By Mubin Haq
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The Dynamics of Oppression

This article is over 18 years, 5 months old
Review of ’The Colonizer and the Colonized‘, Albert Memmi, Earthscan £12.95
Issue 283

First published in 1957, The Colonizer and the Colonized was born out of Albert Memmi‘s direct experiences in North Africa. At the time Algeria was in flames and the French Empire was disintegrating. Circulated in French colonial prisons, Memmi‘s work offers a psychological rather than an economic study of the effects of colonialism. In his 1965 preface, Memmi affirms that the ’economic aspect of colonisation is fundamental‘, yet this is hardly touched on. Instead he provides a portrait of the coloniser and the colonised, the relationships and dynamics between these two groups, and the psychological impact upon the protagonists.

This is a world in which the coloniser enjoys privilege while the colonised live in subhuman conditions and are viewed as a mass. They do not exist as individuals but become objects. They are nothing. As Cecil Rhodes once said, ’I prefer land to niggers.‘ Not surprisingly, racism became central to the system and not an incidental detail.

Memmi poetically describes how the stranglehold of colonisation leads to the loss of the colonised‘s history, memory and language. The colonised‘s native tongue becomes rusted and is neither written nor read. All institutions of power use the language of the coloniser, and so the colonised‘s institutions become dead or petrified. All progress, including technological advances, becomes associated with the coloniser. As a result the movement against colonisation makes the colonised assert their differences to the coloniser. This results in a return to religion, traditional institutions and culture.

There is not much to disagree with here, and it is in the chapters relating to the colonised that Memmi is strongest. It is in the earlier sections of the book relating to the coloniser that Memmi‘s analysis is weak. This is already indicated via the new introduction by Nadine Gordimer. It is highly unusual to have an introduction that is so critical.

In these chapters Memmi is scathing of those Europeans who live in the colonies but who do not agree with it. Ultimately he believes that they will either return to Europe or become colonisers themselves. There is no middle ground: ’All Europeans in the colonies are de facto colonisers.‘ While it is true that Europeans in the colonies had privilege, this does not equate to all of them supporting and upholding the system. In fact there was a minority in many colonial outposts which did not accept the rule of the mother country and supported the colonised in their efforts to liberate themselves. But Memmi goes further: ’Europeans of Europe are potentially colonisers… By their whole weight, intentionally or not, they contribute to the perpetuation of colonial oppression.‘ This is that age-old argument that all of those living in the west, from the industrialist to the worker, benefit from and support the oppression of those in poorer nations. This is simply wrong.

Later Memmi contradicts his previous statements, and argues that European nationals who do not originate from the colonising country are ’neither colonisers nor colonised‘. In fact he asserts that there is a sliding scale of acceptability depending on a white person‘s country of origin and the way in which they interact with the colonised. For example, ’Italians do not maintain a great distance between themselves and the colonised.‘ I doubt the Ethiopians would agree! As Gordimer states, this ’didn‘t apply in any of the African countries I know. In these, if you were white you were welcomed by the colonial government and colonisers to shore up the white population.‘

This underlines a significant problem with Memmi’s analysis. Quite rightly he uses his own experiences in North Africa, but he tries to extrapolate these to the colonial situation across the world. At times this works, but more often his generalisations are crude. For example he states that ‘the colonialist never seriously promoted the religious conversion of the colonised’. Really? Why then are the churches of London packed with the descendants of the colonised? Christianity was rammed down their throats – hence the largest number of Christian followers are in South America and Africa, not Europe.

There are numerous other examples where Memmi’s analysis does not stack up with historical events. This is disappointing, and as a result he sheds too little light on the heart of darkness, which was the brutal, colonial empires of Europe.

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