Resisting Colonialism

Go away now, and above all, never come back

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 4

Mainstream knowledge of colonialism primarily comes from European writers, and not all of them have produced a balanced analysis. Many historians have looked to justify colonialism as a 'civilising mission', choosing to obscure the financial incentives whilst minimising its barbarity.

Another unbalanced, and widely unsupported viewpoint, is that contemporary Africans welcomed this European invasion with open arms.

Before diving into the realities of colonialism, it is important to understand that colonialism did not mark the beginning of relations between Africans and Europeans. A relationship had existed over the preceding three hundred years, a relationship predominantly centred on trade.

So how did Africans respond to this sudden flipping of a three-century-old relationship from partner to conqueror?

Whilst some historians would have you believe that Africans unequivocally accepted their colonial overlords, that is far from true. An overwhelming majority of African authorities were vehemently opposed to colonial rule and expressed their commitment to maintaining their sovereignty.

This itself can be seen in the language used by contemporary African leaders in the face of Europeans overstepping the previously agreed to boundaries.

One example is that of King Machemba of the Yao, (of modern-day Tanzania), explaining to the German official, Hermann von Wissman, in 1890:

"I have listened to your words but can find no reason why I should obey you - I would rather die first... I do not fall at your feet, for you are God's creature just as I am... I am Sultan here in my land. You are Sultan there in yours. Yet listen, I do not say to you that you should obey me; for I know that you are a free man... As for me, I will not come to you, and if you are strong enough, then come and fetch me."

In 1895, Wobogo, the Moro Naba (or ruler) of the Mossi kingdom (in modern-day Burkina Faso) told a French officer:

"I know that the whites wish to kill me in order to take my country, and yet you claim that they will help me to organise my country. But I find my country good just as it is. I have no need of them. I know what is necessary for me and what I want: I have my own merchants: also, consider yourself fortunate that I do not order your head to be cut off. Go away now, and above all, never come back."

Amongst the displeasure at the audacity of Europeans in upsetting the status quo were expressions of a broader philosophy of sovereignty, one of the most striking is that of the Nama leader, Hendrik Wittboi of South West Africa, who confided in his diary that:

"By colour and mode of life we belong together and this Africa is in general the land of the [Africans]. That we form different kingdoms and regions reflects only a trivial subdivision of Africa."

Wittboi would go on to tell German administrator, Theodor Leutwein, in 1894, that:

"The Lord God has established various kingdoms in the world. Therefore I know and believe that it is no sin or crime that I should wish to remain the independent chief of my land and people."

Even with colonial encroachment underway in neighbouring territories, many African leaders still stood firm, even welcoming the infrastructure offered by Europeans, but not at the expense of African sovereignty. Such was the case for chief Makombe Hanga, ruler of Barue (in modern-day Mozambique), who told a white visitor in 1895:

"I see how you white men advance more and more in Africa, on all sides of my country companies are at work... My country will also have to take up these reforms and I am quite prepared to open it up... I should also like to have good roads and railways... But I will remain the Makombe my fathers have been."

The reality of colonialism also encouraged former enemies to unite against a common European enemy. In 1904, chief Maherero, an old enemy of Wittboi, wrote to appeal for joint action against the Europeans:

"It is my wish that we weak nations should rise up against the Germans... Let the whole of Africa fight against the Germans, and let us rather die together than through maltreatment, prison or in any other way."

These words, from the mouths of the leaders facing the colonial challenge, show the African response to European encroachment was not one of passiveness or acceptance, but instead one of determination to protect African sovereignty, tradition and culture.

In later editions, we will explore how in the face of such defiance, authority and resistance, Europeans were able to upend these resisters.