Nativity: My Second Chapter Slouches Towards My Committee to Be Born

by zunguzungu

Last December, I was trying to finish my second chapter. This December, I’m trying to finish my second chapter. It’s a very, very long chapter (one of three that make up my over-long dissertation), and the most important one, which works to connect Theodore Roosevelt to Jomo Kenyatta (through Kenyan big game hunting) as a kind of specific local manifestation of what the larger project is struggling to do. But it is actually, I dare to think, nearing completion. So, in case you’re interested, here’s a taste of what I’ve been up to:

…That British East Africa was already full of native Africans, place names, and history, of course, almost goes without saying. Or, rather, while franchise colonialists like Churchill were often quite quick to say it, the white settlers whose existence as such depended on the emptiness of the land had a literal investment in un-saying the existence of its native inhabitants.  Although it wasn’t until 1903 that Charles Eliot — the commissioner who oversaw the beginnings of the settler project —  began leasing “crown” land to white settlers on a large scale, it had been official policy since 1899 that “wastelands and other unoccupied land and that occupied by savage tribes” were to be made available for settler use. And while the Crown Lands Ordinance of 1902 specified that “the Commissioner shall not sell or lease any land in the actual occupation of the natives,” the forced logic of the first phrase nicely illustrates the elisions by which the process would go forward in practice: since it was — by implication — alienable land’s categorical status as empty that made it appropriate to be leased to settlers, alienating native lands served as a sort of tautological assertion that they were empty. Yet while it was the emptiness of the land that, in theory, justified white settlers in occupying it in the first place, the process of emptying it — if only by legal fiat — had actually to precede that process of occupation, making settlement something that could only be justified retroactively by its result, a foundation that could only be built after the house itself was underway.

In this sense, the work of the settler state was, to a significant extent, the dream-work of imagining a wilderness: Eliot would apportion out massive tracts of lands to white settlers as if they were already empty — rendering their native occupants into “squatters” by the flick of a pen — and he would write in his 1905 memoir, The East African Protectorate, that “We have in East Africa the rare experience of dealing with a tabula rasa, an almost untouched and sparsely inhabited country, where we can do as we will, regulate immigration, and open or close the door as seems best.” Eliot’s metaphor is revealingly apt in a way he does not intend; like the literal “blank slate” to which he refers, BEA’s emptiness was a man-made artifact meant to signify a state of natural “untouchedness,” an emptiness that had to be inscribed with blankness so that it could be written upon. And the settler community’s desire for a blank space on which to write was vexed by exactly this problem in a more concrete sense: while the real African presence had to be “erased” before the land could be occupied, that process of occupation could only be retroactively justified by imagining the land to have been already empty. Qualifiers like Eliot’s “almost” and “sparsely” illustrate precisely the extent to which BEA was less a tabula rasa than a palimpsest, and as his pro-settlement memoir blithely turns from describing the territory as empty to describing the ethnographic characteristics of its native occupants, the closest he gets to acknowledging the contradiction is his reference to the native population as “scanty.”

In practice, of course, the settler community had little difficulty living and acting according to this theoretical contradiction, working practically to empty land which was theoretically already empty. And the existence of native Africans — the existential repudiation of the “empty space” narrative of Kenya — could be and were managed by a literal violence that was matched by a figurative violence to the historical record. They accompanied the application of violent force to create a particular kind of absence with a kind of “violence” to historical, ethnographic, and journalistic reality, imagining that this absence had already existed. Eliot’s fantastical vision of a “sparsely inhabited country, where we can do as we will” is broadly representative: while he argued that the country’s emptiness gave settlers the right to “do as we will” (in a theoretical sense), it was also precisely the fact that, in practice, the metropole allowed the settlers to do as they willed that made it possible for them to take concrete steps to render the country sparsely inhabited in the first place.

However, when there was resistance (from both within and without), this contradiction would shape the form which that resistance would take, as well as the settler response. When there was pushback from BEA’s native population — whose very existence was a repudiation of the white settlers’ project — Kenyan settlers were faced with a form of resistance which was quite literally unthinkable in the terms by which they justified their occupation: if the land was already empty, after all, how could the threat of its inhabitants’ existence even be named? “Natives” were the problem, in part, because their nativity was an existential threat, a threat not of action but of being. As such, natives were problematic even to represent.

The idea of the African native therefore haunted the settler imagination. As in the American south, perhaps, the African presence was imagined through an impossible simultaneity of both hopeless harmless impotence and unstoppably virile danger lurking behind and underneath every nook and cranny of white society. And as with 19th century American plantation society, Kenyan settlers combined deep political and military security with the most profound of social paranoias; black resistance which was, in practice, quite limited in its scope and potential came to be magnified in the settler imagination into a structuring principle of societal culture, the bedrock faith out of which everything else flowed.

To observe the parallel, however, is also to reveal what was fundamentally different: the African presence in America was alien in a way that could legitimize white on black violence as “nativist.” After all, the notion of the American African presence as a foreign invader, both before and after the civil war, could make it thoroughly intuitive to think of racialist violence as a natural defense of “native” hearth and home from Africans whose very status as such proclaimed their alienation. In colonial Kenya, by contrast, the most important fact of settler reality was their practical alienation from African reality, both a generalized refusal of the land to welcome them as they had hoped it would (as countless settler accounts emphasize) and the fact of a native African rootedness in Kenyan soil that they could only attempt to ignore. White society in the American south could take comfort in their own nativity, in other words, but the problem of being an alien in Africa was a daily, lived insecurity that the nativity of Africans only accentuated…