Unsettled Labor

by zunguzungu

From the dissertation:

…In practice, the recruitment of African labor proceeded by means of macro-economic pressures — institutions like the hut tax, massive (and intentionally produced) land scarcity, and laws prescribing squatter labor — while tribe became the medium through which that labor was procured. In the official settler mind, however, neither the massive settler violence by which the African was forced into doing peasant labor nor even the political organization of the tribe through which this was practically accomplished could be explicitly admitted. The former was impossible because it would concede the central anti-settler accusation made by metropolitan imperialists like Winston Churchill, while the latter was just as unthinkable, admitting both pre-existing African presence and African social organization.

Most of the time, therefore, labor procurement simply is not recorded, and most settler accounts pay no mind to the problem of labor at all: as Elspeth Huxley tells the story of Lord Delamere, for example, a sort of prototypical settler,[1] one can be forgiven for assuming that he worked his 3,000 acres with only his own hands, since phrases like “He sowed 1,200 acres in a single field” are the norm. When the problem of African labor is addressed, however, the fantasy of procurement is just as telling. In Huxley’s 1948 Settlers of Kenya, for instance — Huxley at her most propagandist — she tells the story as “Farming in the Dark,” a purely unmediated contact between settler capital and native labor:

“Labour was attracted at the start mainly by curiosity; even as late as 1913, a new settler secured his first raw hands by putting a safari lamp on top of a pole and signing on some of the young Kikuyu who came to stare at this particular contraption.”

There are, here, no tribal intermediaries and there is no violence; the “raw hands” simply wander out of the primal wilderness, apparently driven by no power greater than curiosity, a “friendly and willing, if ignorant, native population” which has nothing better to do than work on settler plantations. No details are given as to payments or discipline, and beyond this particular scene, African labor is never mentioned at all, the kind of omission that describing antebellum southern plantation society without describing slave labor would be.

At the same time, what is included is equally telling. This primal scene is based around the topos of clearing the land: one can place a lamp to attract African labor only by first chopping down the trees that would block its light, and I hardly need to rehearse all the ways the light and darkness dichotomy mediates the contrast between the choking jungle of Darkest Africa and the broad, open savannah of Brightest Africa. Yet for one thing, while the violence of labor impressment disappears into a war with the jungle — the mere act of clearing the jungle becomes seamlessly synonymous with putting to work the African labor that will actually do it — transforming Africans into laborers is simultaneously the domestication and pacification of war-like tribesmen. As she writes in the immediately preceding passage and the one that follows what I have just excerpted:

“Having first decided what to try, the farmer must (if he was going to plant a crop) first clear the land. Often this was a slow, expensive affair. His labor was totally untrained. No African knew how to drive an ox, wield a pick, use a saw or manage a plow. Only a few years before, the fort at Dagoreti had been abandoned in face of attacks by Kikuyu bowmen, a caravan of several hundred Swahili traders had been wiped out by the Masai near Mount Longonot, the Nandi had ambushed railway convoys and mail escorts near Eldama Ravine. The spear was still a handier weapon to most young men than the pick or the ubiquitous panga (a kind of agricultural sword) …Even the oxen had to be trained, no less than their drivers; they had never been yoked before. With these rough tools the pioneer must clear his forest, uproot the bush, break the land, make a tilth and plant the seed.” (my emphasis)

Putting Africans to work — breaking and training them to use the tools of agriculture — is almost literally the same process as domesticating African oxen; note the wonderful ambiguity, for instance, by which “they” refers to both the rough tools of oxen, pickaxes, and Africans with which a pioneer “break(s) the land” to bring forth crop from his seed. Since the African’s natural proclivity is violence — and even his agricultural tool gets described as a sword — putting him to work is synonymous with the process of pacification, the bending of his panga into plowshares. And, perhaps most importantly, while the actual process of “pacification” had proceeded by means of large-scale co-optation of African military labor, something the earliest imperialist had clearly and publicly understood and articulated as they incorporated Masai, Nandi, and Kikuyu tribes into the colonial state by means of military alliances, the act of putting Africans to work has, here, become the process of de-tribalizing them, a process of rendering natural life into domestic labor which is explicitly aligned with breaking oxen to the plow. In the official settler consciousness, good Africans were as rootless and dis-organized as wild oxen, while bad Africans — those who didn’t take easily to the harness and had therefore to be broken — were the tribal societies with respect to which violent subjugation was the same process as replacing the spear in their hands with the plow-handle.

. . .

In her 1959 Flame Trees of Thika, on the other hand, she tells the story of her hapless father first failing to attract labor with a phonograph and then succeeding in attracting the attention of a local chief with a safari lamp on a pole only because, as is utterly clear, it represents an already established sign of a willing buyer for labor within an well-understood contractual system. Curious locals appear to look over the newcomers, but they are unimpressed — and don’t stay — until a chief arrives and is paid “baksheesh” to procure labor, a goat for every ten workers who stay at least a month. In fact, not only is her family utterly dependent on the labor-procurement services of this tribal intermediary, but she explicitly acknowledges that “chief Kupanya” was himself a colonial creation:

“It was only much later that we discovered that he was wrongly labelled because the Kikuyu did not have chiefs in their hierarchy. They had elders of various grades, and he was a spokesman for his particular set of elders. But the policy of the Government was to appoint local chiefs where they did not exist already, and his polished staff indicated that he had been selected as ruler of the district closest to our land.”

This difference is partly attributable to the intervening ten years. While 1948 was the beginning of the end of the settler regime, that decline was certainly not widely perceptible at the time. 1959, on the other hand, was not only after the emergency period had radically transformed relations between the settlers and their Gikuyu laborers (or at least rendered visible the violence and power on which the system was built) but independence was now widely regarded as inevitable, and Huxley‘s attitude towards her class was changing. Yet even in her 1939 Red Strangers, Huxley shows a thorough awareness of how and by what means the settler order and labor regime was first constructed: written from the perspective of “pre-contact” Gikuyu tribesman (for whom white people are “red strangers”), the meeting between settler farmers and the Kikuyu begins with violence and subjugation, proceeds through corruption and a perversion of the tribal system of governance, produces widespread poverty and land alienation, and only eventually settles on a relatively stable partnership (if prejudicially tilted against labor) between African squatters and their white landlords. Though her Gikuyu protagonists are dazzled by technology and attracted by the introduction of a cash economy, there are no safari lamps on poles or phonographs. There was a broad divergence, in other words, between what was publicly and privately said, between an official assertion of the settler position in a publication for the Royal Empire Society like Settlers of Kenya and Huxley’s attempts to assert what was personally and subjectively felt.


[1] She does admit that he was “not a typical settler, for he had much more capital than most, and far bigger ideas,” but both here and in her first book, a biography of Delamere, she more or less does use him as the exemplary story for the best of the settler enterprise.