I was intrigued to read in A letter to a Hindu by Tolstoy (1908) the following:
“You say that the English have enslaved your people and hold them in subjection because the latter have not resisted resolutely enough and have not met force by force.
But the case is just the opposite. If the English have enslaved the people of India it is just because the latter recognized, and still recognize, force as the fundamental principle of the social order. In accord with that principle they submitted to their little rajahs, and on their behalf struggled against one another, fought the Europeans, the English, and are now trying to fight with them again.
A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred million. Tell this to a man free from superstition and he will fail to grasp what these words mean. What does it mean that thirty thousand men, not athletes but rather weak and ordinary people, have subdued two hundred million vigorous, clever, capable, and freedom-loving people? Do not the figures make it clear that this is not the English who have enslaved the Indians, but the Indians who have enslaved themselves?”
Tolstoy continues with an analogy of drunkards complaining that ‘the spirit-dealers who have settled among them have enslaved them.’ When told to give up drinking, they refuse because they are so accustomed to it.
Tolstoy’s argument or case is rather simple. By loving one another and not giving into the superstitions that various religions have foisted upon us, we will all live in peace and harmony. He seems to forget some fundamentals about human nature although he does touch upon the issue of continuation through being ‘accustomed’.
Tolstoy’s descriptor of Indian colonisation can be applied to other societies too and across the centuries, as he notes. Looking at photos of the East Africa campaign, in particular those of the Lake Tanganyika expedition, I was struck by the notion that 28 white men could control 50-100 black men as easily as what they did, especially when the white men are otherwise occupied with no firearms in sight. Were there other armed forces keeping watch who were not captured on camera? There is suggestion that the Belgian Force Publique accompanied the expedition through the Congo. Similarly, there are the columns and columns of porters who are under the supervision of a few armed men – yes these men were at greater risk of being fired upon by those accompanying them than the Lake Tanganyika group, but there were still overwhelming numbers of unarmed men adhering to what a few armed men instructed.
This is not to move the responsibility for colonisation (being colonised) to the other side, but rather to raise questions about why we as people allow ourselves to get into situations which subjugate us on such a scale. We allow it too at a local level as expressed by Herman Charles Bosman in A Bekkersdal Marathon.
A day or so before reading Tolstoy’s response to MK Gandhi in this letter, I had read, in vol 1 of Creswicke’s South Africa and the Transvaal War, Alfred Milner’s conditions presented at the Bloemfontein Conference in 1899 to Paul Kruger which resulted in the Boer ultimatum being issued:
“15. The Civil Service shall be completely reorganised, and all corrupt officials shall be dismissed from office, and be ineligible for office in the future.”
This was the perception of the Transvaal administration – a corrupt government where again, a few held sway over thousands. Milner’s demand was a decade before Tolstoy’s letter. The Boer government naturally rejected the demand, but by all accounts the Reformers who had been involved in the Jameson Raid of 1896 had not wanted reform under the British flag but under the Transvaal flag. They were, so they said, prepared to remain under Boer control providing certain practices were changed. Again, this is simplified, but the question remains, how did the uitlanders or reformers who held economic power get themselves into this situation without doing something earlier?
A century after Tolstoy’s letter, in 2009 Wangari Maathai had The Challenge for Africa published. It’s a more sophisticated argument/case than Tolstoy’s as it addresses why people allow themselves to be controlled by others. And as with Tolstoy’s ‘simple’ solution, Maathai’s also seems to be too challenging for today’s generations across the globe. We seem to know what to do, but something keeps us from doing so… will historians examining the past ever discover what this obstacle is and if so, will we be able to overcome it?