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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: October 2019

10 - Colonial Society and African Nationalism


AFRICA'S LEADING HISTORIANS DISAGREE PROFOUNDLY ABOUT THE COLONIAL period. For one among them it was merely ‘one episode in the continuous flow of African history’. For another it destroyed an ancient political tradition that had survived even the slave trade.1 They disagree partly because one was thinking of western Nigeria and the other of the Belgian Congo, for the colonial impact varied dramatically from place to place. But they differ also because colonial change was contradictory and subtle. New did not simply replace old, but blended with it, sometimes revitalised it, and produced novel and distinctively African syntheses. Capitalism, urbanisation, Christianity, Islam, political organisation, ethnicity, and family relationships – central themes of this chapter – all took particular forms when Africans reshaped them to meet their needs and traditions. To see colonialism as destroying tradition is to underestimate African resilience. To see it as merely an episode is to underestimate how much industrial civilisation offered twentieth-century Africans – far more than colonialism had offered sixteenth-century Latin Americans or eighteenth-century Indians. Africa's colonial period was as traumatic as it was brief. Its major consequence, refuting any notion of mere continuity, was rapid population growth, which underlay the nationalist movements that began to liberate the continent during the 1950s. (See Map 12.)


If railways vitalised early colonial economies, the main innovation of the midcolonial period was motor transport. The first ‘pleasure cars’ (in the pidgin term) appeared in French West Africa at the turn of the century. By 1927 ‘the Alafin's car, a Daimler-de-luxe in aluminium with sky ventilator and nine dazzling headlights, was the cynosure of all eyes’.2 More functional was the lorry, which became common in the 1920s, the great period of road-building. Lorries halved the cost of transporting Senegal's groundnuts to the railhead between 1925 and 1935 and then reduced it by another 80 per cent during the next thirty years. Lorries also released labour and provided opportunities for Africans to move from farming and local trade into large-scale enterprise.