We last met Gilley after one of those academic apoplexies, in which when he suggested colonialism was not all bad and the PhDs screamed “Burn the witch!” For his heresy, he had his paper “The Case for Colonialism” canceled. Yet—important lesson here—he himself was not canceled because he refused to apologize for his non-crime.
Not only did he not back down, he wrote a whole book on the subject, giving us the life of Sir Alan Burns, the last great colonialist and apologist for colonialism.
Burns, a Catholic, was “practically born into the colonial civil service”, beginning his career in St Kitts in 1903 and eventually getting to Nigeria and Gold Coast-Ghana, where the most interesting bits of his life took place.
He did not have a formal university training, and rightly disliked the eventual mandatory “degree” requirements, warning it would “produce young officers ‘full of zeal and theory’ lacking what he considered the two essentials: ‘unlimited patience and a real sympathy for the people'”. His correct judgement, our painful experience shows, now applies everywhere.
Indeed, this cold war between Theory and Reality would define the end of British colonialism. It’s no spoiler to tell you up front the academics won.
Nowhere was this battle better seen than in the following event. Africans in and before the 1940 who populated the Gold Coast had a culturally enriching practice performed after the death of a local king. In 1943, king Atta I died, and the practice went into effect.
A young priest, a “favorite of Atta I, perhaps an illegitimate son”, was waiting under a tree for the official second funeral of Atta. Then this happened:
Suddenly eight men—all descendants of former chiefs—rushed into the courtyard and seized [the young priest]. They thrust a ceremonial dagger through his cheeks and cut off his tongue to prevent him from uttering an oath that would dispel the magical power of his blood. As his mouth flooded red, a bowl was thrust under his chin to catch the precious liquid. “For hours on end the murderers’ cold dagger gagged him alive while his innocent blood gushed profusely on that wretched stool [part of the macabre ceremony],” recalled his relatives later. At the end of his agony, he was beheaded, and more blood was gathered.
This became known as the Ju-Ju murders.
A colonial investigation was launched and evidence gathered. A formality, since the culprits were no secret. A trial was held, guilt was pronounced. The sentence of death followed.
The hanging of the murderers would have proceeded as expected, except for the academics mentioned above. They and the Caring Brigade, now well known to us, took up the punishment of the murderers as a cèlébre. Perhaps you will recognize what happened next.
Burns knew of and despised, and the ordinary Africans knew of and despised, the cannibalism, torture, slavery (as in slavery), human sacrifice, the burning of widows, and “tyrannies of the worst sort” that were part of the local culture. But the Caring Brigade and academics engaged in a “conspiracy of silence” about these practices, and instead focused attention on the racism of hanging non-white men.
The “man in the street hated ritual murder, [but] the educated classes seemed more obsessed with ‘persecution by the Europeans’ and thus saw many of those convicted in court as ‘martyrs rather than a [sic] criminals’.” Burns in his prosecution of the case, and in his efforts at carrying out the sentences, was “undermined by shifty, lying lawyers both in Ghana and especially in London,” said another historian of the event.
The case dragged on and on. It landed in British Parliament, where in one instance Winston Churchill climbed out of his bottle to ingratiate himself with the Caring Brigade and become, he obviously hoped, relevant once more.
“The new culturally relative Left and the old culturally disdainful Right would unite against cultural universalists like Alan and declare that Britain had no business carrying out justice against ju-ju.” Even though the Ghanians wanted this justice.
I won’t ruin the ending for you. Except to say some of the men were strung up, at intervals, and some skated. The academics and Caring Brigade signaled to themselves how awesome and compassionate they were, both for this and for ending colonialism as a practice, ignoring how their caring allowed Africans to kill each other in large number, and allowed corruption to become the leading form of replacement government.
Not to be missed is the film Africa Addio, which lays out the end of colonialism in living, and dead, color.
The widespread killing didn’t begin only after colonialism’s end, but was there before it, too. Burns said, “It is probable that fewer of the indigenous people were killed in all the colonial territories during the establishment of the British regime than were killed in a single year in tribal warfare and slave raids in the preceding period.”
Just like in America with the Emancipation Proclamation and the fate of former slaves, there was no thought given to what might happen to people after colonialism ended. The bien pensant had debates which were ostensibly about ending colonialism, which even Burns was for as long as it was done in a slow and careful fashion, but they were about who was more virtuous.
The end came swiftly. After the Brits and Italians left Somalia in a double-quick hurry, for instance, “it was plagued by border wars, famine, and a new Soviet air base.” We won’t have to remind you what it’s like there now. Burma, “once the rice basket of Asia, would become a failed state.”
So on and so forth. It was a mess, and continues to be.
It’s worse than it sounds because the academics and Caring Brigade have never been against colonialism. They were for it then, and are for it still.
You can prove this easily. Say to one of these virtuous folk, “I think states like Florida and Texas, or citizens far from Detroit in Michigan, ought, just like Africans, to be allowed to secede and form their own nations, in which their people can practice their own religion, abide by their own beliefs, and enforce their own cultural traditions.”
You already know what reply you would get.
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Categories: Book review