervase Clarence-Smith has particularly emphasised this in her account of Equatorial and Central Africa. She points to the fact that in British South Rhodesia, industry did
1 Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, (Trowbridge & Esher: Redwood Burn Ltd., 1974 [1938]), 309. 2 The terms native and local shall henceforth be used without quotation marks in this essay to facilitate ease of reading. It is

assumed that the reader will treat them with the skepticism that has become appropriate in the field. After first use, a similar policy shall be applied to modernity and its derivatives. 3 Mahmood Mambani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 9.

Hugo Jones Jesus College

grow, even during the global Great Depression of the 1930s.4 A similar trend can be identified in the Belgian Congo. From 1933 to 1939 the number of gold smelters in the Congo rose from three to nine, and the number of mechanised factories from 66 to 118.5 These figures suggest that, in specific regions, the infrastructure necessary for a European-style industrial economy was being put in place. New innovations were being introduced to these areas all the time. The Congolese settler, Dr Chesterman, remembered the first airplane that the Yakusu natives with whom he lived had ever seen. Multitudes crowded down to the beach and little eyes drank in the details of observers niche and Pilots seat.6 Alongside this, improvements were constantly being made to transport networks throughout Africa, allowing for the flow of goods into international markets.7 All of this would seem to imply that colonial rule did result in the increased industrialisation of at least parts of Africa. This industrialisation brought Africa more in line with the view of modernity espoused in the colonial metropoles. This account, however, must be tempered by recognition of a few salient details. Primary amongst these, and true for nearly all aspects of African history, was that there was a huge variety in experience across the continent. Though regions such as the Belgian Congo, Rhodesia, and South Africa saw the building of factories, swathes of Africa had little industry at all. The degree of industrialisation depended to a large part upon the presence of natural resources, and of a government willing to exploit it. Growth in the Congo can thus be explained as a result of the abundance of copper and gold, and of the fact that Belgians were more attuned to the needs of industry than other colonial powers. 8 To speak of colonial rule modernising the whole of Africa by this process of industrialisation would, therefore, be wrong. Even in the regions where industrial infrastructure was put in place, it is difficult to claim that industrial modernity was achieved. The industry outlined above was mostly mineral exploitation and raw material processing, not manufacturing. Places like the Ivory Coast grew huge amounts of cocoa, but did not have the capability to process it internally; they had to buy tinned cocoa from Europe at a high price.9 Walter Rodney, who took a very dim view of colonial rule, argued that mineral exploitation could hardly be considered modernisation; it was too short-termist and centred on quick profit. British colonists were mining gold in Chunya, Taganyika, from 1933; in twenty years they had extracted as much as was profitable and left the area. Chunya was therefore flung into poverty, without use for the factories and facilities that now stood unused or dismantled.10 Crucially, there were incredibly few examples of native people taking control of industry themselves. They existed as a labour force, producing not for a domestic market, but a European monopsony. Colonial rule in Africa did not produce an industrial system that was modern by European standards, but it did produce one that was useful for European means. Industry was modernised to the extent that was useful for those who owned the capital. African agriculture underwent a similar process, with a similar variety of experience. In some ways crop production was brought closer to the European view of modernity. Especially in West Africa, increasing numbers of producers stopped growing food, focusing instead on cash crops such as ground-nuts or cotton. This made these farmers increasingly similar to the European producers, who grew for a market, not solely for sustenance. S.M. Martin has
4 Gervase Clarence-Smith, The Effects of the Great Depression on Industrialisation in Equatorial and Central Africa, in Ian

Brown (ed.), The Economies of Africa and Asia in the Inter-War Depression, (London: Routledge, 1989), 175.
5 Clarence-Smith, The Effects of the Great Depression on Industrialisation in Equatorial and Central Africa, 182-84. 6 Mary Rose Hunt, A Colonial Lexicon: of Birth Ritual, Medicalisation, and Mobility in the Congo, (London: Duke University Press,

1999), 85.
7 Robert Shenton, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney, Canadian Journal of African Studies 9:1 (1975), 146-


8 Clarence-Smith, The Effects of the Great Depression on Industrialization in Equatorial and Central Africa, 196. 9 Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, (London: Bogle-LOuverture, 1972), 237. 10 Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, 238.

Hugo Jones Jesus College

stressed the great plurality in experience that existed for cash crop producers, even in West Africa alone. While the barter terms of trade for Nigerian cocoa fell in the early 1930s to just 25 per cent of their pre-war levels, ground-nut farmers found themselves in a much more secure position. 11 As such it can be very hard to make generalisations about how colonial rule impacted upon the agricultural sector. It should be noted, however, that only in a very few areas was capitalist agriculture introduced i.e. agriculture operating on a large scale and only for profit. Frederick Cooper has stressed that:
[o]nly in South Africa and (to a lesser extent) Rhodesia can one speak of a capitalist transformation in agriculture before World War II, of wage labour becoming both dominant and generalised within agriculture.12

In the few areas where agriculture was commercialised, the capital was held by settlers, not native people. If colonial powers took modernity to be the system implemented in and around their metropoles, then they failed to modernise the African agricultural system in all but a very few places, and failed to remarkably improve it for the producers themselves in any. The capital core driving the development of agriculture lay without the African continent and modernisation had therefore not been achieved. When Rodney wrote that what was called the development of Africa by colonialists was a cynical short-hand expression for the intensification of colonial exploitation in Africa to develop capitalist Europe, he was not giving enough credence to the development of factories and transport networks that did occur in certain areas.13 Nonetheless, he was correct to draw attention to how the economic system that colonial rule shaped in Africa in this period would not have been considered modern if applied to Europe herself. This is corroborated by the letters of Arnold Paice, a British settler living in Kenya. He told his family that:
[w]e really are a lot of humbugs with all this talk about the nobility of labour and teaching the native to become a useful member of the community. What we really mean is we are out here to make a living (or a fortune if possible) and we must make these natives work for us somehow or well all go bust!14

Trappings of modernity were introduced, then, but ultimately aimed to service the metropole, not the African continent herself. There were other ways in which colonial rule impacted upon Africa that, though less quantifiable than economic considerations, were nonetheless important. The extension of healthcare was significant here. Improvements were definitely made, but they came at a cost and were far from universal. Mary Rose Hunts study of a clinic in the Yakusu region of the Belgian Congo found that a single doctor there had administered 10,000 injections to native people.15 Missions undertook most medical work, though with increased state support from the 1930s, as health became seen as important to the productivity of the native as a worker. Though colonists also brought disease with them, expanding the frontier of the sleeping- sickness-inducing tsetse fly, on balance they probably did more good than bad in terms of healthcare. With this said, state medical facilities were most often provided for those working in colonial industry or agriculture; i.e. those from whom the state could reasonably expect to gain something. As a result many rural areas did not have sufficient facilities. In Nigeria in the 1930s there were 12 hospitals for the 4,000 white settlers, and 52 for the 40,000,000 native
11 S.M. Martin, The Long Depression: West African Export Producers and the World Economy, 1914-45, in Brown (ed.), The

Economies of Africa and Asia in the Interwar Depression, 88.

12 Frederick Cooper, Africa and the World Economy, in Frederick Cooper et al. (eds.), Confronting Historical Paradigms:

Peasants, Labour and the Capitalist World System in Africa and Latin America, (London: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 123. 13 Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, 244. 14 Dane Kennedy, Islands of White: Settler Society and Culture in Kenya and Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1939, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987), 181. 15 Hunt, A Colonial Lexicon, 96.

Hugo Jones Jesus College

inhabitants.16 Such was depressingly typical. Importantly, healthcare was vastly focused on men, too. At the aforementioned Yakusu clinic in 1929, 86 per cent of patients were male.17 Medical care was extended through parts of Africa, then, but not in a way that was consistent, either geographically or demographically. The crucial way in which colonial rule failed to modernise medicine, however, was that though it acted upon the native people, it rarely acted with them. Certainly assisstants were trained from within the ranks of natives who had had experience of the clinics; the growth of the Dawa Boys in the 1930s stands as evidence for this.18 Importantly, though, facilities were invariably directed by European mission doctors. Rodneys claim that the Portuguese state in Mozambique did not succeed in training a single local doctor before World War Two seems almost too incredible to believe, but it is certainly true that few native African people gained significant medical knowledge. Some people believed that liquid medicines were made from human blood and that hospitals were Sweeny-Todd-style butcher shops supplying meat to tinning factories. As one 1920s Yakusu hospital was being constructed:
women passing to the market noticed the foundations of inner rooms, and suspicions were aroused that it was to be in there that the doctors would take their victims, cut them up and put them in tins for sale.19

Fundamentally, though more areas of Africa were exposed to medical treatment than before, this trend was not general enough for it to be considered genuinely modernising on a continental level, and it did not extend to proper education or a sense of extra-European sustainability. Education in general was another area where, despite some change, full modernisation did not occur. Education remained fairly elitist, aimed at either the children of colonialists, or local influential families. British schools for native Africans included the Nyasaland Livingstonia School and the Sierra Leone Fourah Bay College. Both of these institutions serviced the children of an already-established local elite; they were not providing meritocratic education for all.20 In the Gold Coast in 1919 an area with some of the best education in West Africa at the time only 10 per cent of children were in government-assisted schools; there were only four schools in the whole of the vast Northern Territory.21 Where education was available it was aimed at teaching Africans to become useful members of the colonies, not at giving them the liberal education that a young British or French man could expect at home. If colonial powers desired education at all, they wanted it to shape Christianised colonial subjects who would either serve in associationalist governments see below or have the necessary technical skills for industry. The result of this was often confused and not that helpful. As Kenyatta wrote:
[t]he new civilisation [the African man] is supposed to acquire neither prepares him for the proper functions of a European mode of life, nor for African life; he is left floundering between the two social forces.22

Once again the double stand inherent in colonial thinking means that it is hard to see the change that occurred in the sphere of education as genuinely modernising. It was mostly aimed at servicing a distinctly European purpose.
16 Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, 225. 17 Hunt, A Colonial Lexicon, 41.

18 Megan Vaughan, Curing their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), 64.
19 Hunt, A Colonial Lexicon, 87. 20 Reid, A History of Modern Africa: 1800 to the present, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 202. 21 Richard Gray, Christianity, in J.D. Faye & Roland Oliver (eds.), The Cambridge History of Africa, (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 1986), 184.

22 Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, 125.

Hugo Jones Jesus College

That this was the aim, however, does not necessarily mean that it was the result. What little African people could take from colonial education was, in some instances, put to good use in creating a political voice that was their own. This, far more than the indirect rule developed in the 1920s, was an expression of a modern political voice it was also far from what colonial powers desired. Indirect rule became popular among the colonial powers in the 1920s, broadly as a result of a change in thinking born during the Great War. The basic idea was to create, as Mambani has put it, a decentralised despotism; to devolve power from the colonial centre, whilst still maintaining ultimate control. 23 Local chiefs retook positions of power in the recently-created tribal communities. Richard Reid has explained the increased state interest in education, minimal though it was, as necessary for maintaining an elite to perform this indirect rule.24 This seems especially true for French and Portuguese rule, but can also be applied to British.25 Such indirect or associationalist method of government did not really confer any substantial new power on the native populations; it changed very little. As Joost van Vollenhoven, post-war Governor General of the Dakar region for the French, commented; [t]he native chief is only an instrument, an auxiliary the native chief never speaks in his own name. 26 In this indirect or associationalist rule, many themes that have affected this examination of modernisation rise again. African local elites, with their minimal and end- focused educations, became involved in the political process as mouthpieces for colonial powers. The concept of modernisation does not sit easily here. Those who were affected by education, however, did have a chance to exert themselves politically in a way that, by European standards, might be considered modern. That is, they exercised their right to be heard by the governments that ruled over them. This was, unsurprisingly, not a trend that the colonial powers felt especially warmly towards. It occurred in some areas through the organisation of labour, some through religious movements, some through political activism, and some not at all. In 1919 the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union was formed in South Africa, boasting 100,000 members by the middle of the 1920s.27 South Africa was, as has been noted, unusually industrialised, and the movement failed by the 1930s. It was indicative of a general trend of increased organisation, however. Strikes became increasingly common during the late 1920s and into the Great Depression period. Action such as at Shamva mine, South Rhodesia, in 1927 was even successful for the strikers.28 Christianity also provided a conduit for political activism. Richard Gray has convincingly argued that, once introduced to native people in Africa, Christianity soon came to be imbued with and interpreted through local customs. 29 This localisation of Christianity can be seen in the development of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Watch Tower movements; it gave native people in Africa an avenue for expression that, whilst rooted in colonial religion, was also quite distinct from it in terms of power.30 In 1936 the situation was such that Evelyn Brodhurst-Hill declared; [r]eligious sects have sprung up and lead to religious mania.31 Through groups such as these, certain groups of people in Africa were tentatively solidifying political and quasi- political positions.
23 Mambani, Citizen and Subject, 8. 24 Reid, A History of Modern Africa, 208. 25 Reid, A History of Modern Africa, 208. 26 Alice L. Conklin, A Mission to Civilise: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930, (Stanford: Stanford

University Press, 1997), 183.

27 Reid, A History of Modern Africa, 223. 28 Reid, A History of Modern Africa, 224. 29 Gray, Christianity, 148. 30 Gray, Christianity, 148-51. 31 Kennedy, Islands of White, 134.

Hugo Jones Jesus College

Certainly none of this was occurring to quite the extent that the colonial settlers feared; Brodhurst-Hill was a tad hyperbolic in his panicked exclamation. Similar exaggeration can be seen in the South African Edgar Brookes in the early 1930s:
[the] massing of Natives in centres like the Witwatersrand leads gradually to the growth of an urban population, poor, squalid, propertyless [sic], easily inflammable, whom the Bolshevik Third International has already designated the best material through which to spread communistic doctrine through Africa.32

This fear was greatly overemphasised by men such as Brookes, though it should be noted that he assumes that African opposition to colonial rule would be incited by the intervention of an external political organisation rather than grass-roots activism. This trend of politicisation is one that can assume more significance on paper than it perhaps merits in reality. Any grass- roots political voice in this period was quiet, and very fragmented. Nonetheless, the colonial system had inadvertently created conditions in which political activism could take root. This potential to challenge colonialism was one of the most significant modernisations that took place in the interwar period, if it only came to fruition post-1945. It would seem, therefore, that this period was one where much change occurred, even if the use of the term modernisation can still be questioned. This social change was at once very significant, and so varied that to comment upon it monolithically is impossible. For many little to no change occurred; Africa was vast and the number of settlers very small. Certainly one might draw attention to the testimony of Ray Philips, who wrote in the 1930s:
A native heathen father is sitting in his grass hut in the country To-day [his] son is in Johannesberg working as a motor-driver, piloting a high powered motor-car through the thick of city traffic.33

In areas where industrialisation or the commercialisation of agriculture did occur the effects on society were profound. Extreme juxtapositions between rural and urban life could arise within single families. One of the key effects of this was the liberation of many young men from patriarchal rule. Most African societies were very conscious of age; seniority was very important. Kenyatta described a typical Gikuyu curse:
Orokanyarawo ne ciana ciaku otogwo onyarareete May your children treat you with disrespect as you have treated me.34

As job markets opened up in some regions, more and more young men were able to leave home and amass personal wealth. Writers such as Richard Reid have stressed that this changed the social balance in many African communities.35 This trend can in some ways be assessed as one of modernisation. This decline in patriarchy occasionally manifested itself in the loosening of restrictions on women, too. Apolo Kagwa, Prime-Minister of Buganda, certainly felt such when he claimed that an outbreak of syphilis was as a result of the emancipation of Baganda women from the surveillance to which they have been hitherto subjected.36 One might, of course, suggest that the immediate placing of blame on the female population demonstrates that less had changed than Kagwa feared. This issue cannot be explored in too much depth here, but what should be taken from it is that social norms were altering in some African communities in this period. Whether European colonialists would have thought of this as modernisation is open to doubt, but change certainly occurred. Key to this was the, tentative, emergence of class-consciousness in parts of Africa. This may be considered ironic, given the protestations of settlers that they had shucked the old
32 Saul Dubow, Racial Segregation and the Origin of Apartheid in South Africa, 1919-36, (London: Macmillan, 1989), 70. 33 Dubow, Racial Segregation and the Origins of Apartheid, 72. In a discussion on modernity it might be noted here that the

father is still sitting in his grass hut. Change was far from total.

34 Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, 114. 35 Reid, A History of Modern Africa, 203. 36 Vaughan, Curing their Ills, 135.

Hugo Jones Jesus College

European obsession with status. Doris Lessing wrote of Rhodesia: [t]here were no divisions here, no barriers, or at least none that could be put into words the harshest adjective in use was toffee-nosed, which meant snobbish, or exclusive.37 Despite this apparent new sentiment amongst the settlers, what they brought to many native African people was an awareness of class-based status that came to challenge kinship and age for social dominance in some parts. This manifested itself in a snobbery tied to colonial innovations, especially in terms of education and healthcare. One self-titled volu wrote in a 1950 journal:
[w]e must no longer tolerate the attitude of certain of our compatriots who prefer to give birth on the ground while our cities are endowed with maternity wards, equipped with all modern scientific equipment.38

Maternity proved an especially clear example of this tendency, with the higher-status mothers in some communities proudly parading their newly-born children in Western dresses, obtained from birthing clinics.39 As some African people began to think of themselves as middle-class, they implicitly accepted the notion that some of their compatriots were low, thus projecting European or colonial hierarchies on all and weakening their solidarity. This was the argument of Mary Rose Hunt based on her work on the Belgian Congo. 40 The significance of this is easy to exaggerate. It was a very slight tendency that did not manifest itself equally across the entire African continent. Nonetheless, it does seem as if African social consciousness was in some instances influenced by the class-based mentality that settlers were ostensibly trying so hard to purge from themselves. Certainly this brought some Africa communities closer to the social model of the colonial metropoles, but it is hard to describe this process as one of modernisation. Colonial rule in this period did change Africa, and many of these changes brought her more in line with a European economy and way of life. Education, industrialisation, healthcare, political involvement; all of these were to an extent more open to Africa and her inhabitants in 1939 than they had been in 1918. To claim this as simply modernisation seems wrong, however. Colonial powers did not want Africa to be modern, per se; they desired her to be modern enough to service the colonial metropole. The civilising mission that had been expressed from the late nineteenth century did not translate into a genuine effort to make European the various societies and cultures of Africa. It was extended further in regions where colonial settlers could exploit either labour or resources, and it was extended as a system that was under the control of the colonialists, not the colonised. In the midst of this, African agency did allow some change to occur that, though opposed by the colonial powers, fitted more with the image of modernity that they had for themselves. This invariably involved opposition to the system of oppression that colonial rule formed. It is only by assessing multiple aspects of African societies in this period that this conclusion can be drawn, for the impact of colonialism was deep-reaching, if inconsistent. Issues such as industrialisation, urbanisation, healthcare, education, and status were all intertwined. As Kenyatta wrote; No single part is detachable; each has its context and is fully understandable only in relation to the whole.41

37 Kennedy, Islands of White, 183. 38 Hunt, A Colonial Lexicon, 13. 40 Hunt, A Colonial Lexicon, 8. 41 Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, 309. 39 Vaughan, Curing their Ills, 69.

Hugo Jones Jesus College

Primary Material Kenyatta, Jomo, Facing Mount Kenya, (Trowbridge & Esher: Redwood Burn Limited, 1974 [1938]). Secondary Scholarship Brown, Ian (ed.), The Economies of Africa and Asia in the Inter-War Depression, (London: Routledge, 1989). Conklin, Alice, A Mission to Civilise: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997). Cooper, Frederick et al. (eds.), Confronting Historical Paradigms: Peasants, Labour and the Capitalist World System in Africa and Latin America, (London: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993). Dubow, Saul, Racial Segregation and the Origins of Apartheid in South Africa, 1919-36, (London: Macmillan, 1989). Faye, J.D. & Oliver, Roland (eds.), The Cambridge History of Africa, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). Gordon, Robert & Tilley, Helen (eds.), Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism, and the Politics of Knowledge, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007). Hunt, Mary Rose, A Colonial Lexicon: of Birth Ritual, Medicalisation, and Mobility in the Congo, (London: Duke University Press, 1999). Kennedy, Dane, Islands of White: Settler Society and Culture in Kenya and Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1939, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987). Mamdani, Mahmood, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996). Reid, Richard J., A History of Modern Africa: 1800 to the present, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). Rodney, Walter, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, (London: Bogle-LOuverture, 1972). Shenton, Robert, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney, Canadian Journal of African Studies 9:1 (1975), 146-150. Vaughan, Megan, Curing their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).