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Michael Bitter Last Short Paper
Indigenous Resistance to Colonialism
In the readings we’ve reviewed for this topic, two of the authors in the Conklin & Fletcher “European Imperialism” book stand out in my mind as being important for ongoing discussion and consideration. James C. Scott, in his essay “Peasant Weapons of the Weak” seeks to reveal to us “The Unwritten History of Resistance” and Frederick Cooper, in his essay “Wage Labor of the Anticolonial Resistance in Colonial Kenya” discusses the difference in industrial capitalist wage labor that relies on “clock time.” I will briefly highlight and discuss what I find important in these essays. James C. Scott finds a “left-wing academic romance with wars of national liberation” and an excessive amount of scholarly attention devoted to the subject of peasant rebellions and revolutions.1 He points out that large scale peasant revolutions are rare, nearly always “crushed unceremoniously,” may bring small gains even with failure but definitely bring carnage and demoralization upon defeat, and even when successful are often found to replace one oppressor with an even worse one.2 What we do not seem to focus on in our studies of indigenous resistance is the everyday forms which challenge the ruling order, “the prosaic but constant struggle between the peasantry and those who seek to extract labor, food, taxes, rents and interests from them,” which may include the “ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups: foot dragging, dissimulations, false compliance, pilfering, feigned
James C. Scott, “Peasant Weapons of the Weak,” in European Imperialism, 1830-1930 - Climax and Contradiction,
ed. Alice Conklin, & Ian Fletcher (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999) p. 184.
Ibid. p. 184-85
ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so forth.”3 Scott surmises that these forms of resistance, which require little or no formal leaders, coordination or planning, often represent an individual’s self-help while avoiding direct conflict with authority and elite norms. This is what happens between those periods of heightened tension that spawn revolts – in the meantime the peasants use defiance as best as possible to defend their own interests. These forms of resistance do not make headlines and are not recorded as part of history and so easily go undetected because it is in neither party’s best interest to draw attention to these acts. For most of the peasantry throughout history there is very little chance of a change in social class or status. Open defiance to conformity of the ruling elite’s public and symbolic goals invites ferocious and rapid retaliation and makes life more difficult for the peasant. However, small acts done from safe in the shadows of anonymity “multiplied many thousandfold, such petty acts of resistance by peasants may in the end make an utter shambles of the policies dreamed up by their would-be superiors in the capital.”4 The colonists are not likely to wish to publicize the acts of defiance and insubordination because it shines light on the unpopularity of their policies and exposes vulnerability. This creates what Scott calls a “complicitous silence” which keeps these everyday forms of resistance to colonial and imperial tactics from being recognized as an ongoing part of history. Frederick Cooper brings to discussion the very important point of differing attitudes towards labor and the introduction, enforcement and resistance to “clock time.” Max Weber wrote a fabulous analysis of the changes in conditions, lifestyles and work ethic attitudes that came along with industrialization and the switch to “clock time” versus “natural time,” or “traditional time,” and Frederick Cooper is obviously borrowing heavily from Weber’s analysis which can be found in his works regarding the Protestant Work thesis (see especially, “The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of
Ibid. p. 185 Ibid. p. 187.
Capitalism”, 1904). Cooper cites E.P. Thompson (1967) for his reference to this thesis instead, but adequately describes the contrast between the attitudes toward time and work discipline being vastly different between the indigenous “task time” of intensive and focused labor tasks that were often seasonally cyclical and integrated into social life and that of capitalist “wage labor” dominated by hierarchal authority structures and “clock time.”5 He points out that the work rhythms that dominated modern Europe, (and I will add, as well as those of our own society), “were not natural characteristics of a particular culture, but historical developments” associated with the rise of capitalism’s “wage labor.”6 These differences in work attitudes and traditions led European colonizers to consider African lazy and underdeveloped. Cooper goes on to discuss the slave society, and forms of resistance such as escape into maroon communities, Christian missions, or becoming allies to the potential enemies. The remaining enslaved people “resisted the cultural onslaught of their owners, keeping up dances, the initiation rites, and other practices of their home societies.”7 After abolition in Kenya in 1907, previous slaveholders seeking replacement labor expected the now free, formerly enslaved people to continue work rhythms as previously defined, but resistance in the forms of squatting, private crop production (such a rubber), and short-term agricultural labor helped the ex-slaves regain a “precolonial concept of time” again.8 I find both of these essays to be complimentary and rich with continued research possibilities for historical review of past and present societies’ forms of class struggle. The ideological construction of the concept of time, and how it is properly used, or in our common vernacular – how it is spent, is most definitely one of Imperialism’s greatest tools, and as these essays show, also a potential vulnerability.
Frederick Cooper, “Wage Labor and Anticolonial Resistance in Colonial Kenya,” in European Imperialism, 18301930 - Climax and Contradiction, ed. Alice Conklin, & Ian Fletcher (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999) p. 190. 6 Ibid. 7 Ibid. p. 192. 8 Ibid. p. 195-96.
Conklin, Alice & Fletcher, Ian, ed. European Imperialism, 1830-1930 - Climax and Contradiction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.