Africa. A continent roughly the size of the United States, China, India, and much of Europe combined. A continent of breathtaking natural beauty, unparalleled human history, and extraordinary cultural diversity, traversed eponymously by Griff Rhys Jones on slow trains. The myriad wonders of this vast continent shoehorned into just five one-hour episodes.
Slow Train Through Africa, which covers an astonishing 11,000 kilometres through Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa, opens with the bland, if indisputable line: “Africa — there’s nowhere else quite like it.”
An archetypical entertaining documentary on this most vast of continents, Rhys Jones checks in at the Sahara, goes on safari, attends a Maasai ceremony, and gazes at the Victoria Falls. Fulfilling his travelogue series responsibility of partaking in local practices, he amusingly softens leather by treading on it in a vat of pigeon droppings, experiments with cutting emeralds, and trains with a pair of Kenyan distance runners.
Yet, such novelty felt distinctly peripheral. The most valuable parts of the series were his unscripted interactions with ordinary people, such as his solidarity with a picket of singing rail workers, his wild popularity having inadvertently purchased a barrel of the local liquor, and his self-deprecating humility when repeatedly duped by street traders.
“The whole overview is a look at ordinary people living and working in Africa. Ninety per cent of the stories that come out of Africa are about disease, poverty and war, but the majority of the population of Africa gets on with their lives and don’t encounter the brutal end of this. People were genuinely pleased to hear I wasn’t there making a film about poverty.” – Griff Rhys Jones.
Authentically charming and witty, Rhys Jones is an entertaining presenter, and he marshals professionally the formulaic enterprise of the genre. Moreover, though, the series succeeds in its aim of presenting an Africa rarely seen in the shock-horror news reports. Instead, his is a glimpse into Africa that ought to challenge the still prevalent, stereotyped view of a continent constantly assailed by disease, poverty and war.
Admittedly, however, a cosy celebrity travelogue is hardly the forum for incisive political analysis, and so, despite the best efforts of Rhys Jones thoughtfully authored script, Slow Train Through Africa unfortunately develops into yet one more example of the insidiously nostalgic throwback to the history of European colonialism. The underlying story is of the colonials who brought the railways to many parts of Africa, and as Rhys Jones himself puts it, “it is [the story of] how the modern world arrived in Africa, usually to exploit bits of it.”
As Rhys Jones explains, “there’s a history overlying the railway, which is the history of the struggle for Africa. You can’t avoid that.” The problem, however, is in its presentation of that struggle. It absolves the institution of colonialism of blame, instead apportioning the responsibility onto greedy colonists. The British and French empires, foremost colonists of Africa, are portrayed as philanthropic benefactors, credited with instigating the development of Africa through, for example, the construction of railways. Yet, it was, of course, the systemic cruelty of colonialism, and slave-powered mercantilism before that, which, at state level, harboured the moral justification for individual wickedness.
Meanwhile, Rhys Jones deems reprehensible the motives of the individual colonist when discussing the origins of Namibia and Zambia’s railroads, constructed to transport plundered minerals rather than passengers. Even then, however, the criticism is one based upon economic greed, rather than institutional white supremacy. It paints a condemnatory picture of the rapacious capitalist exploiting African labour to extract vast mineral wealth, yet it is suspiciously quiet on the realities of slave labour, and on the racial superiority propagated by the colonial beneficiaries of such enterprises.
At times, Rhys Jones even loses himself eulogising over the ambition of colonial pioneer Cecil Rhodes to connect Cairo and Cape Town by rail. After such misty-eyed admiration, it then appears disingenuous when he forces himself to question the legacy of Rhodes and his peers, though even then remaining silent on their white supremacist views. The inference, then, is that the atrocities with which they are associated were the result of regrettable character flaws in otherwise great men.
That is not to say that greed was not a factor, but to frame the narrative of colonialism in such a way overlooks the institutionalised cruelty of imperial rule. It absolves the culpability of nations so intent on plundering the wealth of a continent that they wilfully manipulated the history of Africa, inventing the concept of race and racial superiority in order to justify the enslavement and slaughter of a native population.
Is it any wonder, then, with such propagandistic representations of our colonial history so widespread, that a recent poll found that 59% of Brits believe that the British Empire is something to be proud of? Particularly prevalent since the Brexiteers promise of “taking our country back”, this imperial pomp has been diagnosed by academic Paul Gilroy as a necessary symptom of “postcolonial melancholia”, a yearning for a time when Britain was a great leader in the world.
One key feature of “postcolonial melancholia” is the minimising of the brutal history of Britain’s ruling of the waves, namely its subjugation of a third of the world’s population through empire, colonialism, and slavery. Lest we forget: far from a benevolent saviour, the British empire was based on exploitation, murder and devastation. Hundreds of millions of people died as a result of Britain’s vicious regime. Indeed, the empire only collapsed after rebellions and revolutions by those oppressed.
Another key feature in this nostalgic adulation of empire is the celebration of what Winston Churchill called “its glories and all the services it rendered to mankind”. Almost half of survey respondents felt that the former colonies “were better off” as a result of colonisation. The propagation of such false legacies as civilisational advancement cajoles a population into believing that the blood-stained tyranny of empire was humane and benign. It denies and distorts the truth of imperial rule rather than acknowledging the creation of political and economic systems that impoverished Africa to enrich Europe.
We celebrate the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, for example, regardless of the truth that the act in no way ended slavery. We deify the abolitionist William Wilberforce, regardless of the truth that the trade ended mostly due to economic concerns, and in pragmatic response to rebellion. We self-congratulate a moral awakening, regardless of the truth that compensation was paid to slave owners, while the formerly enslaved received nothing but an effective return to slavery through apprenticeships and colonialism. We focus on the achievement of abolition, ignoring the preceding 245 years during which Britain was the foremost slave trading nation in Europe, enslaving and trafficking 3.4 million Africans.
Yet the persistence of such terrifying public opinion is an indictment of the failure of our school system to provide even a cursory history of empire. Children go from Henry VIII to the Nazis, omitting that period in between when Britain ruled over the greatest empire ever known, the legacy of which still plays a crucial role in the modern world. Its profits fuelled the industrial revolution, and, by extension, the ascension of Britain to global power status. The very notion of “Great” Britain, and the wealth in which it basks to this day, for example, is intimately tied to slave labour, to which conservative estimates link between 10% and 20% of current GDP. Meanwhile, the devastation of the colonised goes some way to explaining the poverty and conflict in many parts of the world today, including troubled parts of Africa as explored by Griff Rhys Jones.
In truth, Slow Train Through Africa probably goes further in its condemnation of colonial powers than most other mainstream productions have on the subject. It is perhaps this which makes its hesitant condemnation all the more frustrating, particularly given that for most people, this is their greatest exposure to our imperial past.
When Rudyard Kipling retired, he wrote to Cecil Rhodes: “England is a stuffy little place, mentally, morally and physically”. Perhaps it remains so now, only more so, without an empire attached. Maybe that very littleness is why there’s a certain nostalgic folie de grandeur. Perhaps a recognition of the horrific brutality at the dark heart of empire would shake the nation out of its postcolonial melancholia. Perhaps we reminisce about the days of empire, and pine for Britain to be great again, because to do so avoids any uncomfortable reckoning with its terrible colonial legacy.