The Dehumanising Process of Imperialism

November 7, 2013 § 2 Comments

I’m reading CJ Shivers’ book, The Gun, which is essentially a history and biography of the machine gun, though he focuses primarily on the AK-47.  Shivers, though, goes into great depth about the development of machine guns, back to the attempts of Richard Gatling’s attempts back in the 1860s to develop an automated firing system.  So far, I have to admit, this book is worth the hype it received when it came out in 2010.

However. Shivers spends some time discussing the deployment of the Gatling Gun, as well as the Maxim, amongst others in colonial endeavours in Africa in the late 19th century during the Scramble for Africa.  For the most part, Shivers follows British troops on their attempts to pacify the natives.  The descriptions of the efficacy of the guns are chilling.  Shivers quotes one British soldier who casually mentions the piling up of African bodies as the British advanced with their Maxim guns.  Numbers get thrown around, here 3,000 dead, there 1,500, and so on and so forth.  These are from single battles, large African forces against small British ones.  And yet the British win, because of the guns.

The book summary on the back cover says that this is “a richly human account of the evolution of the very experience of war.”  It is, at least so far, if we are talking about white Europeans and Americans.  When it comes to the black Africans, however, they’re no more than body counts.  This, however, is NOT really Shivers’ fault.  This is the nature of imperialism, this is the very core of imperialism.  The colonised “other” is a faceless, shapeless mass.  The imperialist dehumanises the victims of the imperial process.  The colonised are reduced to something not quite human.  The fault here doesn’t lie with Shivers (let me state that again), it lies with colonial sources.  By design, the Africans were dehumanised by the British (or the French, the Italians, the Germans, or whomever) during the Scramble.  They were reduced to an irritant in the forward march of progress.

None of this is news to anyone who knows anything about imperialism.  It’s not news to me, but sometimes I feel like I’ve just been smacked in the face with this knowledge.  It is almost like reading it again for the first time.  And reading The Gun, I feel that way.

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§ 2 Responses to The Dehumanising Process of Imperialism

  • Brian Bixby says:

    The account that figured strongly in Thomas Pakenham’s “The Scramble for Africa” was Lugard’s use of the machine gun against Ugandan natives at Mengo in 1892. Does that crop up in “The Gun,” and if so to what effect?

    • John Matthew Barlow says:

      Sorry, been busy, was out of town, and then had to catch up. Anyway, to answer your question, I don’t recall whether that pops up or not.

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