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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Reason and Imagination - fin

“We fell ill on leaving Madagascar to go to the country of the Whites, people thought of the Whites then as cannibals … We suffered greatly on board ship, particularly from the pitching and rolling that caused us to fall. There was no-one to restrain us, or to sustain us, and more than once we might have fallen into the sea. When we arrived in Great Britain we didn't know the White language, not even a word, and the Whites, for their part, didn't know our language, not even a word.”


In the January, 2007 issue of History Today, Rosie Llewellyn-Jones recounted the story of seven boys from Madagascar who were sent to England to go to school – specifically, Class 1 of the Borough Road School in Southwark in 1821. They were the sons of nobility in the court of Radama I. The King was playing off the English against the French at the time. His larger plan was that the boys would be apprenticed at some point to learn manufacturing, particularly gunpowder manufacturing. In the event, the school they went to was based on a cooperative pedagogical principle that sounds truly awful – the teachers would rely on the older students teaching the younger ones, which seems an open invitation to the worst kind of bullying. But remember, this is Britain in 1821.

When Radama died, he was succeeded by his widow, the famous ‘mad queen’, Ranavalona, who embarked on a vast bloodbath and called the students home. Some of them – notably, a pair of twins – managed to survive the Ravalona years.

It says much for the twins' character, formed by their education, that they were both able to prosper during Ranavalona's reign. Thotoos (whose name was now changed to Raombana) became principal private secretary to the Queen, and a field-marshal in her army. We don't know how they compromised their Christian beliefs, taught them in England, with their duties at home. But the twins had clearly learned an early lesson in survival which stood them in good stead throughout their lives. On his death in 1855, at the early age of forty-six, Raombana left a huge and unfinished Histoire de Madagascar, in three parts: legends and traditions; history; and a journal of contemporary events, written from his privileged position at court. More than 8,000 pages of this work, handwritten on English-made foolscap paper, were inherited by Raombana's son, who distributed them among relatives and friends when he was forced into exile to the island of Reunion in the late nineteenth century after Madagascar became a French colony in 1896 and abolished the Merina monarchy. Only fragments of the great Histoire have been published, and less than 6,000 pages have been identified today.
Britain's influence in Madagascar diminished during the rule of the 'mad queen', when she expelled the missionaries who had founded the schools there at her husband's request. Her son, Radama II (r. 1861-63), flirted with the French, and sold the island's mineral and forest rights to an enterprising French businessman, Joseph-Francois Lambert, in return for royalties to be paid direct to the King's family. There was a brief revival of former British glory during the reign of Queen Ranavalona II (r. 1868-83), who had been educated by the London Missionary Society, and who made Christianity the state religion, encouraging the building of schools and churches. But the French, anxious to enforce the rights won by M. Lambert, invaded the island in 1883. In a pan-African deal which gave it control over Zanzibar, Britain subsequently agreed to recognize France's protectorate over Madagascar in 1890, thus ending its own eighty-year connection. The Merina royal family were exiled to Algeria.

The thing that we call Europe, or the West, or the Developed world – the thing that was undergoing the Great Transformation – was connected by millions of like capillaries to the thing we call the periphery, or the colonies, or the Less Developed world. As we saw with Maître, one of the moments of highest tension in his Considerations on France – a moment in which one of his principle theses, connecting human violence and the divine history program – is announced through the citation of a speech uttered by the King of Dahomey. These ‘visitors’ and imports to the texts that present the protest against the triumph of happiness fall into a pattern – although one should be careful not to code the anti-colonial, or anti-European, with all the progressive virtues, or to find it the site of some ‘resistance’. Hazlitt, in the Reason and Imagination essay, also cites an African king at a crucial juncture. The juncture is about the consequence of choosing a morality that is framed entirely around calculations of consequences. Hazlitt, as his commentators like to point out, took up Adam Smith’s sympathy based morality as the basis for his own theory of moral sense. Along with this morality, Hazlitt took up another eighteenth century theme – one that actually starts with Voltaire – which is the theme of unexpected consequences. He wields this theme as his secret weapon to wreck the utilitarian take over of radicalism. It is a takeover first of all of tone. As Hazlitt noted in another essay, On Egotism, the man who comes into a room and announces that he ‘hates’ poetry puts the person who doesn’t at a momentary disadvantage. The statement of dislike seems to be a considered and superior judgment. Hazlitt makes a very clever analysis of this, one that is taken up (although not, I should say, under the direct influence of Hazlitt) by many writers during the 19th and early 20th century, from Herzen to Proust. They felt, in these common conversational habits, the presence of a greater beast – a specter that haunted Europe:

A man comes into a room, and on his first entering, declares without preface or ceremony his contempt for poetry. Are we therefore to conclude him a greater genius than Homer? No: but by this cavalier opinion he assumes a certain natural ascendancy over those who admire poetry. To look down ujpon anything seemingly implies a greater elevation and enlargement of view than to look up to it. The present Lord Chancellor took upon him to declare in open court that he would not go across the street to hear Madame Catalini sing. What did this prove? His want of an ear for music, not his capacity for anything higher. So far as it went, it only showed him to be inferior to thousands of persons who go with eager expectation to hear her, and come away with astonishment and rapture. A man migh as well tell you he is deaf, and expect you to look at him with more respect. The want of any external sense or organ is an acknowledged defect and infirmity: the want of an internal sense or faculty is equally so, though our self-love contrives to give a different turn to it. We mortify others by throwing cold water on that in which they have an advantage over us, or stagger their opinion of an excellence which is not of self-evident or absolute utility…”

While the utilitarians can manipulate social attitudes, they can’t account for them under their theory. Attitudes atomize into millions of hedonic calculations. Which – to get back to Hazlitt’s Reason and Imagination essay – has a macro effect. It is here that Hazlitt, using the slave trade as his example of a social crime that the utilitarians couldn’t adequately cope with, quotes another African king. Ah, the African kings that march across the pages of European literature – and Persian ambassadors and Chinese sages! Hazlitt mentions the throwing overboard of African slaves like so much lumber that was reported on a ship in 1775, and writes that it is an instance where the instance flashes a light on the whole: “A state of things, where a single instance of the kind can possibly happen withwithout exciting general consternation, ought not to exist for half an hour. The parent, hydra-headed injustice ought to be crushed at once with all its viper brood.” And he goes on to this quote, from the account of an African explorer:

The name of a person having been mentioned in the presence of Maimbanna (a young African chiefain), who was understood by him to have publicaly asserted something very degrading to the general character of Africans, he borke out into violent and vindictive language. He was immediately reminded of the Christian duty of forgiving his enemies; upon which he answerednearly in the following words: - ‘ If a man should rob me of my money, I can forgive him; if a man should shoot at me, or try to stab me, I can forgive him; if a man should sell me and all my family to a slave-ship, so that we should pass all the rst of our days in slavery in the West Indies, I can forgive him; but’ (added he, rising from his seat with much emotion) ‘if a man takes away the character of the people of my country, I never can forgive him.’ Being asked why he would not extend his forgiveness to those who took away the character of the people of his country, he answered: “If a man should try to kill me, or should sell me or my family for slaves, he would do an injury to as many as he might kill or sell; but if anyone takes away the character of Black people, that man injures Black people all over the world; and when he has once taken away their character, there is nothing which he may not do to Black people ever afgter. That man, for instance, will beat Black men, and say, Oh, it is only a Black man, why should not I beat him? That man will make slaves of Black people; forwhen he has taken away their character, he will say, Oh, they are only Black people, why should not I make them slaves? That man will take away all the peole of Africa if he can catch them; and if you ask him, But why do you take away all these people? he will say, Oh, they are only Black people – they are not like White people – why should I not take them? That is the reason why I cannot forgive the man who takes away the character of the people of my country.”

7 comments:

Chuckie K said...

More Hazlitt. Now I feel obligated to comment again.

What of the man comes into a room, and on his first entering, declares without preface or ceremony his contempt for the Cowboys?

Talk of ill augury for the future course of society. That's a man who couldn't bomb an Arab if he had to.

roger said...

Mr. ck - ah live in Texas, and let me assure you, down here we have ways o' dealin with that sonofabitch!

Although he be a total fool to run his mouth off like that. Next you know, he'd be dissin' the Longhorns.

P.M.Lawrence said...

You may not be aware of a couple of material points in relation to that Zanzibar-Madagascar deal. The British motive was to stop the Arab run slave trade, and the Germans had to be squared too. They got Heligoland, subject to guarantees concerning the locals, e.g. immunity from conscription. The dates, while accurate, are misleading; the first French invasion only had limited success, leading to a limited protectorate, and there was a considerable period between the full protectorate and the exile of the royal family, one which included several French military and diplomatic campaigns including an attempt at making a puppet out of the monarchy.

You may be interested in the following ruling by an assembly expelling Frenchmen in 1857, quoted in my copy of Sonia E. Howe's The Drama of Madagascar (p. 195):-

"You are accused of having wished to establish a republic, to liberate all slaves, and to establish equality without distinction of nobles. We drive you out of the land over which Ranavalo [Ranavalona] is ruler. It is not the Queen nor the chiefs, but we, the people, who do it."

Also, there is this. Just before the conquest the last Queen wrote this plea (ibid, p. 257):-

"That Madagascar may be allowed to remain a kingdom as God had created it. For my land is not a part of Europe, nor of Asia, nor of Africa, but an island of the sea, and if left in peace and undisturbed, it will continue to advance in all that is good both in commerce and civilization."

Slavery was still practised at the time.

roger said...

in the 1820s, of course, Germany wasn't a factor.

Slavery was a complex system in Africa - there was export slavery, the slave trade such as Hazlitt is reporting on, and indigenous slavery, which was wrapped up in the way war was conducted, among other things. Hazlitt was, to say the least, skeptical of the moral claims of the cast of the British government that abolished slavery. As he said about Wilberforce, they were moral equivocators - there was always some surplus value they squeezed from their moral acts. There's a nice passage in Hazlitt's Life of Napoleon referring to the British fear that the French would seize Malta - which the British had seized: "We seize on and plunder distant contents, and then keep the world in amazement and dread with our disinterested denunciations against the ambitious and unprincipled projects of others, that may at some time or other rob us of our ill-gotten and uncertain booty."

Which, of course, seems relevant to a certain other country in the world today.

Anonymous said...

"the British fear that the French would seize Malta - which the British had seized"? Huh?

The only way that makes sense is that the British might have feared that while it was still in neither's hands, only to find that it came to pass when Napoleon seized it almost without a fight, on his way to Egypt. After that the British carried out a lengthy campaign to get it from the French; the British never seized it from a third party, the sense I think you mean, and there was never any chance that the French could seize it from the British.

I've been over the issue of Britain not being monolithic about imperial expansion. What appeared weird to outsiders only looked that way from a perspective that read it as unitary. The keepers of empire were not the same as the builders thereof.

P.M.Lawrence said...

Huh? Why didn't that comment show me as P.M.Lawrence?

roger said...

Hazlitt was no outsider, Mr. Lawrence. I think that any enterprise stretching over three hundred years is not going to be monolithic - on the other hand, the thesis that the Empire was created in a fit, or fits, of absent mindedness was always more of a bon mot than a serious thesis.

Hazlitt's point was not about Malta, but about justifications, or the British ruling class' odd idea that what was moral and what the British ruling class wanted at any one time were one and the same thing - rather like the American idea, at the moment, that democracy means whatever the D.C. elite want it to mean - which is how Egypt has a democracy and Iran doesn't, per the U.S. papers.