Between Colonizer and Colonized

Aimé Cesaire (1955)


But let us speak about the colonized.


I see clearly what colonization has destroyed: the wonderful Indian civilizations—neither Deterding nor Royal Dutch nor Standard Oil will ever console me for the Aztecs and the Incas.

I see clearly the civilizations, condemned to perish at a future date, into which it has introduced a principle of ruin: the South Sea islands, Nigeria, Nyasaland. I see less clearly the contributions it has made.


Security? Culture? The rule of law? In the meantime, I look around and wherever there are colonizers and colonized face to face, I see force, brutality, cruelty, sadism, conflict, and, in a parody of education, the hasty manufacture of a few thousand subordinate functionaries, "boys," artisans, office clerks, and interpreters necessary for the smooth operation of business.


I spoke of contact.  Between colonizer and colonized there is room only for forced labor, intimida­tion, pressure, the police, taxation, theft, rape, compulsory crops, contempt, mis­trust, arrogance, self-complacency, swinishness, brainless elites, degraded masses.  No human contact, but relations of domination and submission which turn the colonizing man into a classroom monitor, an army sergeant, a prison guard, a slave driver, and the indigenous man into an instrument of production.


My turn to state an equation: colonization = "thingification."


I hear the storm. They talk to me about progress, about "achievements;" diseases cured, improved standards of living.  I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out.


They throw facts at my head, statistics, mileages of roads, canals, and railroad tracks. 


I am talking about thousands of men sacrificed to the Congo-Ocean.*  I am talking about those who, as I write this, are digging the harbor of Abidjan by hand. I am talking about millions of men torn from their gods, their land, their habits, their life—from life, from the dance, from wisdom.  I am talking about millions of men in whom fear has been cunningly instilled, who have been taught to have an inferiority complex, to tremble, kneel, despair, and behave like flunkeys.  They dazzle me with the tonnage of cotton or cocoa that has been exported, the acreage that has been planted with olive trees or grapevines. I am talking about natural economies that have been disrupted-harmonious and viable economies adapted to the indigenous population—about food crops de­stroyed, malnutrition permanently introduced, agricultural development oriented solely toward the benefit of the metropolitan countries, about the looting of prod­ucts, the looting of raw materials.


They pride themselves on abuses eliminated.


I too talk about abuses, but what I say is that on the old ones—very real—they have superimposed others—very detestable. They talk to me about local tyrants brought to reason; but I note that in general the old tyrants get on very well with the new ones, and that there has been established between them, to the detriment of the people, a circuit of mutual services and complicity.  They talk to me about civilization, I talk about proletarianization and mystification. 


For my part, I make a systematic defense of the non-European civilizations.


Every day that passes, every denial of justice, every beating by the police, every de­mand of the workers that is drowned in blood, every scandal that is hushed up, every punitive expedition, every police van, every gendarme and every militiaman, brings home to us the value of our old societies.  They were communal societies, never societies of the many for the few.  They were societies that were not only ante-capitalist, as has been said, but also anti-capitalist.  They were democratic societies, always.  They were cooperative societies, fraternal societies.


I make a systematic defense of the societies destroyed by imperialism.


They were the fact, they did not pretend to be the idea; despite their faults, they were neither to be hated nor condemned. They were content to be. In them, neither the word failure nor the word avatar had any meaning. They kept hope intact.  Whereas those are the only words that can, in all honesty, be applied to the Euro­pean enterprises outside Europe. My only consolation is that periods of colonization pass, that nations sleep only for a time, and that peoples remain.


This being said, it seems that in certain circles they pretend to have discovered in me an "enemy of Europe" and a prophet of the return of the ante-European past.  For my part, I search in vain for the place where I could have expressed such views; where I ever underestimated the importance of Europe in the history of hu­man thought; where I ever preached a return of any kind; where I ever claimed that there could be a return.


The truth is that I have said something very different: to wit, that the great historical tragedy of Africa has been not so much that it was too late in making contact with the rest of the world, as the manner in which that contact was brought about; that Europe began to "propagate" at a time when it had fallen into the hands of the most unscrupulous financiers and captains of industry; that it was our misfortune to encounter that particular Europe on our path, and that Europe is responsible be-fore the human community for the highest heap of corpses in history.


In another connection, in judging colonization, I have added that Europe has gotten on very well indeed with all the local feudal lords who agreed to serve, woven a villainous complicity with them, rendered their tyranny more effective and more efficient, and that it has actually tended to prolong artificially the survival of local pasts in their most pernicious aspects.


I have said—and this is something very different—that colonialist Europe has grafted modern abuse onto ancient injustice, hateful racism onto old inequality.


That if I am attacked on the grounds of intent, I maintain that colonialist Europe is dishonest in trying to justify its colonizing activity a posteriori by the obvious material progress that has been achieved in certain fields under the colonial regime—since sudden change is always possible, in history as elsewhere; since no one knows at what stage of material development these same countries would have been if Europe had not intervened; since the technical outfitting of Africa and Asia, their administrative reorganization, in a word, their "Europeanization," was (as is proved by the example of Japan) in no way tied to the European occupation; since the Euro­peanization of the non-European continents could have been accomplished other-wise than under the heel of Europe; since this movement of Europeanization was in progress; since it was even slowed down; since in any case it was distorted by the Eu­ropean takeover.


The proof is that at present it is the indigenous peoples of Africa and Asia who are demanding schools, and colonialist Europe which refuses them; that it is the African who is asking for ports and roads, and colonialist Europe which is niggardly on this score; that it is the colonized man who wants to move forward, and the colonizer who holds things back.




Excerpt from Joan Pinkham, trans., Discourse on Colonialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972 [1955]), pp. 20-25. Copyright 1972 by Monthly Review Inc. Reprinted by permission of Monthly Review Foundation.


*A railroad line connecting Brazzaville with the port of Pointe-Noire. (Trans.)