Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The extra paper for my African history course

The Diverse Roles of African Chiefs during Colonial Africa

Since 1880s, European colonies were increasing rapidly in Africa. Until 1915, with a very few exception, all the African countries became European colonies. Colonialism not only became the main feature of Africa in this period but also made heavy influence on all aspects of African societies. Since the direct contact between European colonists and common Africans was limited, chiefs, the legitimate leaders of the traditional African tribes, turned into the key figures to cope with both sides. They probably encountered the most challenges and their positions and functions had been considerably changed. African chiefs did not have the same attitudes towards the European conquerors and colonialism; in fact, their reactions were very diverse. For many chiefs who were nominated by Europeans rulers, they logically stood on the European side to rule Africans. Some chiefs approached and served Europeans for self-interest. In contrast, some chiefs were concerned with their territories and the nation’s independence and made indomitable resistance against colonialism. In addition, the example of Yoko indicated that female chiefs could also possess important position and influential power during colonial Africa.
In many cases, African chiefs were nominated by European rulers. While Europeans colonized Africa by military force, they faced the problem of ruling the vast territories and diverse groups. Due to the small population of Europeans in Africa and the language gaps between the colonists and the indigenous people, it was impossible for Europeans replaced all the African chiefs and then ruled all their colonies by themselves. However, they disliked the idea of leaving African self-rule by native chiefs, too. Finally, Europeans promoted a compromise as the final solution; they nominated African chiefs to govern African people. This solution could avoid the difficulty of direct rule but still ensure European’s efficient control over Africans. The British believed, “we are denying self-government to the people over whom they rule, and supporting an alien caste – albeit closer and more akin to the native races than a European can be.”[1] This ideal was generally practiced in Africa. For example, “in Kenya the government nominates the chiefs, instead of allowing the African people the right of electing their own chiefs.”[2]
In fact, the nominated chiefs were mostly to fulfill European ruler’s needs rather than representing African’s rights and benefits. Because of their superior power in economy and military, Europeans could attract some capable Africans to assist them. However, the guide of how Europeans nominated chiefs was not only based on an African’s talent but also depended on his proactive attitude of cooperation and obedience with Europeans. Consequently, the chiefs who were employed by European gradually became European’s tools to exploit Africans. They often ignored, or even hurt, African’s rights and benefits. For this reason, they received serious criticism from other Africans. “Chiefs who are nominated by European officials cannot win the confidence of the people over whom they are imposed.”[3] Also, Africans were worried that “when a chief is appointed by the government, and his administration is corrupt, the people of that district are placed in an unhappy position.”[4]
Another large number of chiefs were mostly concerned with their own position and benefits; they co-operated with Europeans and were usually hostile towards Africans. Through the increasing contact with Western countries, many new concepts were introduced. The traditional values of African societies were gradually undermined. A chief no longer had to win the respect from all the villagers or take the full responsibility for all tribes. In addition, the chiefs who worked with European rulers often had poor moral standards. They believed in power, money, and their superior status only, and considered their position as an opportunity to gain benefits for themselves and their families. As Ngugi Wa Thiong’s describes in his novel, Weep Not, Child, “Howlands had in fact helped Jacobo to get permission to grow pyrethrum. In turn Jacobo had helped him to recruit labour and gave him advice on how to get hard work from them.”[5] Those chiefs did not really mind being servants for Europeans but tried very hard to keep their unparalleled position among their own people. When Jacobo noticed Ngotho’s increasing influence and came to Mr. Howlands, saying, “[Ngotho] may be the real leader of Mau Mau.”[6] He wished Mr. Howlands believed his words and would decide to kill Ngotho.
Despite the chiefs advised the European rulers and behaved obediently, it was clearly that they could never receive any trust and respect from European rulers. Europeans usually despised them for their behaviors. Although colonists certainly had sympathy towards neither African chiefs nor African people, from some certain points, they might show respect to some common people for their spiritual power rather than to those wicked chiefs. For example, Ngotho was a poor villager who had a sincere faith towards his ancestors’ land. He put all his passions to work on the land. For this reason, Mr. Howlands, a British colonist, was inspired by his character and “just loved to see Ngotho working in the farm.”[7] In contrast, “Mr Howlands despised Jacobo because he was a savage. But he would use him.”[8]
In comparison with those nominated chiefs, other native chiefs often held a hostile attitude towards European conquerors and offered severe resistance. While the European “Scramble” spread in Africa at the end of the 19th century, African resistance leading by African chiefs took place on British and French colonies in east, north-central, and west Africa. For instance, in western Africa, Samori commanded a large army who was well-armed with muskets and rifles. When the French invaded the north, he ordered a “scorched-earth” policy, which destroyed the crops in the heartland of the empire and whole villages were ruined. But it meant that the French army ran short of supplies and had to abandon their invasion in 1892.[9] African chiefs also promoted the spirit from ancient chiefs in order to inspire their contemporaries. “In addition the state was strengthened by a unifying sense of Mandinka nationalism which recalled the glories of the ancient Malian empire.”[10]
Yoko was another example that represented female chiefs who skillfully dealt with Europeans and had an important influence on Colonial Africa. As mentioned in the introduction, one of the most important challenges of colonial chiefs was to cope with European rulers, the subchiefs, and the common people. In fact, Yoko was just such a talented woman who successfully influenced both the British and subchiefs of confederacy.[11] During her reign from 1885 to 1906, the territories of Sierra Leone were expanded dramatically. Along with her co-wife and her husband’s sister, Yoko had sent a letter to the colonial government to express their determination to settle their tribe issues. This case represented “the authority and influence wielded by high-ranking women in later nineteenth-century Mende country.”[12]
Because of the huge impact of colonialism and the social chaos, the chiefs’ roles were dramatically altered and became very diverse in Colonial Africa. Some chiefs resisted European invaders, but some assisted Europeans and took advantage of their chief position. Also, some capable female chiefs were influential in this period too. Moreover, through analyzing the diverse roles of African chiefs in Colonial Africa, the complicatedly social and political situation in this piece of history is represented.
[1] Frederick Lugard, “The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa: Methods of Ruling Native Races,” Course packet, 187.
[2] Parmenas Mockerie, “An African Speaks for His People,” Course Packet, 181.
[3] Parmenas Mockerie, “An African Speaks for His People,” Course Packet, 181.
[4] Parmenas Mockerie, “An African Speaks for His People,” Course Packet, 181.
[5] Ngugi wa Thiong’o,Weep Not, Child. (Oxford: Heineman, 1964), 78.
[6] Ngugi wa Thiong’o,Weep Not, Child. (Oxford: Heineman, 1964), 79.
[7] Ngugi wa Thiong’o,Weep Not, Child. (Oxford: Heineman, 1964), 29.
[8] Ngugi wa Thiong’o,Weep Not, Child. (Oxford: Heineman, 1964), 77.
[9] Kevin Shillingto, History of Africa. (London: Macmillan, 1990), 307.
[10] Kevin Shillingto, History of Africa. (London: Macmillan, 1990), 307.
[11] Mame Yoko and Others, “Letter from the Women of Senehun,” Course packet, 182.
[12] Esi Sutherland-Addy and Aminata Diaw, Women Writing Africa:West Africa and the Sahel. (New York: Feminist Press, 2005), 146.


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