Aimé Césaire (1913-2008) was one of colonialism’s most virulent critics. In this text from 1950, he wrote that the necessary modernisation of Africa was hampered by the policies of European empires.
It has come to my attention that in some circles they pretend to have discovered in me an ‘enemy of Europe’ and a prophet of the return to a pre-European past. For my part, I search in vain for the place I might have expressed such positions; where I might have been seen to underestimate the importance of Europe in the history of human thought; where I might have been heard preaching about some return; where I might have been seen claiming that any return was possible.
The truth is that I have said something quite different, namely that the great historical tragedy for Africa was not so much that it was late in making contact with the rest of the world as the way in which this contact was made; that Europe ‘propagated’ itself at the moment it fell into the hands of the most unscrupulous financiers and captains of industry; that misfortune made sure it was this particular Europe that we met on our path, and Europe became accountable to the human community for the highest heap of corpses in history.
Besides, in my assessment of colonisation, I have added that Europe got along very well with all the local feudal lords who agreed to serve; hatched a vicious complicity with them; made their tyranny more effective and efficient, and Europe’s actions actually tended to prolong artificially the survival of local pasts in their most pernicious aspects. I have said — and this is very different — that colonialist Europe grafted modern abuse onto ancient injustice, odious racism onto old inequality.
That if the case against me deals in intent, I maintain: that colonialist Europe is dishonest to legitimate its colonising activity after the fact by using the obvious material progress made in certain areas under the colonialist regime, since sudden change is always possible, in history as elsewhere; that no one knows what stage of material development these same countries would have been at without European intervention; that the provision of technology, the administrative reorganisation, in a word the ‘Europeanisation’, of Africa or Asia were not — as the example of Japan proves — in any way tied to European occupation; that the Europeanisation of non-European continents could have been accomplished otherwise than under Europe’s heel; that this movement to Europeanisation was already underway; that it was even slowed down; that in any case it was distorted by the stranglehold of Europe.
Aimé Césaire, Discourse on colonialism, Présenceafricaine, Paris, 2000.
Translated by Lucie Elven in 2020.