And furthermore ...

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Friday, 8 June 2012


1940s snapshots from Cameroon, the Congo, Uganda and Kenya

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only.”
Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness
 “Zombies, believe me, are more terrifying than colonists.”
Franz Fanon; The Wretched of the Earth 

“Kala Dic 1948
Arriers place = Mission Kala. Dans ma barque le motor (something) full speed. (something) a droite le bouillon de l’eau. A gauche c’est mon capitaine! C’est beau! Il (something) vous cela!
Jean Louis
In my rudimentary French I translate that to be: “Behind is the Kala Mission. In my motor boat travelling at full speed. To the right the water is rough. To the left is my pilot. It’s beautiful. I wish you could see it (or be here).”
Presumably Jean Louis is the photographer though he could also be the younger Pére Blanc on the right, and since this photo came from Montreal we can assume he was Québécois; a land geographically and climatically as far removed from the jungles of Cameroon as one could imagine. You can read in his description that he has recently arrived and is still impressed if not entranced by the place. How long did that last? Just about every European who travelled to Central Africa and wrote about it quickly fell victim to the heat and disease, forgot about adventure in exotic lands and came to regard it as one of the levels of Hell.

This photo comes from October the same year and Jean Louis’ more simple description is of the students with their professor. The Pére Blanc in his white cassock and sola topi is one of the iconic images of colonial Africa. From Algeria and Morocco through to the Congo and Tanganyika the White Fathers proselytised and evangelized but mostly they are known as educators and scientists. They don’t appear to have attracted the scandal associated with missionaries in Australia and South Asia, the strongest criticism coming from Europeans who have detected an unnecessary political competition with Protestant missionaries. Some Africans accused them of meddling in state affairs and also, in the way they encouraged women to leave abusive relationships and find refuge at the missions, families. Mostly there is an acknowledgement that the Pére Blancs were providing the only education in Central Africa.

In the 19th century the anthropological photography coming out of Central Africa was thin on the ground (And anyway, a lot of the photographs of Central Africans available in Europe were taken at the various expos in Paris and Chicago.) By the middle of the twentieth century the small studios run by Africans were located in the big cities and the photographers rarely ventured out of them. For images of village life we had to rely on National Geographic and its various replicas. If you don’t want photographs that are contrived to show off local colour in carefully composed natural settings, you have to rely on snapshots taken by visitors; a few tourists but mostly missionaries, anthropologists and mineral exploration teams.

Well, they are also about local colour but there isn’t that faint scent of deceit that comes when the photographer is aware that their images will be used in a magazine and the editors have certain requirements. The other photographs in this post come from several sources. Those of the Mbuti Pygmies were taken in the Belgian Congo and neighbouring Uganda in 1944. Though there are ancient Egyptian sources dating back 4500 years that mention the Pygmies of the Congo, European contact was sporadic enough for the people of the Ituri Forest to still be mythified as secretive inhabitants of a world rarely touched by sunlight. The Europeans in these photos could be missionaries but they look more like anthropologists or geologists. The latter makes sense as it was wartime and the search for minerals was intense. In the photo above the two Europeans are wearing Australian army slouch hats but they are most likely British since Uganda was a British protectorate at the time. When compared to the photos from Kenya below, there’s a sense of first contact in these images; not that this was the first time the Pygmies had met Europeans but there is a mutual curiosity absent in the Kenyan shots.

Anthropological books almost never make the best seller lists but in 1961 Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People did. A criticism of The Forest People was that Turnbull’s descriptions of the Mbuti as happy and carefree living off what the forest provided weren’t present in his field notes, which depicted a much harsher and violent society. It was also pointed out later that most of the Mbuti didn’t live in the forest but in villages on the outskirts, often in slavery. One photo in the gallery shows a souvenir market set up by the Pygmies. When Turnbull reached the Mbuti they had already embraced economics. This photo of the woman holding up a pineapple gives the other side to Turnbull’s account. She looks wretched. Notice the way the man behind regards her. 

The people photographed here are teenagers or in their early twenties. The average lifespan for the Mbuti has been put at between 17 and 24, and that is without outside interference; (During the Congo War in the late 1990s the UN received verified reports that soldiers from both sides were hunting Pygmies for food.) something else that didn’t square with Turnbull’s image, though as he was doing fieldwork he must have been aware of it. Drastically shortened lifespans are a condition among Pygmy groups worldwide. The reasons why aren’t entirely certain but with such short lives Mbuti girls reach puberty and give birth around 10 years of age. 

To Kenya, which was so much easier to deal with. I mean, Nairobi in the 1940s was practically an English town, with tea plantations and just outside was the real Africa of lions, zebra and giraffe cruising across the savannah. Kenya also had the Maasai, beloved by anyone with a camera because they could look regal walking along a bush track. Your actual nobility couldn’t pull that off. By the time these photos were taken, Kenya was so emblematic of Africa in the English consciousness that it is easy to forget that it had only been a British colony for about fifty years. This was the land of King Solomon’s Mines, the Happy Valley set and numerous other takes on the concept of jungle romance. You can see all of that in this photo, a glimpse of the real Africa for the tourists.

 “The latest style in ears! & hair!”  Well, yes. One of the obvious differences between the photos from Kenya and those from the Congo is that the Maasai are much more familiar with cameras. She not only gave him time and space to compose the shot, she probably charged a fee. He would have paid. After all, he now had a photograph worthy of National Geographic to call his own.

It’s uncertain where this photo was taken, but she looks like the woman at the rear right in the photo three above. At the time the British probably imagined they would hold on to East Africa for another generation or more. No one really believed the Africans were capable of managing their own affairs, not Churchill, who had decolonization imposed on him by Roosevelt as part of the Atlantic Charter. The most generous spirited Britons believed one day the Africans would rule themselves, but that was a way off yet.  In the meantime the motherland had a duty to its foreign children, to teach them in the virtues of empire, that Christianity was better than paganism and so on. You can see the colonial notion of the Africans as children in this photo. There is no way the photographer would have imposed himself on any female European stranger in a state of undress - never mind her shame, his was the stumbling block - but in Africa he was at liberty. Whatever else she was thinking she was aware of who was the boss.


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