November 17, 2008

British Policy in the Southern Sudan: A Brief Note on Language and Colonization

Just finished Robert Collins long and rather turgid Shadows in the Grass: Britian in the Southern Sudan, 1918-1956, with which, despite Collin's impressive list of sources, I was underimpressed. Perhaps its his lack of a theoretical framework, which leads him to be just a bit too enamored of the nostalgic recollections of British District Commissioners. However, he does offer, in full, this extremely interesting quote from Harold MacMichael, the Civil Secretary for the Sudan condominium from 1926-34, about British policy regarding Arabic in the Southern Sudan:

"The problem is whether to encourage the spread of Arabic
in the South as a lingua franca and medium between the governing class and the
governed, or to resist it on political grounds. The former alternative appears
to be basically unsound, the latter to be demanded as the right aim and object
of our policy...The religion of the Arab is the fruit of thirteen centuries of
discipline and dogma, and it appears now to have reached a state of world-wide
stagnation periodically rippled by political restlessness. There has been no
freedom for the mind or conscience, no intellectual future for this race, except
by the path of heresy..By virtue of its age, its wide diffusion, its adoption of
the older monotheistic belief and a code of morals which is at least no worse
that that of the Old Testament, and because of the state of comparative
civilization in which many of its adherents have come to live, it is rightly
regarded as being relatively on a higher plane than are the undeveloped
religions of the negroes. But it is none the less terile; and we shall render
the poorest of services to these poiples, as we educate their minds and induce
an atmopshere favourable to peace and porgress, we simultaneously open to them
the easy path which leads nowhere.
Moreover, the path, though it is not worth taking, would
carry those that took it into grave dangers. The most serious of these is the
automatic extension of the zone in which Islamic fanaticism is endemic to an
equally large and far more populous area where at present it is not so. One may
vary the metaphor by saying that to encourage the spread of Arabic in the South
would be to sprinkle gunpowder in the neighborhood of a powder
The resultant danger is double-endged; for not only would
the Arabs, in the event of a rising, be able to call upon the south in the anme
of a common religion, for assistance, but, if there were trouble between the
Governement and the negroes in the South, these same Arabs of the North and
intelligentsia of the towns would not fail to assume a pose sympathy and
interest which migt become a serious embarassment...
Surely it is wiser and better and safer to take the long
view and to encourage our officials by every possible means to acquire a fuller
and more intimate knowledge of all that pertains to the great negro tribes and
denote a whole-hearted enthusiasm to the "cultivation of their languages,
conservation and sublimation of all that is of value in their customs and
institutions, frank recognition of the measure of truth contained in their
In this way we shall show ourselves more truly to be their
friends than by tipping them over the brink of a dangerously easy slope; and in
time we shall reap our own advantage, for a series of self-contained racial
units will be developed with structure and organization based on the solid rock
of indigenous tradition and beliefs, the daily life of the family and the
individual will be regulated by customs which are natural to them, the sense of
tribal pride and independence will grow, and in the process a solid barrier will
be created against the insidious political intrigue which must in the ordinary
course of events increasingly best our path in the North."

I guess you can draw your own conclusions about how this statement of policy has impacted the independent Sudanese state. Ironically, MacMichael's statements sound a bit like some reactionary State Department briefing or a statement of Africom policy.

To me the following is clear: British policy in the Southern Sudan attempted to foster not merely a neutral course, but in actual fact a hostility towards the spread of Islam further South. Anyway, I post these insights about Sudan because they provide some guidelines for me on how to deal with similar issues of race, language, and culture within an Omani context, especially in the context of cultural issues with Omani migrants in Central Africa, where the majority of the population is non-Muslim.


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