Colonialism: Africa

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Date: 2005
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Colonialism: Africa

Conceptions and characterizations of colonialism vary considerably among scholars of Africa. Differences and debates center on four sets of interrelated issues: first, the place and importance of the colonial period in African history; second, the nature of the colonial encounter and its driving force; third, the typologies of African colonialism; and fourth, the legacies of colonialism for postcolonial Africa. These questions have been addressed from a wide variety of disciplinary and analytical traditions. In general, the historiography of colonialism in Africa has been dominated at different moments by four paradigms: the imperialist, nationalist, radical, and postcolonial.

Imperialist approaches, which prevailed in the early twentieth century, emphasized the civilizing mission and impact of colonialism. Critiques against this tradition, combined with nationalist struggles that led to decolonization, culminated in the rise of nationalist historiography, which emphasized African activities and agency. From the 1970s, influenced by a growing sense of pessimism about the developmental and democratic capacities of the postcolonial state and the rise of militant ideologies and social movements, "radical" approaches emerged, centered on dependency and Marxist ideas that highlighted the economic depredations and effects of colonialism. In the 1990s, following the demise of socialist regimes and ideologies and the spread of poststructuralism and postmodernism, postcolonial perspectives were increasingly used to reinterpret the cultural and discursive dynamics and complexities of colonialism. Additional paradigms on colonialism arose, most critically those informed by feminist and environmental studies, which stress the role of gender and ecology in the construction of colonial identities, societies, and political economies.

Colonialism in African History

Imperialist and nationalist historiographies represent almost diametrically opposed views of the place and impact of colonialism in African history, with one regarding it as a decisive moment, the other, as a parenthesis. To the imperialists, colonialism in fact brought Africa into history, for in their view, Africa "proper," to use Hegel's moniker—from which North Africa was excised—was the land of the "Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit," exhibiting "the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state" (pp. 91, 93). European colonialism, therefore, was depicted as a civilizing mission undertaken to historicize and humanize Africans.

Consequently, imperialist historians mostly discussed in positive light the policies of colonial governments and the activities of colonial auxiliaries, from European merchants to missionaries. When their narratives mentioned Africans, it was to condemn their societies and cultures or to chronicle their Westernization or modernization. Those who resisted colonial conquest or colonial rule were depicted as atavistic, while those who collaborated or accepted the colonial regime were praised for their foresight and wisdom. In fact, in-depth study of African societies was largely left to anthropology, which, with its functionalist-positivist paradigms and ethnographic present, exonerated, if not extolled, colonialism.

Nationalist historians offered an ideological and methodological revolt against imperialist historiography. Using new sources, including oral tradition, historical linguistics, and historical anthropology, together with written and archaeological sources, they chronicled the histories of African states and societies before the European colonial conquest and celebrated the growth and eventual triumph of nationalism during the colonial era. They sought to unravel painstakingly African activity, adaptations, choice, and initiative. Led by J. F. Ade Ajayi (1968) in Anglophone Africa and Cheikh Anta Diop (1974) in Francophone Africa, they emphasized continuity in Africa's long history and reduced colonialism to a parenthesis, an episode, a digression, a footnote that had altered African cultures and societies only slightly. In this narrative, independence marked a moment of historical recovery in which the agency of the precolonial past was restored and reconnected to the postcolonial future. The linear and celebratory tales of nationalist historiography were later found wanting by numerous critics.

While both the dependency and the Marxist scholars focused on the exploitative economic structures and processes of colonialism, the former were more interested in explaining the Page 370  |  Top of Article external forces that produced and reproduced Africa's underdevelopment; the latter preferred to concentrate on the internal dynamics. To the dependentistas, colonialism marked a second stage in Africa's incorporation into an unequal world capitalist system that was ushered in during the fifteenth century with the onset of the Atlantic slave trade. Marxist scholars sought to transcend the ubiquitous and homogeneous capitalism of dependency theory. Colonialism, they argued, entails the articulation of modes of production whereby pre-capitalist modes are articulated in their diverse relations with the capitalist mode. Hence the introduction of capitalism by colonialism does not eliminate the precapitalist modes but re-shapes them; the latter are progressively subordinated to capital through a contradictory process of destruction, preservation, and transformation.

Unlike the nationalists, the imperialist, dependency, and Marxist historians share the view that the colonial period was decisive in African history. But they differ in their characterization and conceptualization of the place and impact of colonialism. Like the nationalists and unlike the imperialists, the dependentistas and Marxists see colonialism as an intrusive moment in the longue durée of African history. Insofar as dependency analyses concentrate on the external determinations of underdevelopment, they diminish African agency and echo imperialist accounts of African history, whereas the Marxist focus on internal production processes and social relations resonates with nationalist historiography.

The nationalist periodization of African history, in which the colonial moment occupies limited space, was sanctified in the Cambridge (History of Africa, 1977–1985) and UNESCO (General History of Africa, 1981–1993) histories, each in eight thick volumes, only two of which were on the colonial and postcolonial periods. Yet far more African historians currently work on the colonial period than on the precolonial period.

The Nature of the Colonial Encounter

Colonialism in Africa entailed an encounter between the continent and Europe. This encounter encompassed multiple spheres (from politics, economy, and culture to sexuality, psychology, and representations), spatial scales (from local and individual colonial territories to subregions and the continent as a whole), and social groups and inscriptions (from the colonizers and colonized to class, gender, and generation). Analyzing the nature of the colonial encounter, therefore, has proved exceedingly complex and contentious, given the range of possible analytical categories and conceptions of what indeed "Europe" and "Africa" mean. Different readings informed by disparate disciplinary or theoretical orientations emphasize the political, economic, cultural, or representational import of the colonial encounter.

Overall, some regard this encounter as essentially antagonistic while others depict it as ambivalent or even accommodative. Until recently, especially before the rise of postcolonial theory, colonialism was largely conceived in antagonistic terms as a series of encounters between the seemingly enduring and impermeable binaries of colonizer and colonized, Western and non-Western, domination and resistance, modernity and tradition, destruction and preservation, and universal and local. Postcolonialists insist on the ambivalent nature of colonialism, its contingency and decenteredness, and the hybridities and pluralities of the identities it produced. If colonialism is primarily viewed as a political encounter among imperialist and nationalist scholars and as an economic one among the radicals, the postcolonialists emphasize its cultural and discursive dimensions.

The Bifurcated Colonial State

Studies on colonialism as politics and the politics of colonialism have tended to focus on two main issues: the nature of the colonial state and African resistance. Discussion and debate on the colonial state have centered on its specificities and construction, how to classify African colonial states and administrations, the dynamics of colonial power and civil society, and the demise or reconstitution of the colonial state into the postcolonial state. Crawford Young has argued quite forcefully that the African colonial state derives its peculiarity from the fact that it enjoyed only some of the crucial attributes of the modern state (territory, population, sovereignty, power, law, and the state as nation, an international actor, and an idea) and could not exercise some of its imperatives (hegemony, autonomy, security, legitimacy, revenue, and accumulation).

This is because the colonial state in Africa was created in the late nineteenth century, long after both the modern metropolitan state and the generic colonial state had been formed, which allowed for no experimentation. Also, as a conquest state imposed by force, its hegemony was excessively coercive, so that it enjoyed little legitimacy. Moreover, its territoriality was ambiguous, its sovereignty and institutions of rule were extraverted and resided in the imperial metropole, and its revenue base was weak. Charged with the onerous tasks of consolidating colonial rule, linking the colony to the metropole, and establishing or promoting colonial capitalism, the result was that the colonial state was both interventionist and fragile, authoritarian and weak, and exercised domination without hegemony, all of which ensured its eventual downfall.

All colonial states, irrespective of their ideologies and administrative systems, justified themselves in the names of civilization and pacification. Economic motivations of colonialism were assiduously downplayed. Moreover, all colonial powers used African intermediaries in their administrative systems because they lacked personnel and local knowledge and in order to minimize African resistance and administrative costs. They also used chartered companies in some of their colonies in the early years.

In imperialist historiography, colonial power was portrayed as unassailable because it was for Africa's good. For the opposite reason it was decried in nationalist historiography, which stressed its oppressiveness and incapacity to withstand the full might of nationalist struggle. Dependency writers tended to disregard the importance of politics because they believed that neither the colonial state nor African resistance could stop the ineluctable juggernaut of the world capitalist system, while Marxists subsumed colonial politics to either local class struggles (waged by the numerically small working classes, and only reluctantly and later were struggles by the much larger peasantries Page 371  |  Top of Article considered) or anti-imperialist struggles mediated by communist parties in the imperial metropoles themselves or the Soviet Union. Many of the early studies failed to examine the ways that colonial power was specifically deployed, engaged, contested, deflected, or appropriated.

It was not until Peter Ekeh published his influential essay "Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa" that colonial civil society began to receive serious scholarly attention. He argued that colonialism created two publics that he called the primordial and civic publics, whose dialectical relationships accounted for the political problems of postcolonial Africa. The first public is associated with primordial groupings, sentiments, and activities; the second is associated with the colonial administration and is amoral, lacking the generalized moral imperatives operative in the private realm and in the primordial public. The two publics emerged because colonial ideologies of legitimation denigrated African societies and cultures and glorified European colonial rule, while African bourgeois ideologies of legitimation accepted colonial ideas and principles to justify the leadership of the elites in the fight against colonialism and the inheritance of the postcolonial state. Both ideologies envisaged and sought to separate the indigenous and colonial publics, in which different conceptions of citizenship, morality, and material expectations prevailed. Thus colonial civil society was characterized by the bifurcation of the public realm, which accounts for the centrality of ethnicity in African politics and the disjunction between the state and society that has bedeviled postcolonial Africa.

Others saw the bifurcation and ethnicization of colonial civil society differently. In his award-winning book Citizen and Subject, Mahmood Mamdani argued that the bifurcation of power in Africa results from the continent's distinctive colonial experience. The configuration of colonial rule in Africa led first to the institutionalization of two systems of power under a single authority: one urban, based on civil power and rights, excluding the colonized on the basis of race, the other rural, where tradition and culture incorporated the colonized into the rule of custom. Second, colonial rule in Africa led to the privileging of state-ordained and state-enforced traditions that had least historical depth and were monarchical, authoritarian, and patriarchal, so that customary power and law became an integral part of a decentralized despotism. Finally, with custom becoming the language of force, colonial rule led to rationalizing the appropriation and management of land and the mobilization of labor under the colonial rubric.

This bifurcated state power, civil and customary, first crystallized in equatorial Africa—as "indirect rule" in British colonies and "association" in French colonies—and later spread to older colonies to the north and south, including South Africa, where apartheid represented the last attempt at reorganizing the state structure to incorporate the "native" population in a world of enforced tradition. The challenges confronting African countries in the struggles for independence and after were to democratize the state and particularly customary power, deracialize civil society, and restructure unequal external relations of dependency.

Dependent Colonial Capitalism

To many scholars, economics, not politics, is central to the colonial project. In the 1970s systematic studies began to appear on African colonial economies. Three dominant approaches emerged. The first was rooted in neoclassical economic theory and focused largely on market processes and the problems of resource allocation. Anthony Hopkins has provided the most famous neoclassical treatment of African economic history. Using vent-for-plus theory (that colonialism provided a "vent," or an "opening"), he argues that colonialism inaugurated an "open economy" of increased market opportunities, which West Africans seized with alacrity by mobilizing previously underutilized resources. Hopkins's economic history walked a fine line between the imperialist approaches that stressed the modernizing impact of colonialism and the nationalist emphasis on African initiatives.

The second approach was dependency, which was born out of dissatisfaction with prevailing neoclassical descriptions, analyses, and prescriptions for Third World development. Using the concepts of "incorporation," "unequal exchange," "development of underdevelopment," and "center-periphery," dependency writers emphasized external economic linkages and exchange relations, often at the expense of internal and production processes. Walter Rodney's influential text How Europe Underdeveloped Africa portrayed colonialism simply as a new stage in Africa's unrelenting slide into structural internal underdevelopment and external dependency.

Marxist scholars attacked both neoclassical and dependency writers for alleged theoretical inadequacies, empirical shortcomings, and ideological biases. They sought to employ concepts of dialectical and historical materialism—which seek to examine how specific systems originate, develop, function, and change in given historical epochs—to unravel Africa's historical realities. For the precolonial era, it proved difficult to fit Africa into the traditional Marxian modes or to construct specific African ones. As far as the colonial economy was concerned, many Marxists found the concept of the articulation of modes of production useful and produced interesting studies on labor and workers, agriculture and peasants, and the changing structures of Africa's incorporation into the world economy.

Despite the different emphases of the three approaches, it is possible to outline the common features shared by African colonial economies: they were all expected to provide raw materials and markets for the imperial economies and to be financially self-supporting. The colonial economy was characteristically export-oriented and monocultural and suffered from uneven productivity between sectors and outside domination in terms of markets, technology, and capital. It developed in three phases: first, the period up to World War I, when coercion—forced labor, cultivation, and taxation—predominated; second, the interwar years, characterized by regulation of the colonial economy and the disruptions of the Great Depression, which exposed its vulnerabilities and fostered new economic policies of development planning; and third, the post–World War II period, when "colonial development and welfare" policies took hold, characterized by increased state intervention and investment in "economic development."

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Typologies of Colonialism

A key challenge in analyzing African colonial economies, as with other spheres of colonialism, is their sheer diversity. The temporal division between precolonial and colonial economies and polities and their spatial development during the colonial period were manifested quite unevenly. The growth and structure of colonial economies, for example, were determined by the level of development of the precolonial economies themselves, the nature of precolonial relations with Europe, the modes of conquest and resistance, the level of development of the colonizing powers, the resource endowment of each territory, and the presence or absence of European settlers.

Several attempts have been made to construct typologies of African economies and colonialism more broadly. Three can be identified. First is the renowned tripartite division of Africa developed by Samir Amin (1972): the Africa of the labor reserves (Algeria, Kenya, and much of southern Africa), where Africans were primarily expected to provide labor for European colonial enterprises; the Africa of trade (West Africa, Uganda, Morocco, and Tunisia), where Africa produced the bulk of commodities traded by colonial companies; and the Africa of concession companies (central and equatorial Africa and the Portuguese colonies), where chartered companies enjoyed economic and administrative control over African labor and produce. Second is Thandika Mkandawire's typology distinguishing between rentier and merchant economies, in which surpluses are extracted from rents from mining and trade and taxes from agriculture, respectively. Third is the distinction often drawn between settler and peasant economies or modes of production.

The concept of peasants has a rich and controversial literature in African studies. Debate has focused on the historical origins of African peasantries, their relations with capital and the state, internal differentiations, the changing organization of peasant work—especially its complex articulations with gender and generational relations and divisions—the impact of environmental conditions and changes, the complex patterns of rural cultural construction, peasant knowledge systems, and the intricacies of peasant politics and struggles at various levels, from the household and the local community to the national and global system. In this context, not only did colonialism alter the lives of African peasantries, but the latter also profoundly shaped the terrain of colonialism in Africa.

The concept of the settler mode of production sought to capture the specificities of settler colonies. Settler colonialism was characterized by several features: the exclusion of competition (settler control of key economic resources, including land, allocation of infrastructure, banking, and marketing, at the expense of the indigenous people); the predominance of the migrant labor system (which allowed the costs of reproducing labor power to be borne in the rural reserves); generalized repression whereby direct and brutal force was used regularly; and the close intersection of race and class.

Linked to the concept of settler colonialism is the concept of internal colonialism, in which the colonizing "nation" or "race" occupies the same territory as the colonized people. This concept found favor among some academics and liberation movements in South Africa who saw the hierarchical, exploitative, and separatist structures of segregation and apartheid as analogous to the relationship of domination and subjection between an imperialist state and its racialized colonies. Harold Wolpe attacked the concept for positing an unexplained autonomy of racial, ethnic, and cultural groups and obscuring the relationships between them, akin to the theory of plural society widely used by liberal scholars to describe South African society.

The Ambivalences of Colonial Society

The pluralist approach was widely applied by social anthropologies to explain many other African colonial societies, which were depicted as "plural societies" in which different ethnic groups and races lived in close proximity; colonial social change was attributed to "culture contact" and "acculturation." To the pluralists, colonialism provided an arena for the acculturation of African ethnic groups to European culture and values, and so they were preoccupied with recording the patterns of what they called "detribalization" as indicated by changes in clothes, occupations, education, family forms, and leisure activities.

Marxist critics such as Bernard Magubane attacked the indices used by the pluralists and the fact that the specifics of European life and culture in Africa and their own "acculturation" or "Africanization" were ignored. Above all, in their view, the pluralists mystified the real social relations for they failed to place colonial social change in the context of colonialism as a global system of economic relations. The Marxists demonstrated that behind the processes of "acculturation" lay widespread practices of resistance. For example, the leisure activities of workers, as exhibited in work songs, often articulated African popular resistance against colonial rule. Similarly, it was demonstrated that transformations of cultural practices in the rural areas reflected peasant attempts to resist and remake the colonial situation. The Marxists maintained that religious conversions, whether to Christianity or Islam, represented not simply "acculturation" and the renunciation of the old religions but also translations of the old religions into new terms as filtered through the complex mediations of class and social consciousness.

Preoccupied as they were to show African agency, nationalist scholars were perhaps the loudest in refusing to see the processes of colonial social and cultural change simply as a product of "Westernization." In a famous essay on the invention of tradition in colonial Africa, Terence Ranger insisted that social and cultural traditions were invented and manipulated by both Europeans and Africans to serve their own interests. Specifically, elders, men, ruling aristocracies, and indigenous people appealed to "tradition." The elders did so in order to defend their dominance over the rural means of production against challenges from the youth; men wanted to retain control against women, who were playing an increasingly important role in the rural areas, especially in regions dominated by male migrant labor; ruling aristocracies sought to maintain or extend their control over their subjects; and indigenous Page 373  |  Top of Article people were anxious to ensure that migrants who settled among them did not achieve political or economic rights. This model became popular for analyzing the contexts in which various cultural and social practices in colonial Africa developed—from music and dance to law and marriage.

This constructivist approach was to be fully developed by postcolonial scholars, for whom colonialism was a regime of material and cultural relations as well as discursive and symbolic representations that affected both Africans and Europeans profoundly, although in different ways. The postcolonialists sought to dismantle the image of colonialism as a coherent and monolithic process, to transcend the dichotomy of colonizer and colonized by problematizing, differentiating, and pluralizing each group and mapping out their complex and shifting relations, and to specify the cultural configurations and discourses fashioned out of their changing identities, consciousness, interactions, and negotiations.

Postcolonialists brought into sharper focus issues previously ignored or misconstrued in structuralist and social scientific analyses of colonialism, especially those concerning sexuality, subjectivity, psychology, and language. Besides the textual notions and readings of colonial culture, analyses have increasingly come to stress the nonverbal, tactile dimensions of social practice and the corporeal regimes of bodies, clothing, and performances. Particularly influential have been Frantz Fanon's acclaimed work on the psychology of colonialism and his crucial insights that "blackness" and "whiteness" were mutually constitutive ideological constructions. Building on Fanon's insights, scholars of Africa have highlighted the construction of colonial mentalities, madness, and medicine as mechanisms for inscribing and policing racial and sexual boundaries. Kwame Appiah has shown how the ideas of race in Africa were socially constructed and how colonial and anticolonial discourses reinforced each other to fix racial essences on bodies.

The Feminist Intervention

Many of the approaches used to analyze African colonial politics, economies, societies, and cultures were often gender-blind and tended to ignore women's lives, experiences, contributions, voices, perceptions, representations, and struggles. This began to change following the rise of the feminist movement, which emerged out of both localized and transnational trajectories and intellectual and political struggles within and outside the academy. While the struggles to mainstream women and gender are far from over, African women have become increasingly more visible in histories of colonialism, which has disrupted the binaries and chronologies that tend to frame colonialism in Africa.

As the field of women's studies has expanded, African women have become more differentiated in terms of class, culture, and status, and their complex engagements, encounters, and negotiations with and contestations against the wide range of forces described as colonial are now clearer. From the large and diverse body of theoretical, methodological, and pedagogical literature that has been generated in the last three decades, vigorous debates are evident. One of the most intriguing is on the validity of the term gender itself, with writers such as Ifi Amadiume stressing the relative flexibility of sex/gender relations in precolonial Africa, and Oyèrónké Oyewùmí denying the existence of gender categories altogether.

In the early twenty-first century it has become well established that colonialism had a contradictory impact on different groups of women, although the dominant tendency was to undermine the position of women as a whole. Colonialism combined European and African patriarchal ideologies to create new practices, relations, and ideologies. Earlier work on colonial gender regimes focused on women in productive and commercial activities in the rural and urban areas and the acute tensions in gender relations that were created, to which the colonial state responded by tightening already restrictive customary law, leading to important changes in family structure and new forms of patriarchal power. The topic that attracted by far the most attention was that of women's resistance to colonial rule. Studies ranged from those that examined specific activists and events to general analyses of women's involvement in nationalist struggles in various countries that demonstrated conclusively women's political engagements and contributions.

More recent work has focused on issues of sexuality, constructions of gender identities, and colonial representations. According to Zine Magubane, African sexuality and its control and representations were central to ideologies of colonial domination. In colonial discourse, female bodies symbolized Africa as the conquered land, and the alleged hyperfecundity and sexual profligacy of African men and women made Africa an object of colonial desire and derision, a wild space of pornographic pleasures in need of sexual policing. Sexuality was implicated in all forms of colonial rule as an intimate encounter that could be used simultaneously to maintain and to erode racial difference and as a process essential for the reproduction of human labor power for the colonial economy, both of which demanded close surveillance and control, especially of African female sexuality.

Feminist studies on the construction of gender identities and relations have helped spawn a growing literature on the creation and transformation of colonial masculinities. Writing on Southern Africa, Robert Morrell argues that the colonial divisions of class and race produced different masculinities, some of which were dominant and hegemonic, and others, subordinate and subversive, although the latter received a patriarchal dividend over women of their class and race. These masculinities were produced and performed in different institutional contexts, each with its own gender regime and power relations, from the state, church, and school to the workplace and the home. Needless to say, masculinities changed over time and manifested themselves differently in rural and urban areas, where different gender and associational systems existed and patterns of political, social, and political change took place.

The Demise of Colonialism

Conceptions and analyses of colonialism in Africa have been affected quite considerably by how the demise of colonialism is understood. This in turn has centered on how two processes are examined—namely, decolonization, and African nationalism or Page 374  |  Top of Article resistance—and the connections between the two. Nationalist historians contend that nationalism was primarily responsible for the dismantling of the colonial empires, while to imperialist historians decolonization was largely a product of metropolitan policy and planning. Others seek to place decolonization in the context of changes in the international relations system. Clearly, a process as complex as decolonization was a product of many factors. It involved a complex interplay of the prevailing international situation, the policies of the colonial powers, and the nature and strength of the nationalist movements, which in turn reflected internal conditions both in the metropoles and the colonies and the ideologies and visions of the postcolonial world. There were also variations in the patterns of decolonization among regions and colonies, conditioned by the way in which these factors coalesced and manifested themselves. Furthermore, decolonization was affected by the relative presence and power of European settlers and the perceived geopolitical strategic importance of each colony.

Similarly, the nature and dynamics of African nationalism were exceedingly complex. Not only were the spatial locus and social referent of the "nation" imagined by the nationalists fluid (they could be ethnic, national, regional, and continental), but multiple secular and religious visions of the postcolonial state vied for supremacy. Moreover, nationalism was articulated and fought on many fronts (political, economic, social, cultural, religious, and artistic) through different organizational forms (from political and civic organizations to cultural and religious movements) and in different terrains (rural and urban). The development and impact of nationalism also varied between different colonies even among those under the same imperial power, depending on such factors as the way the colony had been acquired and was administered, the presence or absence of settlers, the traditions of resistance, and the social composition of the nationalist movement and its type of leadership.

Two key questions dominate African scholarship on de-colonization and nationalism. The first is the social content and composition of anticolonial resistance. By the 1980s the old accounts of elite politics and heroic resistance had been abandoned in favor of analyses of resistance by peasants, workers, and women, and from the early 1990s more attention was paid to everyday forms of resistance by various subaltern groups, including youth. In short, the challenge was to write resistance with a small "r" rather than a capital "R" without losing, as Frederick Cooper (1994) insisted, the connections between the subaltern resistances and the larger and fluid constructs of colonialism. The second question centers on the continuities and discontinuities marked by decolonization. In the 1960s, nationalist scholars were inclined to see decolonization as ushering a radical break with colonialism. From the 1970s, the revolutionary pessimism of Fanon, who had pronounced decolonization false in his searing treatise of 1963, The Wretched of the Earth, gained adherents among radical scholars who stressed the structural continuities of colonialism. For their part, the postcolonialists, with their fixation on colonialism, recentered colonialism in African history.


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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424300131