Both internally and in its bearing on the present international struggle, the race problem looms large for the British Commonwealth of Nations. The countries of the former Empire and present Commonwealth include both South Africa, which is attempting to extend white supremacy over larger and larger sections of Africa, and India, which has been an active defender of the colored peoples and the chief opponent of South Africa at sessions of the United Nations. Between the two is England’s Labor government, which is trying to lead her African colonies toward self-government, while not provoking a violent reaction either in South Africa or among the white settlers in the colonial areas. Rita Hinden, Secretary of the Fabian Colonial Bureau in London, and author of many books and articles on Britain’s colonial problems, here reviews the developing crisis in British Africa. In a companion article, Barnet Litvinoff, British journalist who is now press officer with the Jewish Agency in London, describes the explosive situation created in one African colony where the British government has been trying to protect the interests of the natives.
For many years to come the country folk of Arusha, Tanganyika, will have their most exciting bit of gossip to tell since Stanley met Livingstone high up in the Great Lakes and took the dying missionary on a boating trip.
It was not long ago that Arusha jumped out of the dark backwoods of East Africa and into the news, sending everyone in London hastily in search of his geography book. The town-let suddenly received a visit from a Very Important British Person. This was Mr. John Dugdale, Minister of State for the colonies in the Labor administration; and every inch a British minister he looked, tall and well groomed and the sort of man you would expect to dress for dinner in the jungle, keep the Union Jack flying as though two world wars had not taken place, and as though South Africa’s crusading missionary, Reverend Michael Scott, had never been near that busybody place at Lake Success to defy Prime Minister Daniel F. Malan in the interests of a few thousand indolent South African natives. The sight of Mr. Dugdale was enough to restore to the die-hard English settler in forgotten Arusha the faith that even a socialist administrator might know how to play the game. But not for long. For Mr. Dugdale, beneath that true-blue exterior, was nurturing a social atom bomb. And he elected to hurl it at that most sacred of functions—an East African cocktail party.
The minister had been engaged on a tour of British East African territories—Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika, a wide and busy area containing 17,000,000 African natives, 165,000 Indian and Pakistani traders, and 45,000 Europeans. The government had lavished millions of pounds on a huge scheme for growing peanuts in East Africa that had all but collapsed, while a grant for colonial development had been in operation for some years; Mr. Dugdale wanted to see at first hand what was going on out there. Besides, the Trusteeship Council in New York had been asking some awkward questions lately, and British UN delegates were winning a reputation for vagueness and evasiveness. Some delegates—not from the other side of the Iron Curtain alone—used the term “deliberate obstruction.” So Mr. Dugdale set out to discover the facts for himself. It was at the end of his tour that he turned up at Arusha, where the British colonists, engaged for the most part in the profitable industry of sisal culture, were commiserating with themselves as the forgotten empire builders of the old country.
It is worth recalling at this stage that Britain first came into possession of her East African group of territories ostensibly in the course of a campaign to eradicate the slave trade, of which the sultanate of Zanzibar was an important center. The sultan’s suzerainty extended inland to the Great Lakes, a domain which in the 19th century was the main reservoir for the supply of African slave labor. Britain was not yet in a colony-collecting frame of mind and restricted her vigilance to patrols by the Royal Navy and moral pressure at the court of the sultan. However, a new pace in acquisitiveness was set towards the middle of the 1890’s by Imperial Germany. The kaiser, too, had faithful subjects who were intrepid explorers, and one of these was busy planting the German eagle over some of the sultan’s provinces. Lord Salisbury, the British prime minister, acted swiftly. He came to an agreement with the Germans to divide the spoils, declaring Uganda and Kenya British protectorates. The Germans took Tanganyika, but this, too, was to come under British rule, as a mandated territory, after Germany’s defeat in 1918.
These African territories never attracted the type of British colonist that built up Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. The climate is unsuitable for mass settlement by whites; but a few younger sons of the nobility did in the 19th century leave their stately homes to try their luck in the cultivation of cotton, sisal, and coffee. They cleared giant estates, worked industriously with armies of African natives, and sold their products to the Indian merchants in Nairobi, Mombasa, Dares-Salaam, and elsewhere on the fringe of the continent.
The English grew rich by exploiting the vast reserves of native labor. The Indian merchants were humble and thrifty, keeping their place in the commercial areas of the new towns. There was no union organization and no labor strife. To the north the Italians were having difficulties with tribal chiefs in Abyssinia; to the south the whites of Rhodesia were being harried by the British Colonial Office because they wanted Dominion status—for whites. But in the hinterland of Tanganyika there was no one to interfere with the regime erected on the basis of race exploitation, native ignorance, and the color bar. The outbreak of the Second World War saw hemp required in hitherto unheard of quantities; and sisal, the raw product from which it is manufactured, became a commodity for the cultivation of which the bush was ransacked for workers. The white settlers grew fantastically rich, congratulated themselves on having colonized a gold mine, and tried to keep the 19th century going well into the 20th. That is, until the visit of Mr. John Dugdale.
A leading local resident in Arusha planned to do honor to the distinguished visitor and have the cream of local society meet him and discuss the colony’s problems and hopes—by both of which they meant aid to the European element. Nobody else was considered to have any problems. The Europeans, though they could hardly be said to have fallen on hard times, were experiencing a little more difficulty in marketing their crops in peacetime. They wanted an assurance from the British government that their trade was safe, and were anxious to strengthen their position amid the general native unrest in Africa.
A cocktail party was, therefore, arranged at a leading hotel. The colonists, impeccably attired for the occasion, mustered in force. The minister was coming with his wife. It would be nice to see what the current London fashions were like. As it happened, Mr. Dugdale telephoned the hotel just before the party. He asked whether the establishment was open to Africans—colored Africans. He was informed that this hotel, like many others throughout Tanganyika, allowed no Africans—or Indians—in except as servants. Mr. Dugdale declined to join the party. He could not, he said, go to any public building or attend any function where the color bar operated.
With eyebrows raised below tropical topees, the British colony got together in haste to decide on the next move. This minister was not only a socialist, which was bad enough; he was also impolite. They organized another party for the guest, this time in a private home where questions of racial prejudice could be neither raised nor answered. Here the minister duly arrived, and the conversation, to judge from reports reaching London, was generally cool and commonplace.
This only lasted for a few minutes, however. Soon one of the guests, who apparently had not merely gone through the motions of taking cocktails, tapped Mr. Dugdale on the shoulder and charged him with being a troublemaker, with showing intolerance for the white man’s point of view, and with openly encouraging revolt among the natives. Such persons, it was pointed out, were not welcome in a peaceful and happy community like Arusha. Mr. Dugdale, after the fashion of 19th-century novelettes, promptly ordered his carriage, took a summary departure, and left everyone who mattered in Arusha standing. Another stronghold of race superiority began to sag groundwards.
Not all the English communities in East Africa hold the same beliefs as those of the residents of Arusha. Mr. Dugdale, on his return to London, maintained that he found frequent examples of generosity to the natives and of equality of status. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that 17,000,000 colored Africans have been given their first hope in a situation that has persistently failed to secure enough attention.
A struggle is rapidly developing in East Africa between the large majority seeking elementary rights and the few who wish to maintain the status quo. Opinion was divided in London as to the wisdom of a minister of the crown making so open a gesture in favor of human rights. How far, after all, was Mr. Dugdale’s government prepared to go, it was asked. The Africans might suspect that the walls of repression had tumbled down, and the next step was not simple equality, but independence; and Britain was not just now in a mood to give away any more of her colonies.
It is not the old-fashioned concept of imperialism which causes Britain to cling to her African colonies—quite the contrary, as can be seen from recent developments in West Africa where both the Gold Coast and Nigeria are undergoing in slow motion that “transfer of power” accomplished with dispatch and under threat of revolution in India and Pakistan. The reasons for Britain’s retention of East Africa lie in the complex emotional tug of war that accompanies progress in multi-racial societies. The East African territories, like their neighbor Northern Rhodesia, are ruled by that agent of the British taxpayer, the Colonial Office, acting through its civil servants on the spot. But in fact decisions are made—or rather, official ordinances are effectively resisted—by the white settlers. These settlers take the view that they were encouraged to colonize the Empire, to set up homes, to create wealth, under the protection of London. Consequently, Britain’s responsibilities are twofold; she must honor an old pledge to the native of preparing him to rule himself, and she must safeguard the person and prosperity of the white who cannot think of African self-determination except in terms of white supremacy, as in South Africa. The ensuing pattern is crazy: the white settlers are repressing the natives, obstructing Britain, and clamoring for British protection all at once; and the Colonial Office stands between racial groups whose attitude towards each other is a mingling of fear, hate, and aggression.
Visiting East Africa almost at the same time as Minister Dugdale was another British member of parliament, Mr. Fenner Brockway. A veteran social revolutionary, Mr. Brockway did what no British public figure has so far had the courage to do. He stayed in the homes of native Africans throughout his trip. At Nairobi, capital of Kenya, 3,000 natives crowded into the airport to see the important Britisher who was not to stay at Government House, but with their own people. Mr. Brockway was refused a meal in a Nairobi restaurant because he wanted to dine with an Indian and an African friend. He discovered that five restaurants had but lately had their licenses withdrawn for serving meals to mixed parties. He complained to the governor, a worried man who had last year to quell native riots by calling out the military. The governor hates prejudice, but he hates trouble more, and he sees a Black and Tan situation developing in which the Europeans could be massacred.
The European settlers in East Africa are not evil men. They are worried, perplexed, frustrated individuals and they are caught just now in the upthrust of a nationalism creating a political situation without precedent or parallel. The white settler regards each new demand by the African with foreboding. The colonial civil servant, on the other hand, is schooled to expect such difficulties and is more concerned with regulating the awakening giant than with frustrating him. He finds the settler’s prejudices unsophisticated, out of touch with modern life, and quaintly ignorant of the world as understood and preached by the young lecturers at the London School of Economics.
Sometimes, however, even the advanced theorists of the London School of Economics seem quaintly unsophisticated. East Africa is the most westerly outpost of the Indian diaspora. Indian “Zionism” (which is a matter for the Hindu rather than the Moslem) looks toward the motherland as the country where the oppressive Englishman was driven out, and the place to find both political strength and spiritual succor. The Indian of East Africa is economically successful and therefore generally unpopular. Also, he is educated, organized, and has considerable capacity for leadership. He gets on well enough socially with the African—who has no particular sense of racial inferiority towards Indians—and acts as a kind of intermediary between white and black. In these circumstances the Indian is all one would expect him to be: sensitive, proud, fascinated by Communism, resentful of the Englishman’s social domination.
The Indians have aligned themselves with the native Africans and are the articulate organs of native nationalism. They campaign against discrimination and have taken all steps open to them to lift their own political status. They oppose limitation of Indian immigration and refuse to recognize any difference between the policy of the British government and the conduct of the British settlers. Yet, ironically enough, should there be a pogrom in East Africa, it will be directed not against the whites but against the Indians. For it is they who own the shops and run the bazaars at which the natives buy and to which they are in debt; the Europeans live way up in the mountain strongholds.
Africa is now emerging from a society of strata, of one race sitting upon another, to a society of plurality, of one race living beside another. One of those characteristically foggy statements made periodically by British statesmen to keep the rest of the world guessing about their intentions, was recently uttered in the House of Commons:
Our objective is self-government within the Commonwealth. Self-government must include proper provision for all the main communities which have made their home in East Africa but in the long run their security and well-being must rest on their good relations with each other. Good relations cannot flourish while there is fear and suspicion between the communities; it must therefore be our task to create conditions where that fear and suspicion disappear. In any constitutional changes in the direction of self-government, care must be taken to safeguard the proper rights and interests of all the different communities. Future policy must be worked out in full consultation with those who belong to the territories. . . .
This pronunciamento, like the Balfour Declaration on another occasion, poses more questions than it answers. It does not reveal how the British Colonial Office is to influence the whites who have the power in East Africa to accept a position of mere equality with the natives. Just before he died, Ernest Bevin described his government as “leading East Africa along the road traveled by India.” A perfectly commendable statement, yet not the kind to reassure any sector of the local population: they each interpreted it according to their fears, not their aspirations.
Officially, Great Britain’s attitude to the race problem of East Africa is to ignore it. It can carp at Dr. Malan in South Africa because he is the prime minister of an independent country, even though within the Commonwealth. But it cannot attract too much attention to the race problem in colonial provinces for which it is responsible politically to the British people and morally to the Trusteeship Council. The latest report issued by His Majesty’s Government concerning its East African wards is 165 pages long. It deals with political progress since the war, regional collaboration, reconstruction, and the development of natural resources, social services, and community life, but not a word is recorded of the race problems within the territory.
What, therefore, did Minister Dugdale discover during his East African trip? He discovered that a showdown with the white settlers cannot for long be postponed. Five years ago this might have involved an abdication of power by the Colonial Office, as power has been all but abdicated to the white settlers in the Rhodesias. But today, with the aid of public opinion in Britain and international opinion at the United Nations, there is a chance that the showdown may produce a firm and statesman-like formula for progressive self-government in this plural community such as has already been achieved with considerable success in the case of the British West Indies.