Blog Archive

jeudi 5 juin 2014

Un peu d'histoire coloniale

[Avertissement : Racisme, violence]

"Europeans' insistence upon the biological dissimilarities between themselves and Africans took some extraordinary extremes, event extending the assertion that Africans, unlike Europeans, had the ability in common with certain unnamed species of animals to die at will. Elspeth Huxley, for one, insisted that "men who appeared quite healthy would sometimes die because they wanted to."* Perhaps the mod startling expression of this belief comes from Karen Blixen's account of the infamous trial of an European farmer who was accused of beating to death one of his African employees. The murder itself tells us a good deal about the crucial role that symbolic boundaries played in defining the relationship between the two races.
The incident began when the victim's employer ordered him to deliver to the farm a horse that had been left at a railway station. The employee was told to lead the horse, not ride it, but someone saw him do otherwise and informed the farmer. In a rage, the farmer confronted the unfortunate employee with a rhetorical assault – had he been given permission to ride the horse ?  repeated forty or fifty times !
The African finally replied that he was not a thief. The European considered this an insolent answer. He flogged the man, then bound him to a post in a storeroom for the night. The African was dead by morning.
Simply put, he died because he has ridden the European's horse.  Assuming the farmer was not insanely sadistic, his homicidal response makes no sense unless one recognizes the importance of the horse, and more particularly the right to mount it, as an emblem of social rank and authority reserved for Europeans. By riding the horse, the African employee unwittingly challenged a symbolic boundary that distinguished and separated the two races, thereby sparking the explosive response of the European farmer.
The subsequent trial was revealing in its own right. Here the defense produced several Nairobi doctors who testified that the flogging was "not sufficient to have caused death", despite the fact that they had not examined the body. They claimed that a "will to die" was the primary cause of death, citing as evidence the testimony of another African employee who had heard the victim cry out during the night that he wanted to die. The doctors insisted that all Africans possessed a mysterious power to terminate their lives at will ; one of the medical men added that "he could speak with authority, for he had been in the country for twenty-five years, and knew the Native mind."
The European jury, returning a verdict of "grievous hurt" rather than murder, accepted this defense. So too did Kaen Blixen. Moreover, she found in the affair an oddly beautiful lesson. It proved, she argued perversely, that the African retained one freedom that the European could never appropriate, the freedom to dia at will : "In it [the wish to die] is embodied the fugitiveness of wild things who are, in the hour of need, conscious of a refuge somewhere in existence; who go when they like; of whom we can never get hold"** For Blixen, the appeal of this assumed ability was that it evinced the mystery of some primitive animal spirit. Her admiration for it derived directly from the contrast it posed to the civilized character of the European, who had lost this power of will. Even so universal a matter as death, then, set sharp and steadfast boundaries between the two races."
*Huxley, Flame Trees, p.60. My emphasis.
**Dinesen, Out of Africa, pp. 281-283. Ngugi wa Thing'o also has focused attention on this very peculiar passage in his Detained (London, 1981), pp. 35-37.

 – Dave Kennedy, Islands of White : Settler Society and Culture in Kenya and Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1939, Duke University Press, Durham, 1987, pp.165-6.

2 commentaires:

  1. Kennedy parle aussi des peurs liées au climat dans les colonies mixtes (chap. 6, pp.109-128)
    "Recalling a visit he once made to an ailing doctor in the highlands of Kenya, colonial officer Ethelbert Hosking described the following scene "[the doctor] was in bed, with a spine pad down the back of his pajamas, a double terai hat on his head with another spine pad down the back of it -- because the room, witha corrugated iron roof and wooden ceileing, was not 'sunproof''." (p. 109)
    Mais à ce compte-là je pourrais citer tout le live, c'est un ouvrage fascinant.


"As-tu vérifié si ce que tu veux me dire est vrai ?
Ce que tu veux m'apprendre, est-ce quelque chose de bien ?
Est-il utile que tu m'apprennes cela ?
Dans le cas contraire, pourquoi tiendrais-tu à me le dire ?"
- une poétesse victorienne moraliste, à peu près.