In September of this year Bruce Gilley published an article called “The Case for Colonialism” in the Third World Quarterly. Soon, an argument that was previously confined to the pages of The Spectator or Niall Ferguson’s latest book was again, apparently, a topic for debate. Nigel Biggar published an article in The Times saying people should stop feeling guilty about colonialism (see a response here with thanks to Peter Hill and Hussein Omar for drawing my attention to this).
My own view is that, far from feeling too guilty about Empire, the British have largely failed to confront their imperial past (reparations would be a good start). But there are historians of Empire who make the case much more convincingly than I could. There is a story of colonialism that this whole debate has brought to my mind – a story from the archives that is a more appropriate subject for this blog. I make no claims to the historical significance of this story. It is just one story among many that seems to say something about the broad workings of a colonial system (and why that is a system that we should feel guilty to have promoted).
I found an account of this small incident in Darfur in the archives of the University of Edinburgh, amongst the papers of Reginald Davies, a colonial official who worked in Egypt and Sudan.
Davies was not a malign or corrupt official (he seems to have been a rather better man than most) and this is no attempt to attack him personally. In 1920 he had been assigned to a post in Dar Masalit, working with two local Sultans to maintain order and British interests. He left a diary of his time in Darfur in the Special Collections of Edinburgh University library, in which he tells of one particularly disturbing encounter, which I will summarise her.
When he arrived there was one other white man in the area called Porcelli. People had warned him before he came that Porcelli was “impossible”, he soon learnt that he was “a cad”.
As Davies was arranging the details of his new post he was interrupted by “the distraught crying of a woman” coming from Porcelli’s house. The woman came to his hut and threw herself on his mercy, saying that Porcelli only paid her 5 Piastres of maintenance and he beat her with a boot. It was obvious to Davies that this woman was Porcelli’s “native mistress”.
Davies asked her if she was free to leave Porcelli if she wanted and she said that she was. So he suggested [rather naively] that if she was not happy with his treatment then she should leave him. She thanked him and left.
Soon after he heard a conversation with one of Porcelli’s emissaries outside his house, in which he assured her that “he says he won’t beat you again”. As soon as she had gone into the house Davies heard a loud argument and then he the woman (who is not given a name) appeared at his door, bleeding from the face. Porcelli had beaten her badly across the face and body with his boot.
Davies was, as soon as he arrived, confronted with a nightmarish scenario to resolve, one that was coloured at every stage by colonial power dynamics. He managed to get the woman away from Porcelli and send her back to the Sultan (though we do not hear what happened to her afterwards). He was less sure what to do with Porcelli. His first instinct was to “have a first-class row about it and make him compensate the woman.” However, to break relations with the only other “white man” in this remote outstation was something that Davies felt was not a wise move.
Eventually he resolved on an extremely British course of action. He would let Porcelli know the bare facts of the complaint that the woman had made and that “in view of [his] recent arrival [he] preferred not to begin [their] association by discussing it with him in detail.” He believed that “it was to be implied from my manner that I considered the offence too gross for discussion.”
He added that “I hope he understood, by implication, my opinion of his behaviour, but I am sorry that circumstance made it inexpedient [to] express it frankly.”
So Porcelli suffered no repercussions and there is no evidence from Davies’ diary that he was at all remorseful. The only response that Davies noted down was that Porcelli called the woman a “damned nuisance” and said that, if she wanted to go, he would not be sorry.
This short and (as far as I am aware) unknown story from a diary in an archive in Edinburgh University is far from extraordinary. It is just one example of the inherent nature of a colonial system that is based on racial dominance and power. Davies was not a Bad Man (even if Porcelli was) but he admits himself that he was trapped inside a system that meant that he could not argue with the only other white man in the area nor could he publish him. Porcelli took advantage of this system to abuse a local woman.
This is the kind of story that was told by George Orwell in his essay about Shooting an Elephant and by Leila Soliman in her recent play Zig Zig. It is a narrative that cannot be separated from a colonial context. This was not just an unfortunate incident that happened to occur under colonialism, it was allowed to happen because of colonialism. This (and the many other injustices that were committed) is just one of the reasons why the British have so much to atone for after our colonial history.