Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Uncle Charles and the Boko Haram

Boko Haram is the name that Western commentators give to one of the fundamentalist Moslem organizations in northern Nigeria. In the context of Islamism, a fair translation is probably “Purity”. Its members are fiercely anti-all-things-Western – not least, the national borders of Africa that were set in stone by generations of European politicians. Boko Haram doesn’t recognize those borders, and would like to establish a Moslem Caliphate – a theocratic empire with administrative districts but no independent nation-states.

(Boko Haram is notorious for having abducted two hundred Christian girls from a school in the region, and offered to exchange them for members of its cult held by the national government.)

The people of northern Nigeria were pagans from time immemorial until Moslem slavers, armies and missionaries pushed down from the coasts of North Africa and converted many of them to Islam. Some of the converts, and some of the remaining pagans, were later converted to Christianity by British slavers, armies and missionaries pushing up from the south.

I blame my Uncle Charles for much of the current trouble, including the abduction of the two hundred schoolgirls. Of course he was just following orders, as all soldiers do. In his case, the orders from London were to annihilate the local Moslem resistance-fighters led by the Sultan of Sokoto, in 1903. He did a good job of it. The death of the Sultan and his troops signaled the collapse of the Caliphate of the day.

The British Army rewarded Charles and his fellow officers with promotions and medals, and the missionaries moved in to save the souls of the survivors and their families. Occasional later rebellions were successfully put down – “brutally”, Wikipedia says – and the soldiers no doubt filled their boots with native blood. Local resentment simmered away on the back burner, culminating (perhaps) in the abduction of the schoolgirls earlier this year. So thanks for nothing, Uncle Charles!

Actually, he was my father’s uncle – not mine – the last of his generation of Barlows to die. He and his older brother were career Army Officers. Both were participants in the invasion and occupation of the Afrikaans republics – “The Boer War”. Lionel stayed in South Africa after the war, and his descendants were eventually dispossessed of their farm in Zimbabwe a decade or so ago. What goes around, comes around, right? Empires come and go.

Another brother died of malaria while farming in Madagascar, of all places; yet another was killed by aborigines in the Australian bush while panning for gold without their permission. (Somewhere in my papers I have the envelope that once held the last letter his mother wrote to him from England. Addressed to Graham Barlow, Esq, Coen Gold Fields, North Queensland, it was returned undelivered in 1898. On the envelope she noted, “Graham was never heard from again”.)

A fourth brother signed on with an Australian shipping line after the South African war, and married a passenger from Toowoomba. Uncle Charles used to send his Australian nephews ten pounds every Christmas, just to keep in touch. That was nice. The expectation of meeting me, in 1963, kept him alive for an extra little while, his daughter Lucy told me. He died a week after we met, on his deathbed in the house where he and my grandfather had been born, outside Bath, Somerset.

Lucy died unmarried and childless, so I was allowed to take assorted bits of silverware the burglars didn’t carry away – souvenirs of a life spent expanding the Empire. Ross uses one of his Polo trophies from Nigeria as an ashtray in the cabin in Norway. Sigh. What can I say? Sic transit gloria, really.