By Leo Zeilig
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Africa’s ‘Agitators’

This article is over 13 years, 6 months old
Jonathan Derrick, Hurst, £17.99
Issue 333

Armed uprisings, protests and revolts, some lasting years, marked the first attempts of European powers to divide and colonise Africa. From the 1880s, European forces were often paralysed by mass resistance – Italy’s devastating defeat at the hands of Ethiopia in the Battle of Adowa in 1896 or the 1879 Zulus’ victory in the battle of Isandhlwana, for instance. Where there were no centralised states, “guerrilla” resistance continued for years – such as the Igbos of south-eastern Nigeria.

This was repeated across the continent. In the Congo famine and forced labour led to massive depopulation. But during this time there were continual uprisings. Colonial records, for example, show that by 1908 the rebellion of Batetela soldiers had lasted for 13 years, with free communities living temporarily outside the control of King Leopold’s private empire.

Eventually these movements of large scale rebellion and “uncoordinated” resistance were crushed. These bloody victories were often achieved because of superior European weaponry.

The motives of European powers were clear to an early generation of Western-educated Africans. The book’s author, Jonathan Derrick, quotes the pioneer Gold Coast (today’s Ghana) nationalist Joseph Ephraim Casely Hayford in 1903; “The cry of gold calls up the spirit of strife. The love of gold dissipates the love of man; for is not the love of gold the root of all evil?”

Africa’s ‘Agitators’ is devoted to the resistance and the activists of the first scramble for Africa and the period between the two world wars. It also examines the important relationships that developed with European militants and organisations.

The First World War was a vital event in the political formation of many of the African agitators – French West Africa drafted 170,891 soldiers; many fought and died in the trenches in France.

The book also discusses the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The revolution recast international politics, calling for the immediate end of colonialism – an idea previously supported by a tiny minority – and sought to build organisations and alliances with those already fighting for independence and equality. As Derrick writes correctly, “Communists were almost alone in accepting the idea of colonial independence”, but also for “liberation for the oppressed classes within colonial territories”.

A new vision seemed to open up to agitators across the continent. Josiah Gumede, a South African activist, visited Moscow in the 1920s and described how his eyes were opened to the reality that it was not the white man “but the capitalist class which grinds the faces of white and black the world over”.

New parties and groups emerged. Soon after the French Communist Party (PCF) was formed in 1920, other groups dealing directly with the “national question” arose. One such group was the Union Intercoloniale, which was founded in 1922 in Paris and brought together an array of activists from Vietnam, Africa and the Caribbean, such as the Vietnamese Ho Chi Minh and the French-Senegalese Lamine Senghor who were both important figures in campaigning against French imperialism.

African ‘Agitators’ includes a fascinating description of the campaign against France’s 1925-26 colonial war in Morocco. This was the largest movement against a colonial war in Europe at the time. Action committees were set up across France, and the campaign included an appeal for French soldiers to fraternise with the Moroccan rebels.

The book also shows the disastrous results of Stalin’s policies in the years following 1928, when he insisted that Communist Parties should not take part in common struggles alongside social democratic or nationalist organisations.

The great strength of Derrick’s impressive book is that it does not see African resistance as an imported phenomenon, where African agitators simply accepted the dictates of Western communist or socialist parties. He shows how these activists, often based in the West, developed their own political ideas on questions of independence and colonialism, and frequently provided organisational homes that challenged racist and imperialist politics in the West.

I feel slightly churlish to criticise such a useful and thorough study, but there are two problems. One is precisely the detail provided in the book. Occasionally the text is weighed down by too many facts and can, at times, feel like a bureaucratic history. The second is a failure to analyse Bolshevik and Marxist interpretations of imperialism that are often alluded to but dismissed as “flawed”. This prevents Derrick from seeing the role and development of class politics on the continent, and the importance of early strikes.

But these are minor points in a book that provides, in one volume, the story of African agitators and revolutionaries between the wars who resisted the scramble for Africa and colonisation, and fought for independence and socialism. These fighters have been, for too long, hidden from our history.

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