• Join over 1.2 million students every month
  • Accelerate your learning by 29%
  • Unlimited access from just £6.99 per month

The Myth and Purpose of Modernity

Extracts from this document...


Timothy Flynn 5/8/07 HIS-4120-100 Emergence Modern Africa The Myth and Purpose of Modernity Writer E.L. Doctorow once stated that, "History is the present. That's why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth." Doctorow may be a writer of historical fiction, but this fact makes his words no less useful when engaging concepts about Africa's colonial past. In particular, the concept of modernity and its role in accounts of colonial Africa is a complex and multifaceted construction, which cannot be truly comprehended without a critical examination of its subtextual meaning and purpose. The prevailing view of modernity in relation to colonial Africa is that it was the paramount state of civil existence - political, social and economic - to which the inhabitants of that continent had yet to ascend to. European colonial powers saw themselves as inherently superior to their African counterparts, and under the guise bringing civilization to the continent, exploited the continent for its own profit-oriented and political ends. However, sympathetic this account may be to Africans, it is undoubtedly Eurocentric, oversimplified and only part true; in short it is an illusion. If modernity was to be defined by the perceived paragon of European statecraft and expansionary practices, then with its various empires Africa was indeed modern before Europe. As will be explained, the structure and strength of many African institutions - specifically those involved in political power sharing relationships - prevented such a simple takeover as depicted above from ever occurring. ...read more.


As a result, Europe employed the conceptual machinery of modernity to reinvent an African reality that was better suited to colonial ambitions. Evidence of such thinking is highlighted in excerpts from an 1812 memorandum by London's African Committee regarding the viability of enforcing the ban on African slave trading. The memo states that "one of the chief arguments urged for the abolition of that trade was that on adoption of that measure, a new, more desirable, and more extensive commerce would...be established in Africa" (176). It notes further, however, that "British trade will not be able to exist where the slave trade is carried on," and then proceeds to yield a rather informative critique: Can the wildest theorist expect that a mere act of the British Legislature should...inspire with wisdom and refinement the unenlightened natives of the vast natives of Africa and persuade them that it is for their interest to contribute to...the destruction of a trade non inconsistent with their prejudices, their laws, or their notions of morality and religion... (176) Though it may not be intentional, there is an implicit call in this statement to redefine, to modernize those prejudices, laws and notions of morality and religion so that they may be in line with the colonial venture. Once Europeans realized the potential resource and market values of the African space, having the extent of their presence determined by the indigenous people was no longer perceived as an acceptable state of affairs. As a result, European nations took on the colossal task of modernization through molding a fervent colonial mindset - both in Africa and at home - in order to destabilize the African powers which threatened their economic aims. ...read more.


The purpose of all these actions, of course, was to secure the smooth growth of empire in Africa, "... [creating] a clearly defined hierarchical society in which Europeans commanded and Africans accepted commands..." (Ranger 220). One must be careful, however, in taking these accounts at face value. Given the earlier evidence of proud, capable and independent African rulers, it would be out right foolish to assume that Africans as a whole submitted so easily to this process of modernization. In fact, "[m]ost of the revolts were led...by the traditional rulers" (63). Even early on, Africans were well aware of the "iniquities, inhumanity, and exploitation of the colonial system," and engaged in an array of both traditional and creative forms of resistance. Outright insurrection and rebellion were the most common forms of confronting the colonial order, but there were also instances of escape, passive resistance, reform movements, formations of political groups and criticism through the arts and media. On the whole, it should be apparent that when approaching accounts of European colonialism in African history, the concept and meaning of modernity becomes key to framing a more accurate narrative of the past. The need for Africans to be led into the modern era was an invention. African civility was on par with, if not surpassing sophisticated notions of statecraft based on European standards. The need to modernize rested not in African savagery, but in the European desire to expand its Empires take control of the rich African space. Territorial sovereignty was the main issue here and as result, modernization had the paradoxical, though intended effect of granting it to those who didn't deserve and revoking it from those who did. ...read more.

The above preview is unformatted text

This student written piece of work is one of many that can be found in our University Degree 1800-1899 section.

Found what you're looking for?

  • Start learning 29% faster today
  • 150,000+ documents available
  • Just £6.99 a month

Not the one? Search for your essay title...
  • Join over 1.2 million students every month
  • Accelerate your learning by 29%
  • Unlimited access from just £6.99 per month

See related essaysSee related essays

Related University Degree 1800-1899 essays

  1. Motivated primarily by material greed. How accurate is this verdict on the British empire?

    Thus the actions of the British empire were motivated by finance to increase the material wealthy of its greedy politicians and businessmen. The aggressive attitude of British in China and the annexation of Hong Kong in 1842 was motivated primary by material greed as it was done "merely to covet

  2. Influences that led to change within the system of nations in the period ...

    The Congress was chaired by Klemens Wenzel von Metternich of Austria and was the first of a series of congresses or meetings that would come to be known as the 'Concert of Europe' or 'Metternich system' of congresses. The way that diplomacy transformed after the Congress of Vienna came to

  1. Why was there so much interest in attempting to communicate with the spirit world ...

    to investigate it, although questions remained unanswered and new ones were created when the Society for Psychical Research14 conducted investigations into s´┐Żances15, but the likes of Wallace and Francis Galton were keen advocates16. The most famous medium was the enigmatic American, Daniel Douglas Home, who in 1854 left his motherland

  2. To what extent did Sir Robert Peel reshape the modern British state, 1841-46?

    This was done to make the new income tax justifiable; his budget set out to reduce market fluctuations and prevent fraudulent manipulation of the market[17]. Peels economic success was further delivered during the 1845 free trade budget which worked on the accomplishments of the previous budget; the 1845 budget allowed for duties amounting to £1 million to be removed.

  1. The hierarchical society that was present in the American South was deeply rooted in ...

    The idea of a matriarchy among the slave quarters is an important point, it points to slave cabins not being a male dominated environment that one would assume. There are several reasons for this as Ann Patton Malone highlights, men ?lacked the legal authority free men had...

  2. Total War is as much a myth as total victory or total defeat - ...

    in this time period with technology; weapons and transport were very backward and seemed archaic in comparison to some of the developments that had been occurring in the other aspects of warfare. Muskets and Bayonets were still the weapon of choice; however it was more the mass size and brute

  1. Frederick Douglass Vs. Hamilton. Though abolitionists David Walker and Frederick Douglass both identify ...

    These five principles, through which we can identify the similarities and differences in our authors? ideologies, represent the most common arguments alluded to by Walker and Douglass in their own texts. Frederick Douglass, for instance, focuses mostly on principles one through three.

  2. Why did Britain industrialise earlier than Germany?

    The mechanisation that improved farming methods soon extended to the production of goods. Cromford Mill in Nottingham in the mid 1700s used an elementary tool named the Spinning Jenny that was able to turn 8 spindles, in 1776, the mill employed a steam driven engine that was able to spin tens of thousands of spindles simultaneously.

  • Over 160,000 pieces
    of student written work
  • Annotated by
    experienced teachers
  • Ideas and feedback to
    improve your own work