Colonisers and colonised – the shadows of the past

One of the services I offer is editing, and one of my clients is the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, based in Senegal.

One of the first pieces of work I did for them was to edit a series of articles about the arts in Africa, in which questions of colonisation and decolonisation were dominant themes.

As I read the articles, I was irresistibly reminded of a television series called Colony.

At first glance, it seems Colony is just another science fiction offering – aliens, good guys, bad guys, space ships, shoot-outs … it’s all there.

But I think it may be one of the most subversive shows I’ve ever watched.

First, a trailer:

What is Colony about?

A brief summary of the premise: the show is set in a future Los Angeles, now occupied by an unseen and mysterious race of aliens. The city has been divided in two by a huge wall, and the series focuses on one family, the Bowmans. One of the Bowman children is trapped on one side of the wall, while the rest of the family is on the other. The main driver of the plot is of course the family’s heroic attempts to find the lost son in the face of many and terrible obstacles.

So far, so not very original.

But, as the series unfolds, it gets interesting. Will Bowman, the father, is coerced into collaborating with the human Transitional Authority (the governing body doing the work of the alien masters). Katie Bowman, the mother, instead joins the resistance. The teenage son spirals away from them, trying to find his own way to save his brother. The young daughter becomes indoctrinated into a religion punted by the aliens and taught to her by a government-provided babysitter.

Divide and conquer

The family is torn apart while all around them terrible things happen, well-summarised in the Wikipedia article on the subject:

The ruling forces maintain control through the separation of family members, shoot-on-sight curfews, forced disappearances, random checkpoints, frequent electronic identity checks, limitation of motor vehicle usage (most people walk or ride bicycles), pervasive visual propaganda, slave labor in a place called the “Factory” (later revealed to be located on the Earth’s moon to mine radioactive materials), and massive continuous electronic surveillance with both hidden cameras as well as host-provided drone aircraft that launch from hangar bays inside the wall and capable of killing humans by extremely lethal high energy weaponry. Some medical problems, such as diabetes, have been “deemed unworthy for treatment” by the Hosts, to cull the population.

I’m not going to go deeper into the plot because I urge you to watch the series if you can. Season 3 is available on the South African instance of Netflix.

I am however going to ask you to look at the scenario I sketched above, sift out the modern technology aspects, and do some imagining, like this:

You live in an African village. People arrive in large ships and occupy your land, building themselves houses separate from the place where you live. They don’t speak your language, they wear strange clothes and they have weapons which kill, in ways you don’t understand.

Your family and the people you love and care about react differently: some work with the newcomers, some band together to fight them. Some are taken away on the large ships, never to be seen again.

I don’t have to go on, I think. The parallels between the colonisation of Africa and other parts of world, and the colonisation of earth as depicted in the TV series are not hard to see, and again, not particularly original (as far as science fiction goes).

But because the series focuses on the emotions of one family (and is well-written and well-acted), it makes the dislocation and terror and sheer strangeness of being colonised very real. I found while watching it that I could not stop asking myself: if the town I lived in was to be colonised in this way, how would I feel? How might my children feel? How might I feel if I had been colonised years ago, by aliens who still lived in my town?

As a representative, in skin colour if nothing else, of the people who once colonised Africa, I also ask: Am I an alien? What does being alien in this place, all these years later mean?

White colonisers of Africa were not alien in the way in which Colony portrays the “Raptors” who came on the spaceships, unimaginable creatures from another planet. Africa’s colonisers were human. And yet so divorced from their own humanity that they were prepared to treat fellow humans as other, as servants and slaves, unpaid labourers and unwilling consorts.

And, as Ursula le Guin writes:

If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself — as men have done to women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation — you may hate it, or deify it; but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality, and its human reality. You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship. And thus you have fatally impoverished your own reality. You have, in fact, alienated yourself.

While Colony depicts, in devastating detail, the effects of colonisation on the colonised, it also shows the shadow carried by the colonisers and their collaborators, so removed from decency and morality and compassion that they are in fact no longer human.

And these shadows haunt us still today, wherever we trace our lines of ancestry to.

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Main picture: The British Library, Unsplash. The caption reads: “Slaves working in the boiling house. Image taken from Ten Views in the Island of Antigua, in which are represented the process of sugar making, and the employment of the negroes…From drawings made by W. Clark, etc. (With descriptive letterpress). Originally published/produced in Thomas Clay: London, 1823.”

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