I haven’t studied history, nor much geography, but I do help the Mamie Martin Fund (MMF) to raise money for girls’ education in Malawi. In the light of recent debate in the UK I have been thinking about the past links between Scotland and Africa, about how we frame them now, and what that should mean for the future. I write this as an interested but uninformed friend and I hope it will lead to more discussion and new possibilities.
Even after the Atlantic slave trade was ended European powers continued to dominate and exploit less industrial regions of the world. Two of the most infamous examples from the late 19th century are Belgian despotism in the Congo and Britain’s use of military force to secure the import of both opium and missionaries to China. These lie at the extreme end of the colonial spectrum but the template of military might, soft power, resource exploitation, and trade was applied in all our country’s dealings with its colonies. The Colonial Office’s role was to do exactly what it said on the tin, unapologetically.
From a Scottish perspective it was not just about trade. Colonialism is embedded in our culture: Alexander Selkirk was the real-life model for Robinson Crusoe¹; RLS’s story The Beach of Falesá² confronts colonialism in the Pacific (and was censored because of it); Richard Hannay returns from mining in southern Africa in The Thirty-nine Steps³; even Shuggie Bain’s⁴ brother-in-law escapes Thatcherism through a job in Africa. So the colonies were not just the preserve of wealthy or artistic Scots. Skilled workers and the newly-educated were in high demand. Probe the ancestry of many Scottish families to find examples of multiple-great-uncles who went out “to make their pot”, and often did, and sometimes brought it home.
Within this structure, specifically under the promotion of soft power, lay work to educate and improve along lines defined by the colonisers. That is not to say that some improvements in health, human rights, etc. have not occurred (though we don’t have non-colonial examples to compare), and of course some declines are also apparent. It is more that the balance sheet between those changes and the exploitation of human and natural resources needs careful thought. When there have been improvements were they primarily a gloss to assuage the delicate consciences of the colonial powers? How did the individuals who worked in government and education in the colonies see their roles? These issues require expert historical and economic analysis, and arguably moral philosophy too. The questions for those of us seeking to make a positive social contribution now, in 2021, are how should we recognise the past and in what ways should it influence our actions? I have ideas.
- I live comfortably in rural Scotland, with no known colonial ancestors, yet I wish to be part of a move to confront our colonial past. It is not enough to say of the past that “they do things differently there”. They certainly did and drawing a veil over it will not do. At the same time, we cannot divorce our own attitudes from our colonial heritage, no matter how much we might wish to. For many of us our own education and cultural background mean that our ways of thinking and unconscious attitudes carry vestiges of colonialism. We must inspect what we do and how we do it to ensure we compensate as well as we can.
- We should do this openly, which will offer opportunities to make our contribution more visible in Scotland and more effective in Malawi. We strive for our work and our relationships to be conducted in the spirit of respectful partnership but there is no fixed standard for this. It will always be a progressive process in which MMF must be clear about its rôle.
- There is still a power imbalance between Scotland and Malawi, particularly stark in wealth and social capital, and this is partly a result of extractive colonialisation. But poring over the balance sheets of a century ago is less helpful than looking at what is happening today: Malawi is still suffering economic disadvantage from global taxation and trade regimes. We must emphasise this.
- And it isn’t just about money: our continuing impacts on the global climate are already being felt more acutely in areas like Malawi, which has fewer resources to help adapt than we do ourselves but at the same time makes a much smaller contribution to the damage. UK NGOs need to be transparent about how our activities contribute to climate change and we must also make our voices heard at policy level.
- Finally, and here is a bit of a mea culpa, I find I’ve used the word we so much here, meaning those of us in Scotland. Colonial or what? Perhaps MMF should work towards a time when it’s a Malawian organisation with a Scottish branch? One issue that must be kept under review is where the decisions are made, and where they will be made in 5 or 10 years time. A timeline for changing practice could be very helpful.
- Following on from that, this piece has explored Scottish perspectives on colonialism but of course the real stories about it should be told by those who were subjected to it. Their aspirations for the future are also important. The MMF website already has great stories from girls and women whose education has been supported. It could also play a part in seeking out, promoting, and publishing personal evidence about colonialism.
For readers who haven’t heard of the Mamie Martin Fund before, please investigate! Allowing girls full access to education, and empowering women, is work that is not even finished in Scotland. In Malawi it has huge potential to contribute to economic well-being and quality of life, and I will soon be out on my bike helping to play whatever small part I can.
¹ Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, 1719
² The Beach of Falesá, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1892
³ The Thirty-nine Steps, John Buchan, 1915
⁴ Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart, 2020