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regular-article-logo Tuesday, 21 May 2024

Crown and colony

The British Crown holds the Cullinan just as it keeps the Koh-i-noor. Our withered ties remain with the island nation, now cut off from Europe, long without its colonies, truly a shrunken island

Saikat Majumdar Published 31.07.23, 06:42 AM
Afrikaners armed with rifles on a wagon during the second Boer War.

Afrikaners armed with rifles on a wagon during the second Boer War. Sourced by the Telegraph

The vast world beyond the tiny constellation of nations called advanced/post-industrial has been given many names, none of which has quite made it: ‘developing, Global South, third world, non-West’ (a bit like non-Bengali). Even climate has been invoked: many readers will recall Aldous Huxley’s pointed meteorological satire, “Wordsworth in the Tropics”, outlining the great Lake District poet’s messy nightmare in what is clearly “nonwestern” climate. And I cannot forget this line from a Chinese film which I’ve otherwise completely forgotten — “Soon we’ll have snow like civilised countries.” Climate, too, has been enlisted as a civilisational divide.

All names wither like seasonal vegetation. Or to use today’s language, get cancelled as their political certificates expire. Aijaz Ahmad took apart the term, ‘third world’, in his polemical essay on the three worlds theory: if the ‘first’ and ‘second’ worlds were classified on the basis of the ownership of the means of production — capitalist or socialist — how can the ‘third’ world be such a motley collection of nations, capitalist, communist, and everything in between, just measured by the poverty of their people? And just recently I heard an Australian scholar say that many of her fellow nationals had loudly murmured in protest at their nation being included in the category of ‘Global South’. Antipodean they may be, but who said north and south were directional markers, who was that naïve, really?

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What is it, then, the move from the periphery to the metropolis, the ‘backward’ south to the ‘developed’ north, the colony to the heart of the Empire — a flight from the sunny to the cold and the grey? That was quite literally my experience when, in February this year, I took a direct flight from Cape Town to Amsterdam, flying over all of Africa through the night, cruising over the Mediterranean at daybreak and over southern Europe to land in the beautiful winter-frozen city by the Amstel River at mid-morning. Set to drop anchor in the Cape Town area for six months, I’d already had nearly a month’s immersion in the sound of Afrikaans, the Creolised African language derived primarily from Dutch, migrants from the low country, the earliest settlers and still the largest white population group in the southern African nation. But brought up on omnipresent colonial ties between England and India, my first jolt was the lack of any such tie between the Netherlands and South Africa, notwithstanding the news of local support of the Dutch soccer team during the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa that had spread across the world and had invoked troubled memories of the apartheid nation. But the European city of art and torture museums and dense pot smoke scarcely seemed to be aware of South Africa, much less its historical ties with it — beyond the cab driver who told me that many South Africans — whites, naturally — are trying to emigrate to the Netherlands due to rising crimes in the now black-led nation.

What makes for a relation of coloniality? And how does its legacy make history? Those were the big questions floating in my mind. I realised I’d sensed a greater colonial awareness of South Africa in England, much like the British consciousness of India. Cecil John Rhodes was, after all, a part-time Oxonian who struck diamond in Kimberley, who pointed to Cairo and dreamt of building the great pan-African railroad from the Cape Colony to Egypt, the man who had announced: “I would annex the planets if I could.” Colonialists do get mixed up in history sometimes. The infamous Rhodes statue still stands in the garden landscaped by the Dutch East India Company in the heart of Cape Town, unfallen, mocking the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement that had rocked universities from South Africa to England but losing steam eventually, failing to steal shine from the Rhodes scholarships still funded by Cecil’s estate.

When colonialisms mingle, they bewilder history. A theologian from Stellenbosch tells me that the Netherlands was never invested in South Africa as a nation — it was only the concern of that public limited firm, the Dutch East India Company. Brought up on the history lesson of the 1757 Battle of Plassey as the loss of India’s independence, I wondered if Indo-British relations would be fully colonial if Queen Victoria did not take over from the British East India Company after the Revolution of 1857. And that is what makes South Africa such an anomaly, and its racial politics so deeply complicated. In the unique two-tiered colonialism, the Dutch-derived Boers, who left Europe in the 17th century and thus missed the Enlightenment, were forever the backward farming boors next to the English who arrived in the early 19th century armed with the full power of modernity, Enlightenment and industrial capitalism. The brutal English triumph over the Boers in the second South African war of 1899-1902 — littered with the very first concentration camps, that too for women and children — left the Boers with nothing but a savage bid for racial superiority over the humanity they could trample — the indigenous black, coloured and Indian population. The Boer fear and anxiety might explain the absurd anachronism of apartheid, initiated, in 1948, in a world already in the throes of decolonisation and civil-rights movements, marking South Africa as a global pariah for the next 50-odd years.

Today, it is not uncommon to see English South Africans who hold British passports and leave for college in England as soon as they are done with their English boarding school education in South Africa. The Dutch-derived Afrikaner people have no links to Europe, and no claim of visa-free entry there. Giving a talk at the University of Cape Town, I sense the still-festering energy of #Rhodesmustfall and realise anew that South Africa is an English, not a Dutch, postcolony. The British Crown holds the Cullinan just as it keeps the Koh-i-noor. Our withered ties remain with the island nation, now cut off from Europe, long without its colonies, truly a shrunken island.

Saikat Majumdar is Professor of English & Creative Writing at Ashoka University

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