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- Published: 20th July 2022
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When I did work experience at the National Archives, it amazed me how many sources they had. My mentor told me they had now started to store tweets from politicians. This made me question how they decide what to keep and what to discard. Is it possible to create a set of criteria and surely there is a limit to storage? The decisions made by historians on what documents to filter and how to present them shape our understanding of the past. These internal questions inspired me to read History A Very Short Introduction by John H. Arnold. In this book, Arnold stresses that history is a process, a process with many restrictions e.g. scarce availability of sources from particular periods. In chapter one, he discusses the varying nature of history and how it has changed over time. This interested me, so I attended a lecture which highlighted the different phases of history, starting with Herodotus and ending with postmodernism. From this lecture, I resonated with Edward Said’s interpretation, of the Western impact on our view of the past. European colonial domination and imperialist exploitation have put scholars in a position of power to view the rest of the world as exotic and other. This new knowledge left me with the desire to do history, as I came to understand the crucial role historians take in shaping the past and therefore in some part our future.
Edward Said’s ideas about the West imposing their view and cultures on to their colonies led me to explore the history of African colonisation. I started by reading Thomas Pakenham’s book The Scramble for Africa, which gave a compelling insight into the nature of colonial rule and the incentives behind European powers taking their countries to the brink of war over a piece of land with, in most cases, little commercial value. To what extent was the West driven by the three C’s: Christianity, Commerce, and Civilisation? Or was it simply competition and greed? The British liberal Salisbury who ridiculed the ‘swagger’ of imperialism and in Pakenham’s terms ‘no prime minister could have been less convinced of England’s divine mission to rule the world’ was quick to support colonial expeditions such as the race for Buganda and Cecil Rhode’s scheme to ‘paint the map red’ from the Cape to Cairo. My interpretation is that Britain was mainly pressured by competition from Germany with Bismarck’s new appetite for colonial possessions and a surge of anglophobia in France. Alongside competition, though often overstated by politicians at the time, I think Britain was encouraged by the goal to end slavery in Africa, given their legacy from 1772. This is supported by the massive waves of protest that came from Britain when the light was shed on Leopold’s horrific regime. For France, I believe their motivation differed slightly, as they used colonisation to restore their dignity after the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War. For Leopold however, I believe he was simply driven by greed. I was intrigued by Leopold’s actions in the Congo, and consequently read Adam Hochschild’s book King Leopold’s Ghost. I liked the way Hochschild represented Leopold with a machiavellian character, sitting at his desk in the chateau of Laeken, crafting a disguise of philanthropy to plough his way into the heart of Africa. The congo was brutally exploited, showing Leopold’s overtures to free trade and humanitarianism to be farcical tools for expansion. Leopold ran one of the worst colonies the world has ever seen, killing eight to ten million lives, mutilating many more, and brutally exploiting slave labour, stamping out independent Kingdoms and tribes, and exploiting resources. When comparing these two books, I prefered the way Hochschild attempted to portray the history of the congo in the eyes of those who lived there. I felt that Pakenham’s book gave a very eurocentric view, which in one sense was good as the events were described in more pragmatic terms, but on the other hand, gave no voice to those living under the terror of this regime.
Hochschild and Pakenham’s books highlighted the origin and the nature of the scramble of Africa, but I wanted to explore the legacy of colonial rule in Africa. Mention economics here. I watched the documentary This is the Congo, which showed the impact of the tribal hierarchy created by King Leopold between the Tutsi and the Hutu. The Tutsi were classified as ‘intelligent, distant, polite and diplomatic’, while the remaining ninety percent of the population, the Hutu, were described as ‘peasants with a heavy passive spirit’. This tribal division was a major factor in causing the Rwandan genocide which marks the start of the cycle of war that has plagued the congo for 2 decades. This linked back to Edward Said’s view of the European’s describing their colonies as other and exotic. I saw a lecture by Richard Reid When Stanley Met Mutesa which highlighted this. The west viewed Africa as the ‘dark continent’ with brutality and violence. However, he pointed out this violence was taken out of context, violence for the Africans was used in a constructive way for commerce, politics, and authority. Henry Morten Stanley and other European travelers misunderstood this.
The documentary also exposed the legacy of neopatrimonialism left by colonialism. The congo has a diverse landscape and massive mineral wealth, however, the Congolese do not reap the benefits. Instead, foreign powers and international organisations have exploited the dislocated and corrupt political system to their advantage. I believe neopatrimonialism was necessary at first to help assist the fragmented and young African states. However, these systems have been undermined for the benefit of a few individuals, and could now be argued are the fundamental obstacle to African countries trying to evolve their economies.
Outside of academia, I play hockey, captaining our senior XI team, this year and last year. I also play for a club and have reached county level. I’m also a part of Alleyns senior netball and football XI team. Last year I was proud to win the national finals for football and consequently being nominated to trial for ISFA academy. Besides sport, I have been involved in our school’s Combined Cadet Force, promoted to Colour Sergeant. These have helped me to develop my leadership and teamwork skills, as well as organisational skills while learning to balance my academia with other commitments.
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