Slavery monument. Ghana, Volta region, near Atoko village

What is the price of colonialism?

The desire to subjugate others has a long and ignoble history. To blithely say ‘thus it ever was’ merely serves to perpetuate suffering with the knowledge that it will cause suffering. History’s broad vistas, viewed through the crystalline lens of hindsight, teach us is that it rarely works out well for the coloniser either – the abuse of power bears strange fruit. Whilst the Reap the Forgotten Harvest trilogy deals with the consequences of British colonialism, a quick spin of the globe or a casual flick through an atlas reminds us of numerous other colonial enterprises, both past and present.

So why colonise in the first place? In the first book of the trilogy, the Catholic Fleming family endure a terrifying journey across the Yorkshire moors as they flee religious persecution. Narrowly escaping death and with terror still pulsing through their veins, they set sail for an uncertain future in the ‘New World’. However, not so many years later, their agents are forcing slaves onto ships along the Slave Coast of west Africa for the dreadful journey to the sugar fields of the Caribbean – the infamous ‘middle passage’. Commercial opportunity would seem to have quashed any qualms that might have arisen from the Flemings’ prior experiences of injustice. Of course, colonisation is more than just a commercial opportunity supported by national interest and protection. It is ultimately about power. Power takes many forms: wealth; political, religious and commercial influence; access to commodities and control of borders, both political and commercial. Protected corridors of access ultimately allow wealth to stream unimpeded into the owners’ pockets.

It is important not to conflate colonialism with slavery. Although both are characterised by inequality, the latter has especially onerous complications. The trans-Atlantic slave trade left an awful legacy, characterised by large numbers of displaced people whose historical links to their new country were recent and often very traumatic. Contemporary research on trauma and torture show an increasing awareness of the long-term societal impacts. This is particularly true when families were routinely separated, as was the experience of slaves on the plantations. This has consequences for the health and well-being of families that ripple through generations. It is becoming increasingly apparent, for example, that sickle cell anaemia, so common among the former slaves, may be directly related to the hardships of fighting malaria in the new colonies.

Postcolonial nation-building, therefore, is a complicated business. Success is often dependent on the ability to utilise that which was designed to benefit the coloniser. Colonialism is paternalistic at best, but usually just exploitative. So, nothing tends to be in the right place, beginning with national borders – it could be said that islands sometimes have a distinct advantage! Newly-independent nations are left with colonial hand-me-downs which, like all hand-me-downs, may or may not fit, but for which the recipient must be very, very grateful. Infrastructure, jurisprudence, national languages, borders that don’t respect ancient enmities… The list is lengthy, and presumes that the recipients of such largesse could not have managed such achievements under their own steam. The rush to make amends when independence is imminent can sometimes obscure earlier motivations of greed and supposed superiority. Renegotiating relationships, such as trading partnerships, is never going to be easy when there is a preceding history of inequity and distrust.

Post-colonialism is uncomfortable for all. No-one likes to be reminded of past discretions. Likewise, no-one likes to remember being disempowered. Imprints of indifference and callousness are not easily erased. These were undoubtedly those who cared, who learnt the language, respected and adopted the customs and even intermarried. But they were usually accused of ‘going native’ and rarely rose far. In the absence of heroes, other sentiments arise – shame, revisionism, amnesia, justification… Perhaps the greatest price of colonialism is the lingering division, resentment and silence that ricochets down the generations, with the sourness being carried by those who had nothing to do with injustices committed long ago. And yet it is difficult to dispel the lingering aftertaste of collective guilt, a consequence that is rarely felt by the perpetrators, but often by their descendants. It is they who will also have to deal with the lingering issues of reparation.

But heroes do exist. The trilogy shows how dissent was always present. In Torrents of Fire, the swelling abolition movement in Britain was matched by sustained agitation on distant plantations. Like a forest fire, it soon had multiple sources of conflagration that were ultimately impossible to contain. The abolition movement was not just a few isolated do-gooders, but rather successive waves of popular dissent building into a torrent of opposition. The American academic, Vincent Carretta, notes that not only was the British campaign for abolition of slavery the first mass social movement in British history, but it is also curiously uncelebrated. Part of the process of reclaiming history is appreciating those whose stories can be built upon – the bridge between nations.

Main image: Slavery monument. Ghana, Volta region, near Atoko village from Shutterstock.

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