Halfway through Nigerian MC and singer Burna Boy’s 2019 album, African Giant, the clipped tones of the BBC cut a dry clearing in the verdant sonic landscape. The track ‘Another Story’ begins with a spoken narrative, delivered without instrumental backing, insisting that ‘To understand Nigeria/You need to appreciate where it came from.’ This claim cuts to the BBC archive footage announcing that:
In 1900, Britain officially assumed responsibility
For the administration of the whole of what we now know as
Nigeria from the Niger Company
And then, gradually over the years
British protectorates were established throughout the territory
In 1914, the protectorates were amalgamated into one Nigeria
The original speaker then interjects to inform us of an ‘additional detail,’ namely that:
In order to take over the territories from the Niger Company
The British Government paid eight hundred and sixty-five thousand pounds
A huge amount in 1900
They go on to identify ‘a simple truth’:
The British didn’t travel halfway across the world just to spread democracy
Nigeria started off as a business deal for them
Between a company and a government.
And then, as the music enters, the listener is left with a final, unsettling fact, delivered almost as aside:
Incidentally, the Niger Company is still around today
Only it is known by a different name, Unilever
But that’s another story.
And it is this story – a story of the ways in which the geopolitical, legal, financial and psychic structures of our world are shaped by imperialism – that Kojo Koram’s new book, Uncommon Wealth: Britain and the Aftermath of Empire tells, in sharp and exacting detail.
The convergence of Burna Boy’s attempt to set the historical record straight to a huge global audience and Koram writing this book is, I think, worth pausing on, not least because it ties in with Koram’s other recent publications, a series of articles on popular music published by Novara Media. Koram is highly attentive to the domain of the cultural, carefully exploring what he refers to as England’s ‘African Renaissance,’ particularly in music. He pays Black British music the care and intellectual attention it demands, illuminating the reference to Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise in the album art of South London MC Dave’s second album and the presence of African animism in J Hus’ Fanonian wrangling with the psychic weight of racism. That Uncommon Wealth takes up the challenge issued on ‘Another Story’ at precisely the moment Burna Boy releases African Giant is not a coincidence but the result of the ways in which, like a musician or novelist, Koram is highly attuned to the current moment and able to both channel and dismantle its ‘structure of feeling.’ To describe this connection within the antiphonic structures of Black Atlantic music, we might say that ‘Another Story’ issues the call and Uncommon Wealth, the response.
The book was completed during the Covid-19 pandemic, a time many experienced the pandemic as a rupture in the temporal fabric, leaving us uncertain of whether the renewed threat of disease was surging us forward into the new reality of climate collapse or back into a world before the advances of medicine transformed our relationship to sickness. People scrambled around for historical anchor points: the Black Death, the 1918 influenza pandemic, Ebola, SARS. But as the rupture became a more entrenched reality, one of the overlapping crises of war, climate catastrophe, soaring living costs, and authoritarian statecraft, the sense that time is ‘out of joint’ has grown more rather than less pervasive. Koram offers an explanation as to why, one grounded not in the hokey metaphysics of national decline, but in the return to the British mainland of financialisation, outsourcing, structural adjustment and corporate theft. Like the return of the repressed, there is a certain, juddering inevitability to Britain’s current predicament. The strategies for securing colonial domination were updated rather than discarded as countries across the Global South gained national independence, and it is these strategies that now govern denziens of the former metropole directly.
It is the book’s capacity to map the current conjuncture, as well as the history through which it has come to be, that gives Uncommon Wealth its most powerful charge. In its opening pages, Koram observes the ways in which the colonised world was viewed as lagging behind Europe and North America. According to this widely accepted story of linear development, poverty, debt, and violent conflict are not the result geopolitical processes, but merely ‘a question of time.’ Britain has long projected the view of itself as at the head of this teleology, leading the march of progress. Though this story has always relied upon a limited view of progress, one organised around profit, it retained some element of plausibility to the inhabitants of these small islands. The drip feed of images of war and poverty in the Global South, in newsprint, then on television, through Comic Relief and Live Aid, functioned as the backdrop, geographically distant but with intense emotional power, to the rise in living standards in post-war Britain. As Koram reminds us, ordinary people living in Britain did see their conditions improve with the building of the welfare state, in a compromise that would not only see off working-class militancy, but also ensure that the 1950s and ‘60s are remembered through the story of social democracy rather than decolonisation.
In our current moment, however, this sleight of hand, which places Britain in a different temporal universe to its former colonial possessions, is increasingly difficult to pull off. In the last few years, the colonial boomerang – a metaphor Koram borrows from Aime Cesaire – has not only returned, but had crashed into the baroque edifice of the British nation-state, and exposed the violence, corruption, and brutal inequality behind the facade. This is a book about history that could, I think, only be written and published in Britain now, as the pandemic has left a series of urgent questions hovering under the surface of public life. Why is it that Britain, the fifth largest economy in the world, has had one of the highest death tolls during the Covid-19 pandemic? Why was the essential public health function of contact tracing outsourced to Serco to the tune of 37 billion pounds? And why were the school friends, local pub landlords and relatives of Conservative MPs so well-represented among those profiting from the urgent need for protective equipment and covid tests?
We’ve long seen hints of the reality of empire’s aftermath in the statues of slave traders in public squares; in the long lists of businesses registered to a single building in the Cayman Islands; and in the logo of The City of London Corporation that adorns the signs in London’s square mile. The moment has come for this history to find a wide audience. In Uncommon Wealth, Koram is right on time.