I have been a victim of the colonial cringe. Even in post-colonial times it has felt strange to be an Africa-based author of books on British imperial aviation. Ought a British historian to have written Air Empire (2009) and Cultures and Caricatures (2012)? How might the analysis have been different? How might it have dealt with Africa?
The research started two decades ago in South Africa, a British Imperial Airways terminus in the 1930s, and an endpoint of second-generation and fabled Cape-to-Cairo journeys. Working in Johannesburg, my academic curiosity collided with childhood fascination with flying. Later, a decade of working in Britain gave access to more archival and library sources and enabled the fleshing out of sketchy ideas based from an out-of-print, second-hand book about Imperial Airways airmailed from the USA, and from a limited range of official reports and correspondence in South African archives and newspapers.
My African roots – and some post-colonial consciousness – predisposed a new point of departure for scrutinising British overseas aviation. Taking up the threads of research critical of railway enterprise in southern Africa, I wanted an ‘outsider’ inquiry to be more than a celebration of another First World technology being applied overseas. Some research experience in a humanist mould also prompted search for the human experiences and meanings of flight, its dissonances, and its representations. The historical geographer in me had to resist that felt impurity too and to fend off thoughts that dyed-in-the-wool metropolitan imperial historians would do a better job. Different, yes.
The proudly multi-disciplinary (hybridised?) end products of the research, the two monographs Air Empire and Cultures and Caricatures, ‘take off’ from the familiar argument that transportation played a significant part in the creation of extractive colonial economies in Africa, and in the culture and symbolism of imperialism there. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, shipping, porterage and railway trains were crucial ‘tools of Empire’ on the continent. In the 1920s and 1930s the technology of aviation seemed set to start a new era of European domination of African communications and trade. Political and commercial interests in Britain were especially hopeful that the speed and reach of commercial flying would prolong and extend British imperial influence in Africa where overland transport was so weakly developed. The dash for air route and market prominence was palpable; the race to beat Dutch and Belgian colonial rivals into African skies echoed old geopolitics.
In practice it was difficult to transfer the infant technology into African spaces where long distances, high altitude, and weather extremes were significant obstacles. Imperial discourses of adventure and conquest resurfaced. Notions of superiority and caricatures of ‘civilisation’ and ‘backwardness’ re-appeared in connection with the new class of aeromobile British citizens and expatriates. Africans, for their part, were variously amazed and phlegmatic about the new mobility they serviced as aircraft cleaners and re-fuelers, airfield labourers, and occasional rescuers of passengers and crews after aircraft accidents in remote places. Africans spoke of ‘white man’s madness’. They used biblical and avian references to comprehend flight; their mechanical innocence made them figures of fun. African people, customs and speech were used as counterpoints for caricatures of modernity associated with flying.
African skies and landing grounds were an important testing ground for the design and implementation of long-distance and intercontinental commercial aviation in late colonial times. The air routes developed across Africa in the 1930s formed the template for decades of air transport on the continent. Just as important, solo and commercial flying to, from and across Africa – and the plentiful writing, illustration and filming associated with it – are a window onto late colonialism in the continent. Stereotyping of place and people persisted: Europeans continued to regard Africa as an imperial playground and resource, and to treat Africans as servants. Colonial resistance to the specifics of the new aviation enterprise was mostly about shouldering expenses imposed by London, and not about African exclusion from the benefits of aviation.
Air Empire and Cultures and Caricatures are not only about British imperial aviation in Africa. They also refer to private and commercial flying in the Middle East, India, South East Asia and Australia. But, because of my own roots and familiarities, Africa does feature prominently. This might not have been the case had the research started in Britain. It might not have been the case had the enquiry begun after electronic access to archive materials in places far from Africa. Yet, attending to the African case as a braid is geographically corrective itself, and is appropriate because of the supposed universal and universalising aspect of air transportation.
There is certainly more to uncover about colonial aviation in Africa from African archive sources. The stage is also now set for research into links between commercial aviation and decolonisation in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. Step forward yet more hybrid researchers?
Gordon Pirie is author of British imperial civil aviation, 1919-39 and Cultures and caricatures of British imperial aviation. He is Deputy Director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town.