How we see things

“Isn’t it wonderful how one lot of human beings can think and act so differently to another lot; and yet each party considers that nobody is right but those who believe as they do? Supposing one day some black missionaries landed in England, dressed in large earrings, bead necklaces, pocket handkerchiefs and nothing else, and tried to persuade us to worship some hideous idol and leave off wearing so many clothes. How astonished we would be … and yet they would think they were doing right, just as our missionaries do who go out to teach savages the Gospel …”

So wrote Harry Johnston, administrator of East Africa, in his novel The Man who did the right Thing, published in 1921, although set in 1886.

The conversation continued: “Well I confess I don’t see the resemblance. What we preach is the Truth,  the Living Truth. What they believe is a lie of the Devil.” … “When I was teaching geography the other day, I was quite astonished to find in the Manual that about four or five hundred millions of people were Buddhists. Isn’t it dreadful to think of their being wrong, all living in vain…”

Given how colonialism and imperialism are generally regarded today, the above statement (paragraph 1) stood out as radical thinking for the time, and even today given my experiences. I worked with a project in Tanzania where our guiding principle/philosophy in introducing any new idea to school teachers was ‘how would this be accepted if say a wealthy Sheikh insisted on doing the same at a school in England?’ It prompted careful thinking and encouraged an ethos of working in partnership. We all had something to learn from the other. I was bringing in knowledge and expertise from elsewhere, they were bringing in local knowledge and expertise and together we created something new (well that was the idea). It’s a principle or philosophy which has stood me in good stead since and allows an “out of the box” take on trying to understand and interpret events of the past.

The continuation of the conversation, between a man going out as a missionary and his soon to be wife, brought it back to earth. How, despite our open-mindedness, we can still be closed to what we think is right. In fact the conversation continued to the missionary (a Chapel worshiper) effectively telling his betrothed that her father might be saved as he was Church of England and so that although following a broadly accepted Truth was not completely on the right path.

I’d like to think we’ve moved on considerably from this position, and while some have, many others haven’t; which is the reality we live with and as historians have to mediate – then and in future.

But back to Harry Johnston (1858-1927) – he was the first colonial administrator of Nyasaland (Malawi) and then at the turn of the century was in Uganda, as well as having spent some time in Tunis and Eastern Nigeria (before Nigeria was united). Johnston’s reputation as a colonial administrator is almost the antithesis of Frederick Lugard. It turns out he was also a prolific author. The (UK) National Archives has a piece on his fantasy mapping of the African continent – in 1886, the year he set the story which inspired this posting. Yet, despite his having been involved with African colonial administration for over 40 years, there is very little about him – an article on his geographical work and a 6 page biography (1927), although Roland Oliver’s Sir Harry Johnston and the Scramble for Africa seems to include a biography – more on this in due course when I’ve read the book; this little excursion again having opened new windows on the past and challenging preconceived ideas.

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