Nicholas Monsarrat, a hobby sailor who became a naval reserve officer on corvettes during the Second World War, is best known for his novel The Cruel Sea, about a hobby sailor who became a naval reserve officer on corvettes during the Second World War. After the war Monsarrat joined the British civil service and served in various far-flung African posts, then turned to writing. One of his novels was 1956’s The Tribe That Lost Its Head, about a far-flung African post which the British civil service inadvertently helps into chaos.
My God, you’re never going to see this book in a university class. Even for me it is wrong-headedly reactionary. Monsarrat’s narrative defends, among other things, a cultural prohibition on racially mixed marriages and barring black men from a hotel bar. The essential tone of the novel is that the British are quite justified remaining in colonial Africa as masters and commanders, and that the black natives in some of these places are presently incapable of self-rule and must be guided to that point (only some, since another important point is that “Africa” isn’t the land of one-size-fits-all). The phrase “white man’s burden” is used only mockingly, but the attitude is embraced sincerely.
A modern reader will see a lot of racism portrayed favourably (seriously, a whites-only bar?!). You’ll never acquit the novel of that charge, though it’s fairly good all the same. However, in Monsarrat’s day the term “racialism” was more common, and associated with overt notions of white supremacy. Saying that a given people weren’t ready for the trials of self-government could be quite common among people who would never think about snubbing a black visitor or using a slur even behind his back. The modern idea of racism, which encompasses many paternalistic and cultural notions that were popular in living memory as well as the idea that one skin colour is biologically superior, is a different thing. In that light, as well as in light of how we’ve come to think in the past sixty years, how nasty is Monsarrat’s fictional perspective?
For sure, the American publishers of my cheap 1976 copy did Monsarrat no favours.
I’d be embarrassed to look somebody in the eye while buying a book like that. That is pornographic; undiluted black-savages-white-maidens torture porn for furtive reading alone on a Tuesday night. Monsarrat liked to spice up his books &emdash; The Cruel Sea contains one of literature’s more flagrant romantic plot tumours, and The Tribe That Lost Its Head has plenty of unerotic sex &emdash; but that cover is too much. Monsarrat’s literary sex is faintly absurd, coming a disastrous 60% of the way down the road of euphemism. It will not turn anybody on. That cover will arouse people I have no desire to meet.
It’s also unrepresentative. The “quote” on the back cover does not appear anywhere in the book. While it describes something like a plot point, the actual events are different and the lip-licking relish entirely absent. The gurning close-cropped generic savage on the front wielding his badly-drawn blade has no resemblance to any character, and as for the dead, naked white woman, fictional reality is far more horrifying. This novel was written during the Mau Mau rising in Kenya, an eight-year campaign of butchery and atrocity, and the connection would have been clear to contemporary readers. A decade and a half later, such a novel apparently had to be marketed to the sadist.
Anybody opening The Tribe That Lost Its Head looking for delicious shivers of barbarian pleasure would be disappointed. The novel is rather long and slow-paced. Rebellion and horror come, but not until two-thirds of the way in. The meat of the novel is preparing for a nightmare that we can all anticipate, establishing the mistakes, bad faith, and flawed personalities that would lead to disaster for everyone concerned. That, not a publisher’s lewd embellishments, is where The Tribe That Lost Its Head becomes reactionary.
Monsarrat’s was a fast-dying point of view even in 1956, and like many reactionaries he carefully shows what he isn’t. The action is set on the fictional African island of Pharmamaul, a British colony off the west coast of South Africa, and a few South African characters appear. They are authentic racialists of the era, freely using slurs in the hearing of their targets and viewing the black natives as fit only for servitude, interchangeable kaffirs worth no more consideration than a not-very-favoured dog. There’s a line and the South Africans cross it. Apartheid is bad, treating people as animals is bad.
Gotwels, chief of the U-Maulas, is a revolting creature, but the entire point of him is that he is far from representative, a dark man to bring on dark times. He is spurred into action by Zuva Katsaula, a native Pharmamaulan educated and ruined at Oxford; addicted not to pleasure but power and self-righteousness. Each loathes the other and will betray him as soon as they have driven off the white man. They are bound together only by lust for power and a sexual, pagan oath Zuva swears midway through the book, the only real ooga-booga-darkest-Africa moment in the novel and as usual with Monsarrat’s sex described so semi-opaquely it becomes goofy rather than mystical or arousing.
Zuva and Gotwels get their chance because of weakness and malice that crosses racial lines. Dinamaula, the new chief of the dominant Maulas, is another young Oxford-educated man flying home to take his inheritance. He is progressive, and not quite entirely good, and if he obstructs white authority as it tries to maintain order it is only because white authority, in the person of British administrator Andrew Macmillan, was so obstructive to him. Dinamaula gives an off-the-cuff interview on the plane stating his plans for his country, the putrid yellow journalist torques his words for maximum effect, and his first meeting with Macmillan, the man whose cooperation is essential, is a harshly-worded lecture from an adult to a child when Dinamaula did nothing really wrong. It gets worse from there.
Macmillan is a perfect Monsarrat character; the old, infinitely experienced, underpaid, overworked colonial administrator, loving and beloved by his servant, the man who knows every man and every twig on his beat… but that knowledge amounts to less than he thinks, and his good intentions pave the road to Hell. He favours progress, but on his terms, and even if his terms amount to progress at the pace he thinks the Maulas can stand that rigidity ruins everything he worked for. Dinamaula, immediately under Macmillan’s heel, reacts by getting closer to the media that caused the whole mess, withdrawing his cooperation with the British authorities. He speculates that he might marry a white woman, which would go against all custom. Half-begrudgingly, he helps that aforementioned yellow journalist make a scene by marching into the bar where he knows black people are not welcome. Again, the argument comes down to “custom” versus the Western ideal of racial justice and self-determination. Macmillan’s insistence on the former proves fatal.
Nor is Macmillan the only white man responsible for trouble. Some are basically stupid, like the plantation owner Oosthuizen. Some, like the Governor, are competent men who underestimate key details. The out-and-out villains of the piece are Zuva, Gotwels, and the vast, all-white press gallery: first the old-fashioned, brilliant, and utterly amoral Tulbach Browne, then the varied but equally cretinous members of the fifth estate his rabble-rousing brings in his wake. Men and women who would make Waugh’s Daily Brute run for cover; if I say that there is a tabloid sex-maniac named Raper, whose (consensual, thank God) liaisons provide most of the comedy of the later chapters, you will get the idea. Gotwels would have been stuck as a disgusting minor power, and Zuva a demagogic non-entity, if Browne and the newspapers hadn’t roused England (and therefore the colonial administration) and Dinamaula purely for the sake of sales. If you think Stephen Harper is hard on the media, try Nicholas Monsarrat on for size.
Yet this is no argument for black self-rule. The would-be rulers are debauched, power-mad, or simply savage. There are wise men among the Maulas but little group wisdom. The Maulas and U-Maulas are not generic black villains waiting to rape white women, and we are shown the internal struggle and oppression it takes to bring about barbarism, but the barbarism does come and is ultimately put down by force. Macmillan is catastrophically wrong in detail, but he is not wrong in principle, and by novel’s end our bright-eyed protagonist, new to the country, is acknowledging it. Even Dinamaula comes to understand, if he does not necessarily agree. The day will come for Pharmamaul self-rule, but it is not today or even tomorrow, and until then the British must guide the natives as best as fallible humans can.
Monsarrat was an intelligent man who served in and around colonial governments of the era, but we have the advantage of sixty years’ more experience. In the last chapter, he lays out some editorial in the form of the chief of the (fictional) Scheduled Territories Office, telling our returned protagonist the facts of life. They have not aged gracefully. The Central African Federation is cited as, hopefully, a model for the future. Five years after The Tribe That Lost Its Head‘s publication the Federation had broken up. One of the constituent countries, Zambia, had 19 years of single-party rule but is in pretty good shape for the region. Another, Malawi, had the brutal Hastings Banda as President-for-Life for 28 years and is currently both destitute and semi-oppressed. The third was Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe, and no more need be said. Monsarrat was right when he condemned the excesses of apartheid-style exploitation and said they could not last, but he failed to foresee the excesses that would be required to round off the fatherly education of peoples he thought necessary.
It’s true that many a post-colonial African country has collapsed into just the type of failed state Monsarrat warns against, but even the strongest European determination didn’t stop that. Four years after Monsarrat’s book was published France finally gave up on Algeria, allegedly an integral part of the Republic, after hundreds of thousands of deaths and one of the most brutal “counter-insurgencies” of the post-1945 epoch. Many other African countries, some as cherished as Algeria and some less, went the same way, and then we spin our eyes to Vietnam and the butcher’s bill for such paternalism starts to turn the stomach. For Monsarrat these were current events, for us it is history, and history has not been kind.
In the book, the Pharmamaul rebellion is more-or-less crushed in a day. In reality, it was never, ever so easy, and the price not nearly so cheap. It was a price government after government decided they could not pay, and for that matter one they could not levy on a native population with no say in the matter. Sure, The Tribe That Lost Its Head is reactionary, but it’s not rubbish, because it gives us a look back at the thoughts of a well-informed man at a time when modern conclusions weren’t yet obvious.