‘Resistance’ and ‘Collaboration’ in assessing the African response to the colonial conquest

“Then when that European arrived he asked, ‘Why did you not answer the call by drum to pay tax?’ And they said, ‘We do not owe you anything. We have no debt to you. If you as a stranger want to stay in this country, then you will have to ask us. Then we will ask of you an offering to propitiate the Gods on you behalf; we will give you land and you will get a place to stay in. But it is not for us as hosts to give you the offering. That is quite impossible’” (Gwassa & Iliffe, 1967, p. 3)

The terms ‘resistance’ and ‘collaboration’ have been used to classify African responses towards colonialism; those who resisted (in various forms) the occupying forces, and those who submitted to or worked with those powers. The use of these terms has overly-simplified a very complex issue into two, admittedly broad and ambiguous, but still misleading, categories. The use of these terms in research on the conquest of Africa has often encouraged wholly inaccurate, if not orientalist assumptions: the association of ‘collaboration’ with cowardice and betrayal, and ‘resistance’ with heroism, as well as a general acceptance that European superiority was the most influential factor in African reactions:

“It has often been recognised that imperialism works effectively only if it is accepted by much of colonial society, and if it actually operates through a network of indigenous collaborators. However this has been regarded as of secondary importance compared to the impact of imperialism in the form of either domination or westernisation.” (Breilly, 1993, p. 158)

The nature of the response was far more determined and shaped by other factors such as African leaders identifying the relative potential advantages of each situation, inter-community issues, culture and social hierarchies. Recent scholarship thankfully has begun to take more note of the African context in assessing the impact of colonialism, and challenge this limiting and out-dated notion of an unchanging, politically and religiously stagnant continent, easily dominated or deceived into ‘civilised’ clutches.

Despite the surprising success of many indigenous peoples facing the coming European colonisers, all were immediately at a technological disadvantage and had to make a choice either to support these new settlers and hope that by doing so they would maintain their current positions of power and autonomy, or to reject these people through forms of ‘resistance’. In either case there was a clear aim: maintenance of their current positions. Although later some were to see it as such, it was not a betrayal of principles in the cases of collaboration, but a desperate (and risky[1]) attempt to avoid what would become the inevitable destruction of their way of life, having seen other states futile attempt at resistance. In some cases this applied to a whole kingdom, in others it was a minority faction who gave their support to the incoming powers, but in few cases was this a surrender, more  a cry for protection from other enemies, a poor harvest, or to enhance the states power. Ironically many freed slaves joined colonial armies for want of money and employment, position and education. These Imperial propositions were often tempting, if not a little vague.

Whilst the term ‘collaboration’ commonly means to work in partnership equally, more often than not this did not remain the case, it has developed a particularly negative connotation ‘to cooperate with ones enemy’[2] not missed by those who have used it in reference to Africa. The traditional term of ‘collaboration’ may have been what those African’s who engaged in it hoped for, but accusations against them have often been formed using this word in its negative context, and certainly, it was rarely a fair deal in practice.

The German encroachment of Burundi is often used as an example of African collaboration with the imperial powers. The German spread inland from the East African coast extracting ‘treaties’ as they went, and unbeknown to those peoples, re-drew the map of their new East African colony.  However in the face of the German’s “destructive campaign” in the region, King Mwezi IV entered into a collaboration with the imperial powers, but, “far from suffering humiliation and political defeat, the king found his authority bolstered” (Shillington, 2005, p. 188) In Burundi, the king understood that the best way to ensure his political standing, was not a resistance movement, which in the light of European pressure would be futile, but to approach the colonisers and form an alliance. “The Mwami was comfortable with indirect-rule because it allowed him to continue the patron-client relationship (ubuhale) that had characterised his rule before the advent of colonialism.  In addition, the support he received from the German officials assisted him in expanding his kingdom forcefully bringing under his control territories that had hitherto been free if his rule.” (Laband, 2007, p. 258) This was in essence what the colony’s governor in Dar es Salaam had intended – his “…political strategy centred on establishing co-operative relations with African leaders” and Burundi became one of the more successful ‘protectorates’; “By 1906 when German occupation shifted from military to civilian rule, the king and the German residents at Usumbura were building a fragile collaboration. It lasted until 1908 when the elderly king died.” (Shillington, 2005, p. 189)

Other African peoples however had no choice but to attempt ‘resistance’ as anything else would fall short of their codes of honour which were integral to their social systems, as well as the growing aggression from the Western powers. Resistance came in the forms of non-cooperation and religious resistance, (refusal to pay tax, or the maintenance of their own belief systems) which whilst not necessarily violent, still posed a threat to the incoming colonial states. Military resistance however, appeared in almost all regions of Africa in varying degrees of unity and success, but most notably in the Sokoto Caliphate, the Asante kingdom, and from the Ethiopian peoples. In these cases they have been given the vague title of ‘resistance’, yet they all had very different approaches to their armed resistance. The Sokoto caliphate retained their traditional[3]methods of fighting which posed but “feeble resistance” to the British forces  (Iliffe, Honour in African History, 2005, p. 186). Reluctantly using out-dated weaponry that they were ill-trained in its effective use: “There is a world of difference between merely giving cavalrymen a rifle, and actually making him even a moderately effective operator of or with it.” (Muffett, 1971, p. 288)The Sokoto preferred their “massed cavalry charges of savannah tradition” which proved suicidal (Iliffe, Honour in African History, 2005, p. 186). The Asante Kingdom also followed strict codes of honour, ‘Fere ne owuo efenim owuo’ – ‘if it is a matter of choosing between disgrace and death then I should choose death.’ (Fynn, 1971, p. 27) In their prolonged stalemate with British forces they initially fought many battles in traditional style and to a similar end:

When the Asante withdrew at sunset, they had fought against the British guns for six bloody hours. Several of the British defenders had fired their muskets three hundred times, and at such range it was almost impossible to miss. For fully one mile the beach was littered with thousands of Fante and Asante bodies, and the sand above the high tide line was stained red. The Asante had attacked in such dense formations that every charge of grapeshot from British canons had killed twenty of thirty men. King Osei Bonsu said he lost three thousand men. Later a shaken Colonel Torrane wrote that the Asante had ‘fought with a bravery not to be exceeded’” (Edgerton, 1995, p. 48)

In consequence they later developed new tactics especially the use of stockades and guerrilla warfare to varying successes. Ethiopia however was able to employ the uses of more modern technology, in particular the rifle, which was later combined with guerrilla warfare. They were still however at a disadvantage where the Italians could employ “Mechanical transport, aeroplanes and poison gas.” (Iliffe, Honour in African History, 2005, p. 198) Honour was still important to these warriors however, with songs to praise “the gallant and insult the cowardly”, but this type of fighting was uncongenial to men of honour; “’we have learnt to be cowards’ one guerrilla chief told a journalist in 1939.” (Iliffe, Honour in African History, 2005, pp. 198-9)

When attempting to apply the term collaboration or resistance to any African community it would assume that that community was united in its response; another error in this theory of categorisation. In almost all communities few were completely united, as the social and cultural differences between groups often meant their potential gains depended on different allegiances. This led to internal collaborators or resistors, such as in Kenya where the Rift Valley Maasai “found the British military labour market more rewarding and culturally more congenial than farm work for the Kikuyu” (Berman & Lonsdale, 1992, p. 27). In contrast the Nandi peoples who in their resistance had no contacts and “no external trading alliances for the British to pick up, nor any political intelligence to use. Nor were Nandi cultivators and pastoralists at odds over their external relations.” (Berman & Lonsdale, 1992, p. 29) Also stateless peoples despite their obvious technological constraints, they could achieve a surprising amount of success, “owing to their local knowledge, experience of small-scale warfare, willingness to adopt guerrilla tactics, hostility to government of any kind, and a lack of leadership whose defeat or capture could end the fighting.” (Iliffe, Honour in African History, 2005, p. 188)

It is also important to consider the prominence of younger men within resistance movements as a minority to the population at large. They were usually more supportive of traditional methods, as part of their honour culture, where older, more experienced men were unhappy at such a sacrifice of life. In the case of the Zulu attack on Rorke’s Drift “the work of inexperienced Zulu reserves determined to blood their spears…had no strategic significance…and perfectly illustrated the self-destructive potential for heroic honour by weakening the army’s enthusiasm for the war…The king now wanted peace, but the young regiments opposed him, determined to prove themselves as brave as their fathers.” (Iliffe, Honour in African History, 2005, p. 190) Similarly in SE Nigeria the Igbo resistance was mounted chiefly by young warriors known as Ekumeku, ‘the silent ones’, who specialised in attacking government property, missions, and local collaborators.” (Iliffe, Honour in African History, 2005, p. 188) Also the older generation within Tanzania who could remember the failure of the Maji Maji Rising did not join the 1950s TANU movement because “the slogans gave the old people the impression that the two movements were of the same nature, and therefore likely to bring similar calamity.” (Mapunda & Mpangara, 1969, p. 29)

To rebel against an established colony is usually more problematic than trying to prevent one being formed, as it requires “secrecy and on a large scale.”[4] (Iliffe, Africans: the history of a continent, 2007, p. 201) It is also characteristically different to earlier forms of resistance and so there has been the development of the idea of secondary resistance: “Primary resistance occurs when the colonial power first comes into a potential colony; secondary resistance is a rebellion by those who have already been colonised for some time. Primary resistance seeks to stop colonisation from starting or from consolidating itself. Secondary resistance seeks to end colonialism when it is already well and truly established.” An example would be the failed attempt by Asante in 1896 to overthrow the British administration of Kumasi. (Mazrui, 2006, p. 477) Mazrui further identifies a cultural distinction: that primary resistance is rooted in indigenous culture and symbolism, whereas secondary resistance is often rooted in the values, ideologies and techniques of the colonisers. The single term resistance does not sufficiently allow for these sorts of distinctions. There has also been an issue with identifying these forms of resistance as linked to a nationalistic consciousness, especially as the leaders of secondary resistance movements have been traditionally keen to enforce the notion. “An important aspect of historical research is to situate people as far as possible in their own time by trying in the first instance to understand what motivates then in their own term. The danger in identifying any group of resistors of colonial rule as proto-nationalists is its inherent risk of suggesting that they were motivated by ideas that they did not in fact have. Hence, one of the main flaws in the method of identifying primary and secondary resistors of colonialism, and attempting to incorporate them into a single nationalist narrative, is the risk of anachronism which it carries.” (Ellis, 2003, p. 83)

The main problem with the terms resistance and collaboration is that they suggest that communities were one or the other, unchanging. In fact, most societies not only changed between the two, but also aspects within of their chosen forms of resistance or collaboration changed and developed over time. Such as the Sokoto military resistance, which whilst was famously unsuccessful, after submitting to the British, the Wazir “stayed in Sokoto and worked with them.” (Iliffe, Honour in African History, 2005, p. 186)[5]  In contrast Asante began with civil relations towards the British, but soon ‘It became impossible for the British to establish peaceful relations with Asante, which had by 1820 become the main source of slaves on the Gold Coast.’ (Fynn, 1971, p. 28) At this point a century of violent conflict between the Asante guerrillas and the British Army began, but it was a change of policy: “The only Asante king who actually sought war with the British was Osai Yaw…with this one exception, from the beginning of the nineteenth century to its bloody end, Asante government actively pursued peaceful relations with the British,…whereas British policy was to circumvent the Asante or destroy their power, not to make them friendly trading partners.” (Edgerton, 1995, p. 253)

Finally the notion of an ‘African’ response is itself questionable. It points to a single overall response which is ridiculous when applied to a continent of variations, and is certainly not discernable within two misleading and unspecific terms. To be at all useful they need to be elaborated on and in explicit reference to a particular area or peoples, to make sense of their individual response but also recognise that all these were not immune from change. There was no ‘African’ response; it cannot be anything other than a combination of many hundreds of peoples sharing an experience as diverse to their situation as they were from one another.


[1] “Occupation was often secured by negotiation and treaty, with dubious offers of ‘protection’ (and it was very much in the mafia sense of the term) being extended to local rulers.” (Parker & Rathbone, 2007, p. 97)

[2] A general definition, it has also been suggested that this particular negative connotation appeared following world war 2 as it was used by allies who ‘collaborated’ with the Nazis.

[3] It is important to be careful when using the term ‘traditional’ as it has often been misunderstood to mean that tradition is fixed and unchanging, which of course is not the case. The use of the term in this essay should not be similarly misunderstood, and refers to the process of a developing and changing indigenous culture or practices.

[4] These secondary revolts were generally unsuccessful as the sheer scale of secret organisation and motivation of common feeling is almost impossible to achieve in an occupied state. A notable exception however was the Maji Maji rebellion.

[5] “He referred to Usuman dan Fodio’s writings and found that: ’when the power of unbelievers was overwhelming, a legitimate course for Muslims was ‘having relation with unbelievers and befriending them (out of fear of them), with the tongue but not with the heart’” (Iliffe, Honour in African History, 2005, p. 186)



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