Racism: The Legacy of Colonialism and the Slave Trade

Emeka Anyaoku

“Thanks to the mosquito and to the late discovery of quinine, we in West Africa were spared the phenomenon of white settlers and the attendant complications of the struggle for independence that this entailed. At the time of the colonisation of Western, Eastern and Southern Africa, quinine had not been discovered and, with malarial fever rampant, tropical West Africa was the graveyard of European explorers and thus prevented the building up of any substantial white settler communities in West Africa.

The importance of this was to dawn on later generations of West African leaders. Indeed, the Sierra Leone Government of President Siaka Stevens sought to establish in its national honours an Order of the Mosquito, in recognition of how the mosquito helped to save West Africa from classical European colonialism.

Only people who have lived through the dying days of colonial rule can fully appreciate how deeply the sense of racial inequality was embedded in people’s consciousness at the time…I recall a television programme that I watched in London some time in late 1959 or early 1960. It was an interview programme called “Face to Face”, hosted by the popular BBC television interviewer John Freeman. On this occasion, he was interviewing Sir Roy Welensky, the Premier of Southern Rhodesia. It was about the time of the height of the debate on the future of the Central African Federation. Before entering politics and rising to become Premier of Southern Rhodesia, Welensky had been a boxer and a railway engine driver.

During this interview, John Freeman said to Welensky that there were people who would wonder how he and Dr Hastings Banda, his opponent in the campaign for the dissolution of the British-inspired Central African Federation, would fare if both of them were locked in a room to debate an issue. It was clear that, intellectually, Sir Roy Welensky was no match for Dr Banda, who trained as a medical doctor in Scotland and had practised in the UK before entering into nationalist politics in his own country. Dr Banda certainly did not fit into the mould of unintelligent, uneducated Africans that Sir Roy Welensky had always sought to project in his various remarks about Africans. Freeman wondered whether Banda would not have the better of Sir Roy in an argument or debate with him. At this suggestion,Welensky turned red with rage and said to Freeman words to the effect that people in England were always making the mistake of thinking that a black university graduate was the same as a white university graduate. Whereupon Freeman, who remained unruffled, reminded Sir Roy that there were many Africans and other black people from various countries who had been at universities in the UK and many of them had scored higher marks and done better than their white colleagues; he wondered what Sir Roy would say to that. At that point, Sir Roy Welensky stopped the discussion.

It was this inherent prejudice that underpinned the persistence of racism and racial discrimination in Southern Africa for a long time and it was difficult for an educated African growing up at this time not to develop strong views on the subject…Perhaps I should recall some personal anecdotal experiences to illustrate the pervasiveness of racial discrimination. An incident occurred in the winter of 1966 after I joined the Commonwealth Secretariat. My wife and I were then living at 95 West Heath Road in Hampstead, London. One morning, it had snowed so heavily that I could not get my car out of the garage and so decided to walk to the tube station at Golders Green. While walking down West Heath Road, I saw three white labourers who were clearing snow from the driveway of one of our neighbours. I stopped and asked them if they could go and also clear my driveway at No.95. One of them looked at me incredulously, because 95 West Heath Road was a striking building, located on an elevated piece of ground. The fellow pointedly asked me, “Do you live there?” and I replied, “Yes, I wouldn’t send you there if I didn’t.” I then said, “When you finish, my wife will pay you immediately,” and went off to work.

Chief Emeka Anyaoku

When I returned in the evening, my wife told me that the three men had come and pressed the doorbell. At that time, we had a Finnish nanny for our two young children, by name Ingrid. Ingrid had answered when the labourers pressed the doorbell. When she opened the door, the first thing she heard was one of the men turning to the other two to say, “I told you that nigger was trying to fool us.” But one of them then asked, “Is this the home of an African gentleman?” Ingrid told them, “Yes, this is Mr Anyaoku’s house.” The man then said, “Well, he has asked us to come and clear the driveway,” to which Ingrid replied, “Well, if he asked you to come and clear the driveway, you should go ahead and do so.” She then told them that she would go and call the Madam of the house to come and pay them. Ingrid then called my wife, who, on ascertaining how much they wanted for the job, told them that Ingrid would pay them when they finished. However, one of them was so gracious as to say to my wife when she was about to leave them: “Madam, when your husband comes back, tell him we are sorry for the way we spoke to him.”

However, racism and racial discrimination have not always been a matter of black and white. I recall an incident that happened at Karachi Airport when, in January 1972, David McDowell and I accompanied Arnold Smith on a hurriedly arranged trip to Pakistan. When we landed at Karachi Airport, we alighted from the plane and were going down the gangway in order of protocol. The Secretary-General, Arnold Smith, was in front, and I, as Director of the International Affairs Division, followed, with David McDowell, my New Zealand colleague, an Assistant Director, and one of Arnold Smith’s Special Assistants in the rear. When we got down, the protocol officer who had come to receive the Secretary-General, together with the senior representatives of the Governor of the Province, were at the foot of the gangway. The protocol officer presented the Secretary- General to the representative of the Governor, and then put his arm past me to present David McDowell. But David immediately stood back and said, “Mr Anyaoku, Director of International Affairs Division.” The protocol officer was evidently embarrassed and tried rather awkwardly to cover up his mistake as he presented me to the Governor’s representative.

I also had a taste of discrimination under the apartheid system in August 1973 while travelling to Botswana on a Pan Am flight from Lagos to Johannesburg. I needed to catch a connecting flight from Johannesburg to Gaborone. Before leaving London, the Secretariat’s travel agents at the time, RAC, had assured me that I did not need a visa because the Holiday Inn where I was to spend the night before catching my flight the next day was, in their view, within the airport complex. On arrival at Johannesburg airport, I was among the first group of people to get to the immigration hall and the only black in that first group of first class passengers. The immigration officer looked at my Nigerian diplomatic passport, turned the pages, and said to me that I had no visa for South Africa. I told him that I had been assured before leaving London that, as I was only in transit and would be spending the night at the Holiday Inn, which was within the airport complex, I did not need a visa. The officer then asked me to stand aside and wait. I waited for a long time until they finished dealing with all the passengers on the flight. He then called me and said they could not allow me out of the arrival hall because I had no visa to enter the country. I told him that I had been travelling all day and needed a good rest before continuing my journey to Botswana the next morning. I then gave him my full personal and official particulars but that did not make any difference because he then asked me to wait while he went to make a telephone call, apparently to one of his superiors.

When he came back, he told me they could give me a room upstairs on payment of five rand where I could sleep before continuing my journey the next day. I had no choice, and after I paid the five rand I was taken to a room that looked comfortable; the only snag was that the door had no lock on the inside.
Finding that I could not lock out unwanted visitors during the night, I did not have a comfortable rest. When I got to Botswana, I discreetly told Archie Mogwe, who was Secretary to the Cabinet, my experience and added that, if that was what it took to come to Botswana, I would not be in a hurry to return. Archie assured me that it would be different on my way out.

Indeed, my return journey proved an entirely different experience. As soon as the plane taxied to a halt and the doors of the rather small aircraft were opened, a white South African in white shirt and white shorts came into the plane and called out my name. I was taken aback and reluctantly identified myself. He then came to me and said, “Welcome to South Africa.” He took me straight to the VIP waiting room and in no time collected my luggage tag, retrieved my luggage, and arranged for me to be driven to the same Holiday Inn to which I had been denied access during my outward trip. On arrival at the Holiday Inn, the assistant hotel manager was downstairs to welcome me and he escorted me to a suite that the hotel gave me for the price of a room. The assistant manager told me of the hotel’s excellent room service facilities but I, with a sense of some mischief, said that I would be happy to use the public facilities.

Later that evening I went down for dinner in the main restaurant of the Holiday Inn. It immediately struck me that the restaurant had clearly written on its door the name “CS Alabama”, a name reminiscent of the bastion of racial discrimination in the southern parts of the United States. As I walked in, I could feel that all the conversations stopped, with the other diners looking curiously at me. When the restaurant manager saw me, he came over to me and tried to take me to a corner table. I instantly realised that he was trying to tuck me away in a corner of the restaurant; so I asked for a table with a view and he obliged me. When I sat down and the menu was brought to me, I had an interesting conversation with the waiter who, in reply to my question about the speciality of the house, said that I had the menu and should indicate what I wanted to eat. On learning that my preference for that evening was meat, he recommended the high veldt steak, which was what I had. I also had an interesting conversation with the wine waiter before settling for a half bottle of a familiar claret.

The next table to mine was occupied by two white gentlemen who had been looking and listening to all the conversations between me and the waiters. As I waited for my meal to be served, the two of them leaned across from their table and one of them said to me more in a questioning tone, “Surely, you are not from this part of the world?” I said no but then asked, “How did you know?” In reply, one of them said, “Well, I have four Africans working for me and you are very different from them.” I sarcastically said, “Presumably those four Africans are working as your domestic servants.” However, my sarcasm was lost because he answered yes, with glee, and proceeded to tell me their offices in his service: one was a cook, one was his small boy, another was his steward, and the fourth was his driver. I said, “Well, I didn’t know that you knew your Africans that well, but I come from a very distant place.” They said they realised that but thought that I was clearly not an American. I said no, I was not an American, that I came from West Africa; whereupon they said, “You must come from Nigeria, then?” I asked what led them to that conclusion and they replied, “Well, it’s only Nigerians we hear about who would behave like you.” I left the hotel the next day on my way back to London.

Racism and racial discrimination are now becoming a factor of importance, both in the internal politics of several countries and in international politics. Even though colonialism has ended, the legacy of colonialism and the slave trade is still with us in the form of sometimes unconscious racism.”

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