ABSTRACT

Among Europeans, the right to colonise the African continent and exploit it to their own profit was, for many decades, barely questioned. Even the reformers and humanitarians did not take issue with the principle of imperialism itself. The justification, if there had to be one, was that this was – or would be – in the best interests of the Africans. The general perception of them was that they were inferior beings, sunk in savagery and paganism, devoid of history and civilisation. That this flew in the face of the first-hand evidence of the existence of civilised societies that had been produced by Barth and other explorers was of little account. Some seriously contended that by being transported from their native continent and sold to whites, Africans had been rescued from a state of utter barbarity and delivered to an infinitely more desirable environment. Well into the present century, even respectable academics could talk 1 of the ‘blank, uninteresting, brutal barbarism’ of pre-colonial Africa. As late as 1948, Viscount Montgomery, commissioned by the Attlee government to visit Africa and make recommendations for British policy there, recorded his view 2 that Africans were ‘complete savages’, whom the European powers would have to hold in tutelage indefinitely.