Legacy of the African colonial soldier

VICTOR Simukonda.

IT IS said the world we live in is created by legends and myths. Others say history is not always kind to its subjects, often calling it a presentation of dead facts.
However, while history is rooted in fact, how people view or interpret the ‘facts of history’ is highly subjective and prone to differing opinions. In this article, I shall look at the African colonial soldier.
Who was he? And what can be considered as the epitome of his legacy? Let me mention here, beforehand, that I will not delve into the arguments of the so-called ‘historical morality’ of whether we should hold our ancestors accountable to the moral standards of today, or whether judgement of anyone from the past must be withheld categorically.
Suffice to say, this is better explained in the realm of ethics. I am, however, interested in examining the image of the African colonial soldier as it developed over time, and considering what image captures in totality the legacy of his contribution to the history of the continent and the rest of the world.
Normally, the mere mention of the African colonial soldier is one that, for the most part, conjures up mixed feelings of pride, embarrassment, resentment and confusion.
This is partly due to the fact that the military in Africa has had a questionable reputation of brutality, and partly due to lack of deeper analysis of historical records, especially by Africans themselves. So, let us begin with a few facts.
The Great War of 1914-1918 forced European empires to recruit ‘volunteers’, actually conscripts, to meet rising demand for manpower for war efforts. Initially, the British were reluctant to deploy ‘indigenous’ Africans especially in Europe and reconsidered only after 1916 when their expeditionary force made up of white South Africans and Indian soldiers suffered heavy losses against the considerably smaller force of Colonel (later General) Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and his Askaris. Unlike Britain, the French deployed large numbers of African troops in Europe, including 172,800 soldiers from Algeria, 134,300 from West Africa, 60,000 from Tunisia, 37,300 from Morocco, 34,400 from Madagascar and 2,100 from the Somali Coast.
During the Second World War (1939-1945), thousands of African troops were recruited for war service. From British territories, some 374,000 Africans served in the British Army and helped to defeat the Italians in Ethiopia and to restore Emperor Haile Selassie to his throne. African regiments were further sent to India and fought with distinction in Burma where they met India’s Ghandi and learnt how nationalist movements there had forced promises of self-government from the British even though their populations were mainly poor and illiterate. Although the historical record shows that black African soldiers were exceptionally disciplined and behaved well towards the Europeans, their reputation suffered greatly during the German propaganda campaign (the Die Schwarze Schande or black shame (1920-1930)) that opposed the use of African troops in war. African soldiers were portrayed as ‘brutal savages’ capable of every imaginable crime. Unfortunately, this eventually played upon the racist attitudes of British and American reporters and later on indigenous Africans.
In the absence of concrete research, historical debate on the African colonial soldier has swirled around the number of veterans that interfered in post-war and post-independence politics. However, what is not fully captured is the fact that these soldiers shed their blood in the fight against tyranny and in defence of the liberal democracy now enjoyed worldwide. They also fought for equal treatment and later channelled their aspirations through nationalist movements that were demanding self-determinism for Africans. Viewed aright, their contribution paralleled that of the African- American soldiers who fought in the Great Wars to prove that they merited equal treatment with whites. Moreover, it was the veteran African colonial soldier, Léopold Sédor Senghor (first president of Senegal), who substantially espoused the concept of Négritude and the ideology of Pan-Africanism. It was therefore no surprise that it was the Senegalese government that later in 1962 invited other African leaders to Dakar to consider the prospects of African Socialism, later developed into African humanism (Ubuntu) which some scholars argue may be the most precious gift that Africa has to offer the world.
In sum, the common image of the African colonial soldier was largely shaped by racist preconception of the brutality and inferiority in ability and intelligence of Africans. This resulted in systematic omitting, diminishing and/or discrediting of the achievements of African soldiers. It is only now that African historians are in the process of reconstructing this history so as to save these men and their valiant deeds from obscurity. So, then, what can really be considered as the true legacy of the African colonial soldier? I guess it remains for each one of us to count the cost, and then decide.
The author is a military historian and staff officer at Zambia Army Headquarters.

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