Bandit County

Review of Malyn Newitt, A History of Mozambique (Hurst & Co., 1995)

Can Mozambique at last become a nation- state? Now that the war is over, the elections accepted as free and fair, the peace process and refugee-resettlement process still on course, can this war-torn Y-shape on the map of south-east Africa set about “forging” national unity? The question is pertinent whether you believe with the established commentator on Mozambique, Joe Hanlon, that the forces of disruption have all been external – Portuguese colonialism, South African destabilization, the neo-imperialism of the aid industry – or like Malyn Newitt, that some level of “intervention” will continue to be necessary to overcome the disruptive pressures within.

It is a long time since Mozambique was left alone. When the Portuguese arrived in the late fifteenth century, they found that Swahili traders had already occupied the tiny island which eventually gave its name to the whole colony. As the poet Luis de Camoes reconstructed the encounter: “We”, one of the islanders responded, “Are not of this place or superstition /Those who belong here are suckled by Nature / Without religion or understanding.”

The comment indicates the first of Newitt’s difficulties in writing the 500-year history of this territory, namely bridging the gap between the words of the “history-makers” and the realities they were caught up in. These Swahili traders of Mozambique Island, Arab by extraction and Muslim by religion, were thoroughly “Africanized”. They were linked by marriage and descent to the lineages of the territorial chiefs along the trading routes of the interior, spoke a creole already more “Bantu” than Arabic, and appeared to the Portuguese virtually indistinguishable from the African peoples of the coast.

Initially, the Portuguese were interested in Mozambique only as a stepping-stone to India and the spice trade. Faced with the difficulties of financing that trade, they tried to locate and capture the gold mines of Manica in the interior. When the gold supply failed to come up to expectations, they dealt in ivory and, eventually and inevitably, in slaves. As early as the mid-sixteenth century, “two competing trading systems began to emerge”.

Captains, appointed triennially in Lisbon to administer royal monopolies in gold and ivory, were, in effect, given three years to make their personal fortunes by “what can best be described as asset-stripping activities”. As they enforced and extended their monopolies, all other trade the normal commercial activity of an African coast became technically contraband, opening a conflict which turned to warfare in the nineteenth century, as Portuguese armies had to reconquer territory from people who called themselves “Portuguese”.

But there are difficulties in talking of “Africanization”. The word was first applied to Mozambique by Allen Isaacman in his Mozambique: The Africanization of a European institution: the Zambezi Prazos: 1750-1902 (1972). The title suggested African initiative in the making of history, successful cultural resistance to political and economic domination, with the colonizers compelled to acknowledge the superiority of African institutions. The actual text, however, indicated that being “African” involved warlordism, witchcraft, polygamy on a massive scale and slave-trading. Something of this problem, though acknowledged and articulated, attends Newitt’s description of the process of Africanization. He emphasizes the African origins and social structure of towns like Sofala, Sena, Tete and Quelimane, together with the principal feiras or trading centres. He has fascinating things to say about the distinction between the gold trade which, such as it was, could be appropriated through simple conquest, and the ivory trade which demanded mutual co-operation. He insists on the pivotal rote of the Afro-Portuguese community, known locally as muzungos.

Yet throughout this book, these figures are also described as bandits, warlords, conquistadores, bandidos, stockade-holders, and even pirates. From Diogo Simoes Madeira, who seized the chieftaincy of Inhabanzo from Monomotapa in 1607, to Manuel Antonio de Sousa, who in the 1860s created the polity which was eventually to become the Companhia de Mocambique, Newitt insists on a pattern to Mozambique’s history, a “predatory culture of raiding”, in which even the prazo system of the Zambesi valley, for all its apparent stability and longevity, was no more than “institutionalized banditry”. It is an argument which enables him to convert Renamo’s brutalities of the 1980s to the country’s “traditions of banditry”, and to comment in respect of Moraes Pereira’s classic account of the rise of the bandit Macambe in 1752 that “it might almost be a description of a Renamo warband of the 1980s”.

The logic of this is centred in Mozambique’s “frail agricultural base”, always prone to drought with its concomitants of famine, smallpox and locusts, coupled with inherently unstable patterns of African settlement patrilineal in the south, but unable to maintain large chieftaincies because of the unsuitability of the land for cattle-rearing, and matrilineal in the north, with tiny scattered villages and tensions between female control of resources and male political power. The bandits, in short, appear to be invaders, but their banditry is best understood as an accommodation to local conditions.

This is the story told in the first two-thirds of this book, which focus on Mozambique before its modern boundaries were established in 1890. The themes are “integration” and “disintegration”, and Newitt relishes to the full Mozambique’s capacity to make fools of anyone trying to impose the simpler paradigms of African historiography (resistance, state-formation, underdevelopment, class). There is no single “story”, rather the separate, sometimes interlocking, sometimes mutually destructive relationships of the raiders and the raided Muslim, Portuguese, Afro-Portuguese and a dozen different African polities. The forces of integration are Catholicism and Islam, international trade, the colonial structures of the Estado da India and, periodically, the rise of African kingdoms under Karanga, Tonga, Maravi and Nguni chiefs. The forces of disintegration are drought and famine, small-scale settlement patterns with low levels of technology and, of course, banditry with its accompanying trade in slaves. This does not necessarily all happen within Mozambique’s modern boundaries; Newitt includes the tiny Colonia de Sao Luis, founded by the trader Joao Albasini, today part of the Transvaal, while one of the greatest African “successes” was the resistance of the Karonga to Portuguese penetration, which makes them today part of Zimbabwe’s, not Mozambique’s history. Yet Livingstone’s observations of the region in 1858 were not markedly dissimilar from those of a certain Father Monclaro in 1570.

The Mozambique which came into being in 1890 was in no sense “a state”. It had no administrative or legal system, no public revenues or communications, no services and was largely unmapped. The boundaries to the north and south-east had some historical validity, but the rest were the arbitrary outcome of the Ultimatum and the Scramble, with Portugal for the most part denied what she had a better claim to than any other colonial power. But Portugal was in no condition to create an administration or invest in the economy. Well over half of the territory was sub-leased to companies, financed by British and Belgian capital, who administered, policed, taxed, monopolized trade and extracted labour by force from the territories chartered to them, subject to decisions made at head offices in London, Paris, Monaco, Durban and (nominally) Lisbon.

Until 1930, travelling round Mozambique involved negotiating a crazy patchwork of mini-states, each with its own administration, currency and customs barriers. Not until 1941, when the last of the company charters lapsed, was Mozambique for the first time governed as a single entity.

The new Mozambican government of 1975, Frelimo, inherited an almost equally fragile state. Military roads had been built linking north and south, the Zambesi was bridged by road for the first time and the economy had expanded rapidly in the 1960s under the impact of the huge investment in Cabora Bassa.

But it remained largely hostage to white-ruled South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, while “government”, in the guise of administration, law and taxation, was regarded almost universally with suspicion. Meanwhile, Frelimo’s definition of its task aggravated a delicate situation. It was Eduardo Mondlane, Frelimo’s founder, who first attempted to define a prototype independent Mozambique.

Unable to deploy myths of pre-colonial empires (as in Ghana or Malawi), or of ethnic unity (as in Lesotho or Swaziland) or of an indigenous socialism (as in Tanganyika and Zambia), Mondlane emphasized that what Mozambicans had in common was the exploitation of their labour in a regional capitalist system. It was a theme that resonated with his first constituency of labour migrants. But the Marxist-Leninist paradigm implicit in this analysis led Frelimo, on assuming power, to declare a new war against “the internal enemy” whites who owned or were the comprador face of capitalist interests, Catholic intellectuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, traditional rulers and the country’s cash-cropping peasantry, and (in effect) the black and mestico working class tens of thousands of whom left for Portugal. Though such follies were soon abandoned, South Africa’s war of destabilization against Mozambique, which created the guerrilla group Renamo, had by then been launched.

Newitt has taken many years to write his long book, as he has wrestled with his own problem of making “sense” of Mozambique in a language few of its inhabitants speak. His solution, which works admirably, is to blend conventional chronologies of conquest and trade with leisurely descriptive essays on towns, the prazos and labour migration, which move from region to region and are illuminated throughout with a rich haul of detailed incident. It is skilfully done, both ironic and melancholic, with surprisingly little repetition, and with some memorable turns of phrase. My single major reservation is the paucity of African voices, particularly for the past 150 years, for which an abundance of testimony is available.

Perhaps, too, the conclusion is unnecessarily pessimistic. This may seem an ungracious thing to say of a book written in the shadow of unremitting atrocities, while the rise of a new guerrilla movement, the Chimwenjes, targeting Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU, may appear to confirm the worst. But this history appears at a time when Mozambique has, for the first time ever, an elected, experienced government, friendly neighbours and a well-disposed international community. In a country riddled with land-mines, there is talk of hope. Arguably, it was Mozambique’s most recent drought of 1992 which led to the peace process. The power vacuum, created by Frelimo’s weakness and by Renamo’s loss of its agricultural base, was occupied by ordinary peasants demanding an end to the fighting (the so-called “people’s peace”). Most of the refugee- and land-resettlement programmes have been carried out spontaneously without the intervention of the NGOs officially responsible. There is not a great deal in A History of Mozambique about the capacity of African cultural practices to settle rather than to dislocate; however, an elegant, sober, comprehensive “history” has been written which will surely stand for a generation.

First published Times Literary Supplement, 8 March 1996.

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The Bishop’s Move

Review of Nick Groom (ed), Percy’s “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry”, 3 vols (Routledge,Thoemmes Press, 1996)

In his “Essay Supplementary to the Preface” (Lyrical Ballads, 1815), Wordsworth sets in opposition two anthologies of English poetry. First, Johnson’s English Poets, that uniform edition of male, public-school and university­ educated or privately tutored poets which began to appear in 1779, and secondly Bishop Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, first published in 1765. Of the former, he writes:

We open the volume … and to our astonishment the first name we find is that of Cowley! What is become of the morning star of English poetry? Where is the bright Elizabethan constellation? Or, if names be more acceptable than images, where is the ever-to-be-honoured Chaucer? Where is Spenser … where Sidney? and lastly … where Shakespeare?

Then, of Percy, he continues:

I do not think there is an able writer in verse of the present day who would not be proud to acknowledge his obligation to the Reliques; I know that it is so with my friends; and for myself, I am happy in this occasion to make a public avowal of my own.

Something of this distinction was already implicit in the original 1800 Preface, in which Wordsworth intrudes on an old dispute. In 1771, Percy had published an original ballad, “The Hermit of Warkworth: A Northumberland ballad”, which rapidly went through six editions. Johnson, provoked by the insidious success of Reliques, which he had, in effect, sponsored, published a parody: “I put my hat upon my head / And walked into the Strand / And there I met another man / Whose hat was in his hand.” Wordsworth’s well-known riposte was to quote a stanza from the “pretty ballad of the Babes in the Wood”, which Percy had recently added to the fourth edition of Reliques (1794), viz., “Those pretty babes with hand in hand / Went wandering up and down / But never more they saw the man / Approaching from the town.”

But here the story takes a curious twist. For the stanza Wordsworth quotes is not from the version given in Percy (where it appears as “The Children in the Wood”) but from a broadsheet version, dated by the British Museum as c1800, which he had bought on a London street. Coleridge’s notebooks reveal a parallel twist. “Compare the author of the Babes in the Wood with Buonaparte”, he wrote in December 1799, quoting the title of the broadsheet. In June 1811, there is a parallel entry, this time quoting the title from Reliques: “O but think of the thoughts, feelings­, radical impulses that have been planted in how many thousands of thousands by the little ballad of the Children in the Wood! The sphere of Alexander the Great’s agency is trifling compared with it.”

It has been commonplace to argue that the making of Lyrical Ballads was deeply influenced by Reliques. No study of Wordsworth is complete without its mandatory paragraph on Percy and Nick Groom in this lavish new edition repeats the standard claim that without Reliques there would have been no “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Yet two questions seem pertinent. When did Wordsworth and Coleridge first encounter Percy’s collection? More important, was the relation between Reliques and Lyrical Ballads simply or even primarily a case of a text influencing a text?

The last thing Percy intended was to bring about any revolution in literary taste. As Groom shows convincingly in a dense but rich introduction his concerns were antiquarian, linked with the revived interest in pre-Christian archaeological sites and popular traditions. If he had any political motive, it was to defuse and de-politicise ballads, rescuing them from what Groom calls “trashy, salacious ephemera and political squibbery” and reinforcing eighteenth-century preoccupations with the formation of the canon by enshrining them “in the cultural museum of Englishness”. Part of the appeal of the original folio manuscript, rescued from the flames at Humphrey Pitt’s house in 1753, was “The Ballad of Chevy Chase”, virtually a family saga; with the publication of Reliques, he secured the patronage of the Northumberlands and strengthened his claim to a blood tie.

In his own introduction, Percy is apologetic to the point of self-parody. He confesses himself “long in doubt whether, in the present state of improved literature, they could be deemed worth the attention of the public … I am sensible that many of these reliques of antiquity will require great allowances to be made for them.” His defence is that the pieces are arranged chronologically to demonstrate “the gradual improvements of the English language and poetry from the earliest ages down to the present”, and that “they display the peculiar manners and customs of former ages, or throw light on our earlier classical poets”, including a section of “Ballads that illustrate Shakespeare.” Finally, he throws in supportive quotations from Sydney, Addison, and Nicholas Rowe, and claims the endorsement of William Shenstone, Thomas Warton and the Great Cham himself (Johnson wrote the Dedication to the Countess of Northumberland).

The words “Reliques”and “Ancient”, Percy’s last-minute choice by way of title, locate these songs and ballads firmly in the archaeological sub-strata of the Augustan peace. Groom notes how cannily this anticipates William Thoms’s invention in 1846 of the term “folklore”, with all its attendant cultural and aesthetic formations. In fact, the legacy is considerably longer. The assumption that surviving oral cultures are a kind of archive of the distant past out of which literate cultures evolved informs H. M. and N. K Chadwick’s magisterial survey The Growth of Literature (1932-40), while Percy’s fascination with the textual shift from orality to print (despite the fact that his original folio manuscript was already in written form) anticipates Milman Parry’s distinction between two kinds of form, “oral” and “written”, and the long dominance of oral formulaic theory with its reification of oral forms at the expense of their content, culminating in Marshal McLuhan’s and Walter J. Ong’s invention of “Oral Man”. One fascinating aspect of this edition of Reliques is the close attention paid to its status as a splendid example of eighteenth-century publishing, with a profusion of formats and typefaces and fine engravings.

“Reliques”, of course, is a deeply ambiguous word, especially in the context of sentiment and the Gothic. It suggests (in Johnson’s definition, quoted here) not only “that which remains”from the past but “that which is kept in memory … with a kind of religious veneration”. Yet is this in itself, or this combined with the sanitising of the “ballad”, a sufficient route to Lyrical Ballads and the “Dejection” and “Immortality” Odes? It seems worth inquiring whether Wordsworth and Coleridge had encountered Reliques before embarking on their “experiment”. Wordsworth is recorded as buying a copy (presumably the fourth edition) in the autumn of 1798, when Lyrical Ballads was already in print. Though long afterwards he claimed to have been introduced to Reliques by Bowman, his headmaster at Kendal, there is no sign of Percy’s influence in the writers surveyed in “An Evening Walk” (or indeed in the books in The Prelude). Much has been made of Coleridge’s reference to “Sir Cauline”, in a letter to Wordsworth of January 23, 1798. It may have been here he found the repeated phrase “fair Christobel” (though only in the 191 iines concocted by Percy and not in the 202 lines of the original folio manuscript). The familiar manner in which he refers to the ballad perhaps indicates that Reliques featured in the intensive review of ballad forms he and Wordsworth conducted in the spring of 1798. But so, too, did the mass of broadsheet materials they were collecting and which, as we have seen, furnished their references to “The Babes in the Wood”. As late as 1802, in the epigraph to the “Dejection Ode”, Coleridge is either misremembering Percy or quoting from some other version of “Sir Patrick Spens” he had to hand.

The distinction may seem a fine one. It matters because the impact of Reliques was much greater than supplying the odd name or some textual reminiscences. There are moments in literary history (arguably in eleventh-century Andalusia, giving rise to troubadour poetry, demonstrably in modern African and Caribbean poetry in English) when popular culture challenges literacy and raises the most basic questions about poetry’s subject-matter, forms, language and means of dissemination; in short, about who poetry belongs to. In an important paper pub­lished over forty years ago, Robert Mayo showed the impact of Reliques on the poetry appearing in monthly magazines – magazines not restricted by copyright laws and sharing in print something of the fluidity of oral poetry in the way poems which caught the fancy would be pirated, plagiarised, imitated and recast. Acknowledging that he was speaking only of a “persistent minority” of poems, Mayo showed how Percy’s popularization of the ballad form had spawned new subjects for poetry (deserted women, married or unmarried, with or without babies, often in exotic settings; beggars, both male and female, often ex-soldiers or sailors; peasants made destitute by enclosures or agricultural depression; idiots and convicts) together with new poetic forms (the ballad, the sketch, the complaint, the effusion, the anecdote, and especially the fragment), all prefiguring Lyrical Ballads in everything but simplicity of language. The term “ballad” in a poem’s title no longer functioned as a description of form; what it identified was the poem’s intended audience, in a manner given respectability by Reliques. It was this popular ferment that Wordsworth and Coleridge were addressing: “The Rime of the Ancient Marlner” was originally planned to earn them a fiver from one of the magazines to cover the cost of a walking tour.

Scott’s first encounter with Percy is revealing. He remembered ”the very grass seat … to which I retreated from my playfellows to devour the works of the ancient minstrels”. But they were not new to him. They were, he says, in an image conjuring illicit pleasures, “the secret Delilah of my imagination”. What he hadn’t realized, in his classroom study of Dryden and Pope, was that they were poetry, capable of being printed, glossed and analysed. The real importance of Reliques for Wordsworth’s generation is not that they read and digested and reproduced its abundance of forms and styles, but that Percy gave academic validation to a practice they had arrived at through their contact with popular forms, which had themselves been given a boost by Reliques.

Wordsworth’s endorsement is not without its own ambiguities. If Reliques belongs with Gray’s Celtic poetry and Walpole’s Gothic prose in marking the transition from Augustan neo-classicism to Gothic Romanticism, Percy’s acceptance into the pantheon marks the point at which Romanticism ceased to be iconoclastic and became preoccupied with establishing its own canon. Was this also the moment when Reliques ceased to be an innovative text? It seems unlikely that this new edition (astonishingly, the first since Henry Wheatley’s of 1889) will influence late twentieth-century poetic practice. But it should restore Reliques to their rightful place in Romantic criticism after a long period in which references to Percy have become somewhat formal and perfunctory. For those who can afford them, these are handsome volumes to possess, and an indispensable addition to any library.

First published the Times Literary Supplement, June 27 1997.

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Not Rule Britannia

Review of Robert Crawford & Mike Imlah, eds,
The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (2000)

We are so used to the phenomenon of English being an international language, or most people’s first choice of a second language, that we don’t reflect on how extraordinary it is. I’m not talking of the linguistic complacency that follows from finding English-speakers more or less everywhere these days. Nor of the fact that any moderately interesting book in English will find readers (and reviewers) not only in America and Australia but in Scandinavia and France and Chile – something that doesn’t happen, for example, for writers in Portuguese or Spanish, or Dutch. No, the most extraordinary aspect of world English is the number of movements of political and cultural resistance that have had to express their nationalism in English.

It’s often said to have begun in America. But that revolution was an offshoot of the enlightenment. It was in Haiti and Latin­America that the cultural-nationalist predicament was most fully experienced in the New World – Toussaint L’Ouverture rebelling in French and Simon Bolivar in Spanish. Almost simultaneously, Irish and Indian nationalists began stealing the emperor’s clothes. Since then, in the British Caribbean, and Malaysia and Africa, English has been in country after country the language of cultural resistance and national independence. Local languages have always had a part in this, fighting back hard with their own agenda, and infiltrating the local versions of English to form krios of their own. Yet English has been made to appear modernising, unifying and ‘national’, while the local languages have seemed backward-looking and divisive. In Zambia, for example, with its seven recognised local languages and its seventy-nine so-called ‘tribes’, the status of English is secure. More precisely, it is after English is secure that the local languages can be cultivated.

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Working with Leroy

I first met Leroy Vail when I joined the University of Malawi in August 1969. I met him as a member of a history department that, under Bridglal Pachai’s apparently innocuous leadership, was subversively the intellectual heart of the university. Robin Palmer (The Roots of Rural Poverty, 1977) was one colleague. Martin Chanock (Law, Custom and Social Order, 1985) was another. The history seminars of those days featured Matthew Schoffeleers (River of Blood, 1992) and Ian and Jane Linden (whose Catholics, Peasants & Chewa Resistance, 1974) has never received the recognition it deserves. And, of course, myself, there in Malawi to teach English literature, but drawn to history as the discipline with a brain. Student participants at these seminars included the poets Jack Mapanje and Lupenga Mphande, archaeologist Gadi Mgomezulu and historians Kings Phiri, Owen Kalinga, and Elias Mandala (Work & Control in a Peasant Economy, 1990).

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‘And So I Love It’

Review of Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart trans. Alison Entrekin;
The Passion According to G.H. trans. Idra Novey; Água Viva trans. Stefan Tobler;
A Breath of Life trans. Johnny Lorenz (New Directions, 2012).

Towards the end of Clarice Lispector’s first novel Near to the Wild Heart (Perto do coração selvagem, 1943), there is an exchange between Joanna, the heroine, and her bemused husband Otávio, that seven decades on has the capacity to shock:

‘It’ll only be over when I have a child, she repeated, vague, obstinate.
Otávio opened his eyes at her. ‘A little contrived this idea, don’t you think?’ he asked ironically.
‘What has been between us isn’t enough in itself. Whereas after a child there will be nothing left for us but separation.’
‘And what about the child?’, he asked. ‘What will the poor thing’s role be in this whole wise arrangement?’
‘Oh, he’ll live,’ she answered.
‘Is that all?’ he said, trying sarcasm.
‘What else can you do besides that?’
Otávio, thinking she was waiting, despite his shyness and anger at obeying her, concluded hesitantly:
‘Be happy, for example.’
Joana raised her eyes and looked at him from afar with surprise and a certain glee – why? – Otávio wondered frightened. He blushed as if he had made a ridiculous joke.

Otávio has been caught out expressing a hope. In Joana’s world of introspection and impulse, where there are no ideals or obligations, just freedom from such illusions, he has spoken like a child. Momentarily, though she quickly recovers, she loves him for it.

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Where Poetry Flows

My compass keeps avoiding all the facts
To find that South is its magnetic mover.
(Walcott, A Map of the Antilles)

Auden’s dictum ‘For poetry makes nothing happen’ is familiar and often contested. Less well remarked is how the passage continues – ‘it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper, flows on south …’

I was reminded of this association of poetry with non-utility and the non-executive, and of both with ‘south’, when I read Michael Collins’s fascinating piece on ‘John Ormond in Tuscany’ (PW 35, 4). Ormond published his first volume of poems in 1943, and soon after burned everything he had written. It was a visit to Tuscany in 1963 which, in his own words, ‘broke the blockage that had kept me virtually silent for too many years’ and led to his writing ‘Cathedral Builders’ in ‘twenty minutes flat’. Thereafter, Ormond visited the small town of Cortona every summer to drink the white wine and write poetry. At home, he was a television man, an executive of sorts. In Cortona he felt able, in his Puccini-derived Italian, to declare ‘Sono poeta’.

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