African History and Imperial Culture in Colonial Nigerian Schools

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Evaluations of colonial education policy tend to treat it as a tool for applying imperial ideology, which--among other things--denied the Africans their past. This study of the debate about history education in southern Nigeria in the 1930s suggests the need to re-evaluate this assessment. While some imperial pronouncements did deny African history, colonial administration also required historical knowledge. Further, many colonial educators thought it proper to provide African students with a sense of their past appropriate to colonial subjects. A few went much further, to actively promote pride in African history. In this ambivalent context African schoolteachers and graduates got on with the task of describing their past, often using colonial educational media, constrained but not silenced by their colonial situation. Recognising the fertile ambivalence of this aspect of imperial culture opens new and more fruitful approaches to colonial intellectual history in general.

A fact of primary importance in African education is that outside of Egypt there is nowhere any indigenous history. [A. V. Murray, 1929]

Help build up an appreciation of the old things; do not be afraid of them. Respect the past, record its history, treasure its sign-posts, help build museums in Nigeria. [E. H. Duckworth, 1937]

Our [African] forefathers had their own idea of pre-history. [E. K. Martin, 1936]

The culture of imperialism has been the focus of much recent and exciting study. Building on the work of Frantz Fanon and Edward Said, scholars have explored the ways knowledge and culture were implicated in modern European colonial rule, how literature, anthropology, even geography, were constructed in ways which justified and promoted the imperial project (Said, 1978, 1993; Nandy, 1983; Gates, 1986; Mudimbe, 1988; Inden, 1990; Stocking, 1991; Dirks, 1992). European treatments of African history have also been implicated. Imperial Europeans, it is claimed, simply denied that Africa had a past. A. E. Afigbo has recently treated it as a `truism'

   that until about the 1950s those whose opinion on the study of the human
   past mattered, held firmly to the view that Africa had no history before
   Europe made contact with her, and that even with the coming of the
   Europeans into Africa one would still not talk of African history properly
   so called but of the history of European activity in Africa. [1993: 39;
   July, 1987: 129]

Africa's lack of history--and thus of civilisation--explained why it needed European rule: Europe's often bloody conquest became instead a compassionate bequest of Europe's own historical accomplishments. Racial inability was usually invoked. The `Negro' was understood, as Afigbo again points out (1993: 47), to be `incapable ... of cultural and historical advance. His natural state was said to be that of intellectual stagnation, a situation that was said to manifest itself in the absence of writing, the wheel, and other items which were believed to define civilisation'. A persistent notion in this scholarship is that imperial ideas successfully subordinated colonial subjects. As Mangan's introduction to The Imperial Curriculum argues, colonial schools imparted `potent, consistent and systematic' negative images of Africans to Africans. The `major purpose' of this `imperial education' was `to inculcate in the children of the British Empire appropriate attitudes of dominance and deference' (1993: 6; cf. Carnoy, 1974; Ball, 1983). Mangan applies Abdul JanMohamed's insight to argue that colonial teaching was structured by a `manichean allegory' which construes colonial subjects as Europe's `other'. If Europeans have history, Africans must not (1993: 9-10; JanMohamed, 1986). Okoth concludes that colonial schools simply `brainwashed' pupils in Uganda. Imperialism, Okoth asserts,

   concentrated on the process of negating the personality, identity and
   dignity of the colonised people. …