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Naming Colonialism: History and Collective…

Naming Colonialism: History and Collective Memory in the Congo, 1870-1960

by Osumaka Likaka

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From Timothy Burke's Making Scholarship blog

Smartly conceived, tightly written.

p. 5: Likaka’s advisor told him he has to “stick to written documents”–I think this shows just how long the life of a certain kind of orthodoxy can be as it travels the world, but also the degree to which postcolonial African civic and bureaucratic institutions have adopted the most formal, most reserved, most hierarchical possible forms and manners of common global institutions.

p.8: given the aspirations of the monograph, this is a somewhat frustrating critique of “reading against the grain”, e.g., a very formal reading of how Africans are or are not present in colonial texts. I don’t think Likaka needs a caricature to justify the approach of his study. But I do think his critique of scholarship inspired by Saidian characterizations of “orientalism” is fair enough–lots of those granted overwhelming power to colonizers to “invent” or “imagine” and regarded the entirety of what they “invented” as having no correspondence with the lived world of colonial subjects.

Really interesting mapping of the moral landscape of colonialism as Africans saw it, in that some Europeans could get praise names rather than critical names. This is really important: we’re finally beginning to open up the landscape of colonial rule as morally variegated and full of complex causal and hermeneutical loops.

Ch. 2 the road as the symbols of the corvee and of colonialism as a whole. “The construction of roads made colonialism abusive, created misgivings about promises of economic progress, swelled the hearts of Congolese villagers with anger, and stimulated resistance.” p. 39 Ch. 2 is actually a good compact summary of village-level experience of colonialism, in some ways I’d prefer it for a class over Vansina’s Kuba book.

Love the praise-name chapter: this is wonderfully subtle thinking, worked with a lot of care. “These illustrations show that for all the atrocities of colonialism and the ruthless brutality of its agents, village people appreciated friendship, learning and the new technical skills that improved the quality of their lives and conditions of work.” p. 121 So there are genuine praise-names and then there are those that are closer to James Scott’s “weapons of the weak”–names whose seeming praise masks a sly double-meaning.

“Mister Tall” or “Big Boss”; “Mister Handsome”–emasculating praisenames understood by colonial officials as literal descriptions. Classic “weapons of the weak”, but raises the same questions about trees falling in forests–this communicates a kind of moral understanding between local people but it can’t ever flash over into being known to the colonizer without losing its usefulness. But the colonizer also knows all the time that there is a kind of local or secret knowledge about him, or is at least worried about this–this is the kind of thing White is thinking about a bunch in Speaking With Vampires. ( )
  TimothyBurke | Oct 7, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0299233642, Paperback)

What’s in a name? As Osumaka Likaka argues in this illuminating study, the names that Congolese villagers gave to European colonizers reveal much about how Africans experienced and reacted to colonialism. The arrival of explorers, missionaries, administrators, and company agents allowed Africans to observe Westerners’ physical appearances, behavior, and cultural practices at close range—often resulting in subtle yet trenchant critiques. By naming Europeans, Africans turned a universal practice into a local mnemonic system, recording and preserving the village’s understanding of colonialism in the form of pithy verbal expressions that were easy to remember and transmit across localities, regions, and generations.
    Methodologically innovative, Naming Colonialism advances a new approach that shows how a cultural process—the naming of Europeans—can provide a point of entry into economic and social histories. Drawing on archival documents and oral interviews, Likaka encounters and analyzes a welter of coded fragments. The vivid epithets Congolese gave to rubber company agents—“the home burner,” “Leopard,” “Beat, beat,” “The hippopotamus-hide whip”—clearly conveyed the violence that underpinned colonial extractive economies. Other names were subtler, hinting at derogatory meaning by way of riddles, metaphors, or symbols to which the Europeans were oblivious. Africans thus emerge from this study as autonomous actors whose capacity to observe, categorize, and evaluate reverses our usual optic, providing a critical window on Central African colonialism in its local and regional dimensions.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:28 -0400)

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