…A Colossus of Victorian Lagos

Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter; Until Africans and other indigenous people tell their stories, the tale of the colonisation will always glorify the Colonist.

Reclaiming Africa’s right to tell her story, the story on The Life of James Pinson Labulo Davies begins at that period when colonists still constituted economic administration of Africa, and relied on their indigenous resources. In that era, books about Africa blinkered with Negrophobia, approving the doctrines of biological inferiority of the African race.  Stories of these periods are often framed to be that Europe Developed Africa and not that Europe was developed by Africa. This might be seen as the nub of the white saviour complex which continues to colour every development effort by Africans. Validating it, is the narrative of Joseph Comrade whose book Heart of Darkness projected Africans darkly and Europeans as the light bearer of the dark continent.

Through this time, one silent narrative which hasn’t been expounded much on Africa’s development is how Africans of that time helped to develop Africa; establishing trade ventures, building structures and institutions that have larger impact on citizens much more than any skewed colonial intervention did.  In this, the contribution of notable Africans whose effort has continued to sustain the Africa of today is swept beneath.

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The Author Professor Adeyemo Elebute revisits Africa’s History in the Victorian Era to dig up a Colossus of Victorian Lagos who sadly has been long forgotten. By writing about The Life of James Pinson Labulo Davies, he altered history and gave a hero, his true place. So many narratives of social history in that era shares that great things can’t come out of Africa, but they were wrong; James Pinson Labulo Davies was great.

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A carte-de-visite portrait photograph of James Pinson Labulo Davies (b. 1929), taken by Camille Silvy in 1862. http://tiny.cc/s0r3ky

His magical lifetime as an Entrepreneur, philanthropist, Naval Officer… whose memory was almost buried in the rubble of history has suddenly gained a new life through this book. J.P.L Davies was renowned for his contributions in the modernisation of Lagos; West Africa’s sea side city. Highlighted herein was his resistance to cessations; in support of Oba Dosumu, he played a significant role in the Lagos Treaty of Cession ensuring that the development of Africa’s largest city was done with more diplomacy. He pioneered cocoa export which eventually spread prosperity across the South-western Nigeria and sustained their free education policy for a long time. His contributions to building a significant town library is noted, His founding role in the first secondary school in Nigeria; CMS grammar school Lagos, has gone a long way in advancing education, instrumental in producing members of present day’s Nigerian Think-Tanks. Simply put, all of his innovations have continued to yield immeasurable fruits in Africa’s development.

Filled with so much authentic details, this book presents a Cosmopolitan African man whose ancestral roots lay in the interior Yoruba land, with a history that challenges the imperialist image of Africans. In focusing on the women in J.P.L David’s life, the author pulls out an interesting character who is relatively unknown in today’s world but who should be known for the insight she gives to Queen Victoria herself. Sarah Forbes Bonetta a West African of Royal blood was of Yoruba descent, orphaned and a captive of the dreadful slave hunt. In a twist of fate, she became a Goddaughter to Queen Victoria.

She would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites’ as captured by Frederick E. Forbes of the Royal Navy who in that time convinced King Ghezo of Dahomey to offer her to the Queen.

With permission from the Queen Victoria in 1862, she entered into a marriage with J.P.L. Davies in a one-of-a kind royal ceremony in Brighton; their daughter Victoria Davies (named after Queen Victoria) also enjoyed a close relationship with the Queen. It will be noted in other publications that teachers and children were given a one day holiday by the queen when her black godchild Victoria Davis passed her music examination.

Published in 2014, this book presents again some hidden history of Africa’s development and put Africans on the Victorian Era map, not just as biologically and mentally inferior people, but as major actors in their own development. By presenting dignified Africans, historically significant figures who had travelled widely with varying experiences, engaging in significant dialogue between Europe and Africa consequential on Africa’s development, it raises questions on the morality of many imperialist writer’s imaginations of Africa.

Reading it now makes me regret not reviewing it alongside the Heart of Darkness where Africans were completely depersonalised. It is interesting that J.P.L Davies lived through a period known as the Victorian Era (1837-1901), which also covers the writing and publication of Joseph Conrad’s fiction novella the Heart of Darkness. But it is sad that Joseph Comrade could only observe Africans whom he generously described as Natives, Negroes, Savages, Blackman. The life of J.P.L. Davies clearly invalidates Conrad’s theory of Africans; it is indeed an Antithesis of the Heart of Darkness.

The Heart of Darkness

My first thought was that this book had to be a Sea Man’s story and yes it was. On a pleasure ship called Nellie, a narrator who remained unknown through the novel introduces us to men bonding on the sea; one of them was Marlow. Through casual mediation, Marlow reflects on the dark places of the earth as England would have been before the Romans visited it.

Charlie Marlow shares the glories of his exploration as a fresh-water sailor, wanderer seaman whose home is the sea with a passion for maps. He is familiar with living in the world of water and the silent surroundings. Fascinated by the delightful discovery of the unknown places, he finds an inviting place on the map and hankers after it.  It was that mighty big river resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. The snake had charmed him; going there either by hook or by crook was irresistible. Marlow’s Enchantress was later identified as the Congo River.Heart of Darkness 1

Luckily he replaces the late Fresleven who was killed by a native Chief’s son in revenge after Fresleven had whacked his father mercilessly in front of his constituency over a quarrel on two black hens.

Marlow’s account of his voyage up the Congo River is the main narrative of the novel Heart of Darkness. It has been defined as an imperialist novel as it was written at a time when the British Empire controlled colonies around the world using economic, political and military coercion. Marlow’s meeting with men of varying European nationality as he journeys into the Congo tells that the English were not alone in the bloody and inhuman act of imperialism. The French, the Belgians whom Marlow was on this trip for among others were violently took advantage of a people and made of their wealth their private treasury.

Disembarking at the station, Marlow witnesses violence. In one event, there are black prisoners walking along in chains guarded by a uniformed black man with his rifle. On the other account, he finds the dying native laborers whom he offers biscuits. While Marlow showed a little concern to the situation of the natives, the other Europeans were not bothered in the bit.  It is while absorbing the happenings in this space that he learns of a Mr. Kurtz, the biggest ivory merchant who resides in the deep interior.

There is distrust among the Europeans and a conspiracy which Marlow feels may have been responsible for sinking his steamer. Dredging this ship and repairing it took Marlow 3 months. Thereafter Marlow prepares for a 2 months up-river trip into the interior to see Kurtz. This trip is difficult and almost impossible without the help of the maltreated Africans. This journey which Marlow shares as a journey into pre-historic earth gives room for further reflection between the primitive and the civilized. Through the difficult voyage, death skulked in the air, sea and bush. Marlow pondered more on the person of the controversial Mr. Kurtz. His eagerness to meet Kurtz draws him onward in his Journey. Perhaps his having a personal construction of the person of Mr. Kurtz will finally solve the puzzle of what happens to colonists in Africa’s Congo.

Finally the Inner Station in the interiors came into view. Arriving, he meets the Russian trader who feeds him more on yet another enigmatic depiction of Mr. Kurtz. Marlow remains helplessly fascinated by the eloquence of the Mystery man Kurtz whom he characterizes as ‘the voice’.

Mr. Kurtz eventually is an embodiment of the European’s keeping appearances and justification of imperialism, an irony of them being the light bearers for Africa. What Marlow finds is an Ivory hungry and greedy Mr. Kurtz who sets himself up as a god to the natives. Kurtz’s writing ‘Exterminate all the brutes’ speaks further on the conflict in his character and the flaws therein. He is an unscrupulous ivory hunter who could kill even his fellow European for a small stash of ivory. Marlow is further amazed by the discovery that some items he thought of as ornamental balls on the tops of fence posts in the station compound were only severed heads of rebels. Everything about Kurtz was an irony, even his name Kurtz means “short” in German, but Kurtz is tall.

Learning that Mr. Kurtz is now ill and that he Marlow has been charged with the responsibility of taking him back to Civilization in Europe defines the last part of Marlow’s journey. Kurtz’s personality and power creates further challenge for Marlow in carrying out this charge. Their being together finally creates room for some level of intimacy but one, overwhelmed by betrayal.  With a rough journey ahead, Kurtz health gets worse, displaying a sense of vulnerability fearing his own death, he hands over his documents; a symbol of his legacy to Marlow for safekeeping as he awaits death. Despite hearing his last hallucinatory words ‘the horror the horror’, Marlow keeps away from having to witness Mr. Kurtz last breath; a servant runs in shortly after to tell him, ‘Mistah Kurtz—he dead!’

Unlike the African who is thrown out into the sea when he died, Mr. Kurtz is finally buried and Marlow returns to Brussels to dispose of Mr. Kurtz legacies. This act exposes him to meeting other associates of Kurtz, revealing more about Mr. Kurtz and bringing the story to an end.

Generally, this Novella by Joseph Conrad has been classed as a symbolical imperialist work. Published in the late 18th century, it is one of the remarkable colonial literatures that has been engaged and critiqued. Of importance is its criticism as being racist and misogynist.

From the angle of the gender critics, this novella has been faulted for presenting women in the era it was written in very limited way, adopting the presentation of flat female characters with stereotypes. Marlow did encounter a number of women like his Aunt, the two women in Mr. Kurtz’s life and a few more. But none of these were admirable. His Aunt is out of touch with the truth, living in a different world from men, just like other women. Mr. Kurtz’s native mistress is only noted for her attractive looks, gracefully draped in ornaments and nothing more. He also attaches no significant importance to Kurtz’s fiancée who he meets at the end of the story.Chinua-Achebe10--AFP-

I read this novel taking notes of the sentiments of renowned African writer Chinua Achebe who said it was blinkered with xenophobia, he called it an offensive and deplorable book that de-humanizes Africans. More appropriate here is Achebe’s quote in a different instance saying he thinks ‘decency and civilization would insist that the writer take sides with the powerless. Clearly, there’s no moral obligation to write in any particular way. But there is a moral obligation, I think, not to ally oneself with power against the powerless. I think an artist, in my definition of that word, would not be someone who takes sides with the emperor against his powerless subjects.’

 Even though the writer Conrad and his character Marlow are noted to be fence-sitting on their position of colonization, there is a sense in which the narratives in this book promoted imperialism as a worthy enterprise, glamourizing racism and the violence of colonialism. According to Marlow,

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only.’

Though Marlow expresses shock at the treatment of Africans, it is in no way clear how progressive he is on speaking against this issue. While there is a good appreciation of sceneries in this work, it is amazing that such rich descriptions are not extended to the Africans. Rather than project the humanity in them and give them a name at least, all through the novella, Marlow generously described Africans using words like ‘Negro, Natives, Nigger, Blackman and Savage. All of these rapes Africans of their humanity, their soul and identity.

Reading this book as an African, it is indeed difficult to disagree with Chinua Achebe. But we may be more lenient if we consider that this writer wrote for a time and for an audience. This book was not written for Africans, I doubt if the writer ever thought that a time will come when Africans will read and review his portrayal of their history as am doing today. Such books help me understand the fight of Congolese Matyr Patrice Lumumba.

While the politics of skin colour was overwhelmingly present in this book written in 1899, two centuries later, it still thrives in human interactions. The writer succeeded in contributing to the discourse for demoralizing imperialism as empty and an extortionist concept for exploitation. It fails in contemporary times because it was written from a heart of darkness which couldn’t see any light or soul beneath a black skin.

 

Written by ~  Adaobi Nkeokelonye