The Colonial Misunderstanding, 2005

In 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.

© Acquarello 2005. All rights reserved.