chapter  3
17 Pages

Dirty familiars: colonial encounters in African cities

BySTEPHANIE NEWELL

While travelling with William Hesketh Lever and others on a lengthy tour of inspection of Lever Brothers’ numerous trading stations in West and Central Africa, in the mid-1920s, Thomas Malcolm Knox (1900-1980), secretary to Lever, adopted an interpretive framework that is both depressingly familiar today in anti-cosmopolitan discourses, and richly symptomatic of the economic relationships embedded in encounters between strangers in urban environments. The city of Lagos, Knox (9 January 1925: 72) noted, ‘turns out to be a town of unspeakable squalor. It is no wonder that it is the nurse of disease. Filth everywhere.’ For Knox, the source of filth was easy to identify, for ‘[e]verything reeks of dirty natives’ (9 January 1925: 72). Yet this same city, he recognized, ‘is the representative of a much higher state of civilization’ than the ‘squalid’ African trading posts he recently visited in the hinterland of the Belgian Congo, for Lagos boasts European shops built to supply local consumers with household products manufactured in Europe, using raw materials exported from Africa’s ‘uncivilized’ interior (Knox 9 January 1925: 72). Several scholars (McClintock 1995; Burke 1996) have commented on the circular, self-serving nature of the connection between cleanliness and civilization in the writings of European travellers during the colonial era. Perceived and narrated through ‘imperial eyes’ (Pratt 1992), the figure of the ‘dirty native’ legitimized European cultural expansion into the most intimate corners of Africans’ daily lives. In the eyes of imperial commentators, ‘dirty natives’ were far more dangerous than objects discarded by the wayside, or urban trash, and their ubiquitous presence in colonial cities caused colonial governments to enforce regimes of sanitation and urban racial segregation. Not coincidentally, these regimes also helped to transform imported luxury manufactures such as Lifebuoy Soap, Sunlight Soap, Lux, and Vim – all produced by Lever Brothers in

the UK – into household necessities for urban consumers in global locations (see Figure 3.1; Burke 1996; Allman and Tashjian 2000). In a book about globalization, garbage, and the contemporary city, it may appear paradoxical, if not perverse, to begin a chapter with a focus upon late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century intercultural encounters that do not fit current models of globalization and urbanization, in which high-speed communications and mass travel make possible the rapid repositioning of people and objects, consumers and commodities, discardable and recyclable materials, through international economic and cultural circuits. Indeed, as demonstrated by the recent media coverage of the transmission of Ebola within and beyond West African cities, a key feature of globalization is the potentially uncontrollable rapidity with which people are able to move from place to place. Knox’s negative responses to the strangeness of others in the 1920s, however, and the similar reactions of numerous other European travellers and traders in Africa in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, provide us with a historically situated, context-specific prologue to an unpalatable side of current discourses about globalization and urbanization. Such a prologue is embedded in the economic, political, and discursive power-relations that underpin contemporary global networks of trade and migration. Knox, and the other colonial white men who feature in this chapter, are not presented – or made present – as individual travellers in Africa who somehow merit biographical visibility above the Africans they describe. Rather, they feature as vectors for a distinctive, shared anti-cosmopolitan discourse that reaches back to the early days of empire and exploration, and continues to have global currency in contemporary public discourses about migration and mobility between global cities. This chapter uses examples from imperial-era travellers’ and traders’ journals to suggest that an understanding of cross-cultural relationships from the past can help us contextualize the anti-cosmopolitan current that remains prevalent within contemporary debates about multiculturalism and migration, particularly in urban environments. In countless colonial-era travelogues and memoirs by British white men, a hermeneutic similar to that in Knox’s diaries operates, leading to the same dead-end conclusions each time. A rhetoric of difference is mapped onto the body of others through a spectrum of dirt-related words. In one undated memoir by an anonymous trader (Anonymous n.d.b: 164) who worked for a Lever Brothers franchise in the early twentieth century, for example, ‘the bushmen tribes’ are described thus: ‘Not only did their bodies give off a horrible smell, but their hair was tousled like dirty rope, and their skin a dull black. The bits of cloth around the loins were pregnant with filth.’ In an earlier, similar, example from a memoir by the trader John Whitford (1877: 125-6, 160), one ‘hideous-looking ju-ju man’ is regarded as ‘filthy’ not because of his unwashed status but because he localizes and subverts imported items such as Western clothing and rum for his own cultural ends, wearing clothing in the ‘wrong’ way rather than as it was intended to be worn by the manufacturers. Reiterated by numerous colonial travellers in Africa, these conclusions are not simply, or solely, a case of closed ethnic categories being pasted onto the

‘other’ by colonial selves located on the moral high ground in the decades before African independence. As the latter part of this chapter will argue, Knox and his contemporaries’ discourse has a vibrant historicity that reverberates through the decades, changing with the times but permeating how the bodies of migrants and strangers are observed and produced by those with the power to tell stories and to be heard in present-day global contexts. As Knox and his fellow travellers in the mid-1920s1 moved southwards into Arab-Islamic Africa and beyond, a visceral hermeneutic increasingly dominated their descriptions of the inhabitants of the new urban environments they encountered. In the Moroccan city of Casablanca, Knox

was disgusted with one of the main streets. On one side, bazaars: carpets and brass work hanging out over the street . . . on the other side Brasseries Majestie and the like – dirt and filth – there is something most repulsive to me in these endless Brasseries, all dirty, crowded with dirty people drinking dirty looking drinks.