Posts Tagged ‘Liberia’

More Alike Than Expected

July 23, 2009

More often than expected, African history evokes American history, highlighting both the similarities and the differences. Civil war is one example. Though America’s war between north and south is more distant, and therefore harder to picture, than all of Africa’s more recent and accessible domestic wars, it was no less graphic and divisive. America’s war was waged largely for the policy that comes with power, while Africa’s wars tend to be exclusively about the spoils of power. America’s war famously pitted brothers against each other, which literally never happens in Africa because divisions are so often based on clan, or extended family. One striking difference is the civility which ended the American civil war, compared to the relatively bloody climax to so many of Africa’s wars. Liberia suffered several successive wars throughout the 1980s and 1990s, all of which ended in disgusting public torture and execution of the vanquished. Prince Johnson ate Samuel Doe alive, on video. It’s literally impossible to imagine Grant chewing on Lee’s warm, bloody, rubbery ear.

It was far from a foregone conclusion that the north would win America’s civil war. Had the south won, it’s likely the United States would have become very much like apartheid South Africa, although a better comparison is to say that South Africa is the United States if the Native Americans had won. The similarities between the United States’ relationship to its native population and apartheid South Africa’s to its are obvious, down to the specific use of reservations and native homelands. The primary difference is that the formation of the United States occurred at a less enlightened time in history, when too few people had yet to object to the idea of imperial conquest, which, if we’re being honest, is exactly what the United States did as it rapidly expanded westward across North America. Indeed, the United States is to North America exactly what Europe was to Africa. Apartheid was simply the last toehold of that American style of conquest and subjugation in Africa. That the United States was one of the many countries which eventually claimed the moral high ground and helped to nudge the whites from power in South Africa must be called ironic, which is not to say it was wrong of the United States.

Having recently read both Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven and Thomas Packenham’s The Boer War, it is impossible to miss the similarities between the Mormon adventure in North America and the Boer’s in South Africa. Both are minority white groups possessing a messianic sense of their own destiny and moral purity. They are both adamantly racist, though both have worked in recent years to cloak their bigotry. Both were, and largely continue to be, ostracized by more powerful white groups. The Mormons were driven westward from their birthplace in New York state first to Illinois and Missouri and then all the way to what was then the Utah Territory. The Dutch Boers, as the English settlers became the dominant white community in South Africa, embarked on their own voortrek across the backcountry to a new interior homeland they called the Transvaal. Both journeys are now mythologized, though both ultimately failed to find the isolation which was sought. Less than a decade after the Mormons reached Utah, the territory was annexed by the United States; though it took more than seventy years, the Boers’ enclave in South Africa eventually was subsumed under the British colony at Cape Town.

It is interesting to wonder how long a people must occupy a land before it becomes morally theirs. The French were not the first in what is today France and the Germans were not the first in what is now Germany, yet no one disputes that France is for the French and Germany for the Germans. Both Israelis and Palestinians claim rightful historic ownership of their disputed state, but before either of them there were others, many others. The Bible explicitly recounts the graphic battles and enormous death toll as Joshua led the invasion of Canaan after the Israelites fled from Egypt. The lesson, it would seem, is that if you subjugate, or better yet eliminate, the native population thoroughly enough, then one day the land will be morally yours.