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The Hearts of Darkness: How European Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa

Part 3: A European Meets a ‘Savage' Intellectual

by Milton Allimadi

Mr. Allimadi is CEO and Publisher of The Black Star News, based in
New York City. He has graciously given BAR permission to serialize his work.

Europeans wrote the stories that formed their own perception of Africans, without any contribution of the Africans they described.

The Hearts of Darkness: How European Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa

In one of the rarest instances, Samuel Baker - one of the most famous of these European trespassers - inadvertently allowed one of the Africans he encountered to speak for himself in Albert N'Yanza (1866). The result of their conversation is remarkable as we will shortly see. Since Baker's book is still widely consulted as reference by many Western writers who travel to Africa, it is worth reviewing parts in some detail.

The Black man was born for the sole purpose of servitude - preferably under the supervision of whites, Baker insisted. "The negro has been, and still is, thoroughly misunderstood," he explained. "However severely we may condemn the institution of slavery, the results of emancipation have proved that the negro does not appreciate the blessings of freedom, nor does he show the slightest feeling of gratitude to the hand that broke the rivets of his fetters."

"'The negro does not appreciate the blessings of freedom, nor does he show the slightest feeling of gratitude,' Baker insisted."

Baker further observed: "His narrow mind cannot embrace the feeling of pure philanthropy that first prompted England to declare herself against slavery, and he only regards the anti-slavery movement as a proof of his own importance. In his limited horizon he is himself the important object, and as a consequence to his self-conceit, imagines that the whole world is at issue concerning the black man." Baker continued: "England, the great chief of the commercial world, possesses a power that enforces a grave responsibility. She has the force to civilize. She is the natural colonizer of the world. In the short space of three centuries, America, sprung from her loins, has become a giant offspring, a new era in the history of the human race, a new birth whose future must be overwhelming." England's remaining task was to "wrest from utter savagedom those mighty tracts of the earth's surface wasted from the creation of the world - a darkness to be enlightened by English colonization."

Baker was the perfect agent and propagandist for European commercial conquest of Africa. Only trade with the "civilized" world could rescue the barbarian continent. "The savage must learn to want; he must learn to be ambitious; and to covet more than the mere animal necessities of food and drink," Baker explained. "This can only be taught by a communication with civilized beings: the sight of men well clothed will induce the naked savage to covet clothing, and will be the first steps towards commerce. To obtain the supply, the savage must produce some articles in return as a medium of barter, some natural production of his country adapted to the trader's wants."

It followed from Baker's reasoning that the white man's burden was controlling the Black man, in order to civilize him. "The history of the negro has proved the correctness of this theory," he wrote. "In no instance has he evinced other than a retrogression, when once freed from restraint. Like a horse without harness, he runs wild, but, if harnessed, no animal is more useful. Unfortunately, this is contrary to public opinion in England, where the vox populi assumes the right of dictation upon matters and men in which it has no experience."

The decline of whole economies could be traced to the emancipation of Black people, Baker asserted: "In his state of slavery the negro was compelled to work, and, through his labour, every country prospered where he had been introduced. He was suddenly freed; and from that moment he refused to work, and instead of being a useful member of society, he not only became a useless burden to the community, but a plotter and intriguer, imbued with a deadly hatred to the white man who had generously declared him free." No mention by Baker of the essence of slavery - pillage, rapes, massacres, torture and uncompensated labor.

Baker was infuriated whenever he encountered Black men who did not accept the natural order of things and believed that they were equal to or superior to whites. He recalled how Kumrasi, king of the Bunyoro, disrespected him, after he had traveled through the Sudan into Uganda. Baker hoped Kumrasi would rush to see him and help him "discover" a mountain or lake. "We received a message today that we were not to expect Kumrasi as great men were never in a hurry to pay visits," Baker sneered, in Albert N'Yanza. "It is very trying to the patience to wait here until it pleases these almighty niggers to permit us to cross the river."

"Baker was infuriated whenever he encountered Black men who did not accept the natural order of things."

Eventually, Baker traveled further north and reached the Lutoko, who live in what's now part of the Sudan. It was here that Baker had the remarkable conversation with Commoro, the Lutoko chief, whom he described as "the most clever and common-sense savage that I had seen in these countries."

The two men spoke about politics, religion, and philosophy, through an interpreter. Even though Baker recorded the conversation disparagingly, he unwittingly showed contemporary readers how his host was much more intelligent than Baker himself. The conversation at one point focused on Baker's inquiry as to why the Lutoko exhumed the bodies of their dead:

Baker: "But why should you disturb the bones of those whom you have already buried, and expose them on the outskirts of the town?"

Commoro: "It was the custom of our forefathers, therefore we continue to observe it."

Baker: "Have you no belief in a future existence after death? Is not some idea expressed in the act of exhuming the bones after the flesh is decayed?"

Commoro: "Existence after death! How can that be? Can a dead man get out of his grave unless we dig him out?"

Baker: "Do you think that man is like a beast, that dies and is ended?"

Commoro: "Certainly; an ox is stronger than a man; but he dies and his bones last longer; they are bigger. A man's bone breaks quickly - he is weak."

Baker: "Is not a man superior in sense to an ox? Has he not a mind to direct his actions?"

Commoro: "Some men are not so clever as an ox. Men must sow corn to obtain food, but the ox and wild animals can procure it without sowing."

Baker: "Do you know that there is a spirit within you more than the flesh? Do you not dream and wander in thought to distant places in your sleep? Nevertheless, your body rests in one spot. How do you account for this?"

Commoro (laughing): "Well, how do you account for it? It is a thing I cannot understand; it occurs to me every night."

Baker: "The mind is independent of the body; the actual body can be fettered, but the mind is uncontrollable; the body will die and will become dust, or be eaten by vultures but the spirit will exist forever."

Commoro: "Where will the spirit live?"

Baker: "Where does fire live? Cannot you produce a fire by rubbing two sticks together, yet you see not the fire in the wood. Has not that fire that lies harmless and unseen in the sticks, the power to consume the whole country? Which is the stronger, the small stick that first produces the fire, or the fire itself? So is the spirit the element within the body, as the element of fire exists in the stick, the element being superior to the substance."

"The white traveler unwittingly showed contemporary readers how his host was much more intelligent than Baker himself."

Commoro: "Ha! Can you explain what we frequently see at night when lost in the wilderness? I have myself been lost, and wandering in the dark I have seen a distant fire; upon approaching, the fire has vanished, and I have been unable to trace the cause - nor could I find the spot."

Baker: "Have you no idea of the existence of spirits superior to either man or beast? Have you no fear of evil except from bodily causes?"

Commoro: "I am afraid of elephants and other animals when in the jungle at night but of nothing else."

Baker: "Then you believe in nothing; neither in a good nor evil spirit! And you believe that when you die it will be the end of body and spirit; that you are like other animals; and that there is no distinction between men and beast; both disappear, and end at death?"

Commoro: "Of course they do."

Baker: "Do you see no difference in good and bad actions?"

Commoro: "Yes, there are good and bad in men and beasts."

Baker: "Do you think that a good man and a bad man must share the same fate, and alike die, and end?"

Commoro: "Yes; what else can they do? How can they help dying? Good and bad all die."

Baker: "Their bodies perish, but their spirits remain; the good in happiness, the bad in misery. If you have no belief in a future state, why should a man be good? Why should he not be bad, if he can prosper by wickedness?"

Commoro: "Most people are bad; if they are strong, they take from the weak. The good people are all weak; they are good because they are not strong enough to be bad."

Baker began to get annoyed by Commoro's resistance; he was oblivious to the clear fact that the "savage" was getting the better of him in the dialogue. He made one final attempt, which he referred to as "the beautiful metaphor of St. Paul as an example of a future state," to lure the chief closer towards Christianity. Baker dug a small hole in the ground and buried a grain of corn before continuing the conversation.

Baker: "That represents you when you die. That grain will decay, but from it will rise the plant that will produce a reappearance of the original form."

Commoro: "Exactly so; that I understand. But the original grain does not rise again; it rots like the dead man, and is ended; the fruit produced is not the same grain that we buried, but the production of that grain: so it is with man - I die, and decay, and am ended; but my children grow up like the fruit of the grain. Some men have no children, and some grains perish without fruit; then all are ended."

One can almost imagine Baker leaping to his feet in exasperation. Was Commoro implying that Baker himself, a European, was a heathen who would rot after his death? "I was obliged to change the subject of conversation," he wrote, in Albert N'Yanza, "In this wild naked savage there was not even a superstition upon which to found a religious feeling; there was a belief in matter; and to his understanding everything was material." At the same time, Baker was forced to concede that Comorro was no ordinary savage: "It was extraordinary to find such clearness of perception combined with such obtuseness to anything ideal."

"Baker asked the chief to show him how to get to Luta N'zige, the great lake through which the river Nile flowed, so he could ‘discover' it."

One feels terribly cheated that Baker did not record any more of this insightful dialogue and instead chose to abruptly end the conversation with Commoro. Baker should have asked the chief about his attitude toward Europeans such as himself - it's clear from the preceding dialogue that Commoro would have offered some interesting perspectives. "Giving up the religious argument as a failure, I resolved upon more practical inquiries," Baker wrote, and described how he asked the chief to show him how to get to Luta N'zige, the great lake through which the river Nile flowed, so he could "discover" it.

"Suppose you reach the great lake, what will you do with it?" Commoro asked Baker, and we can almost see the wise chief mischievously scratching his chin. "What will be the good of it? If you find that the large river does flow from it, what then?"

Chief Commoro would have been puzzled and amused had someone informed him that the strange white man eventually reached the lake and that upon his return to England, renamed it Lake Albert in honor of Queen Victoria's husband; and, for his "unique" discovery in Africa, Baker was knighted by the Crown. Commoro would have been more shocked that, nearly a century later, long after Uganda's formal independence in 1962 from Britain, there was a school still named Sir Samuel Baker Secondary School in Uganda.

The Abyssinians Rout the Italian Empire

The Abyssinians Rout the Italian EmpireWhen Western writers were not preoccupied with analyzing the Africans' intellectual and moral backwardness, they were reinforcing the myth of Europeans' military genius relative to Africans.

Consider this assessment offered in an article published in The New York TimesAfricaMenelikBEST on July 25th 1879, after the military confrontation between a Zulu army and British forces. "Whether or not providence is on the side of the heaviest battalions there can be little doubt of the result of a contest between a civilized nation, with great military and naval power and inexhaustible resources," proclaimed the Times, "and a primitive and barbarous tribe, however brave and unyielding."

The Times' editors were angered and taken aback by the Zulus' temerity, for daring to defend themselves against the British forces intent on conquering them and occupying their land. "Sooner or later, the powerful nation was destined to bring the savage tribe into abject submission or demolish it utterly," the Times article declared with finality. "The justice of the cause had nothing to do with this foregone conclusion."

Eleven years later the Times was glorifying and justifying Italy's brutal aggression against Ethiopia, which was then referred to by its ancient name, Abyssinia. The Italian ruler Francesco Crispi - a descendant of Machiavelli - had just defeated Menelik II, the Abyssinian monarch, in a major battle. "THE ITALIANS IN AFRICA," exulted the Times in thick bold headlines, in an article dated February 2nd 1890. "Results of Crispi's Brilliant Policy," proclaimed the sub-headline.

"'The powerful nation was destined to bring the savage tribe into abject submission or demolish it utterly,' the Times article declared with finality."

What led to the battle was Italian treachery. They had concluded the Treaty of Uccialli with Menelik in 1889, giving the monarch the "option" to use Italy as an intermediary in dealings with other European powers. However, the Italian version of the treaty - unlike the Amharic version that Menelik retained - actually made Ethiopia an Italian protectorate. The emperor immediately rejected the agreement when he discovered the deceit, leading to war.

The article was one of the most absurd melodramatic celebrations of European imperial assault on Africa, declaring that Italy had "achieved triumph upon triumph in Africa," and that there was a surrender by "all the tribes," and when the Italians occupied Adowa (or Adwa), the ancient capital, they were welcomed "by the natives as liberators." Since not a single "native" was quoted, we can easily dismiss this assertion as propaganda.

"Europe now marvels and perhaps scarcely credits its own eyes. Italy in Adowa!," the Times article continued, in its hyper-melodramatic tone, "Is it true or is it a dream. Nothing in the world has the power to drive the Italian troops from their central position."

Still, the editors must have realized that even at the height of 19th Century European conquest and colonization of Africa, it was highly hypocritical of a leading newspaper in a "democratic" society to blatantly celebrate such unprovoked aggression, even if the victims were savages. So the Times article offered a rationale for the invasion. "We could not thus speak, however if the programme of Italy in Africa was one of pure conquest, because exploits exclusively military are in too great opposition to the sentiments of progress, of peace, of work, of companionship, that should form the pivot of modern life," the article stated. "But instead, we may rejoice in and applaud this conquest of civilization and Christianity over barbarians and savages, over unbelief, over habits of ferocity, over brutal ignorance of every human law, religious, social and civil."

"We may rejoice in and applaud this conquest of civilization and Christianity over barbarians and savages."

These assertions, invoking moralistic and divine justification for European imperialism were so nonsensical that the Times editors' were compelled to temper it. So, at the very end, the article finally offered the true motive behind Italy's aggression: "The water roads of Africa and the large commercial arteries in the hands of Italy signify that they are also in the hands of the civilized world, which can now introduce without fear the benefits of commerce, of exchange, of relations of any and every sort, and in short time produce the best profits from the immense natural wealth existing there." This brief sentence easily summed up the essence of Europe's entire interaction with Africa.

The Ethiopians continued their resistance and were never fully subdued. They smarted under the humiliating yoke of Italian domination for six years. Then, suddenly, the Ethiopians struck back with brutal efficiency. This time around, the good newspaper was suddenly singing a mournful tune.

"ITALY'S TERRIBLE DEFEAT," the Times lamented, describing the great battle of Adowa, in an article published on March 4th 1896. The newspaper reported that 3,000 Italian soldiers were massacred by Ethiopian troops in the battlefields of Adowa. Additionally, 60 heavy guns were captured and all provisions for the Italian troops were completely destroyed. Italian casualties included generals of the Army, the paper reported. Out of a total original force of 10,596, those killed or missing numbered 4,133, while 2,000 were captured. In fact, Menelik called off his troops when the Italians fled in panic; otherwise the entire army would have been annihilated.

This defeat was so thorough and embarrassing that the Italian nation refused to accept it. Instead, the military commander, General Oreste Baratieri, was blamed for poor military strategy by the Italian government and newspapers. Every possible excuse was entertained; the Italians could not credit the Ethiopians with military genius. The Ethiopians too suffered heavy losses; but it was their country and they were willing to make sacrifices to defend and liberate it.

Reinforcements from Italy were to be quickly rushed to Africa, the Times reported, and political conditions were so grave that the Pope canceled a major diplomatic banquet. The Italian government was completely destabilized by the defeat, the paper reported, and its survival was in jeopardy. "The present campaign against the Abyssinians threatens to become one of the most disastrous in which the Italian arms have ever taken part," the Times concluded, "and what the final outcome will be it would not be hard to predict."

"The defeat shook the foundations of their moral convictions and their sense of racial supremacy."

Italian citizens - indeed, all Europeans - were simply incapable of conceptualizing what had occurred, deep in "darkest" Africa, and they were traumatized. All the racist literature and myths they had been reared on had never even hinted at the possibility of such a defeat in Africa. The defeat shook the foundations of their moral convictions and their sense of racial supremacy to the core.

What compounded the traumatic embarrassment was the fact that during the early part of the invasion, Gen. Baratieri had scored several victories against Menelik's army. Baratieri had become so emboldened that he returned to Rome and asked Parliament for more funds so that he could "annihilate" the Ethiopians. Italian journalists stoked national euphoria by endorsing the campaign in newspaper articles and even hailed Baratieri as the second coming of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the hero of Italian unification in 1861. Gen. Baratieri, in turn, could not resist boasting that he would return with Emperor Menelik in a cage.

Yet, when commander Baratieri returned to Africa to conclude his victory, the savages refused to cooperate with his plans. They tamed the general and cut down his troops, with Menelik, 52, riding on horseback from one battle to the next, exhorting his troops and leading the rout. Later, in Italy, Baratieri was charged and court-martialed for "cowardice." The Italians had been defeated before in combat; but never before by Black "savages." The national psyche was unprepared; riots broke out in the streets of Rome, perhaps in fear that the savages would pursue the Italian troops all the way back to Italy. Eventually, the Italian government collapsed. The Ethiopians forced Italy to pay several million pounds as compensation before releasing the captives. With a few more generals like Menelik II, the history of Africa could have taken a dramatically different course.

© Milton G. Allimadi
Next week, Part Four: The New York Times as Apartheid's Apologists
The Hearts of Darkness: How European Writers Created the Racist image of Africa
Published by The Black Star Publishing Co.
P.O. Box 64, New York, N.Y., 10025
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