The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 3

By William Roger Louis; Andrew Porter et al. | Go to book overview

29
Cultural Encounters: Britain and Africa in the
Nineteenth Century

T. C. MCCASKIE

Encounters between cultures are complex, ambiguous, and unstable transactions, simultaneously events in time and works of the imagination. Their leitmotif is a tangled knot of realities and representations. This is difficult to untie, for it clothes issues of cause and effect in projections and fantasies. Motive and purpose then become hard to tease out of an already complex factual record that reveals the process of encounter between cultures as a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of give and take. Tension is implicit in this quotidian incommensurability between cultures. Thus, imperatives to imposition and acculturation by one side invoke strategies of negotiation and inculturation by the other. The historical result is an ever evolving cultural hybrid in which imagined, willed, and contingent acts are densely interwoven.1

Irrespective of disparities in power, cultural encounters between Britain and Africa in the nineteenth century conformed to the model just described. It is important to acknowledge this, for it is all too easy--but profoundly misleading-- to equate the achieved territorial substance of the British Empire in Africa with a hegemony in areas other than the geographical. The image conjured up by this misreading supposes a nineteenth-century retrospect in which an ascendant Britain stamped its cultural imprint ever more forcefully upon passive or otherwise cowed Africans. Leaving aside the issue of Britain's purposes and her own understanding of them, this is simply untrue. The British encounter with African cultures in the nineteenth century--as indeed in the twentieth--was never a direct, one-way road leading from London. This is not to deny the potency of British influence. But it is to situate it in a dialogue. On both sides of this conversation, cultural encounters commonly led to unforeseen or unintended

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1
Compare Gananath Obeyesekere, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific (Princeton, 1992), with Marshall Sahlins, How 'Natives' Think: About Captain Cook, For Example ( Chicago, 1995). For the early history of the British in West Africa, see Vol. I, chap. by P. E. H. Hair and Robin Law, and Vol. II, chap. by David Richardson.

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