Tuesday, April 06, 2010


The Tribe That Lost Its Head, Nicholas Monsarrat, William Sloane Associates, 1956, 598 pp

This long novel was the #8 bestseller in 1956. Set on a fictitious island off the west coast of Africa, it is a story of trouble between the British Empire and the natives on the island, which Great Britain has ruled for 100 years.
Troubles have erupted before because just about anything can set off the natives who become savage and violent. This time the catalysts are the death of the tribe's chief, the return of the chief's son from England where he has been getting an education and the descent on the island of the worst kind of news reporters.

The overall tone is pro-Empire and conservative. The British residents on the island (the Governor, the Resident Commissioner and the head of police) see no other solution than the use of military force to put down the violence and take out the few key natives who are fomenting the situation. Due to the meddling of a sensationalist press, who run around stirring up trouble between the two sides, the outside world is on the side of the natives, wanting to see them have their freedom. The line of the British government is that the tribe is not "ready" for self-government and won't be for a long time.

I was of course annoyed by this conservative view but by the end of the book I realized that once any white "advanced" civilization subjugates a more primitive people, there are several things at stake. Primarily it is an economic problem, because the subjugators are there for their own profit. In their view, the natives are "ready" for self-government when they have been sufficiently "civilized," meaning they can enter into the economy of the rest of the world as players rather than as workers/slaves within the system.

Now I understand the "white man's burden" and I must thank Nicholas Monsarrat for making it clear to me. It was created by the white man as an explanation. We will plunder the natural resources of primitive areas and in return we will "teach" the natives how to play the game, but we do not really envision ever giving them as much power as we have. What a world.

(The Tribe That Lost Its Head is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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