History reclaimed on the other side of the river: a case study from central Africa

King Lewanika of the maLozi 1842 1916 ruled 1878 1916
Gwythian Prins
Written by Gwythian Prins

The recent upsurge of a monochrome and ahistorical view of empire with special focus upon, and moralising condemnation of, the British Empire was a strong stimulus for the establishment of ‘History Reclaimed’.


It was during the dry season in 1980 that I arrived in western Zambia to visit the royal establishments at Lealui and Nalolo. I walked the familiar track which strikes out from beside the harbour across the floodplain to the Litunga’s court at Lealui. It was a track that in the past I had cycled, driven and, when the flood was rising, gone over by canoe; but walking was best. That journey was always like a voyage in any season as the houses of Mongu, high on the flood plain edge, slowly receded and were lost to view. Arriving at the palace for my audience, I squatted down and waited in the outer courtyard, the liñwalala (ravens) clattering in the dry trees: royal birds here too as at the Tower of London. I could hear low voices interspersed with formal clapping and cries of ‘yoo-shoo’ – the shoelela – the royal salute – beyond the high reed walls of the inner courtyards. The Ngambela (chief minister) came out to beckon me in. The newly installed Litunga (King: literally ‘The Earth’ in the old forest language siLuyana) Ilute Yeta IV, whose predecessor’s funeral my wife and I had attended in 1977, received my gift and in the ensuing conversation I asked my favour. Might I have permission to visit one specific sitino (royal gravesite) and speak with its ñgomboti (the grave-keeper)? It was a big thing to ask, I was well aware, because these sites are sacred and access is strictly controlled. I had never visited one before, except at the interment of Litunga Mbikusita. The liñgomboti are not only custodians of the sites but also of the praise sayings of the buried kings and more besides. At that point, no-one in Bulozi (land of the maLozi) had yet read what I had written about their history. The Litunga did not press me for my reason but gave both assent and the necessary escort.

That visit is forever imprinted in my mind. We walked part of the way and then had to cross to the island shrine by canoe, even at that low water time of year. The Court official explained that I came with the Litunga’s permission. The ñgomboti appeared. Introductions were made: they knew who I was – the mukuwa (whiteman) who had travelled all over Bulozi for years, asking all about life and history. We sat on stools, were offered mafi (soured milk) to drink and I asked if I might hear the praise recital for the buried king. When it was ended, I asked my question. ‘Did Mungole ever visit here?’ The ñgomboti looked at me quizzically for a moment and repeated the question back to me. I assented, yes, this is my question. He paused. Then came a low rumbling chuckle that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. ‘Mungole, oh yes, he was here. He made his sacrifice (mpo) as all maLozi know.’ Mungole was the Lozi nickname of the great missionary of the late nineteenth century, François Coillard. It translates as ‘the long or standing rain’ and described the length of his sermons; and the grave-keeper’s reply, now within the private as distinct from the formal oral tradition, confirmed my deduction from different sources about events of 22 March 1886 of which more below, which, I posit, in important part gave the maLozi their self confidence in protecting their sense of self in the face of challenge and change and in shaping their own pathway through their colonial experience.

The moral of the essay which follows – and its battle-cry – is that it is high time for greater humility and harder work (the nature of which I will indicate and illustrate) in understanding the essence of what actually made the British Empire function at the human level, and – for it does have a practical utility in the present – consequentially to help understand why the Commonwealth has inherited such evident depth of goodwill.

The task is not specific to Africa, of course. It can apply in any imperial context but most especially a British one because of the pervasiveness of indirect rule after 1900, brought into British Africa – first to Northern Nigeria in that year –  by Sir Frederick, later Lord Lugard and from thence, elsewhere. The late Eric Stokes instigated somewhat similar forms of research, although mainly archive-based, through his own very detailed district studies in The Peasant and the Raj and The Peasant Armed, in which he sought to uncover social causes of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, lying behind the received wisdom about lard and tallow-smeared cartridges. He proposed a theory of relative deprivation in access to benefits of the Raj as an important factor, which shares the view that I will explain in my case study that empire and the colonial experience face-to-face was more a competition for resources in a shared enterprise than the boot on the neck favoured by later nationalists, by academic marxists and now by the ‘critical race theory’ brigade. Stokes pioneered an approach that was emulated by some others in the Cambridge school of Indianists which he gathered and in some of the research of the Subaltern Studies group of historians.

Another feature of the story I shall relate is of the scale of investment made to preserve arenas of control, both in reality and in belief. In southeast Asia, J.C. Scott’s field research in Vietnam, which gave us The Moral Economy of the Peasant,  described entwined contract and status economies – he called them ‘substantivist’, employing the term coined in Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. These were economies rather like those which I describe below in the Lozi case. It led Scott onwards to write Seeing like a State, one of the most important modern works explaining what is lost – and why it is lost – if history is seen only through the official eye and record. Common to all us researchers of this ilk is appreciation of the value of what Clifford Geertz named ‘thick description’ which permits the researcher possessed of a full and intimate context for an event to understand it in the round with greater cultural precision and at greater depth. It’s hardly rocket science to prescribe this, but that doesn’t make it easy. Geertz famously illustrated this anthropological technique in his essay on the Balinese cock fight in his book The Interpretation of Culture.

Thick description. Not (only) seeing like a state. Understanding substantivist dual economies. All such techniques and insights start from the same point of departure; for as the late Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wisely wrote, can any of the richness of human culture – which embraces histories such as I shall relate – be understood without valuing the dignity of difference?

History reclaimed – two dimensions of empiricism

The recent upsurge of a monochrome and ahistorical view of empire with special focus upon, and moralising condemnation of, the British Empire was a strong stimulus for the establishment of ‘History Reclaimed’.  Whatever the proponents of such unprofessional history-writing may say otherwise, that marxisante narrative is in an evident and direct descent from Hobson and Lenin via more recent marxists, notably Eric Williams and the ‘underdevelopmentalists’ like Walter Rodney. Its preoccupation with ascription of structural and therefore irremediable defect to this particular empire, plucked out for special calumny from all the other empires – many objectively far less humane – is a tell-tale sign. So too the general deployment of one of the marxists’ most condescending concepts, the notion of ‘false consciousness’ to disqualify any evidence which might be offered to disprove a circular and self-sealing narrative.

To date, the main correctives deployed have been rehabilitation of empiricism in two dimensions. The first is methodological: to insist upon how unprofessional it is to re-write history for present purposes by the retrospective dipping of a bucket of highly selective and racialised modern framing themes such as ‘critical race theory’ provides, which have been swept in from the margins of the profession by political tides such as the “Rhodes (or whoever) Must Fall” and “Black Lives Matter” movements whose driving forces have, in any case, little interest in history at all, except insofar as they attempt to weaponise it in order to stigmatise, dishearten and disarm our society, morally.

Giving voice to the voiceless in history has been a motivation for many historians, including and maybe especially Africanists like me. I had come to Cambridge from a strongly academic school via a heady double dose of exposure to politics: first as a soixandhuitard in Paris where I followed the last classe de philo of the ‘old’ baccalaureat and discovered Fernand Braudel and the Annales school of historians; then as a volunteer teacher in the eye of the storm which was apartheid South Africa. There, I was witness to searing experiences which confirmed my ambition to research in that orbit, although not in South Africa, from which I was excluded until 1995 for my involvement with the anti-apartheid movement: the school where I taught was at that time the refuge for the children of many in the anti-apartheid elite, children who have since come to positions of power in post-apartheid southern Africa. The BOSS (Bureau of State Security) had its baleful eye (and surveillance technology) closely upon all of us.

As a schoolboy, I was of the generation that read E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class. He was, in fact, an alumnus of my school who, when I met him in his later years, freely acknowledged his debt to his fiercely intellectual headmaster, Alfred Barrett Sackett MC, still spoken of with awe in my day. I was fascinated by questions of agency in history. Like a generation of English social historians, I was inspired by that famous passage in Thompson’s introduction where he wrote that, “the working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making.” As a young undergraduate I was also impressed by R.G. Collingwood’s Autobiography in which he prescribed the historian’s task to be recovery both of the ‘outside’ and the ‘inside’ of past events by which he meant an effort to discover the thoughts behind actions, and to take them seriously on their own terms.

But in my view there must be old-fashioned limits. To attempt to link (as he did) a focus on African agency in history, which defined my decade of field research in Africa, to what a former incumbent of the Rhodes professorship of race relations at Oxford described as writing ‘usable’ history texts to serve the needs of African nationalists, was a step too far. Terence Ranger thereby imperilled the first purpose by contaminating oral sources, as his published work certainly did, sometimes to fatal effect, in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe; and it didn’t make right the dangerous second purpose, teetering on the line between writing history and propaganda and thus resonant of the present troubles to which his ‘usable history’ argument stands as a precursor.

In Bulozi, the importance of controlling an historical narrative on paper was well seized six decades before Ranger’s Revolt in Southern Rhodesia extrapolated a clever ‘proto-nationalist’ interpretation of the 1896 risings from the excellent archives in Salisbury, but in a way which burned bridges for subsequent re-investigation. In 1909 King Lubosi Lewanika of the maLozi – who was a fast learner especially from what he saw in London during his visit for the Coronation of Edward VII in August 1902 – licenced the second most important missionary after Coillard, Adolphe Jalla, to write (first in Sesotho) and to publish (with Oxford University Press) Litaba za Sichaba sa Malozi – The History of the Lozi Nation – which went into many, many editions through the last century. It gives the ‘received’ narrative high history of the foundation myths and of the kings in such a way that one perspective dominates and, in my view as importantly, as a form of veiling to ensure that other things are not seen or inquired into.

Fighting with books is cunning; and it is the historian’s job to be awake to this and not to condone it, still less to participate in it, knowingly. I have heard sections of Jalla’s Sichaba recited verbatim by personally illiterate tradition-tellers and have heard similar report of Ranger’s Revolt argument from colleagues who did fieldwork in Zimbabwe years after its publication. One of the photographs in his book, of a spirit medium who he suggested was one of the key enablers of inter-tribal co-ordination during the Risings (now called the ‘first chimurenga‘), has been turned, not without controversy in Zimbabwe, into a statue in Harare and ironically so, given the current ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ culture wars. She has also appeared on postage stamps. Plainly Ranger’s narrative was very useful for someone.

As the maLozi say, history is not a thing for child’s play (ku bapala inge mwanana). Pushing a line is a powerful way of taking control; and books like Ranger’s Revolt (or Litaba za Sichaba) are therefore two edged resources – edges that can cut the unwary, or the innocent.

The second dimension of empiricism has been to attempt to restore a modicum of balance by bringing back to visibility evidence that sustains other interpretations of figures and institutions who have been demonised by the racism of the ‘critical race theory’ ideologues. This is hard work, as it always is when debating the self-sealing accounts of marxists and others who privilege Theory – with a capital T – above the inconveniences and inconsistencies of what actually happened, and above the delving of those of us whose work starts with digging, sifting and weighing evidence of many types and for whom theory is a servant not a king. Yet progress is being made.

For example, a more nuanced Cecil John Rhodes who defies easy, lazy labelling has been recovered. Readers have been reminded of the ubiquity of slavery across the millennia; and the very low scores of the British Empire in killing stakes compared to other empires, notably modern communist ones where dictators were pathological and who committed what Rudy Rummel in Death by Government has named as ‘democide,’ have been noticed. So far so useful, but so far both so reactive and also so tedious – tedious that we should have to cover such ground in order to defend basic precepts of the empirical historical method. It is like dealing with opinionated first year undergraduates, except that clever undergraduates do not change really, although, shamefully, they can be intimidated into biting their tongues. Our main problem lies with the shoals of non-academic (or post-academic) administrators that have been spawned across universities in recent years: a problem not dissimilar to what has happened to the Church of England under current management, or, senior Consultants remind us, the NHS: unqualified people who obscure the main tasks with virtue signalling and obstruct those actually trying to do the real work.

Giving voice to the voiceless: daunting methodological prerequisites

In this battle over who shall control the narrative history of much of the world that came under European imperial sway during the past three hundred years, one voice is both exceptionally important to hear and exceptionally difficult to recover, especially when the mischievous all-purpose eraser of ‘false consciousness’ can be so easily applied to its fragile traces if something inconvenient risks being heard or if ‘usable’ history is being invented ex post facto. That voice is on the other side of the river and hearing it poses Collingwood’s Test to the historian in an arduous form.

This is best illustrated in particulars; and so what follows is drawn from my own experiences in Africa half a lifetime ago.  The voice of those who do not deposit documents directly in archives is always hard to hear; yet for those of us who would do so with more reliability than unsupported – and risky – inference, and who would avoid capture by ‘usable’ histories written for present purposes, the technical demands are daunting in both range and difficulty as I discovered in my own work.

I liken it to a three legged iron cooking pot of the sort to be seen all over rural south/central Africa: one leg is in and from the archives, to be sure; a second from oral tradition and oral evidence and a third, akin to W.G. Hoskins’ approach to the history of the making of the English landscape or in Robert Macfarlane’s meditative explorations of the old ways, in an acute observer’s knowledge of geographies of all kinds: the land felt in your bones, traversed by foot and in my case also by boat in the Zambezi flood plain. Time ‘on tour’ was, by the way,  a job requirement of District Officers in the colonial civil service for just this reason. Each class of evidence interrogates, checks, illuminates, the others, binding together to raise the levels of confidence in the analyses made.

To balance such a pot demands many skills. More, I hazard, than are needed by historians of their own or cognate cultures. First, of course, are language skills which in my case included French (for the missionaries) and both a modern African language and some facility with a more ancient forest language, used in the royal court and in aphorisms and poetry. Then one must add historical linguistics (Swadesh word lists and the like) and extend all this into participant social anthropology, historical anthropology and a form of applied cosmology for which Ernest Gellner was my guide in his book Legitimation of Belief, as well as, gratefully, in person. I learned most of these trades on the job. Into this mix, as need was revealed, I found myself acquiring technical skills and adding knowledge from tropical agriculture and soil analysis, including pollen analysis from past crops; from historical meteorology; from aerial photo interpretation; from veterinary medicine, history and epidemiology; from human social and medical epidemiology developing eventually into a full-blown study of comparative medical practices, because in illness all people reveal aspects of their deepest held beliefs. Astronomy came to play a crucial role eight years into my work because correlation between the phases of the moon and certain performative ritual actions enabled me to explain a key episode in the early colonial contact with missionaries – its oral confirmation recounted in the prelude –  which was to influence the decades to come.

The other thing that I required to do my work well was something which is now, alas, rare if not impossible for field researchers to obtain in these less gentle times. This was time itself. Time in the field. Time to act slowly. Time to acquire the repertoire of skills. Time to form relationships and to gain trust. Time to misunderstand and to correct. Time, gradually, to begin to see what was in plain sight in the gathering evidence: things that one did not, could not, immediately see. As a young researcher when in Africa, in all this I was beyond lucky to have had the guidance and encouragement of the late Jan Vansina who was, during the last half of the previous century, the greatest exponent of deep immersion historical research in Africa and, in my opinion, one of the profession’s finest methodologists in any specialism. His guide to the use of oral tradition as history is canonical. His books on the Kuba people of what is now southern Zaire, notably, for the purposes of this essay, Being Colonised, and his wonderful autobiography, Living with Africa, set standards to which others can only aspire.

Bulozi and the maLozi through the colonial experience: an outline sketch

By the time that I ended my research in western Zambia, I was studying and writing about entirely different things to what I had expected to be my subjects almost a decade before. I had gone to a part of modern Zambia from which there had once been heavily regulated contract migrant labour flows to the South African gold fields. I went with an ambition to research the making of an African working class, present at its own creation. But as my confidence in previous historical and anthropological literature on Barotseland (Bulozi) progressively eroded, I found myself turning back in time to the origins of the colonial era.

So much was not as I had casually expected, especially as a youth filled with the preconceptions of the ‘sixties. My wife and I found ourselves living in a part of a newly independent state that was to all intents in mourning for the ending of the late British colonial era: for the rule of law, the development initiatives of the post-war colonial administration funded by the Colonial Development & Welfare Acts of summer 1940: these are subjects for another essay than this one. To understand this unanticipated opinion of the colonial era, I thought that the key probably lay at its beginning.

In brief, I came to understand the degree to which the arrival of European traders, missionaries and administrators to that area during the last quarter of the nineteenth century was far from an imposed ‘conquest’. In fact the genius of the great Litunga Lubosi Lewanika, faced with the inevitability of the colonial presence arriving from the south, was to play a form of three dimensional chess whereby he acquired a de facto protectorate status, sought to seize control of the formal historical narrative on paper but first and, I would argue, most pivotally for later decades, obtained psychic dominance over the most potent challengers – the missionaries who made audacious challenge to Lozi belief systems – such that they became his servants and were so understood to be by all maLozi.

From discovering, by chance and uncatalogued, his private journal in a metal trunk at the Mission headquarters on Boulevard Arago, I believe that the missionary François Coillard of the Paris Missionary Society, a deep and subtle scholar of cultures speaking southern bantu languages (for he had originally worked in what is now Lesotho) knew that he was out-played by the King and understood the significance of what he did on one fateful day, 22 March 1886, when he was placed by the King, quite deliberately I believe, in a position where he had to make a sacrifice of white calico at a royal grave-site or give up his Mission; but he never admitted it in any public writing or utterance. The makuwa (whitemen) might impose their will in some areas of life, although under Lugardian Indirect Rule, much was channelled though the ‘native authorities’. But in the most fundamental spheres for maLozi, which are cosmological, the Litunga’s powers were increased by his known control over these potent new arrivals.

This ascendency was used to practical advantage. With the technological powers of the makuwa made cosmologically subordinate through ritual, it was possible to exploit them safely; and in this way principles of hydrology and techniques of scientific drainage learned from the Mission helped the maLozi to drain and cultivate vast new tracts of fertile sishanjo floodplain peat soils in bonamukau – royal lands used to grow famine relief crops – just in time to weather the famine years of the 1890s, years which badly destabilised other peoples in central and southern Africa. High literacy rates and English language skills acquired in Mission schools (as well as the broad intercomprehensibility of siLozi with other southern bantu languages), opened the southern African skilled labour markets early to maLozi: nodal posts such as railway and mine clerks. Such networks were discreet and probably pervasive.

Contract mining work in the gold fields of the Witwatersrand started from Bulozi shortly before the first world war but was swiftly terminated by the Northern Rhodesia Government as a duty of care to its ‘tropical natives’ (from north of 200 S) who experienced very high death rates from pneumonia before effective treatments were available. (The moist heat and confined spaces in the deep mines provided ideal conditions for transmission of airborne infections and the cold nights of the dry season on the High Veldt were punishing for the unacclimatised.) This decision incurred the displeasure of the Union government and the Randlords who for their own reasons had made it a priority to restart production after the 1902 Peace of Vereeniging which had ended the Boer War and who were urgently seeking labour from all quarters.

The arrival of sulphonamides in 1935 and especially of penicillin to treat TB (it was first trialled on troops in North Africa in 1942, and very soon thereafter the Witwatersrand mines followed as a trials site) caused the Northern Rhodesia Government to lift the ban on recruitment. From the later 1940s, WENELA (the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association) was allowed to recruit on its territory, which meant mainly in the West and South-West: among Lozi and Tonga people.

Taking a contract on the mines was popular and came swiftly to be incorporated into male rites of passage after the second world war. Many men travelled from the heartlands of Bulozi to the railhead at Mulobezi on a long distance footpath that crossed deep bush and many rivers. It was known as nzila ya lihule: the prostitutes’ way, for self-evident reasons.

In short, the colonial experience in Barotseland (Bulozi) was a jointly created history of which these vignettes are a thin sample. It was in many ways a triumph. But socially, it was also a tragedy because the manner in which Bulozi engaged with bukuwa (whitemans’ land), was a form of prostitution although not of any sort that marxists or critical race theorists would even begin to understand. It was no boot on the neck.

The bitter costs of success

One day during my last year living in Bulozi, travelling alone on a bush track on the west bank of the Zambezi, I encountered a miner, wearing his miner’s helmet. Yet it was eight years since the new Zambian government had, overnight, shut down the WENELA  recruiting operation based at Sesheke in southern Bulozi. Why was he wearing his helmet?  ‘Because this is my work.’  ‘But there are no mines here and you cannot go kwa bukuwa?’ ‘I cannot.’ ‘So do you work at home?’ ‘I cannot work for money at home.’ What this poor man was describing was the upending of his cognitive universe.  It was as if two wires had crossed and blown the fuse.

The Barotseland Concessions of 1900 had kept Bulozi free of white settlement. Luckily for the maLozi, the British South Africa Company did not suspect gold to be under its sands. Therefore, informally during the wartime and inter-war years, travelling first to places like the Wankie coalfields and, interrupted for some by service in the Carrier Corps supporting Monty’s Eighth Army in North Africa, an ingenious way was found to earn money for bride-price cattle, for ploughs, for cooking pots, moleskin trousers – all highly prized possessions – and for poll tax, without allowing the social corrosiveness of the cash nexus to confuse essentially status-based transactions kwa hae (at home).

Henry Maine’s argument in Ancient Law that history was a progression from relationships of status to those of contract had been neatly finessed. The maLozi had intuitively worked out a way to game the colonial era as they experienced it in order to have the best of both worlds, as they saw it; and for us to begin to understand this requires a conscious suspension of the grand theories with which the contemporary race ideologues would boringly homogenise everything.

That chance meeting explained something else which I suddenly realised that I knew, had seen but did not comprehend. Under the later colonial migrant labour system, small sums of money continually entered Bulozi, both remitted and administered by WENELA and in labourers’ hands, sustaining an intertwined dual economy: a formal cash economy and an informal barter and exchange economy. When migrant labour ended abruptly,  the cash economy was suddenly drastically undersupplied. The colonial service, which believed in Maine’s theory of progress, consciously saw poll taxes as a way to stimulate a domestic cash economy; and for so long as remitted earnings came north from the mines, it all worked. But at a stroke, the District Commissioners (so named for their tax-collecting role) vanished as well as the migrant contracts; and the carefully constructed material and psychological modus vivendi collapsed. From a situation where there were multiple small portals for money to flow in, the sources and number were drastically reduced.

What remained was paid work for the independent government of Zambia: jobs in public services and works, road maintenance and the like. The other large portal was monetisation of the sale of cattle. In both cases, the problem was how to effect distribution from a small number of cash earners to a much larger constituency of need; and the solution was an adaptation of the local beer economy.

Women brewers would brew bucwala (maize beer) in their villages on a known rotation. Men with money from the road gangs or other government employment, or from the cattle sales, would come and drink for cash and in this way, with the women brewers as facilitators, a degree of redistribution was effected.  But this beer economy had a dark side because the position of the women brewers was desperately precarious. It only took a rumour that her beer was bad or had made a man ill to lose a brewer her access to the circuit; and the threat of spreading such rumours was an efficient way of obtaining coerced sex. All this I was quickly able to establish once I had this working hypothesis.

The analogous micro-economy in the shanty settlements surrounding provincial towns was unintentionally and bitterly far more deadly. It centred on the distilling of kachipembe – a form of moonshine liquor – frequently in stills constructed using old car radiators. I had a research assistant discreetly collect many bottles of kachipembe for me and took samples back to Cambridge where a chemist friend in my College kindly ran them through spectrometer tests for various heavy metals. The results were horrifying. This stuff was quickly driving the drinkers mad or blind or to early graves or all three. This was a price paid for trying to reorient the colonial era mental model that had once worked so well to a new and unanticipated world in which it did not, and where it went terribly wrong.

What happened if people actually crossed the wires in the normal domestic food economy rather than in the beer and moonshine economy? Some people attempted to monetise agriculture directly. Greatly praised by here-today-gone-tomorrow ‘development’ experts, the Lusaka government officials and other outsiders, I observed that male market gardeners were frequent targets for buloi: bad magic, or – for it makes no difference – believed themselves so to be. The use of bewitchment as a means to expel and to control is well understood colloquially and insufficiently researched for the good reason that, as I can attest, only a conspicuous outsider with insider skills can do so safely. So much for ‘cultural appropriation’.

From things I was told and things that I was shown and have witnessed in Bulozi, as well as from evidence in some colonial court case records, I suspected, but never had opportunity to research fully, the existence of a sub-continental subterranean trade in witchcraft artifacts centred on the gold-field labour hostels, something which finds collateral support in field research from anthropologists within South Africa. There is, of course, a rich literature on witch crazes and witch-finding in Europe. Some historians interpret them as a sort of social auto-immune system crisis. In Bulozi one well documented witch-finding outbreak in the 1950s triggered by an over-officious District Officer called Mr Lemon,  seemed to be connected to problems arising from malfunctioning of the migrant labour system then in full swing.

The common thread leads back to the miner without a mine who I met in the bush who was hungry but would neither hoe nor dig. Without knowing it he was personally paying a price for the success with which three previous generations of maLozi had capitalised on King Lewanika’s perceived control of one of central Africa’s most seasoned and capable missionaries and the ensuing manipulation of the colonial relationship to their advantage without the makuwa fully understanding because they did not share Lozi belief in the intense inter-engagement of the spheres of the visible and invisible, the living and the dead: an admixture of white and dark magic with an added dash of missionary Protestantism.

Yet worse was to come

During my last full research year in Bulozi (1977), I focussed on several socio-medical projects. One returned to my original research intention and was, with the help of medical colleagues, a series of epidemiological surveys in areas which had previously supplied many migrant workers to the mines. Our study located families of former migrants and then looked for symptoms of TB eight years after the end of migration. We found the disease rampant across all age groups from babies coughing in the sandy dirt to very elderly. This was evidence of open populations that had been infected by returnees – another price of the popular incorporation of the migration rite of passage. Although we did not know it, worse was shortly to come down the truck routes of east and central Africa, via super-spreaders among prostitutes.

Once my book was written and published, in 1980 I returned to Bulozi once more as the prelude told. I went to present copies at the two main royal establishments; and no longer having my faithful Landrover, I travelled down to the provincial capital, Mongu, by long distance bus.  On arrival I soon learned a new word import into siLozi: pilamid (plural lipilamidi). And there they were, on new concrete pads: great pyramids of famine relief maize bags, trucked in from the line of rail.

Perched on the valley edge, behind them stretched the Zambezi flood-plain, Lewanika’s lateral drainage canals of the early 1890s fallen into disrepair, little cultivation of the sishanjo soils in sight. Instead of clearing those canals, I found Dutch engineers on ‘development’ contract planning to dredge a diagonal communication canal across the floodplain from Mongu to Kalabo for the greater convenience of government speedboats and to the horror of Lozi friends, who feared for the disturbance of the tangle of waterways which slowed the flow and harboured the fish.

Rather, in the sandy soil of the mushitu (bush), people were growing much mwanja – cassava, a starchy tuber – which is far less effort to grow and a more reliable crop, but also far less nutritious than maize or sorghum. Literally scraping a frail living from poor soils and also, for pure blood maLozi, subsisting on what was traditionally, before emancipation by Lewanika, the food of their former serfs, the mawiko.  It had come to this, and within five years was to be made all the worse by the terrifying scourge of AIDS which may, in fact, have already begun to brew unrecognised, spreading south from its epicentre in southern Zaire although this was and is unprovable. During our survey we certainly saw individuals with what, in retrospect, might have been consistent symptoms.

The reckoning

Therefore this story is about a form of prostitution, yes, but immensely more complex than the direct violence of baaskap to the South and not arising in the manner that marxists would expect and assume. In so many ways, for three generations the maLozi had made an astonishing success of the unlooked for arrival of colonial rule; and the attempts to adjust to its sudden end – which triggered the crisis – were equally heroic even as they were sometimes terribly self-harming. Yet throughout all this, it is a history of a people finding ways to make sense of change and turning new circumstance skilfully to advantage. People present and active in making their own history. That is a type of history which defies the immense condescension of the race-obsessed theory-spinners who would dismiss the maLozi as collaborators with the imperialists. A condescension which makes my blood boil. In a future essay I will examine the record of the late colonial service with whom they interacted, as I researched it, who have also been casually and ignorantly traduced.

What then is the reckoning? It was not an especially good or an especially bad world that I have briefly introduced here. Yet it was in many ways a successful world. And it was a shared creation in which all parties can take pride – among all other human feelings. Such is life. Such always is history.

This is all now so long ago, in the late 1970s; but by then, a new and much less benign imperial power was appearing in this world. Chinese constructors had arrived. They built shoddy railways and shoddy roads, including a hard-top road to Barotseland from Lusaka which broke up on the sandy soils west of the Kafue river within a couple of rainy seasons, leaving great slabs of upended tarmac, like beached whales, that had to be driven around and that made things much worse than the gravelled road before. South African road contractors, who knew how to build properly on such tricky soils, had to be brought in to rebuild long sections.

In our day, we and our Lozi friends mainly felt mild exasperation at the Chinese. They kept themselves to themselves, in camps; and our daily exposure was to shoddy Chinese consumer goods and ghastly tinned foods that had been imported in part to offset the costs of their useless public works. A far cry from today’s steadily tightening One Belt One Road debt trap into which the PRC entices prospective client countries.  However Zambians have the honour in sub-saharan Africa of having been the first to have turned their experience of the naked racism of Han Chinese towards Africans into real life politics when in 2011 they elected Michael Sata to the Presidency on an explicitly anti-Chinese platform.  ‘The thing is’, a Zambian friend once told me, shortly after Chinese guards had fired on Zambian workers protesting at the loss of jobs on the Copperbelt, ‘that while you English may have seen us through the class lens through which you see yourselves, we all understood each other and you treated us as human beings unlike these Chinese who treat us as if we are hardly human at all.’

To the claim that the Lozi experience was unique or aberrant I would simply reply – are you really sure? Have you made the effort to look as my teachers Ernest Gellner did in the Atlas Mountains and Jan Vansina and his pupils did in and below the rainforest? To be frank not many have. The Collingwood Test reminds us how misleading it can be to infer the inside of events from the outside. Remember the three legged cooking pot. Today, the upside-down apartheid of the critical race theory crowd serves to ensure that Vansina and we his pupils are – currently – only remembered for what we have done and consigned to the past ourselves. Without a root and branch re-statement and defence of the principles of correct research as I have offered here, something which is quite as important in reclaiming history as reminders of the substantive histories which they reveal, Vansina of the first generation and I of the second cannot be followed by a third with the freedoms and opportunities that we had. The consequence of this is surely a breach of trust and an abrogation of moral duty?

Gwythian Prins’s history of the early colonial experience in late nineteenth century Bulozi, The Hidden Hippopotamus, won the Herskovits Prize of the American African Studies Association in 1980

About the author

Gwythian Prins

Gwythian Prins