Love and Betrayal in Colonial Africa | The Nation


Love and Betrayal in Colonial Africa

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This is not just a rhetorical question. One would indeed like to know how these two managed to carry on a relationship, but Gurnah appears to be more interested in the effect of the affair on succeeding generations than in the affair itself. The plot jumps forward in time to the 1950s, the years immediately preceding independence. Returning to the third-person narrative, Gurnah introduces us to a modern Zanzibari family whose three children, Amin, Farida and Rashid, are invested by their parents with all the hopes a young nation might have for its future. The family appears to have no relation to the characters we have met before, and we must wait until this second story unfolds in order to know what happened to Rehana and Pearce, and how the two narrative threads connect.

About the Author

Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami
Laila Lalami, the author of Secret Son and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, is an associate professor of creative...

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Along the way, Gurnah explores the imperial takeover of Zanzibar by the British. Frederick Turner, for instance, is an unabashed colonialist who thinks that the British Empire is not only good for Africa but also different from other empires before it, because it is "moral." After all, he argues, the British outlawed slavery and developed the land, and so have the mission of governing Africans, who are so clearly incapable of doing so on their own. "What passes for work in this town is men sitting under a tree waiting for the mangoes to ripen," he notes. His friend Burton, however, is a Kurtz-like character who joins the laborers "in their drumming and dancing," while at the same time "quite sure that the future for British possessions in Africa was the gradual decline and disappearance of the African population, and its replacement by European settlers." Turner is not the genocidal maniac that Burton is, but he nonetheless wonders whether there is any truth to the notion that "blacks have a natural instinct" to serve.

Pearce, by contrast, wanders into this world with a profound disgust for the entire colonial enterprise and instead devotes his time in Zanzibar and elsewhere to the study of the natives' history and language. Turner disagrees with Pearce's approach. His mission, as he understands it, is to govern the natives, not to try to understand them. Of his previous position in India, he says proudly, "I can stir up a bit of Hindustani myself, especially if I don't have to understand what the other fellow is saying. Well, it's impressive nevertheless." In Turner's world, language loses its purpose of communication and instead becomes a means of dominance and oppression.

The debate among these three representatives of colonialism (the brute Burton, the pragmatic Turner, the Orientalist Pearce) includes statements like this one, made by Turner:

Here we are, 1899, what thought of the new century? Will we do better than our resolute predecessors? Will this place be cleared of its natives, and be turned into a kind of America, or will we see these chumps become civilised and hard-working subjects?

Although the language today might be more oblique, the sentiment that "these chumps" can and should be civilized is still very much a part of the imperial enterprise. In October 2001, for instance, Max Boot declared in The Weekly Standard that the "historic war aim" of the American invasion of Iraq was "to turn [it] into a beacon of hope for the oppressed peoples of the Middle East." (Never mind that half of Iraq's people will now be second-class citizens, thanks to the institution of an Islamic republic in this formerly secular country.) And just as Turner believes that the British Empire will not go the way of other empires, so, too, do the neocons in the current Administration believe that the American adventure in the Middle East is somehow different, because more "moral," than those before it.

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