APRIMARY obligation of Europeans and Americans toward colonial peoples is generally held to be to "educate the native" for self-government. In postwar plans this obligation is usually expressed in the form of an injunction that colonial Powers, or any agency which is set up to control colonial areas, shall preserve the interests of the native populations during some undetermined transitional period and instruct them in the art of governing themselves. It is implied or promised that autonomy shall be theirs when their "education" has been completed. On the political side, this represents an extension of the mandates idea; as it applies to native ways of life, it is a blend of the older concept of European colonial policy embodied in the phrase "the white man's burden" and the more modern statement of administrative technique known as "indirect rule."

The principle of tutelage from which the obligation just described is supposed to derive rests on the assumption that native peoples are less developed than peoples whose cultures are marked by a machine technology and the scientific approach to natural phenomena. Native peoples are rarely held to be innately inferior because of race. They are supposed, rather, to be culturally inferior; and because their "backwardness" is believed cultural, the efficacy of education is taken for granted. The length of time a certain native people must be subject to tutelage will depend upon how "advanced" it becomes -- that is, how readily it accepts European and American ways of life.

This approach to the problem is regrettably over-simplified. The fact is that native peoples all over the world have in many respects a high degree of competence for self-government, and that much of the present ill-feeling between native peoples and their European rulers is due to the failure of westerners to understand this fact. A still greater degree of friction between rulers and ruled is to be expected in the future if the former do not adopt a different attitude toward the problem of integrating colonial areas into a peaceful world economic and political system.

It should be made clear at the outset that the problem is not approached here on the unrealistic assumption that the hands of the clock can be turned backward. The fact of European and American occupation and control cannot be waved out of existence, nor can the requirements of the world economy be ignored. The basic problem is to find and adopt a policy toward native peoples which will contribute to a growing confidence among all the peoples of the world.


Only in recent years have we come to perceive how tenaciously "backward" peoples cling to their own ways of life, how devoted they are to what in their eyes has worth and substance. For uncounted centuries in all parts of the non-European world, native folk, unmolested in their relative isolation, created and preserved patterns of living which permitted them to survive. They developed bodies of tradition adapted to the natural settings in which they found themselves, technological skills and economic systems to provide for their physical needs, social and political institutions to regulate relationships within the group, and forms of religious and artistic expression to cope with the unknown and the unknowable and to satisfy their non-material needs.

The advent of European control changed native political and economic systems radically, but many other facets of native culture were not affected to any comparable degree. In some colonies it even happened that native economic and political institutions were not considered prejudicial to the interests of the colonial Power and were permitted to continue relatively unchanged. In fact, all over the native world, many petty chiefs today still carry on much as they did before the coming of the Europeans, and native markets still are held as they always have been. Now, however, a chief acts on the advice of a colonial officer and is paid by the European administration; and the market contributes to the operation of a fiscal system quite outside the control of those whose lives are influenced by it. In many native societies there never was much democracy, as we define it; nevertheless, the change to the district officer from the native ruler and his council of elders is no mere substitution of one power for its equivalent. It is a change from a socially sanctioned system of controls which was a part of the people's cultural heritage to a system imposed and administered from outside the group. The European system is as foreign to the native psychologically as it is politically.

Characteristic of current approaches to the problem of colonial government is the fact that the native is rarely consulted, and that when the colonial administrator takes the native point of view into account he rarely does so realistically. As a result, often unwittingly, the rôle assigned the native in the postwar world is essentially that of a pawn. Although he enjoys better sanitation, a higher standard of living, security from petty depredations, new goods to fill new wants, and our type of religious truth, he still is consumed by the desire to return to "the old days" of freedom from foreign dominance and to ways of life that were satisfactory to him. Yet even when the existence of that desire is recognized, the decision as to whether it would be "best" to gratify it is held to lie in the wisdom of the foreign ruler, not in the desire of the ruled; and this not out of devotion to the autocratic principle but because the native is believed to be like the child whose parent has the advantage of superior intelligence and maturity.

This point of view is acceptable to us because it feeds a congenial belief in our own superiority, for among Europeans and Americans ethnocentrism has been raised almost to an article of faith. It is given the appearance of validity by the military power which colonizing countries always have at their command in order to overwhelm any native opposition. "He who makes the powder," says a West African proverb, "wields the power." Our control of the machine, in contrast to the rude technologies of native folk, has heightened our sense of cultural superiority by providing it with objective proof. When we compare the complexity of our economic system with the economies of primitive folk, and when we consider the advantages that come to us from our possession of the art of writing, we secure further satisfactory evidence of our own preëminence.

It is generally assumed that native ways of life must inevitably yield when they come into contact with "higher" cultures; but the hard fact is that they do not. Evidence from all over the world is at hand to show that contact with another culture can just as easily make the native determined to continue in what seems to him a more desirable way of living. If he cannot do so on the surface of daily life, he will do it sub rosa. In many parts of West Africa, for example, European authorities have tried to suppress worship of a supposed god of smallpox, and numerous officials believe they have succeeded. What is not understood is that this deity is but one manifestation of the earth-god, who must be worshipped if crops are not to fail; worship goes on as always, in a form sufficiently changed to ensure adequate disguise.


What is known, it may be asked, of the ability of native peoples to govern themselves? The range of political systems in primitive society is vast. It includes a great number of civilizations, each with its own set of institutions. Just as the societies of native folk vary in size from small autonomous bands to stable kingdoms with populations counted in the millions, so the political structures range from rudimentary forms almost not discernible in any institutionalized pattern to great dynasties which have held sway for generations. So varied are these forms, indeed, that in many instances they defy the definitions set up by specialists in government, which perhaps is why the latter seem to have given over any attempt at a scientific consideration of native political methods.

Yet whether simple or complex, whether appertaining to societies small or large, these political systems perform the functions of the state as we know it -- that is, they control the relations of a man to his fellows, and regulate the drive for power. Functionally, the question whether such controls are exerted by family groups or by designated officials is beside the point. The man who refrains from misconduct through fear that the son of his maternal uncle will subject him to public ridicule is responding to the same type of control as the individual in our society who avoids wrongdoing through fear of the police and the courts -- except that the former system perhaps works out the more efficiently of the two.

The problem of how competent native folk are to govern themselves differs in various parts of the world. The political situation on a coral atoll in the Pacific is not the same as in a populous island such as Java. The type and degree of native contact with Europeans often differ from tribe to tribe even within a relatively restricted region, and this adds another complicating factor. Yet the underlying principles are everywhere the same. Colonial peoples the world over were affected by the victories of Japan and have reacted to the implications of the Japanese slogan "Asia for the Asiatics." Similarly, a reaction has been noted to the proclamation of the Atlantic Charter and the Four Freedoms among widely different primitive tribes.

We may assume, then, that while particular situations differ the basic motivations do not, and we may proceed to examine the conditions which antedated European control in various regions in order to find clues as to how the problem might be solved aright. There seem certain advantages in choosing to study Africa particularly in this connection. Though racial disunity does not manifest itself in Africa as it does, for example, in India, the tribal tensions there are equally strong. Moreover, Africa is the largest single land area under foreign control. It lies outside the immediate range of the "Asia for the Asiatics" slogan, and it usually is not considered as politically important as the Dutch East Indies, French Indo-China or Malaya; yet the problems it presents are quite as pressing as those arising in the latter areas. Indeed, it is especially desirable that students of international affairs begin to accord African problems closer attention than they have done in the past, for this continent seems a likely center of many future irritations.

All over Africa, before the advent of the Europeans, there existed societies ruled under a system of delegated authority which assured a reign of law and order. The Fula, Hausa, Wolof, Fulbe and other empires of the western Sudan have long been famous. The story of their dynastic struggles and of their wars of conquest reads like a page of European history -- not of too distant a date at that. On the Gold Coast were the Ashanti and the Fanti kingdoms. The constitutional principles governing the former, and the legal system of the latter, show that these Negro societies were capable of developing a high degree of organization in conformity with their own patterns of government. The Kingdom of Dahomey exhibited an even more closely-knit government structure, as shown, for example, by the annual census, the techniques of levying taxes and the planned agricultural regimen. In Nigeria, the Yoruban people, and those of Benin, were likewise carefully and efficiently organized. Even in such a region as the Niger Delta, where the political unit was small and restricted to an aggregate of villages, the African tradition of regulated procedures to govern all phases of life was as prominent as elsewhere. The Kingdom of Kongo at the mouth of the Congo River was well-established when the Portuguese explorers reached it in the first part of the sixteenth century, while inland lay the countries of the Bushongo and other Bantu rulers. East and South Africa similarly had well-organized political units. Among Africanists, Uganda was long a standard example of the African "genius for organization." Almost mythical was the Kingdom of Monomotapa, in the southern part of the continent. And we have the well-authenticated historical accounts of the rise of the Zulu Kingdom under Chaka, and the establishment of the Matabele domain.

Regular processes of law were the rule in the larger aggregates as well as in the smaller autonomous village units of herding bands. The indigenous court systems of the Africans have been commented on by every early traveller who saw them in operation. In the larger groupings, appeals could be taken to a higher court from an adverse decision in a lower one. Litigation -- especially in East and South Africa, where issues arose over the ownership of the cattle that passed from one family to another incident on marriage -- could go on for generations. That a man argued his own case instead of retaining a specialist to do this for him, that he might cite proverbs instead of legal precedents, merely meant that the outer trappings of the system differed from those known to ourselves. The result was the same: the individual knew his rights, and could expect protection in the exercise of them.

The principles underlying African political systems were of a different order from those in present-day American and European countries. African polity was based on a conception of disciplined obedience in accord with status. The best European analogy to the African monarchy is the feudal kingdom of the Middle Ages, though the analogy, as might be expected, does not hold true in any great detail. The African system was more flexible than the European, and change of status was far easier for the African commoner and even slave than for the European yeoman or serf.

Beneath the seeming differences in position, also, was a democratic reality that is to be grasped only when one understands the basic assumptions concerning the relation of man to man. This was reflected in part in the political realism which inhibited a ruler, no matter how absolute his power in theory, from exercising that power without first ascertaining the reactions of his people to specific edicts. For the rest, this democratic reality was to be seen in the bearing of a man -- in the manner in which, once the formalities of greeting were over, he would meet and treat with other members of his tribe.

There were, of course, many aspects of the political systems of Africa (or of other parts of the native world) which from our point of view appear undesirable, distasteful and even repulsive. The institution of slavery was the rule in most of the continent, and the object of most wars between native states in the more densely populated portions, particularly during the period of the slave trade to the New World, was the acquisition of human booty. It is true that, except in special instances, slavery in Africa was not the institution it became in the Americas; it was customarily of the household type, and the adoption of a slave or the child of a slave could on occasion give the bondsman the position of tribesman. But the slave did suffer one peril he did not know in the New World; he might be sent to accompany his master to the realm of the dead, to serve him there as he had served him in the world of the living. When a king died an impressive retinue accompanied him to the other world. We need but read the descriptions given by Canon Roscoe of the funerary rituals of the Baganda royalty, or those by Sir Richard Burton of the Dahomean "customs," to realize how lightly on occasion life could be held.

In the larger groupings, also, not only was life held cheaply; property, too, was owned at the pleasure of the ruler. At this distance in time from the days of autonomous rule it is not easy to obtain information on native taxation systems. But we can reconstruct something of the facts from the chronicles of the early explorers, and in some parts of Africa old men can be found whose memories reach beyond the colonial régime to the autonomous past. Land, whether of a large kingdom or of a village state, belonged in principle to the ruler. When he granted it for use he gave up his rights over it while it was under cultivation; at least he abandoned the right to take the produce. In the larger groupings, however, the ruler often could appropriate a considerable proportion of a man's wealth as taxes. A man's sons could be impressed for military service; his daughter could be taken for the royal household. When there were especially favorable channels for trade, or particularly good opportunities to dispose of produce, the ruler profited first from them; and he exercised other monopolies that offered special chances for gain.

In general, autocratic tendencies predominated in societies in which political institutions were most highly developed, whereas democratic aspects of government bulked larger in groupings "lacking centralized authority, administrative machinery, and constituted judicial institutions," to quote the phrase employed by Fortes and Evans-Pritchard. Yet whether the systems were democratic or autocratic, they operated successfully for longer periods of time than the historic record covers, to say the very least. They were cast in the patterns of the culture as a whole. Their burdens, which might seem irksome to us, were integrated into the total scheme of living and were accepted as normal. So fully accepted were they that they still remain vivid in the unwritten history of peoples who, under foreign control, remember their virtues and forget their shortcomings.


Those who study native patterns of living scientifically probably come closest to being able to understand how the native regards the colonial system. This is very different indeed from the impression given the government official who deals with the daily events of native life. In West Africa, for example, the colonial system has brought many benefits to the natives, as the natives themselves will readily admit. This is especially the case in the British colonies. The native has personal security as never before. He has a higher standard of living than he did in the days of autonomous rule. Health conditions have been greatly improved. Native horizons have been widened in many directions. Only freedom is lacking. Hence, despite all the benefits bestowed, one rarely encounters a native who does not speak with nostalgia of "the time when we were free" and who, if he speaks frankly and without fear, does not say he looks forward to a day in the predictable future when he will be liberated from foreign control.

This raises a question which troubles many who seek a wise decision regarding the place of native peoples in the postwar world. Can the native be granted his own way of life, they ask, if this means that the world society must countenance Melanesian cannibalism, Borneo head-hunting, African slavery? Or can it allow autocratic controls, rigid social stratification, intra-tribal economic inequalities? The problem must be faced squarely and without subterfuge. One type of answer -- never very satisfactory -- is the tu quoque. Have Borneo head-hunters taken the heads of as many persons in long generations as we, for all our boasted culture, kill in automobile accidents in a single normal year, or in a single skirmish in modern warfare? Arguments on this level, however, lead us nowhere. Nor is it useful to be sentimental, to picture native peoples as having lived formerly in a golden age and to think they should retain their aboriginal ways merely because these are picturesque.

Where different peoples come into close contact changes are bound to occur. The point is that the changes must not be imposed, but induced on the one side and accepted on the other. Native folk are just as quick to see and seize upon material advantages as we are ourselves, provided these are not forced on them or presented to them as an integral part of a system which in its totality is incomprehensible. To do so affronts their dignity as adult human beings. Here the student of primitive cultures can be of service by suggesting transfers of interest which easily and naturally wean a tribe away from practices that will handicap it in assuming its place in a world organization. Many traditions will wither and disappear of themselves as a result of changes in the economic bases of native life. Others will never be resurrected from the tribal past even if the opportunity should offer, because those who would be harmed by them will not, once they have been freed of their disabilities while under colonial rule, countenance a return to the previous status.

A principle well known to students of culture suggests the proper general approach -- namely, that while no body of customs is static, any new element which is successfully introduced either from within a group or from without must be cast in terms of preëxisting patterns. Innovations arising within the group are taken up or discarded according as they can or cannot be harmonized with established beliefs and habits. So are innovations introduced from outside, as long as the group is in a position to determine for itself what it will accept and what reject. That is why changes arbitrarily introduced from without "for the good of the people" are resented, no matter how enlightened the intent of the would-be benefactor. And that is why the problem of "educating the native" has proved so baffling. If new political or cultural patterns cannot be integrated with the old ones they will be rejected. Controls which "train for self-government" are thus as little acceptable to natives as would be educational attempts based on a recent interpretation of the Atlantic Charter, which was held to impose an obligation on Europeans and Americans to free the native from the "fears" presumably arising out of his "primitive superstitions."


Once again it must be emphasized that the hands of the historical clock cannot be turned back. Native peoples cannot be returned to their aboriginal isolation. The effects of their contact with Europeans cannot be erased. Practically speaking, then, it must be recognized that any abrupt withdrawal by the colonial Powers, even if it could be brought about, would result in chaos. Native political systems long suppressed would not function as they did in pre-colonial times. They could not govern if they were catapulted into control. Nor, in the main, are native peoples calling for the abrupt withdrawal of the colonial Powers. Those of their number who have knowledge of the world as it is recognize the need for outside protection against aggression -- economic no less than political -- until such time as experience has taught the art of self-protection and has provided the means. Most such individuals, as well as the mass of the peoples concerned, would be quite content if they knew that they were being accorded protection until, at definitely stated terminal periods, or according to some fixed procedure, they could achieve complete control over their own ways of life.

There are many fields, however, in which the natives can and should be left to themselves. These include local economic arrangements, forms of local government, marriage forms, social structures, religious beliefs and moral codes. Only in that way can the occupying Powers remove existing irritation or hostility. Most native folk have preserved their customs well enough so that they could easily achieve cultural autonomy of the kind suggested. Only such peoples as have been transplanted to reserves, or whose aboriginal habitat has been invaded by foreigners in large numbers, or who have been compelled to live under conditions that prevented key elements in their cultures from functioning, would find it impossible to exercise even local cultural control over their own societies. But they would be the exception in the colonial world rather than the rule -- they would present the sort of situation which has arisen in North America or the Union of South Africa, for example, rather than in Java or the Gold Coast. The difficulty lies in our unwillingness to admit the worth of native ways of life, to refrain from passing judgment upon their values and traditions merely because they differ from our own.

The next step, after we have accorded native peoples local and cultural autonomy, is to induce, not impose, such changes as will integrate them successfully into the postwar world. We should proceed entirely realistically. It would be folly, for example, not to recognize that regardless of the degree of cultural autonomy native peoples may be privileged to exercise, they still will continue to occupy land and possess manpower and influence the production of commodities which are essential to the functioning of the modern world's economy and hence are of general political concern.

Education is indeed needed; but it is needed not only for natives, but for those who wield world power as well. The first lesson to be learned, if successful progress is to be made, is that native custom must be fully and continuously taken into account in all plans for integrating a given people into the world scene, and that their sensibilities must be given as much weight as the sensibilities of the outside dominant group. Secondly, it must be remembered that native collaboration is a minimum requirement. We shall merely perpetuate the existing points of irritation under a new name if we continue to regard native peoples as groups for whom we must make decisions, who are capable of executing plans only under our direction, whose customs are to be respected only if they are not in conflict with our own standards. We must shed the assumption that if there is to be a world order it must be organized wholly on the European and American model. Equally important is the realization that definite periods must be set in which autonomy, or some phase of autonomy, is to be achieved. In some instances, of course, there will be justification for stating that a considerable interval must elapse before even cultural autonomy can be granted. The main thing is to establish a timetable.

Special techniques must be devised to attain the above objectives. An example is the manner in which the Office of Indian Affairs of the United States has used the device of incorporation to permit tribal matters to be placed in tribal hands. The right solutions will be hard to find, for the problem is highly complex. But it is urgently necessary that the search be made and that it succeed, for in native discontents are foreshadowed renewed conflict on a world scale and in the critical form of struggles between races.

With sufficient good will, mutual respect and ingenuity the conflict can be avoided. But the premise of any satisfactory solution, it must be stressed again, will have to be the recognition that no people can speak or plan for another permanently, that every group not demoralized by the long operation of outside controls is capable at least of local self-government, and that those groups not immediately capable of participating largely in world affairs will be able to do so in time. "Education for self-government" thus should mean adopting a procedure which will bring home to native peoples the advantages of participating in the world economic and political order and make them desire spontaneously to adapt their ways of life to its requirements.

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  • MELVILLE J. HERSKOVITS, Professor of Anthropology, Northwestern University; leader of various expeditions in Latin America and Africa, 1928-1942; author of "The Economic Life of Primitive Peoples" and other works
  • More By Melville J. Herskovits