New Book Charts A Tale Of Sudden Civilizational Collapse

New Book Charts A Tale Of Sudden Civilizational Collapse

Bruce Gilley’s 'The Last Imperialist' is a very readable history of a notable episode in post-colonial Africa with ominous contemporary relevance.
Sumantra Maitra
By

A British minister was recently under fire for mentioning what might have seemed obvious to anyone not obsessed with political correctness. “I don’t care about colonialism,” Kemi Badenoch argued, “they came in and just made a different bunch of winners and losers. There was never any concept of ‘rights’, so [the] people who lost out were old elites, not everyday people.”

This isn’t factually incorrect. In many places, significant increases in quality of life and modernity were due to colonialism. As Helen Andrews once wrote, “(w)hen Englishmen first arrived in Mashonaland in the 1880s, the civilization they encountered there had not developed currency, written language, irrigation, beasts of burden, the plough, or the wheel.”

The Guardian, however, was apoplectic in response to Badenoch, dubbed her remarks a “colonial mentality” infecting a certain section of minorities. This dismissal of Badenoch’s point is “false consciousness” by another name, if the scribes at The Guardian were enlightened enough to know what they were talking about.

A recent book is important in this context. Titled The Last Imperialist and written by professor Bruce Gilley, the book charts the life of Sir Alan Burns alongside the collapse of the British empire in Africa. The book is a straightforward narrative, and a not-so-subtle defense of a worldview that isn’t found in academic circles anymore, and is therefore a refreshing read. As readers might remember, Gilley’s very interesting paper on colonialism was pulled out and redacted after a peer-reviewed publication due to mob pressure.

He was then increasingly hounded within the academy, to the point his book manuscript was rejected after being targeted again by mob activism. Fortunately for him, and us, his book was published finally by Regnery. Gilley is a fine writer, unusually poignant for an academic, and it would have been a shame if this book did not see daylight.

Unapologetically Revisionist

The book is unapologetically revisionist, which is also unusually brave for the current cultural moment. It traces the life of Sir Alan Burns, colonial administrator who presided over British Gold Coast – what is currently Ghana – during the final days of the empire.

At times almost V.S. Naipaul-esque, Gilley traces the descent of Ghana into communist terror after achieving independence. The story (and it is written like a story, devoid of academic jargon) starts with a flashback. Burns hears the news that the western-educated liberal nationalist Joseph Danquah was killed in jail, under the revolutionary communist government of Kwame Nkrumah, supported by the USSR, a former protégé of Danquah also.

“Joseph Danquah was the sort of person that colonial officials like Sir Alan Burns hoped would assume power in newly independent states. He was pushed aside in 1947 by the radical Nkrumah, who had been trained in London by Britain’s Communist Party and in the United States by black racialists,” he writes. The result was predictable. Idealistic liberals more concerned about norms forgot what real power is and were quickly overthrown by radicals from within their own ranks. It happened in revolutionary France, as well as revolutionary Russia. The pattern repeated in Africa.

Violent street protests, race riots, and totalitarianism resulted in all the former nationalist liberals jailed or murdered. Nkrumah, who was influenced by American black socialists such as W. E. B. Du Bois, was also feted by Western leaders, who were not aware of his pro-Soviet tilt until it was too late.

President Kennedy revered and appeased Nkrumah as a hero of Africa as Pan-African black nationalism was rising in the United States. “President Kennedy toasted the diminutive Nkrumah in Washington in early 1961 despite warnings from the State Department of an ‘alarming trend toward authoritarian socialism.’ Kennedy’s ill-chosen words at the departure ceremony—’We ourselves are a revolutionary people[,] and we want to see for other people what we have been able to gain for ourselves’—seemed only to encourage Nkrumah’s fanaticism,” Gilley writes.

The thoroughly British educated Danquah, Nkrumah’s former mentor and the original leader of the nationalist movement, regarded his protégé as a rascal. “Danquah warned that his erstwhile colleague was becoming a ‘despot, autocrat, or dictator . . . or God.’ Amid the unbridled enthusiasm for an end to colonialism, such sentiments now seemed churlish.”

The conflict between the two men aptly illustrates that the fights for independence from colonialism were essentially intra-elite fights, between foreign-born overlords and foreign-educated native elite. The worst actors were often supported by the USSR, under the misconception that they would be able to transform their countries into paradise once the overlords were overthrown. This misconception was broken easily:

Danquah contrasted his cruel conditions (under Nkrumah) with how the British had treated them both when they were detained briefly following a riot in 1948: ‘They treated us as gentlemen, and not as galley slaves, and provided each of us with a furnished bungalow (two or three rooms) with a garden, together with opportunity for reading and writing. In fact, I took with me my typewriter and papers for the purpose . . . and there was ample opportunity for correspondence.’

The Irish district commissioner had provided three square meals a day from his own table. A colonial judge had released them both against the wishes of the colonial administration, because there was no evidence to justify continued detention. ‘The reason why detention in ‘free’ and civilized and humane Ghana is’ so much worse than under British colonialism, Danquah wrote to Nkrumah, ‘has never been understood by me.’

The book is filled with quotes and trivia that confound modern colonial narratives, such as discussing how the local Indian community in Africa sided with the British after facing racist violence from native Africans during World War II. It was such a problem that “in the words of one immigrant, a local lawyer named Mohandas Gandhi, the Indian community’s contributions to the war would ‘bind closer still the different parts of the mighty empire of which’ the Indian community was ‘so proud.’”

Also, during the war, a “total of 350,000 natives from British east and west Africa fought for the Allies as soldiers and workers—69,000 soldiers from the Gold Coast alone. Alan was never forced to use conscription because traditional chiefs told their men to join when recruiting parties arrived. ‘We felt we were British, that we were safe under British administration,’ explained the son of a minor chief who was the first to volunteer when a recruiting party came to his village. ‘If they had trouble elsewhere, we went.’”

When Danquah died, the tragedy was deeply painful to a lot of liberals, who simply wanted to remove British rule but realized too late that British rule came with British liberties, which were destroyed as Africa moved back to premodern despotism. Gilly writes that former Nigerian President Nnamdi Azikiwe “now understood that those newspapers, organizations, orderly societies, and civic freedoms under colonialism did not just ‘happen.’ ‘It is an irony of history,’ Azikiwe would say about Danquah’s death, ‘that a great pioneer of Ghanaian scholarship should die in a detention camp barely eight years after his country had become free from foreign domination.’”

Perhaps in the most poignant part of the book, Gilley describes the scene of Danquah’s funeral: “Nkrumah, the Afro-centrist, banned the use of traditional Akan drums intended to give Danquah’s spirit influence over the living. Instead, the brass band of the local Presbyterian church was allowed to play. There was something fitting in this. Danquah’s life and career had been critically shaped by his father’s embrace of Presbyterianism and by his own love of British colonial administration and constitutionalism. The brass band sounded a universal loss in a way that the Akan drums could not.”

A Warning

Even now, western media whitewashes Nkrumah’s violence, even as Ghana itself has moved on from his legacy. The BBC in 2000 voted him a “Hero of Independence” and an “International symbol of freedom as the leader of the first black African country to shake off the chains of colonial rule.” It’s interesting to ponder the contemporary relevance.

Thanks to a global pandemic, resurgent leftism, and various political and economic crises, many of us are contemplating how modernity can end suddenly, and the thin veneer of civilization and propriety can destroyed by sheer force and committed ideological elites. We’ve seen Black Lives Matter riots around the United States with the aid of American businesses, and socialist professors write in socialist magazines about how black resistance can change the direction of America from within. American senators are chased around restrooms by illegal aliens, speaking outright in the language of conquest and overthrow.

The terror of post-colonial Africa should provide a warning to those of us in Europe and America—the descent into chaos and violence can happen here.

Dr. Sumantra Maitra is a national-security fellow at The Center for the National Interest; a non-resident fellow at the James G Martin Center; and an elected early career historian member at the Royal Historical Society. He is a senior contributor to The Federalist, and can be reached on Twitter @MrMaitra.

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