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April 28, 2005

The Colonial Misunderstanding, 2004

colonial.gifIn an early episode of The Colonial Misunderstanding, a reverend from Cameroon who is working towards the restoration and proper attribution of a native Jamaican missionary, Joseph Merrick's historical importance in the Christianization of the country during the early half of the 1800s (a historical suppression that, in the light of colonialization in the latter half of the 1800s, instead became attributed to the British missionary, Alfred Saker) expounds on the fundamental difference between Merrick and Saker's approach to ministry, explaining that Merrick saw God within the souls of the native African as they were, and believed that his mission was to work from this level of intrinsic human commonality and elevate them through the Word of God, while Saker, in contrast, set western Christian ideals as the sole paradigm for successful conversion. Nevertheless, the legacy of either missionary's early groundwork towards the Christianization of West Africa would be destined to be further eroded and trivialized in the annals of (Western authored) history with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, as European countries sought to carve up the continent for exploitation of raw materials - and subsequently, forced, unpaid labor - under the guise of "educating the savages" (many of whom had already been converted to Christianity before the advent of the "enlightened mandate"). It is this intrinsic correlation between colonialists and missionaries that a second reverend would later (appropriately) conclude as the historical conversion of West Africa, not to the Word of God, but to "the Word of Otto von Bismarck".

Perhaps the most egregious and morally reprehensible example of this (and provides the inferential context to the film's title) is Germany's historical mistreatment and marginalization of the Herero people. Noting that native Africans did not possess the concept of private land ownership (believing that God owned all the land, and the people are only its guardians), the film illustrates the grave "misunderstanding" that resulted when Germans arrived in the region and sought to buy land from the local tribal chiefs who, in turn, misinterpreted the gesture by the Westerners as seeking permission to use the land (After all, as a commenter lightheartedly muses, how can the Europeans take the land back with them?). When the settlers then transferred ownership among other non-native settlers, the chief of the Herero tribe (and converted Christian), Samuel Maherero, led an uprising to drive the new (and from the indigenous people's perspective, tribally unnegotiated and, therefore, trespassing) German settlers out, an act that would consequently escalate to war and lead to the attempted genocide of the Herero people through military orders to exterminate all Herero men in retaliation for the uprising, as well as to shoot "above the heads of women and children" in order to drive them deep into the desert where they would face certain death through starvation and disease. Furthermore, the surviving Herero people would later be interned in forced work camps to serve as free labor to feed the industries of the Industrial Revolution. As the film appropriately concludes, this early example of German colonialist policy of tribal extermination and forced internment towards the Herero people would provide the brutal paradigm - and ominously foreshadow - the tragedy of the Holocaust. Tracing the complex, often painful and inhumane trajectory of colonialization under the thinly veiled guise of divine, Western intervention, filmmaker Jean-Marie Téno presents a fascinating, intelligently constructed, and (personally) illuminating exposition on the history, evolution, and residual consequences of colonialism in Africa. By contrasting the impressive, architectural infrastructure and soulless, modernized landscape of Wuppertall, Germany against the subhuman conditions and tinderbox construction of an African resettlement camp as refugees, nevertheless, take the initiative to build a makeshift church in order to have a place to conduct their daily worship, the film serves as a thoughtful and profoundly articulate portrait of colonialism's unreconciled, bifurcated legacy.

Posted by acquarello on Apr 28, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York African Film Festival


Thanks for this excellent write up and recommendation of a docummentary I might have skipped. An underexposed side of western history, well researched and subtly suggested as a moral questionning rather than an aggressive accusation.
It's interesting to note the film was commissionned by Germany to commemorate the centenial of the Herero Genocide.
This cultural rehabiliatation of the historical truth, like Ousmane Sembene (Ceddo notably), is much needed to teach us "civilised countries" some humility. Especially in a time when, yet again, we use "democracy", like constitadors used "christianism", to impose our ways onto people who don't suit our economic market.

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Sep 17, 2005 10:16 AM | Permalink

Thanks Harry, I found this film quite enlightening as well, not just from a historical perspective, but as you've noted, also in terms of seeing things from a different point of view.

The most obvious parallel in US history is how the Europeans "bought" Manhattan from the native Americans for some beads, and Americans today use that story to illustrate getting a bargain or even to indicate a kind of gullbility. In the film, a historian talked about how the natives found the Western concept of ownership so alien, and what they had thought they were agreeing to was actually the use of the land, not the purchase of it. I couldn't help but think that the Manhattan purchase story was probably along the same lines, but a kind of arrogance has "twisted" the history to some extent to present the conquerors in a much more favorable light (whether they were better negotiators or just simply outsmarted the natives).

I believe that it was either a line in the film or Téno's comment in the Q&A where he brought out the intrinsic problem of "taught" history being written by conquerors and is, therefore, inherently biased. Even when transgressions are mentioned, it is often within the context of a "noble cause" gone awry rather than something committed to bolster power, resources, economy... I was also thinking of Sembene's approach in watching Téno's films. His expositions are never black and white issues with a simple answer, but a kind of self-empowerment through knowledge and enlightenment.

Posted by: acquarello on Sep 17, 2005 11:43 AM | Permalink

How can I get a copy of the CD of this film? Germans who drove thr Hereros into the Kalahari desert in the 1904 Herero Genocide had contacts with the Turks who organized the 1915 Armenian Genocide in which the Turks drove the indigenous Armenians into the Syrian desert.

Posted by: anoush ter taulian on Oct 30, 2011 12:12 AM | Permalink

California Newsreel used to distribute Téno's films, so they may have a lead.

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 30, 2011 9:41 AM | Permalink

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