1915: W.E.B. Du Bois on the ‘African Roots of War’
novi quid ex Africa,"* cried the Roman proconsul; and he voiced the
verdict of forty centuries. Yet there are those who would write world history
and leave out this most marvelous of continents. Particularly today most
men assume that Africa lies far afield from the centres of our burning social
problems, and especially from our present problem of World War.
Yet in a very real sense Africa
is a prime cause of this terrible overturning of civilization which we have
lived to see; and these words seek to show how in the Dark Continent are
hidden the roots, not simply of war today but of the menace of wars tomorrow.
Always Africa is giving us something
new or some metempsychosis of a world-old thing. On its black bosom arose
one of the earliest, if not the earliest, of self-protecting civilizations,
and grew so mightily that it still furnishes superlatives to thinking and
speaking men. Out of its darker and more remote forest fastnesses, came,
if we may credit many recent scientists, the first welding of iron, and we
know that agriculture and trade flourished there when Europe was a wilderness.
Nearly every human empire that
has arisen in the world, material and spiritual, has found some of its greatest
crises on this continent of Africa, from Greece to Great Britain. As Mommsen
says, "It was through Africa that Christianity became the religion of
the world." In Africa the last flood of Germanic invasions spent itself
within hearing of the last gasp of Bysantium, and it was again through Africa
that Islam came to play its great role of conqueror and civilizer.
With the Renaissance and the
widened world of modern thought, Africa came no less suddenly with her new
old gift. Shakespeare’s Ancient Pistol cries,–
A foutre for the world,
and worldings base! I speak of Africa, and golden joys.
He echoes a legend of gold from the days of Punt and Ophir
to those of Ghana, the Gold Coast, and the Rand. This thought had sent the
world’s greed scurrying down the hot, mysterious coasts of Africa to the
Good Hope of gain, until for the first time a real world commerce was born,
albeit it started as a commerce mainly in the bodies and souls of men.
So much for the past; and now, today: the Berlin Conference
to apportion the rising riches of Africa among the white peoples met on the
fifteenth day of November, 1884. Eleven days earlier, three Germans left
Zanzibar (whither they had gone secretly disguised as mechanics), and before
the Berlin Conference had finished its deliberations they had annexed to
Germany an area over half as large again as the whole German Empire in Europe.
Only in its dramatic suddenness was this undisguised robbery of the land
of seven million natives different from the methods by which Great Britain
and France got four million square miles each, Portugal three quarters of
a million, and Italy and Spain smaller but substantial areas.
The methods by which this continent has been stolen have
been contemptible and dishonest beyond expression. Lying treaties, rivers
of rum, murder, assassination, mutilation, rape and torture have marked the
progress of Englishman, German, Frenchman, and Belgian on the dark continent.
The only way in which the world has been able to endure the horrible tale
is by deliberately stopping its ears and changing the subject of conversation
while the deviltry went on.
It all began, singularly enough, like the present war,
with Belgium. Many of us remember Stanley’s great solution of the puzzle
of Central Africa when he traced the mighty Congo sixteen hundred miles from
Nyangwe to the sea. Suddenly the world knew that here lay the key to the
riches of Central Africa. It stirred uneasily, but Leopold of Belgium was
first on his feet, and the result was the Congo Free State – God save the
mark! But the Congo Free State, with all its magniloquent heralding of Peace,
Christianity, and Commerce, degenerating into murder, mutilation and downright
robbery, differed only in degree and concentration from the tale of all Africa
in this rape of a continent already furiously mangled by the slave trade.
That sinister traffic, on which the British Empire and the American Republic
were largely built, cost black Africa no less than 100,000,000
souls, the wreckage of its political and social life, and left the continent
in precisely that state of helplessness which invites aggression and exploitation.
"Colour" became in the world’s thought synonymous with inferiority,
"Negro" lost its capitalization, and Africa was another name for
bestiality and barbarism.
Thus the world began to invest in colour prejudice. The
"Colour Line" began to pay dividends. For indeed, while the exploration
of the valley of the Congo was the occasion of the scramble for Africa, the
cause lay deeper. The Franco-Prussian War turned the eyes of those who sought
power and dominion away from Europe. Already England was in Africa, cleaning
away the debris of the slave trade and half consciously groping toward the
new Imperialism. France, humiliated and impoverished, looked toward a new
northern African empire sweeping from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. More slowly
Germany began to see the dawning of a new day, and, shut out from America
by the Monroe Doctrine, looked to Asia and Africa for colonies. Portugal
sought anew to make good her claim to her ancient African realm; and thus
a continent where Europe claimed but a tenth of the land in 1875
was in twenty-five more years practically absorbed.
Why was this? What was the new call for dominion? It must
have been strong, for consider a moment the desperate flames of war that
have shot up in Africa in the last quarter of a century: France and England
at Fashoda, Italy at Adua, Italy and Turkey in Tripoli, England and Portugal
at Delagoa Bay, England, Germany and the Dutch in South Africa, France and
Spain in Morocco, Germany and France in Agadir, and the world at Algeciras.
The answer to this riddle we shall find in the economic
changes in Europe. Remember what the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have
meant to organized industry in European civilization. Slowly the divine right
of the few to determine economic income and distribute the goods and services
of the world has been questioned and curtailed. We called the process Revolution
in the eighteenth century, advancing Democracy in the nineteenth, and Socialization
of Wealth in the twentieth. But whatever we call it, the movement is the
same: the dipping of more and grimier hands into the wealth-bag of the nation,
until today only the ultra stubborn fail to see that democracy in determining
income is the next inevitable step to Democracy in political power.
With the waning of the possibility of the Big Fortune,
gathered by starvation wage and boundless exploitation of one’s weaker and
poorer fellows at home, arose more magnificently the dream of exploitation
abroad. Always, of course, the individual merchant had at his own risk and
in his own way tapped the riches of foreign lands. Later, special trading
monopolies had entered the field and founded empires overseas. Soon, however,
the mass of merchants at home demanded a share in this golden stream; and
finally, in the twentieth century, the labourer at home is demanding and
beginning to receive a part of his share.
The theory of this new democratic despotism has not
been clearly formulated. Most philosophers see the ship of state launched
on the broad, irresistible tide of democracy,
with only delaying eddies here and there; others, looking
closer, are more disturbed. Are we, they ask, reverting to aristocracy and
despotism – the rule of might? They cry out and then rub their eyes, for
surely they cannot fail to see strengthening democracy all about them?
It is this paradox which has confounded philanthropists,
curiously betrayed the Socialists, and reconciled the Imperialists and captains
of industry to any amount of "Democracy." It is this paradox which
allows in America the most rapid advance of democracy to go hand in hand
in its very centres with increased aristocracy and hatred toward darker races,
and which excuses and defends an inhumanity that does not shrink from the
public burning of human beings.
Yet the paradox is easily explained: the white workingman
has been asked to share the spoil of exploiting "chinks and niggers."
It is no longer simply the merchant prince, or the aristocratic monopoly,
or even the employing class, that is exploiting the world: it is the nation,
a new democratic nation composed of united capital and labour. The labourers
are not yet getting, to be sure, as large a share as they want or will get,
and there are still at the bottom large and restless excluded classes. But
the labourer’s equity is recognized, and his just share is a matter of time,
intelligence, and skillful negotiation.
Such nations it is that rule the modern world. Their national
bond is no mere sentimental patriotism, loyalty, or ancestor-worship. It
is increased wealth, power, and luxury for all classes on a scale the world
never saw before. Never before was the average citizen of England, France,
and Germany so rich, with such splendid prospects of greater riches. Whence
comes this new wealth and on what does its accumulation depend? It comes
primarily from the darker nations of the world – Asia and Africa, South and
Central America, the West Indies and the islands of the South Seas. There
are still, we may well believe, many parts of white countries like Russia
and North America, not to mention Europe itself, where the older exploitation
still holds. But the knell has sounded faint and far, even there. In the
lands of darker folk, however, no knell has sounded. Chinese, East Indians,
Negroes, and South American Indians are by common consent for governance
by white folk and economic subjection to them. To the furtherance of this
highly profitable economic dictum has been brought every available resource
of science and religion. Thus arises the astonishing doctrine of the natural
inferiority of most men to the few, and the interpretation of "Christian
brotherhood" as meaning anything that one of the "brothers"
may at any time want it to mean.
Like all world-schemes, however, this one is not quite
complete. First of all, yellow Japan has apparently escaped the cordon of
this colour bar. This is disconcerting and dangerous to white hegemony. If,
of course, Japan would join heart and soul with the whites against the rest
of the yellows, browns, and blacks, well and good. There are even good-natured
attempts to prove the Japanese "Aryan," provided they act "white."
But blood is thick, and there are signs that Japan does not dream of a world
governed mainly by white men. This is the "Yellow Peril," and it
may be necessary, as the German Emperor and many white Americans think, to
start a world crusade against this presumptuous nation which demands "white"
Then, too, the Chinese have recently shown unexpected signs
of independence and autonomy, which may possibly make it necessary to take
them into account a few decades hence. As a result, the problem in Asia has
resolved itself into a race for "spheres" of economic "influence,"
each provided with a more or less "open door" for business opportunity.
This reduces the danger of open clash between European nations, and gives
the yellow folk such chance for desperate unarmed resistance as was shown
by China’s repulse of the Six Nations of Bankers. There is still hope among
some whites that conservative North China and the radical South may in time
come to blows and allow actual white dominion.
One thing, however, is certain: Africa is prostrate. There
at least are few signs of self-consciousness that need at present be heeded.
To be sure, Abyssinia must be wheedled, and in America and the West Indies
Negroes have attempted futile steps toward freedom; but such steps have been
pretty effectually stopped (save through the breech of "miscegenation"),
although the ten million Negroes in the United States need, to many men’s
minds, careful watching and ruthless repression.
Thus the white European mind has worked, and worked the
more feverishly because Africa is the Land of the Twentieth Century. The
world knows something of the gold and diamonds of South Africa, the cocoa
of Angola and Nigeria, the rubber and ivory of the Congo, and the palm oil
of the West Coast. But does the ordinary citizen realize the extraordinary
economic advances of Africa and, too, of black Africa, in recent years? E.
T. Morel, who knows his Africa better than most white men, has shown us how
the export of palm oil from West Africa has grown from 285
tons in 1800,
tons in 1915,
which together with by-products is worth today $60,000,000
annually. He shows how native Gold Coast labour, unsupervised, has come to
head the cocoa-producing countries of the world with an export of 89,000,000
pounds (weight not money) annually. He shows how the cotton crop of Uganda
has risen from 5,000
bales in 1909
bales in 1914;
and he says that France and Belgium are no more remarkable in the cultivation
of their land than the Negro province of Kano. The trade of Abyssinia amounts
to only $10,000,000
a year, but it is its infinite possibility of growth that is making the nations
crowd to Addis Ababa. All these things are but beginnings; "but tropical
Africa and its peoples are being brought more irrevocably each year into
the vortex of the economic influences that sway the western world."
There can be no doubt of the economic possibilities of Africa in the near
future. There are not only the well- known and traditional products, but
boundless chances in a hundred different directions, and above all, there
is a throng of human beings who, could they once be reduced to the docility
and steadiness of Chinese coolies or of seventeenth and eighteenth century
European labourers, would furnish to their masters a spoil exceeding the
gold-haunted dreams of the most modern of Imperialists.
This, then, is the real secret of that desperate struggle
for Africa which began in 1877
and is now culminating. Economic dominion outside Africa has, of course,
played its part, and we were on the verge of the partition of Asia when Asiatic
shrewdness warded it off. America was saved from direct political dominion
by the Monroe Doctrine. Thus, more and more, the Imperialists have concentrated
The greater the concentration the more deadly the rivalry.
From Fashoda to Agadir, repeatedly the spark has been applied to the European
magazine and a general conflagration narrowly averted. We speak of the Balkans
as the storm-centre of Europe and the cause of war, but this is mere habit.
The Balkans are convenient for occasions, but the ownership of materials
and men in the darker world is the real prize that is setting the nations
of Europe at each other’s throats today.
The present world war is, then, the result of jealousies
engendered by the recent rise of armed national associations of labour and
capital whose aim is the exploitation of the wealth of the world mainly outside
the European circle of nations. These associations, grown jealous and suspicious
at the division of the spoils of trade-empire, are fighting to enlarge their
respective shares; they look for expansion, not in Europe but in Asia, and
particularly in Africa. "We want no inch of French territory,"
said Germany to England, but Germany was "unable to give" similar
assurances as to France in Africa.
The difficulties of this imperial movement are internal
as well as external. Successful aggression in economic expansion calls for
a close union between capital and labour at home. Now the rising demands
of the white labourer, not simply for wages but for conditions of work and
a voice in the conduct of industry, make industrial peace difficult. The
workingmen have been appeased by all sorts of essays in state socialism,
on the one hand, and on the other hand by public threats of competition by
coloured labour. By threatening to send English capital to China and Mexico,
by threatening to hire Negro labourers in America, as well as by old-age
pensions and accident insurance, we gain industrial peace at home at the
mightier cost of war abroad.
In addition to these national war-engendering jealousies
there is a more subtle movement arising from the attempt to unite labour
and capital in world-wide free-booting. Democracy in economic organization,
while an acknowledged ideal, is today working itself out by admitting to
a share in the spoils of capital only the aristocracy of labour – the more
intelligent and shrewder and cannier workingmen. The ignorant, unskilled,
and restless still form a large, threatening, and, to a growing extent, revolutionary
group in advanced countries.
The resultant jealousies and bitter hatreds tend continually
to fester along the colour line. We must fight the Chinese, the labourer
argues, or the Chinese will take our bread and butter. We must keep Negroes
in their places, or Negroes will take our jobs. All over the world there
leaps to articulate speech and ready action that singular assumption that
if white men do not throttle coloured men, then China, India, and Africa
will do to Europe what Europe has done and seeks to do to them.
On the other hand, in the minds of yellow, brown, and black
men the brutal truth is clearing: a white man is privileged to go to any
land where advantage beckons and behave as he pleases; the black or coloured
man is being more and more confined to those parts of the world where life
for climatic, historical, economic, and political reasons is most difficult
to live and most easily dominated by Europe for Europe’s gain.
What, then, are we to do, who desire peace and the civilization
of all men? Hitherto the peace movement has confined itself chiefly to figures
about the cost of war and platitudes on humanity. What do nations care about
the cost of war, if by spending a few hundred millions in steel and gunpowder
they can gain a thousand millions in diamonds and cocoa? How can love of
humanity appeal as a motive to nations whose love of luxury is built on the
inhuman exploitation of human beings, and who, especially in recent years,
have been taught to regard these human beings as inhuman? I appealed to the
last meeting of peace societies in St. Louis, saying, "Should you not
discuss racial prejudice as a prime cause of war?" The secretary was
sorry but was unwilling to introduce controversial matters!
We, then, who want peace, must remove the real causes of
war. We have extended gradually our conception of democracy beyond our social
class to all social classes in our nation; we have gone further and extended
our democratic ideals not simply to all classes of our own nation, but to
those of other nations of our blood and lineage – to what we call "European"
civilization. If we want real peace and lasting culture, however, we must
go further. We must extend the democratic ideal to the yellow, brown, and
To say this, is to evoke on the faces of modern men a look
of blank hopelessness. Impossible! we are told, and for so many reasons,
– scientific, social, and what not – that argument is useless. But let us
not conclude too quickly. Suppose we have to choose between this unspeakably
inhuman outrage on decency and intelligence and religion which we call the
World War and the attempt to treat black men as human, sentient, responsible
beings? We have sold them as cattle. We are working them as beasts of burden.
We shall not drive war from this world until we treat them as free and equal
citizens in a world democracy of all races and nations. Impossible? Democracy
is a method of doing the impossible. It is the only method yet discovered
of making the education and development of all men a matter of all men’s
desperate desire. It is putting firearms in the hands of a child with the
object of compelling the child’s neighbours to teach him, not only the real
and legitimate uses of a dangerous tool but the uses of himself in all things.
Are there other and less costly ways of accomplishing this? There may be
in some better world. But for a world just emerging from the rough chains
of an almost universal poverty, and faced by the temptation of luxury and
indulgence through the enslaving of defenceless men, there is but one adequate
method of salvation – the giving of democratic weapons of self- defense to
Nor need we quibble over those ideas – wealth, education,
and political power – soil which we have so forested with claim and counter-claim
that we see nothing for the woods.
What the primitive peoples of Africa and the world need
and must have if war is to be abolished is perfectly clear:
First: land. Today Africa is being enslaved by the theft
of her land and natural resources. A century ago black men owned all but
a morsel of South Africa. The Dutch and England came, and today 1,250,000
white own 264,000,000
acres, leaving only 21,000,000
acres for 4,500,000
natives. Finally, to make assurance doubly sure, the Union of South Africa
has refused natives even the right to buy land. This is a deliberate attempt
to force the Negroes to work on farms and in mines and kitchens for low wages.
All over Africa has gone this shameless monopolizing of land and natural
resources to force poverty on the masses and reduce them to the "dumb-driven-cattle"
stage of labour activity.
Secondly: we must train native races in modern civilization.
This can be done. Modern methods of educating children, honestly and effectively
applied, would make modern, civilized nations out of the vast majority of
human beings on earth today. This we have seldom tried. For the most part
Europe is straining every nerve to make over yellow, brown, and black men
into docile beasts of burden, and only an irrepressible few are allowed to
escape and seek (usually abroad) the education of modern men.
Lastly, the principle of home rule must extend to groups,
nations, and races. The ruling of one people for another people’s whim or
gain must stop. This kind of despotism has been in later days more and more
skillfully disguised. But the brute fact remains: the white man is ruling
black Africa for the white man’s gain, and just as far as possible he is
doing the same to coloured races elsewhere. Can such a situation bring peace?
Will any amount of European concord or disarmament settle this injustice?
Political power today is but the weapon to force economic
power. Tomorrow, it may give us spiritual vision and artistic sensibility.
Today, it gives us or tries to give us bread and butter, and those classes
or nations or races who are without it starve, and starvation is the weapon
of the white world to reduce them to slavery.
We are calling for European concord today; but at the utmost
European concord will mean satisfaction with, or acquiescence in, a given
division of the spoils of world dominion. After all, European disarmament
cannot go below the necessity of defending the aggressions of the whites
against the blacks and browns and yellows. From this will arise three perpetual
dangers of war. First, renewed jealousy at any division of colonies or spheres
of influence agreed upon, if at any future time the present division comes
to seem unfair. Who cared for Africa in the early nineteenth century? Let
England have the scraps left from the golden feast of the slave trade. But
in the twentieth century? The end was war. These scraps looked too tempting
to Germany. Secondly: war will come from the revolutionary revolt of the
lowest workers. The greater the international jealousies, the greater the
corresponding costs of armament and the more difficult to fulfill the promises
of industrial democracy in advanced countries. Finally, the coloured peoples
will not always submit passively to foreign domination. To some this is a
lightly tossed truism. When a people deserve liberty they fight for it and
get it, say such philosophers; thus making war a regular, necessary step
to liberty. Coloured people are familiar with this complacent judgment. They
endure the contemptuous treatment meted out by whites to those not "strong"
enough to be free. These nations and races, composing as they do a vast majority
of humanity, are going to endure this treatment just as long as they must
and not a moment longer. Then they are going to fight and the War of the
Colour Line will outdo in savage inhumanity any war this world has yet seen.
For coloured folk have much to remember and they will not forget.
But is this inevitable? Must we sit helpless before this
awful prospect? While we are planning, as a result of the present holocaust,
the disarmament of Europe and a European international world-police, must
the rest of the world be left naked to the inevitable horror of war, especially
when we know that it is directly in this outer circle of races, and not in
the inner European household, that the real causes of present European fighting
are to be found?
Our duty is clear. Racial slander must go. Racial prejudice
will follow. Steadfast faith in humanity must come. The domination of one
people by another without the other’s consent, be the subject people black
or white, must stop. The doctrine of forcible economic expansion over subject
peoples must go. Religious hypocrisy must stop. "Blood-thirsty"
Mwanga of Uganda killed an English bishop because they feared that his coming
meant English domination. It did mean English domination, and the world and
the bishop knew it, and yet the world was "horrified"! Such missionary
hypocrisy must go. With clean hands and honest hearts we must front high
Heaven and beg peace in our time.
In this great work who can help us? In the Orient, the
awakened Japanese and the awakening leaders of New China; in India and Egypt,
the young men trained in Europe and European ideals, who now form the stuff
that Revolution is born of. But in Africa? Who better than the twenty-five
million grandchildren of the European slave trade, spread through the Americas
and now writhing desperately for freedom and a place in the world? And of
these millions first of all the ten million black folk of the United States,
now a problem, then a world-salvation.
Twenty centuries before the Christ a great cloud swept
over sea and settled on Africa, darkening and well-nigh blotting out the
culture of the land of Egypt. For half a thousand years it rested there until
a black woman, Queen Nefertari, "the most venerated figure in Egyptian
history," rose to the throne of the Pharaohs and redeemed the world
and her people. Twenty centuries after Christ, black Africa, prostrate, raped,
and shamed, lies at the feet of the conquering Philistines of Europe. Beyond
the awful sea a black woman is weeping and waiting with her sons on her breast.
What shall the end be? The world-old and fearful things, War and Wealth,
Murder and Luxury? Or shall it be a new thing – a new peace and new democracy
of all races: a great humanity of equal men? "Semper novi quid ex Africa!"