‘recently a very close friend of mine declared it would take us another twenty years to be really independent. Was he right? I am afraid there is a lot of truth in this.’ – Dr Kenneth Kaunda 1966
There is often a perception in the general public that the British Empire was not only a net benefit to the globe but was also something of the past. Neither are correct. A friend once used the analogy of a building as an off the cuff remark to describe the long-lasting effects of colonial rule on continental East Africa. The more I think about her extended metaphor the more I am convinced it accurately explains the colonial inheritance of many post-colonial governments across the world. There are many academic journal articles, books and such that deconstruct the enduring legacies of colonialism both in the colonial states and the colonial metropole. Here, I will be discussing the work of three different poets to show the continuities of the British Empire in terms of economy, psychology, the practice of violence and the enduring understandings of race in the colonial metropole. Empire was not simply a political project; it permeated every social relation, profoundly affecting the psyche of global politics today.
The aforementioned quote is taken from the epigraph of Kayo Chingonyi’s poem, 25 October 1964. The title is immediately an encouragement to downplay the significance of the turning point- a reference to Zambia’s Independence Day. The reader is ultimately forced to grapple with the question of whether it is indeed that day that the former colonial subjects of Zambia were truly ‘free’. There is initially a celebratory tone to the poem,
We danced like Celts the day the news of it
kicked the District Commissioner’s fat rump.
The inversion is played out on several levels- a deep irony is pointed out between the relationship of the colonial official and the subject and the reader understands that the violence and greed of the colonial state has been somewhat reversed. However, the air of celebration gives way to an undercurrent of something that is still lost. When Mr Chisala shuts the school down to head to the bar the implication is that the teachers are celebrating. This is made stronger by the image of the colonial currency no longer having power. In the poem, colonial notes no longer have any purchase. All they return are ‘baked’ groundnuts devoid of moisture and ‘hallowed’ pitchers with the empty satisfaction of the local brew. This is a subtle reference to the disastrous Tanganyika and Northern Zambian Groundnut Scheme that brought economic ruin to the region. The late colonial era was filled with many ‘development’ schemes that hugely backfired such as the Gezira Scheme, the Office du Niger and other such high modernist programmes. The reference to the Groundnut Schemes cleverly plays on the idea that these schemes were detrimental to African economies and that in the independent state no longer would colonial economics of a waged and monetary economy have any political currency.
Despite this subtle assertion of independence, there remains an undercurrent of loss carried by the significance of alcohol in the poem. Alcohol is the driving agent, it compels the teacher to head to the bar, to toast to the future. Alcohol is, according the speaker, the song of a downtrodden people. Beer, wine and spirits play a huge part in understanding the history of Southern and Eastern Africa. In many parts of the continent, the sale, distillation and consumption of spirits was banned for African populations. Spirits were seen by the colonial state as a marker of European modernity and should be reserved as the privilege of whiteness- a race that could ‘handle’ the moral degradation of alcohol. In the same breath that colonial officials were patronising African subjects many Southern African employers ‘paid’ their employees in wine setting in motion intergenerational issues around addiction and alcoholism. In the proper context, alcohol no longer assumes a position of celebration as it might in a colonial metropole environment; it is a marker of oppression and frustration. The song is enduring, as are the ‘Leyland-Hippo shaped buses’- a wonderful compound noun to evoke the structural continuities of the colonial era, the cumbersome mining economy and a nation ‘dressed in hunched shoulders.’
Ultimately, the poem introduces the idea of the long-lasting effects of colonialism both at a structural and psychological level. In many post-colonial states today, the role of the District Commissioner still exists, the institutions that governed colonial subjects still govern post-colonial citizens and European interference in the economy has by no means vanished. Depressingly, Dr Kaunda’s friend was right, they simply miscalculated the number of decades.
Colonial violence was as rife as it was brutal throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries from violent conquest campaigns to concentration camps to gendered sexual violence. Few poets have tackled the reproduction of colonial violence as expertly as Malika Booker in her debut collection, Pepper Seed. In the first half of poems, the book deals with plantation violence in the Caribbean and the ways those practices have reproduced themselves between generations. In ‘Pepper Sauce’, Malika methodically and viscerally recounts a sexual punishment between a grandmother and granddaughter involving peppers. It is as shocking as it is brutal and in the context of the wider systems of punishment, the reader is not left judging the grandmother but instead the social-historical accepted practices rooted in plantation violence. It is no coincidence that ‘Pepper Sauce’ immediately precedes ‘Death of an Overseer’. The latter poem provides an explanation and the Fanon-esque emotional catharsis with the death of the chief instrument of that very violence- the overseer. The speaker presents the overseer as a death song, a reaper of sorts that exercises blind and insensitive violence on all they come into contact with,
He who sing, this job is too sweet, as he fleck,
bloody raindrops from his blistering skin, gone
It is no coincidence that the speaker describes the overseer as ‘wearing blindfold’, making a very clear visual connection with subsequent images of Lady Justice. Where the poem really shines though is where it refers to flower and crop, making the link with previous poems in the collection surrounding a language of violence. ‘He whip sprout scarlet lilies’, ‘leaves clapping on the trees’, ‘make he body bear red hibiscus’. The imagery that permeates the poem links the violence of the grandmother in Pepper Sauce with the overseer, establishing the connection of enduring plantation violence, particularly gendered violence.
The construction of scientific racism, of ideas about racial difference and white supremacy developed in conjunction with Empire. Conquest and exploration into the African interior fuelled Orientalist fascinations with black bodies and vice versa. The case of Saartjie Baartman, a young Khoikhoi woman from the Eastern Cape who became known as the ‘hottentot venus’, is perhaps one of the best examples of how colonial conquest facilitated the development of racism in the colonial metropole. Due to Baartman’s physicality, she became the subject of intense sexualisation in the London press and was put on display like a zoo for the public to see. It doesn’t take a genius to make the link between Saartjie Baartman’s story and present-day examples of the intense sexualisation of black women in media and legal system. In his innovative and experimental collection, buck studies, Douglas Kearney explores this very connection in the poem, ‘DROP IT LIKE ITS HOTTENTOT VENUS’ with his usual sharp satire. It is of course a fun play on the song, ‘Drop it like it’s hot’, with similar staccato intonations and spacing on the page. Kearney expertly uses form to weave splintered narratives about black female sexuality,
I hit it. Provoked to
poke pushed to
strike pressed to
stroke driven to
she lust prod onus hers
The poem is intent on pitting two conflicting positions on sexuality against each other. There is an impetus to ‘drop it’ and embrace the power of female sexuality but it is strongly undercut with leering images of the male gaze with phrases such as ‘peek’, ‘peer’, ‘enter’. The compound noun ‘revoltin’ ho’, which Kearney has written in bold, sums up one of the central conflicts of the poem. It is a very simple play on words that have the dual function of both celebrating the revolutionary black female who challenges conventional western standards of beauty and sexuality as well as summing up Western attitudes of disgust to black bodies and the criminalisation of black women as prostitutes etc.
Ultimately these poets encourage wider questioning into the racial dynamics of our society. It is self-evident that the legacies of colonialism and slavery reverberate down the years even if it is sometimes difficult to unpick the nuances. That shouldn’t discourage us from doing so. These particular poems introduce just some of the ways that racist historical structures continue to permeate every form of social relations. There are many more than require dismantling in order to create a more equitable society, not just along the lines of race but where it intersects with class and gender. In this time of self-reflection it is crucial that we all do the work of understanding this country’s colonial past to better tackle the enduring issues of today.
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kumukanda-Kayo-Chingonyi/dp/1784741396 - Kumukanda, Kayo Chingonyi
https://www.peepaltreepress.com/books/pepper-seed - Pepper Seed, Malika Booker
https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9780986437373/buck-studies.aspx - buck studies, Douglas Kearney