The attitudes of British colonial authorities towards their subjects are reflected in Oginga Odinga’s memories of his childhood in a Kenyan village. The British government took over Kenya in 1895 after the privately sponsored East Africa Company failed to keep order or find sufficient revenues to reward investors. Although Kenya became one of the few African colonies to receive a large number of white settlers, Oginga Odinga’s village in the remote southwest Nyanza region seldom saw white people. By this time (shortly before World War I) the British had perfected a system of administration that required fewer costly European functionaries and placed responsibility for carrying out government policies in the hands of natives. In this process of “indirect rule” the British appointed headmen or chiefs to serve as intermediaries between villagers and remote district or provincial administrators who were British. Odinga’s memoir describes some of the complexity in the roles of these natives who received enhanced opportunities, wealth, and status from the government, but at the risk of being isolated from their own people.
Oginga Odinga estimated that he was born in 1911 or 1912. He was educated at an English school and became a teacher. In the 1940s he emerged as a leader of the Luo people in his native Nyanza district, pressing for economic development and political rights for Africans. He was the first vice president of independent Kenya, but quickly parted from nationalist leader Jomo Kenyatta because of his insistence that Kenya should have a multiparty political system. After his death in 1994 Odinga was honored for a lifetime of involvement in nationalist and democratic politics in Kenya.
Oginga Odinga, Not Yet Uhuru. New York: Hill and Wang (1967): 1–3, 15–16, 20–22.
Between 1837 and 1845, more than five thousand Dutch Afrikaner settlers moved into the South African interior, followed by even larger numbers after 1845. Their timing was opportune, for they crossed the frontier in the immediate aftermath of Shaka’s wars (the mfecane), which had depopulated and destabilized the region to such an extent that the Afrikaners encountered minimal initial resistance. The majority of voortrekker wagon trains headed due north, across the Orange and Vaal rivers, to establish new farms, communities, and ultimately two independent Afrikaner states. But one wagon train, led by Piet Retief (1789-1838) in 1837, split off from the others and headed eastward toward the coast, where there was better rainfall and access to the sea. Their route, however, took them right to the frontiers of the mighty Zulu empire, which was now ruled by Shaka’s half-brother, Dingane. Retief and a party of seventy men visited Dingane in early 1838 to seek his permission to settle in his kingdom, but the Zulu leader saw the arrival of whites as a serious threat, and he decided to launch a preemptive strike. Retief and his party were initially welcomed at the Zulu capital, but at Dingane’s command, they were all slaughtered. Dingane then sent his regiments to attack the wagon train, killing an additional 250 voortrekkers.
Temporarily defeated but not deterred, the Afrikaners decided to send a punitive expedition against the Zulu later that year. Led by Andries Pretorious, the Afrikaners assembled a force of five hundred well-armed male volunteers, two cannon, and fifty-seven wagons to confront a massive Zulu army that may have been as large as ten thousand. At the Battle of Blood River on December 16, 1848, the Afrikaners dealt the Zulu a stunning defeat in one of the most decisive military encounters in the history of colonial Africa. Lashing their wagons together in a defensive laager (“a mobile fortress of wagons”), the Afrikaners turned back successive assaults by Zulu regiments before launching a counterattack. When the battle subsided, more than three thousand Zulu lay dead on the battlefield—but not a single Afrikaner had been killed. One of the participants in this campaign was Sarel Cilliers (1801–1871), who led the men in daily prayers and Sunday worship. Cillier’s account of the battle highlighted the ferocity of the struggle, as well as the religious fervor that inspired the Afrikaner combatants. In later years, Cilliers became famous and revered as the “Father of the Covenant,” the holy promise that the Afrikaners made to God prior to their great battle with the Zulu.
Charl Celliers [Sarel Cilliers], “The Journal of the Late Charl Celliers”(1871), in John Bird, ed., The Annals of Natal, Vol. I: 1495–1845 (Cape Town: C. Struik, 1965), 238, 243–47.
John A. Hobson
John Atkinson Hobson (1858–1940) grew up during an economic depression in England that ultimately shifted his intellectual interests from literature to economics. One of his major contributions is the theory of under-consumption, which argues that low consumer demand and high supply of goods will lead to a sluggish economy. Hobson also held that imperialism could be stripped down to economic interests by the mother country: it was no more than a search for new capitalist markets. This selection explores Hobson’s observed relationships among economy, international struggle, imperialism, and nationalism.
From John A. Hobson, Imperialism and the Lower Races. New York: James Pott and Co., 1902, part II, chapter IV.
Jantshi ka Nongila
Shaka was born in 1787, the illegitimate son of Senzangakhona, chief of the Zulu. Treated as an unwelcome outcast by his father and his kin, he sought refuge among several neighboring groups before distinguishing himself as a skilled and innovative soldier in the Mthethwa army. King Dingiswayo of the Mthethwa was so impressed with Shaka that he helped him seize the Zulu chieftainship after the death of Senzangakhona in 1816. When Dingiswayo was killed by his archenemy Zwide, Shaka avenged the death of his friend and mentor by destroying Zwide’s regiments in 1818. Shaka used this occasion to submit the large Mthethwa confederation to his personal rule, and the Zulu emerged as the dominant military and political power in the region. During the 1820s, Shaka continued to expand and consolidate the Zulu empire. Through a series of wars that became known as the mfecane (“the time of sorrows”), widespread areas of southern Africa were devastated by warfare, famine, and social dislocation as residents tried to resist or escape from the Zulu regiments. At the height of his power in the mid-1820s, Shaka was visited by British traders, who were duly impressed with the size and power of the Zulu kingdom. Although Shaka was wary of the English, he did initiate commercial and diplomatic relations, and he sent personal emissaries to meet with the British king. But in 1828, Shaka was assassinated and succeeded by Dingane, his half-brother. Dingane ruled in much the same manner as Shaka until his power was broken by an armed force of white settlers at the Battle of Blood River in 1836. This selection is from Jantshi ka Nongila, the son of one of Shaka’s military intelligence officers. In 1902, when Jantshi was around 55 years old, he recounted his tales to James Stuart, an English colonial civil servant who had a keen interest in recording and preserving the language and history of the Zulu people. The edited selection of his testimony highlights Shaka’s frontier battle with Zwide, and it illuminates the traits and behaviors that made the Zulu king a great and feared leader.
James Stuart interview with Jantshi ka Nongila, February 9–19, 1903, in The James Stuart Archive of Recorded Oral Evidence Relating to the History of the Zulu and Neighboring Peoples, Vol. I. de B. Webb and J. B. Wright, eds. and transl. University of Natal Press (1979): 174, 185–87, 189, 195, 198, 201–02.
Samuel Clemens (1835–1910), who took his pen name from a command shouted on riverboats, was the quintessential American writer: his major works The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are classics about the American experience. A humorist, Twain borrowed and responded to current political material in his works. This essay provides a satirical yet scathing depiction of King Leopold II of Belgium, whom Twain condemned as a heartless imperialist for his destructive policies in the Belgian Congo. Consider how Twain gets his point across while nonetheless speaking from King Leopold’s point of view.
From King Leopold’s Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule, By Mark Twain. Boston: The P. R. Warren Co., 1905. Second Edition
In 1807 most of the countries involved in the centuries-long Atlantic slave trade signed an international agreement to abolish the shipments of Africans to the western hemisphere. The British Royal Navy established a west Africa duty station to intercept smugglers of contraband human cargo. Africans freed by the British were returned to Freetown in Sierra Leone. Surrounded by strangers and often far from their native lands, many stayed to be educated at schools set up by the Church of England’s Church Missionary Society (CMS). Often they converted to Christianity, and their knowledge of two very different worlds helped European missionaries to reach peoples of the interior.
Perhaps the most famous African to follow the path described above was Samuel Crowther (c. 1806–1891). As a young teenager Crowther was captured and sold to Portuguese slave traders. Leaving the Nigerian port of Lagos, the ship carrying him to South America was spotted by a Royal Navy squadron, which took Crowther and his fellow captives to Freetown. There Crowther was one of the first students at the Church Missionary Society’s Fourah Bay College. He became a teacher and evangelical Christian with strong ideas on the value of the Christian message for Africans. In 1841 he joined the First Niger Expedition to explore commercial and missionary opportunities away from the Nigerian coast. The mission is usually considered a failure. As was frequently the case, most Europeans could not survive the diseases they encountered in the African interior, and many of the party died. But Crowther proved himself to the British as a translator and intermediary with the village peoples. In 1842 he was sent to England for training and ordination in the Church of England.
When Crowther returned to Africa, the mission he established among the Yoruba people became a model for others. As much as possible, each mission community became self-sufficient, so that it would not be dependent on the villages around it. The residents grew cash crops that authorities hoped would replace revenues lost with the abolition of slavery, ran schools for the young, wore western clothes, and accepted any tribal peoples who wished to receive education and learn of the Christian religion. Crowther was so successful in managing the Yoruba and Niger missions that he was invited back to England to be consecrated as bishop of the Niger territories, a huge tract reaching from Nupe in the north to the Niger Delta along the coast. He was the first African to reach such a position in the Anglican Church.
Samuel Crowther, Journal of an Expedition up the Niger and Tshadda Rivers. London: Church Missionary House (1855): xiii–xviii.
A prominent Liberian, West African, and pan-African figure, Edward Wilmot Blyden advocated for the rights and abilities of Africans (and people of African descent) to govern themselves. Born in the Virgin Islands to free black parents in 1832, he lived briefly in Venezuela and the United States before emigrating to Liberia at the age of eighteen. Liberia had been founded by liberated American slaves on the west coast of Africa in 1822, and Blyden was fully engaged in the project of establishing a Liberian identity, based on the intellectual and political development of the nation’s citizens. Blyden was appointed professor of classics at Liberia College in 1862. In his quest to make the college (the first secular English-speaking institution of higher learning in sub-Saharan Africa) more relevant to Liberia, he began teaching Arabic in 1867. He was also a significant figure in Liberian politics, serving as secretary of state (1864–1866) and an advisor to the reformist President Roye after 1870. In this address, celebrating Liberian independence, Blyden compares his nation’s constitution with that of the United States, promoting the benefits of reform and self-government for his fellow citizens.
Black Spokesman: Selected Published Writings of Edward Wilmot Blyden, ed. Hollis R. Lynch (London: Frank Cass, 1971), 77–79.
Ismail ibn ‘Abd al-Qadir
The religiously inspired uprising against the British in Sudan during the 1880s is associated with the figure of the self-styled “Mahdi.” However, the primary motivation of Muhammad Ahmad Ibn Abdallah (1844–1885), who took on the title Mahdi (“rightly guided” or “messiah”) was to reform Islam from within. Similar to other early modern Islamic reformers, beginning with ‘Abd al-Wahhab in eighteenth-century Arabia, the Mahdi aimed to eliminate Sufi brotherhoods and remove the (to his mind) abominable medieval aberrations from Islam. The Mahdi’s anti-imperialist stance against the British was thus incidental: the British happened to occupy Egypt and to be moving on the Sudan in the midst of his anti-Sufism campaigns. The British focused on the siege of Khartoum in 1883, but this contemporary biographer of the Mahdi focuses on the renovation of Islam.
Haim Shaked, The Life of the Sudanese Mahdi: A Historical Study of ‘Kitab Sa’adat al-Mustahdi bi-Sirat al-Imam al-Mahdi’ (The Book of the Bliss of Him Who Seeks Guidance by the Life of the Imam al-Mahdi) (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1978), 66–68.
In 1652, the Dutch East Indies Company established a small settlement at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to serve as a refueling station for its fleet of ships engaged in the Asian spice trade. The settlement was originally intended to be of limited size and duration, but Dutch emigration steadily increased throughout the eighteenth century, reaching an estimated population of more than fourteen thousand by 1793. As the pioneer settlements grew, so too did their conflicts with the local Khoisan people, seminomadic cattle herders who resented the foreign intrusion on their pastures. With superior weaponry, Dutch settlers defeated Khoisan resistance, seized their cattle, and forced many Khoisan to leave the region or remain as servile herders for the whites. At the same time, the Dutch East Indies Company began to import black slaves from West Africa to perform other forms of manual labor. Thus from the very beginning, the success of whites on the African frontier was dependent on African land and labor.
In the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain seized the Cape from the Dutch in 1814 to prevent its possible capture by the French. Following the war, the British officials and settlers began to consolidate their rule at their new “Cape Colony,” establishing their own laws, language, and customs to replace those of the Dutch, who now called themselves Afrikaners (“Africans”). Afrikaner disaffection with British rule reached a peak in the 1830s, when large numbers of Afrikaners decided to leave the Cape Colony in an event that has become known as the Great Trek. In a scene reminiscent of American history, Afrikaner farmers and their families packed their belongings, hitched up their oxen-led covered wagons, and set out to find a new life beyond the known and established frontier. One of the leaders of the wagon trains was Piet Retief (1780–1838), a well-respected leader of the voortrekkers [pioneers]. Eager to present his reasons for leaving the Cape, Retief explained his motives in a brief letter titled “Manifesto of the Emigrant Farmers,” published in a colonial newspaper in 1837. In the reading selection that follows, Retief ’s specific grievances and intentions reflect his attitudes toward the British and the Africans, as well as his own sense of Afrikaner identity.
Piet Retief, “Manifesto of the Emigrant Farmers,” Grahamstown Journal (February 2, 1837), in G. W. Eybers, ed., Select Constitutional Documents Illustrating South African History, 1795–1910. New York: Negro Universities Press (1918): 143–45.
Twice Prime Minister of Britain, Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965) led his country in uncompromising opposition to Nazi Germany during World War II. In addition to his prodigious political activity spanning a half century in government, Churchill was also a prolific writer—he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. His work The River War recounts his participation in the Mahdist War, an insurgency by Sudanese against Anglo-Egyptian colonial power. This selection describes the bloody Battle of Omdurman (1898), which established British control in Sudan. While ten thousand Mahdists were killed, the British force under Kitchener lost fewer than fifty men. Consider how evocative imagery and selection of information reveal Churchill’s point of view.
From Winston Churchill, The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan. New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1902.