The Colonizer and the Colonized: A psychological study of colonial oppression

During the 1950s, in the midst of ugly colonial wars of independence Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957), explored the injustice and oppressive daily humiliations of the colonized.   Memmi was a self-made intellectual who contributed immensely to the effervescence of French cultural life. Edward Said (1994) referred to Memmi as one of the few intellectuals during the colonial period who managed to bridge the gap between the colonized and the colonizer.

First published in 1957, The Colonizer and the Colonized was born out of Albert Memmi‘s direct experiences in North Africa. At the time Algeria was in flames and the French Empire was disintegrating. Circulated in French colonial prisons, Memmi‘s work offers a psychological rather than an economic study of the effects of colonialism. In his 1965 preface, Memmi affirms that the ’economic aspect of colonisation is fundamental‘, yet this is hardly touched on. Instead he provides a portrait of the coloniser and the colonised, the relationships and dynamics between these two groups, and the psychological impact upon the protagonists.

This is a world in which the coloniser enjoys privilege while the colonised live in subhuman conditions and are viewed as a mass. They do not exist as individuals but become objects. They are nothing. As Cecil Rhodes once said, ’I prefer land to niggers.‘ Not surprisingly, racism became central to the system and not an incidental detail.

Memmi poetically describes how the stranglehold of colonisation leads to the loss of the colonised‘s history, memory and language. The colonised‘s native tongue becomes rusted and is neither written nor read. All institutions of power use the language of the coloniser, and so the colonised‘s institutions become dead or petrified. All progress, including technological advances, becomes associated with the coloniser. As a result the movement against colonisation makes the colonised assert their differences to the coloniser. This results in a return to religion, traditional institutions and culture.

Memmi is scathing of those Europeans who live in the colonies but who do not agree with it. Ultimately he believes that they will either return to Europe or become colonisers themselves. There is no middle ground: ’All Europeans in the colonies are de facto colonisers.‘ While it is true that Europeans in the colonies had privilege, this does not equate to all of them supporting and upholding the system. In fact there was a minority in many colonial outposts which did not accept the rule of the mother country and supported the colonised in their efforts to liberate themselves. But Memmi goes further: ’Europeans of Europe are potentially colonisers… By their whole weight, intentionally or not, they contribute to the perpetuation of colonial oppression.‘ This is that age-old argument that all of those living in the west, from the industrialist to the worker, benefit from and support the oppression of those in poorer nations. This may not entirely be true.

In any case, Where Hegel discussed the psycho-social relations between the ‘master’ and the ‘slave,’ Memmi turns toward the relations between Colonizer and Colonized. Like Aime Cesaire, Malcolm X, Franz Fanon, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and so many others of the mid 20th century anti-colonial movements, Memmi is interested in exposing the crippling psychological effects of the colonial relationship for all involved. His standpoint as a Jew in the middle of French North Africa allows him an inside/outside perspective which helps him to interpret the worlds of both colonizer and colonized. An exceptional work of anti-colonial theory, this book can open even stubbornly shut eyes.

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