The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
THREE times in history has an empire sloughed off into independence from the British Isles: America first, then the four white Dominions, lastly the four new Asiatic nations. Now attention is directed toward the fourth and last empire, which lies almost wholly within the tropics and mainly in Africa. It is to Africa that Britain must look for that field for investment, source of raw materials and expanding market which she needs in order to survive, and she must win it quickly from the swamps and forest and highveld of the last continent to be pioneered.
The drive to "open up" this treacherous and fascinating land has in fact begun. Nor is Britain the only nation concerned. France, Belgium and Portugal have big stakes in Africa's future and are turning more to development, as yet with very limited coördination and in pursuit of at least three different policies. But the fundamental fact is the same. For centuries, indeed millennia, Africa slumbered. Held in their rigid tribal mold, men lived as their ancestors before them, neither striving after nor desiring change. Now the mold is broken, the old ways are dying, and African man is suddenly conscious of a new, bewildering, turbulent world and faced with the colossal task of building a new society from the ruins of the old. Seldom in history, if ever, has change struck at a continent so swiftly and with so little mercy, allowing no time for adjustment and no room for compromise, and confronting the four western nations with the obligation so to shape their policies as to bring material prosperity to the land and spiritual hope to the people. Can it be done? That is today's enigma in Africa.
We must note first that we are dealing here only with that half of the continent lying within the tropics. North Africa was opened up 2,000 years ago by the Romans and still forms part of the Mediterranean world. South Africa was colonized over a century ago, first by the Dutch and then by the British, and forms a self-governing Dominion, independent of the western nations. It is the great "black belt" stretching some 3,000 miles from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean with which we are concerned -- Negro Africa, occupied by more than 100,000,000 people of many different races and tribes, and speaking more than 700 different tongues. In area, it is about three times as large as the United States and in resources it is almost as varied.
It is the minerals that have so far been most thoroughly exploited. Gold and coal enrich the Union of South Africa and, with thriving chrome mines, sustain also the British colony immediately to the north, Southern Rhodesia. North of that again lies the central African copper belt, shared between British Northern Rhodesia and the prosperous Belgian Congo: a strange outcrop of modern industry and huge labor camps in the heart of barren, dry, monotonous bush, and probably the world's greatest deposit of copper-bearing ores. To the northeast lie unexploited lead and coal fields and the largest single diamond mine in the world, discovered as recently as 1941 by a Canadian geologist. To the west lie the gold and diamonds of the Gold Coast and the tin of Nigeria, and underground, everywhere, mineral deposits still unsuspected or untapped. As yet, no oil fields have been discovered.
In matters of agricultural production, the colonial Powers follow two opposite policies, in some cases simultaneously. There is the plantation system, developed to its highest pitch in the Belgian Congo, where land is leased for long terms to big companies such as Unilever and used for the scientific production of export crops such as oil palms, rubber, cotton, coffee, tea. Sisal, too, is grown by these methods in Tanganyika and Kenya, both under British control. Such up-to-date plantations are but small islands dotted about a great ocean of peasant proprietorship, the prevailing system throughout the colonial section of the continent; in British West Africa no European company is allowed to buy or lease land. In the Gold Coast, half the world's supply of cocoa is grown by Africans on their own small farms, and in East Africa a great deal of coffee. In both cases, Africans themselves are considerable employers of labor, and some fortunes are made. A few Gold Coast Africans have been assessed for taxation at incomes of over £10,000 a year, and in Uganda there are one or two Baganda landowners drawing revenues from estates of more than 50,000 acres. The cattle lands lie mostly on the highveld in the east and east-center. Development has scarcely yet been started, save in the Kenya highlands where British settlers have imported English cattle and improved both breed and pastures. Disease, poor grass and lack of water have hitherto conspired together to hold back a great area of potential stock-raising country from easing the world's shortage of proteins.
Such a cursory and incomplete sketch of tropical Africa's resources would seem to support the current belief in the potentialities of this last undeveloped land -- "Tomorrow's Continent," as it has been called. Some consider that Britain's best hope of a solution to her dollar crisis lies in building up there alternative sources of supply. And it is true that the basis for reciprocal trade does exist between Africa and not Britain only but all Western Europe: on the one hand, a raw-material-producing region crying out for capital development and manufactures, on the other an industrial area in as dire a need of markets.
This is the dynamic behind the now rather notorious groundnut scheme in Tanganyika, the largest single project launched by the British since the war. The idea is imaginative: to open up with mechanized equipment nearly 3,000,000 acres of uninhabited or sparsely inhabited bush, nearly all infested by the tsetse fly and without communications; to build railways, a modern port and new cities in the wilderness; and to raise, by scientific means, large tonnages of groundnuts to help meet the world's fat deficiency. It was always admitted that the project would be expensive, but owing to top-heavy administration, lack of knowledge and sheer bad luck, it is to cost the British taxpayer about three times as much as he bargained for. This scheme was overambitious and has been badly handled by the Overseas Food Corporation, the government agency responsible; but the idea is nevertheless sound.
This is only one of several planned developments. In general, these are of two kinds. There are those, like the groundnut scheme, designed to increase the economic wealth of colonial Africa and ultimately to pay their way. Others of this nature include the damming of the Upper Nile and the generating of cheap hydroelectric power to serve a large and thickly populated region round Lake Victoria. A further hydroelectric scheme is proposed for Northern and Southern Rhodesia, and a project to open up the coal and lead deposits in the remotest corner of Tanganyika, the United Nations Trust Territory administered by Britain. Other proposals are as yet more nebulous, but could add greatly to the wealth of equatorial Africa, at present so lightly and patchily exploited that this whole vast region contributes less than 3 percent of the total amount of world trade.
At present Southern Rhodesia, for instance, supplies rather over one-fifth of Britain's consumption of tobacco. Given encouragement, east and central Africa could probably produce nearly all of it; hitherto the taste of the British public and the interests of American producers have prevented such encouragement. Much of the cotton and many of the fats could be raised in Africa, and, in time, a good deal of the meat. A new discovery made by chemists working for Imperial Chemical Industries has, for the first time, made feasible a great increase in meat production. This is antrycide, a drug believed to offer almost complete protection against diseases carried by tsetse flies. If it succeeds, several million square miles of bush will ultimately, though not for some time, be fitted for the raising of cattle.
A second set of projects falls under the head of "welfare," and includes such urgently needed benefits as roads (almost everywhere primitive), schools, mass education projects, hospitals, dispensaries, cheap literature, better markets and -- perhaps of all things most important -- a great extension of afforestation and soil conservation. These good works cannot yield an immediate return in cash, but their advocates expect them to pay a long-term dividend in greater human productivity, contentment and skill. Since most of colonial Africa is rat-poor, they are being paid for in part, though not wholly, by the British taxpayer, who has voted a sum of £120,000,000 for the purpose, interest-free.
Inevitably, this new drive to open up Africa -- significantly an affair of large, costly government schemes and not, as in the past, of the heroic, predatory and often picturesque forays of individuals -- will encounter difficulties, some of nature's making and some of man's. Of the two, the first set are probably the easier to deal with. Drought, disease, distance -- those dragons in the path of progress can, with vigor, resolution and expense, be conquered; the scientist and the engineer will see to it. More difficult, more complex are the problems set by human nature; and it must be said that, as yet, very little progress has been made towards their mastery.
These problems may be roughly summed up thus: advance in Africa is impossible without the full and eager coöperation of the African people. And hitherto, in spite of many obvious benefits derived and others promised, they have shown increasing distrust for the white man's intentions and growing reluctance either to believe what he says or to play their full part in working with him toward economic prosperity.
At first sight this seems absurd, and indeed it is often a nose-cutting operation. A voluntary campaign to terrace badly eroded land is, with scientific supervision, launched by the government and carried through at first by the people; enter the native politicians, and in a few weeks the scheme is abandoned, the chiefs who have helped to work it threatened with violence. Those who suffer are the people themselves, whose crops fail and who go hungry. Or the cocoa trees which support the whole economy of the Gold Coast contract "swollen shoot" disease, and the only way to stop infection spreading is to cut them down. At first this is done; then, once more, enter the native politicians; and in a very short time the cutting of trees -- for which compensation is paid -- has to be abandoned. Again, it is the native cocoa farms that suffer. It would be a mistake to suppose this attitude universal; on the contrary, all over Africa a great deal of solid, unobtrusive work toward bettering health and agriculture proceeds with full coöperation between white and black. Nevertheless -- and this is what is disturbing -- it is on the increase, and most in evidence not among backward peasants but among the more sophisticated and educated folk.
The reasons for this deterioration are in the main political and social. To take the second first: we do not always realize how much must be destroyed in order to rebuild, or how drastic that destruction must be to the human beings involved in it. The customary way of life of the African, that is, the life of the tribe, is incompatible with westernism. It must go, and in places is going quickly. The question is, what will replace it?
European administrators talk of "preserving what is best in the old" to blend with "what is best in the new." In other words, they want the best of both worlds for the African -- a natural and human wish, but one never likely to be satisfied. You cannot change societies selectively, picking out the plums and throwing the rest away; the whole pudding must be remade. In deliberately destroying what was "bad" in tribalism the white man is breaking also most of what was "good." And the "good" includes discipline, loyalty, faith and the sense of community, of working together for common ends, which was one of tribalism's strongest features. The result is a generation which sometimes seems -- these generalizations are of course by no means universally valid -- all froth and no body, easily led, ignorant yet arrogant, indisciplined, above all self-seeking and unstable. In practical ways this means, with other things, that young men do not seem willing to put in the hard work needed to build a new country. You cannot open up a continent just with fine speeches and good engineers. People must work, and work very hard, and there is no evidence that Africans, in the mass, have realized this.
The great majority work not for settlers or mines or governments but for themselves, on their small and crudely farmed plots. The first and most urgent need of Africa is to raise the pitifully low productivity of these peasant holdings and to arrest a hastening decline of soil fertility which will, at the present rate, soon threaten the whole continent with starvation. In the past, tribal agriculture was inefficient, but it got by because there was plenty of land, and soil could be rested under bush for long periods and at frequent intervals. Epidemics kept cattle and human populations down to a level where the dry pastures and the soil could support them. Today, in most places there is not plenty of land, because populations are everywhere going up by leaps and bounds, thanks to medical services and to the grip of law and order. The most terrifying single fact about tropical Africa is that in most parts the population will, at the present rate of increase, double itself in 30 years. Where is double the food to come from, and more than double? This is a nightmare that keeps conscientious officials awake at night, and so far there has been no answer.
Part of the answer, at least, must be the greatly improved productivity of land already under cultivation. That it could produce far more, properly farmed, is undeniable. It boils down to the question of how to get the African to farm it properly without using the methods of coercion employed, for instance, by the Russians when faced with a similar problem among their own peasants, methods repudiated by the Western Powers.
On the face of it, persuasion would seem easy. If you put side by side two plots of cotton, one grown by ordinary native and the other by scientific methods, and if the yield from the scientific plot is four times higher than that from the native, almost any African, you might say, would see the point and follow the new methods, none of which is complicated or costly. But that does not happen. I have visited an experimental station where this has been done for 15 years, and Africans whose land marches with the station's, who can see the difference by looking over a fence, still follow the old ways. Superstition, suspicion and conservatism are formidable, and there is something else also, a factor to which the name "tropical inertia" has with good reason been given.
Some hold tropical inertia to be a matter of health and diet only: remove the debilitating diseases that ravage the African -- in some places hookworm and malarial infestations reach almost 100 percent -- and feed him on a properly balanced diet, and he would be as pushful and alert as the next man. No one questions that real improvements in the shockingly low standards of health in the tropics would make great differences, but doubts are growing as to whether this is the complete answer. There is also the climate to be reckoned with, the whole soft, enervating feel of the tropics. Nowhere in the world, perhaps, is it so easy to exist and so hard to excel. Readers of Toynbee will recall that of the 26 civilizations believed by him to have arisen in the world's history, not one has ever come into being within the tropics. And they will find the reason in his theory of "challenge and response." The challenge can be too tough, as in the Arctic, or too feeble, and that is Africa's case. It may be that no virile civilization is likely to form and thrive in lands without winters to stimulate hardihood and forethought (e.g. the storage of food).
This is a theory only, and history may disprove it; in the meantime, it is a fact that Africans on their own land do not work as men of other races do, and that much which is being done for them by benevolent governments, in the form of free social services and famine relief in bad seasons, weakens rather than sharpens the stimulus to labor. This matter was reduced to a set of telling figures at a small-holding experimental station in Kenya. The average cash income of the inhabitants of this region, derived from the sale of surplus produce, is 50 shillings a year. On the experimental plots, by the use of a few cheap and simple practices like rotations and manuring, yields were increased tenfold, and the cash income of families cultivating six-acre plots raised to 200 shillings yearly.
Continual propaganda is carried out to convince the surrounding people that, by following the methods suggested, they too could increase their income fourfold, greatly improve their diet and save their deteriorating land. Very few have responded. In the opinion of the officer in charge, the main reason is because, in order to enjoy the higher output, an eight-hour working day is needed; whereas "improvidence, laissez faire and indolence, combined with the general peasant tendency to enjoy life to the full and visit every burial, beer drink and market, reduce the average working day to five hours." And it was found recently on a group of East African sisal estates that the average working week was 23 hours. The day's task was normally completed by 11.30 a.m. and all inducements by way of bonuses to put in overtime rejected.
Many Europeans, sweating in the stifling heat of a tropical afternoon, wonder if, after all, the Africans are not wiser. Better to lie in the shade, idly gossiping at the market, than to strive in the sun for extra reward to go, perhaps, on a shirt, a pound of tea or a term's schooling for one of the children; better to go without than to sacrifice leisure. And, in valuing leisure, are not Africans chiming in with the modern trend in Europe and America toward shorter hours and less toil? Who are we to tell them to work harder when we make a principle of doing less ourselves?
Africans may be right so to value leisure, but that is not the way to open up a continent. No country ever has been developed save by the hard, unremitting and prolonged labors of the mass of its citizens, nor will it ever be; until this is known and acted on, many of the schemes being so hopefully canvassed will never reach maturity. Already a shortage of manpower holds up some projects and impairs the efficiency of others. It is the very low output, due to the irregularity and the inefficiency of labor, that creates the shortage, and the fact that many active men scarcely work at all, leaving most of the field labor to their wives, whose universal task it is, throughout tropical Africa, to raise the food crops, while the husband takes care of crops like palm-oil and cocoa which bring in money.
Paradoxically, European rule has in some ways made the problem harder. In the past, men obeyed their chiefs and elders without argument. No young man, for instance, was normally allowed to drink liquor, and drunkenness among those below the status of elders was almost unknown. Now there are parts where drunkenness among young men is so common that it seriously interferes with production. The problem is not merely to make people work harder but to replace the dying discipline of the tribe with some new system of belief and order. It is a question of giving men an object to work for, a purpose in life.
This brings us to the last obstacle in the path of Africa's development: the political factor. The declared aim of British policy is to bring about self-government in the shortest possible time. These black lands are seen as the last inheritors of those principles of freedom which have created as independent nations Canada and India, Burma and Ceylon -- last because they are, by all standards, the most backward, and because the European ferment has been at work in them only for some 50 years.
When this goal was proclaimed, the process of achieving self-government was seen as one of gradual evolution, allowing time to learn from experience and to build up a healthy economy and a sound, well-informed public opinion. Estimates of the time needed for this were shunned; but as it had taken Britain more than a thousand years to evolve her political and economic system, it was universally assumed that the pace would be a slow one. And a second important assumption was made. Education could not, for practical reasons, be provided immediately for all; the policy was to concentrate first on training the few, who would then become leaders of the many. So, with no little difficulty and struggle, a new élite was created out of primitive tribesmen: an élite educated in western fashion to be schoolmasters, doctors, lawyers, engineers, traders, clerks, civil servants -- and politicians. The assumption was that this élite would remain, on the whole, loyal to the European connection and anxious to help raise the general level of their backward fellows: that from the white man's point of view they would be coöperators, not opponents.
The plan has gone wrong in two important ways. First, the time to be allowed for the period of political training has been drastically cut. People no longer think in centuries but in decades, or even in single years. African politicians, new-hatched and raw, repeatedly told that self-government is to be "pressed on with" at the quickest possible speed, naturally start to demand it not for their children but for themselves, here and now. And when white authority, a little taken aback, starts to point out some of the difficulties, the colonial politician immediately supposes that this is part of a subtle plot to postpone indefinitely the day of freedom, which for him is also the day of power.
And so the second assumption, that the élite will remain coöperators, is exploded too. A considerable number, cut off by education from their own society and background and yet not integrated into the European's, are turning sour and losing no chance to inject the venom of suspicion and race-hatred into the minds of their less sophisticated fellows. Since these young men are the natural leaders of the still ignorant and illiterate masses, looked up to almost as gods because they have in their hands the coveted magic of education, their powers to influence opinion, aided and abetted by the British tradition of free speech, are almost monopolistic.
The rising tempo of events has so hastened matters that political developments which might have been spread over a century have been crammed into the last three years. In that time Nigeria has had two new constitutions, each making long strides toward self-rule. Nigeria and the Gold Coast now have African majorities in the legislature. In the Gold Coast, political riots were followed by the promise of African ministers to preside over government departments and a policy of "Africanization" of the civil service which will quickly and drastically reduce the number of Englishmen in high places.
Some observers feel that too much is made of the difficulties of self-government in these raw countries. Having got so far, they urge, the best course is to press on to the conclusion, taking with faith and courage a leap in the dark that the good sense of the African will, in good time, justify. This may well be true; since retreat is impossible, a bold advance may be the wisest policy. Yet it is also true that history has much to say of the results of handing over to a small -- a very small -- minority of privileged persons (as the educated African is privileged above his peasant brother) all the powers of government before a fairly considerable body of citizens with critical judgment and independent views has been formed to keep them in check. While there is no reason to suppose that Negroes are less intelligent, given the same opportunities, than anyone else, there is equally no reason to suppose that they are far more virtuous. And only a community of angels could withstand the temptations which would lie in the path of a small native oligarchy, to whom power would be surrendered, in countries where the proportion of the even barely literate to the rest of the community is seldom higher than one in twenty. This is the road not to democracy but to tyranny.
And even if Africans were angels, they would still be unable, at the present time, to muster a sufficient body of trained and seasoned men to carry on the government, the technical services and the necessary development, and to steer a transitional society through the shoals and maelstroms of the modern world. They have not the unity, the resources, and above all the experience. Britain may be blamed for having done too little between the wars to produce them, but this does not alter the fact that an adequate corps of trained and able men is not there, and cannot be manufactured overnight. It takes 15 years to educate a person and at least another 15 to equip him with the experience needed in political leadership. And, meanwhile, a new factor has intervened. This is Communism, the refuge of the disgruntled, the restless and the ambitious.
There has probably been some exaggeration about the Communistic threat, but there is no doubt that contacts have been made with certain African political leaders. The truth probably is that Communists do not at present need to come into the open, being content to ally themselves with the various nationalist bodies which have sprung up everywhere to press for quicker political advances, and with the embryonic trades unions. Leadership of these bodies can then, by degrees, be gathered into Communist hands, following the well-tried and now almost universally applied technique of the Party.
In the Gold Coast, for instance, an African trained in London was sent out to take over the secretaryship of the largest political body there, the United Gold Coast Convention; and within a few months the first serious rioting took place since the pacification of the country. Another cheap and easy way for Communist influence to infiltrate is through African students sent to British universities, and there is no doubt that a deliberate attempt has been made to gather into the fold many of these young men. In presenting themselves as friends and allies in the struggle for freedom against British imperialism, Communists have cleverly linked themselves to the strongest political force in the colonies, the newly-awakened fervor of nationalism, no doubt with full confidence that they will be able to direct and control it for their own ends.
This, then, is the position: on the one hand the need and some of the potentialities for an economic forward drive, and on the other political and social factors which hold back, and may even frustrate, that advance. It is a pull devil, pull baker affair, and there is no man living who can say which way events will fall out.
The truth is that Britain in Africa is pursuing two opposite and contradictory aims. On the one hand is, as we have seen, the aim to develop, to open up and expand; on the other, to give political freedom to countries at present too immature, backward and unstable to use it wisely. The two aims are incompatible. The danger is that quick self-government will lead to chaos and perhaps Communist influence, and thence to the wiping out of economic gains, to the loss of invested capital and possibly even to the strategic encirclement of the west.
What is to be done? Abandon Africa or repudiate self-government? The first is impossible if the west wishes to survive. The second would entail breaches of faith, reproaches by foreign Powers, and colonial disturbances on a scale too great to be contemplated. Nor is the British public by any means convinced of the need. It holds to the comfortable hope that somehow or other Africa will survive her "growing pains" and learn to work self-government satisfactorily, that appeasement of the nationalists will lead to happier relations. Thus it seems most unlikely that any drastic change in British policy will occur.
Is there, then, no hope that the economic program will be carried through to success? To admit this would be to plunge too deep into defeatism. There is hope, but perhaps it is justified only if certain things are done, or not done, to overcome the social and political dangers.
The first is a slowing up in the tempo of political advance until time has allowed the emergence of more seasoned leaders and the development of a more alert public opinion, combined with a firmer tone throughout the British administration. If this is to come about, there must be sympathy and understanding from other non-Communist nations, above all from the United States. This understanding of the issues, it is fair to say, has not yet been in evidence. Americans who support any move to liquidate the "British imperialism," which has for so long been a bogey, need to realize that imperialism's heir is less likely to be a series of prosperous Negro democracies than the return of chaos, as for example in Burma, which plays straight into Communist hands.
A slowing down in the tempo of political advance is not, of course, in itself sufficient. It is a playing for time. Vigorous efforts are needed also to save the soil from destruction, to dispel the people's ignorance, to convince them of the truth of the ancient saying that God helps them who help themselves, to enlist their loyalty and enthusiasm in the task of building their own countries, and to restore on a new basis some of the discipline and community spirit that has perished.
Discussion of how all this might be done would need a book, and a Solomon to write it. One can say only that it must be done if hopes of economic advancement are not to beckon us, like an Irish traveller, ever deeper into the bog. "Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it." Today the identity of the Lord may be clouded but the words are as true as when they were written; and we have still our golden calves whose worship leads to perdition. We have still the human element to reckon with; and one of the crucial questions of our time, for ourselves no less than Africans, is whether, in this age of centralized bureaucracies, our rulers, no longer lords or bankers but great impersonal departments, have not, under mountains of protocol and paper, buried the human touch too deeply.