I. Milford: African Activists in a Decolonising World

African Activists in a Decolonising World. The Making of an Anticolonial Culture, 1952–1966

Milford, Ismay
Global and International History
Anzahl Seiten
320 S.
£ 85.00
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Eric Burton, Institut für Zeitgeschichte, Universität Innsbruck

Ismay Milford’s “African Activists in a Decolonising World” offers an original and stimulating counterpoint to histories of decolonization that have focused on high diplomacy, Cold War maneuvering, and the visions of well-known African leaders. In contrast to such works, it provides an empirically rich global microhistory of anticolonial activism and thought, informed by the cultural turn and new directions in the field. As Milford herself observed in a 2017 review essay discussing four books on decolonization, “to focus on the material or the non-material, the big picture or the local specificities are no longer either/or questions.”1 “African Activists in a Decolonising World” illustrates this point. Its main subject is an “anticolonial culture” specific to the 1950s and early 1960s, with “culture” referring primarily to the (non-material) norms, perceptions, and assumptions discernible in the practices and publications of a cohort of activists from Central and East Africa.

Four individuals representative of this cohort – Kanyama Chiume, John Kale, Abu Mayanja, and Munu Sipalo – receive special attention, as they attempted to escalate their struggles from what are today Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania, and Malawi to the international context. Milford traces the journeys of this quartet of highly mobile actors through a remarkable array of state and non-state repositories in Great Britain, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania, South Africa, India, and the Netherlands. Archival finds are supplemented by memoirs and interviews with contemporaries and family members. This impressive range of sources allows for intriguing examples of source criticism and fascinating case studies of how anticolonial “paper objects” (p. 3) were produced (which at times meant ghostwritten) and circulated.

Milford’s skill as a writer makes the book an enjoyable, at times almost novel-like read. The activists enter the stage in chapters with a range of settings, including such familiar centers of anticolonialism as Accra, Belgrade, New Delhi, Cairo, and London, as well as more unexpected places, such as Vienna or a hotel in the Swiss Alps. Milford’s point here is not to demonstrate the geographical reach of anticolonial activism, but rather to explore how its actors understood, constructed, and strategically deployed space, thereby dissolving the often-assumed incommensurability of such categories as the “nation” and the “region,” or the “local” and the “global.”

The main argument is refreshingly counterintuitive. Milford suggests that the activists at the center of her account were, at best, “secondary political actors” (p. 14): Hailing from areas considered peripheral by most outside the region, they sought to interject their concerns and visions into discussions on major theaters of conflict such as Algeria or the Congo, but despite their relatively elite educational status and intercontinental physical mobility, they found themselves still on the margins. They failed to bring their concerns to the UN, were forced to temper their radicalism to avoid alienating solidarity groups and fickle authorities in postcolonial states, and encountered uninformed publics unable or unwilling to comprehend the lessons they imparted. Why, then, should we be interested in figures who hit dead ends and “made barely a historical ripple” (p. 2)? The short answer is that failure is productive, and so are historians’ efforts to make sense of it, for it provides an epistemological vantage point from which to understand structures and modes of thinking through constraints.

Milford demonstrates how mid-1950s socialist circles in London relied on actors such as Sipalo and Mayanja as sources of expertise and anticolonial authenticity, but these circles eventually had little to offer due to their infighting, inefficiency, and inability to influence either British colonial policy or public opinion. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, activists sought to hold accountable those independent Afro-Asian states that claimed to provide patronage to anticolonial movements, including India, Egypt, Ghana, and Tanganyika, but ultimately encountered limits in appropriating their fundamentally nationalist media infrastructures. One Zambian broadcaster, finding his output subjected to increasing scrutiny by Tanganyikan authorities in 1963, even complained of “Black imperialism of a worst kind” (p. 239).

Detailing these experiences and tensions, the book elucidates why certain strategies and formats used to reach new audiences came into being, why they were adapted or discarded, and why some strands of anticolonial thinking gained prominence while others unraveled. Broader understandings that persisted delegitimized colonialism as a form of conspiracy and totalitarianism evident in police violence, censorship and bans, the imprisonment of activists, and everyday difficulties in obtaining permits for travel or public rallies. These critiques had the advantage of being transferable across borders and empires. By grounding anticolonial culture in this way, Milford has crafted an intellectual history not through individual thinkers, but through assumptions shared by an entire cohort of activists. Notably, this is a (not the) anticolonial culture2, inviting further scholarship to explore how such transnational cultures came to transcend linguistic and class boundaries or remained tied to specific cohorts of educational elites.

Retaining the leitmotif of failure, Milford concludes that in terms of the actors’ objectives and hopes, external anticolonial work was less decisive than imagined (p. 247). This fact also tempers historians’ enthusiasm for transnational connections as meaningful in and of themselves, though I would hasten to add that many aspects of these connections remain poorly understood, including, for example, the sourcing and allocation of material support from myriad external sources. Whatever the case, Milford sees evidence for “an existential crisis of anticolonialism itself – or at least for the anticolonial culture” (p. 241) that these activists had created. In the early and mid-1960s, during which Malawi, Zambia, Uganda, and Tanzania attained flag independence and some activists became cabinet members, their internationalist bent was subsumed by an inward turn (p. 242).

This speaks to broader debates on the periodization of anticolonialism. Milford’s verdict resembles the findings of other scholars, who have noted a sense of closure amid an increasing emphasis on nationalist categories and authoritarian tendencies.3 In my reading, with an eye to the timeframe beyond the book’s focus, these signs of crisis were certainly not the end of the anticolonial culture Milford describes; indeed, she also stresses that her account is “not a simple rise and fall story” (pp. 211, 243). Initiatives may have failed, but they nonetheless had consequences. Activists provided expertise and contacts that fed into the emergence of anticolonial hubs (p. 95) or the functioning of solidarity groups and certain forms of activism, some of which proved remarkably durable. This may explain why liberation movements, many of which turned to armed struggle (a strategy not pursued, notably, by the main protagonists of the book), continued also to rely on the strategies of transnational mobilization discussed. Perhaps the crisis was less a synchronous transnational phenomenon than one related to the inevitable constraints of state-sponsored anticolonialism, with the chronology imperfectly stretching or halting according to the rhythm of “staggered statehoods” (p. 223) across various regions. Put differently, the failures and tensions identified by Milford may signal constraints typical of state-sponsored anticolonialism that surfaced at different times and places.

The sophistication of Milford’s argument shows how far the historiography of decolonization has come in the past two decades or so, allowing us now to pay attention to what happened in the gaps between nesting colonialism and Big Men’s anti-imperial world-making. Milford’s careful attention to the mundane is valuable (and, I would argue, necessary) for contextualizing anticolonialism. “African Activists” will hopefully inspire more work on the quotidian social and cultural situatedness of anticolonialism4, grounding activism in everyday lives that were shaped by modes of transport between and within cities, fashion choices attuned to the requirements of respectability (suits and ties are prominent in the photographs reproduced in the book), diets that changed with every new place of residence, and the unreliability of sources of finance and political patronage, as well as the challenges of maintaining family lives and forging new intimate relationships.

“African Activists in a Decolonising World” is an ambitious book, courageous and persuasive in advancing an argument derived from the very limitations encountered by its main protagonists. Far from crafting an alternative, transnational heroic narrative by lionizing these “secondary” actors, often sidelined in nationalist histories, Milford uses their experiences and failures to offer us a better understanding of agency and thought in the shifting sands of imperial endgames. The book thus challenges us to grapple with the history of decolonization in microspatial ways and acknowledge the changing forms, frequent failures, and fractured globality of anticolonialism.

1 Ismay Milford, Zoom In, Zoom Out, Change Lens: New Directions in the Historiography of Decolonisation, in: Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 18/2 (2017).
2 On the plurality of anticolonial culture(s), see Jonas Bakkeli Eide, The Making of an Anticolonial Culture. An Interview with Ismay Milford, in: JHI Blog, 19.02.2024, https://www.jhiblog.org/2024/02/19/the-making-of-an-anticolonial-culture-an-interview-with-ismay-milford/ (23.02.2024).
3 George Roberts, Revolutionary State-Making in Dar es Salaam: African Liberation and the Global Cold War, 1961–1974, Cambridge 2021; Jeffrey James Byrne, Mecca of Revolution: Algeria, Decolonization, and the Third World Order, New York 2016.
4 Recent works focusing on sociocultural aspects include Paraska Tolan-Szkilnik, Maghreb Noir. The Militant-Artists of North Africa and the Struggle for a Pan-African, Postcolonial Future, Stanford 2023; Daniel Tödt, The Lumumba Generation. African Bourgeoisie and Colonial Distinction in the Belgian Congo, Berlin 2021.

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