Where did a war kill 40 million? Not in Africa

From beyond the grave Field Marshal Montgomery has raised the question of Africa's past, present and future. Government papers, recently released, set out his views.

Following a journey through colonial Africa in 1947, Montgomery proposed to the colonial secretary that a new and vigorous injection of white settlers replace the tired, lazy, corrupt and already established white population. This superior race would then establish permanent rule over the natives. Apartheid South Africa should be the model for African development, suggested Montgomery, because the black African was "a complete savage".

Generations of English men and women have subscribed to such views, but we should not forget the equal vigour of the dissenting tradition.

I was nine years old, sitting at a desk in form 1A at Queens Royal College in Port of Spain, Trinidad, when W D Rice entered the classroom to educate the natives in history. Dressed in khaki drill, short-sleeved shirt tucked into his short trousers of similar cloth, knitted socks to his knees and brown brogues, he looked colonial to the bone. Spittle splashed all over his desk as he spoke.

Yet he opened the lesson on the second world war with a statement I remember to this day. History, said Rice, is not a series of facts joined together, without attitude. European civilisation had degenerated to such a degree, he said, that it had consumed the lives of 40 million people between 1939 and 1945. He described it as a moment of tragedy, of barbarism, previously unknown in human history. If you remember nothing else, he said, remember that there is no glory in war. This truth came from the spittled mouth of a Cambridge graduate as white as snow.

Montgomery was responding to the revolt that was brewing in one of Britain's most cherished colonies. Ex-servicemen who had fought under his command and acquitted themselves creditably had returned to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) with declarations against racial discrimination - and in favour of human rights and freedom - ringing in their ears, only to be faced with a colonial constitution that established the direct opposite. Following a successful boycott of European goods, which began on 11 January 1948, the ex-servicemen's union called for a public demonstration on 28 February. They marched to Christianborg Castle, the governor's residence. A squad of police barred the way and, in the course of the dispute that followed, the superintendent of police, a white officer, fired on the demonstrators, killing two and wounding others.

This was perhaps the first major confrontation between the mass of discontented Africans and those who agreed with Montgomery. We now know who won that historic battle. Today, not a single colony exists in Africa.

Now, people ask if Montgomery was right. Does contemporary Africa show that its people cannot govern themselves without mass mayhem and destruction?

I answer only in this way. By no stretch of the imagination have Africans exceeded the 40 million deaths and the physical carnage into which an advanced civilisation plunged itself barely 50 years ago, when all Europe became a graveyard.

That does not prevent us from criticising African leaders. The middle-class, educated Africans, many of them graduates of European universities or other European institutions, have heaped upon tribal Africa things that are quite irrational. Instead of a democracy built from tribal roots, they have imposed parliamentary democracy. This is the fundamental contradiction upon which so many have perished and so many development plans have bitten the dust. Democracy will return to Africa only when it is based on the customs of the mass of rural and urban ordinary Africans.

And as for Montgomery, he turned out to be no different from those he had fought against: African had replaced Jew in his mind and he recommended a Nazi course in Africa.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?