Because of his ‘ubiquity in the media and his bombastic, bullying buffoonery’ it is easy to take pot shots at Boris Johnson, says Professor Keith Somerville. However, he will not let this ease of task put him off his aim to use the foreign secretary’s highly offensive remarks about Africa to illustrate how the myths about the continent can still be found in the conservative re-writing of colonial history.  

My aim is to use Boris Johnson’s crass, crude and highly offensive references to Africa, before and since becoming foreign secretary, to illustrate how the myths about the continent, about Britain’s self-appointed role as its saviour and civiliser that developed just prior to and in full force after the death of David Livingstone can still be found in the conservative re-writing of colonial history. And, though this is no fault of Johnson, also in some of the attitudes one still finds when it comes to the role of humanitarian NGOs in Africa and elsewhere.

In October 2016, while reflecting on his first three months as foreign secretary, Boris Johnson referred to Africa as ‘that country’ in a speech to the Conservative Party conference. Elsewhere in the speech he extolled Britain’s foreign policy and claimed that British values ‘continue to lift the world out of poverty’. I am not sure in what way these values alone do this.

But this was tame stuff compared to some of his comments on Africa before being elevated to the command of Britain’s diplomacy, a role for which one would see Boris Johnson as almost uniquely unsuited. In 2002, attacking Prime Minister Blair’s visits to Africa and his stated desire to end conflicts there, Johnson said that ‘The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that [the British] were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore.’ He went on to quote an unnamed ‘British official’ who apparently told him that ‘I’ve been in Africa for ages and there’s one thing I just don’t get. Why are they so brutal to each other? We may treat them like children, but it’s not because of us that they behave like the children in Lord of the Flies.’

The Commonwealth’s ‘flag-waving piccaninnies’

In a Telegraph piece on the Blair trip, he said that the Queen had come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of ‘flag-waving piccaninnies’ and that Blair ‘is shortly off to the Congo. No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.’

While Johnson later apologised for some of the comments, they reveal an image in his mind of Africa as one divisible whole of brutality, of inherent paternalism bordering on a mocking racism and the idea that under the British, Africa was somehow a happier less violent place.

By now readers may be asking where Livingstone comes in – a man who worked and died in Africa, whose memory has so often been presented as one of a quasi-saint who gave his life to fight slavery and bring civilisation and Christianity to Africa. Well, if you read Joanna Lewis’s superbly researched and intriguingly argued Empire of Sentiment: The Death of Livingston and the Myth of Victorian Imperialism you will see the connection.

In an extension of some of the arguments in Tim Jeal’s sentiment-stripping biography, Lewis paints the picture of how the legend of Livingstone, his death (with all the fanciful versions built of him expiring at prayer) and his mission, played a vital role in the construction of ‘an empire of emotion’ (p2) that helped develop an imperial project that became an empire ‘on the cheap’, drawing on emotions generated by the newspaper coverage and the  manufacturing of public opinion during the latter stages of his work in Africa and the near-hysteria surrounding his death.

What emerged, with help from pro-imperialist editors, ambitious missionary societies, those keen to use empire to make a fast buck and those whose altruistic motives (such as the fight against slavery) could gain traction but then give a human face to colonial aggrandisement, was ‘An emotion culture – performed publicly, exercised privately, highly symbolic and creating an imperial community of feeling’. As Lewis rightly notes, this was ‘a natural resource of soft power’.

‘White male fantasy’ of the dark and mysterious Africa

In the creation of the Livingstone identity and the civilising mission, another image created to help emphasise his saintliness and the humanity of British intervention in and then occupation of Africa, was savagery. Africa ‘became a handy canvas onto which metropolitan fears and visions of chaos, degeneration, barbarity, sexual depravity and motiveless violence’ could be projected (p. 21).  Another lasting aspect of the myth-making is the ‘white male fantasy’ of the dark and mysterious Africa, a dangerous female presence. ‘Livingstone had brought her light, knowledge and masculine purposefulness’ (p. 31). The more barbaric Africa could be projected, the greater became Livingstone’s achievements and the greater the assumed humanitarian aspect of colonisation. There was also, as Lewis repeatedly points out, an airbrushing out of history of the role of African women in Livingstone’s expeditions and their virtual enslavement during missions purportedly to end slavery.

These myths and portrayals of a barbaric Africa at the heart the empire of emotion are still important today, whether as justifications for a blinkered revisionism about the history of colonialism, in the crass buffoonery of a foreign secretary or even in the paternalism and questionable behaviour of some humanitarian organisations and aid workers.

The recent Oxfam and other NGO scandals have shown a degree of sexism, impunity for the supposedly altruistic and attitudes towards women in crisis areas and those working as volunteers that in a horrible way mirror some of the attitudes that Lewis finds in the reality of Livingstone’s expeditions that was then air-brushed out of the accounts at the time (p xxxi).

But there is also still to be found in some appeals for donations and in NGO videos of the results of their work a continuing paternalism. This can come across, Livingstone fashion, as a message that western NGOs always know best, rather than the Africans they are choosing to help. And, moreover, that Africa is some sort of homogenised continent ‘that needed saving’ and still needs saving.

Professor Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, and teaches at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent.  His book, Africa’s Long Road Since Independence. The Many Histories of a Continent (Penguin), was published in 2017.