Resistance and Accommodation

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To fight and quite possibly die? Or to acquiesce in one's fate as a slave or conquered person? This has been the classic choice presented by conventional definitions of resistance and accommodation. In Thucydides' (d. c. 401 b.c.e.) Peloponnesian War, the people of Melos face the certainty of an invasion by Athens. Two options, both unpalatable, confront their leaders. On one hand, the Melians could acknowledge the superior power of Athens and the coming reality of foreign rule. "And how, pray," they ask, "could it turn out as good for us to serve as for you to rule?" To this the Athenians have a ready answer: "Because you would have the advantage of submitting before suffering the worst, and we should gain by not destroying you." On the other hand, the Melians could reject Athenian aggression. "[T]o submit," they argue, "is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope that we may stand erect." In the end the Melians resist Athenian imperialism, are defeated in battle, and have many grown men put to death and children and women taken as slaves.

Until recently, definitions of accommodation and resistance, particularly in relation to slavery and colonialism, have reproduced the stark decisions that faced the Melians more than two thousand years ago. To accommodate was to agree, however tacitly, with the existing order of thingsto compromise, to oblige, to be pliable. Accommodation entailed the avoidance of further conflict, as in a treaty or some other form of agreement that settled a dispute. Compliance with prevailing norms and practicesin short, "accommodation"contrasted with active contestation of social structures and systems of domination, or "resistance." Accommodation assumed the absence or ending of conflict, whereas conflictthe throwing up of an obstacle, the establishing of a confrontationwas at the very center of resistance. In some early usages resistance was a physical thing, a type of fortification to slow advancing armies. Accommodation, in contrast, sprang from the mind, and was a strategy by which the less powerful adjusted their lives to the realities of their domination.

Slavery and colonialism represent among the most extreme forms of domination. Slavery centers on "natal alienation"slaves are divorced from their own communityand property rights, one person owning another human being. Colonialism entails the domination of one society by another that is geographically and culturally distinct from the society that is subjugated. Slavery invariably involves close interaction, even intimacy. A central characteristic of colonialism, on the other hand, is foreignness, rule by a remote society.

Throughout most of the twentieth century perspectives on slavery and colonialism stressed the totality of domination and the apparent passivity of slaves and colonized peoples, or, conversely, dramatic examples of resistance. Influenced by his understanding of Jews in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, the historian Stanley Elkins argued that certain behaviors of slaves showed their near total domination by white masters and the psychological consequences of accommodation. Elkins drew on the work of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831), particularly on Hegel's "master-slave dialectic," according to which the slave becomes an instrument of his master's will. To the extent that the master's consciousness and identity come to depend on the slave, so the slave's capacity for an independent consciousness will decline and he will adopt a "slavish consciousness." The absence of dramatic resistance such as rebellions seemed to suggest the pervasiveness in American history of accommodation and "slavish consciousness."

Theorists of colonialism occasionally made similar arguments. The Tunisian Albert Memmi wrote of the entwined identities of colonizer and colonized and of the psychological consequences of accommodation. Frantz Fanon (19251961), trained as a psychiatrist, thought colonialism a form of dehumanization; some of the disorders he treated during his time in French Algeria he considered to have originated in the effects of accommodation. Fanon elaborated ideas about resistance and advocated participation in anticolonial violence as a way by which the colonized could cleanse themselves of the stain of subjugation and reassert their basic humanity.

Until the 1970s, writings on accommodation in slave and colonial societies proceeded from a number of assumptions about resistance. Accommodation and resistance were viewed as inversely proportional: the greater the resistance, the less the accommodation, and vice versa. Resistance was clearly identifiable as purposive organized action. In the Americas, the Haitian Revolution (17911803), in which slavery was overturned, represented the clearest example of resistance. Scholars looked elsewhere for other examples of slave rebellions and argued that the absence of organized resistance indicated greater levels of domination and accommodation.

Throughout the postcolonial world, discussions of resistance likewise centered on organized actions to resist or to overthrow colonialism. Scholars of South Asia concentrated on revolts such as the 1857 Indian Rebellion or on the nonviolence campaigns of Mahatma Gandhi that led up to the granting of Indian independence in 1947. China specialists analyzed events such as the Boxer Rebellion at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Statement of Frederick Law Olmsted, Having Visited Virginia, United States

[T]hat everywhere on the plantations, the agrarian notion has become a fixed point of the negro system of ethics: that the result of labor belongs of right to the laborer. They [slaves] almost universally pilfer from the household store when they have a safe opportunity.

source: Frederick Law Olmstead, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States.

Africanist scholars distinguished "primary resistance" from "secondary resistance." Active, organized protest against colonial encroachment and conquest, or against early colonial rule, represented primary resistance. The Maji Maji rebellion in German Tanganyika (19051906), the Herero rebellion in German South West Africa (19041907), and military engagements across the continent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were representative examples. In contrast, "secondary resistance" looked ahead to the ending of foreign rule and the creation of new nation-states; strikes and demands by trade unions and, especially, the claims and actions of nationalist organizations were the clearest examples. Importantly, whereas primary resistance invariably entailed violence, this was not necessarily so with secondary resistance, which embraced peaceful protests as well as armed movements for national liberation.

The Effects of Culture and Consciousness

Definitions of resistance and accommodation, even in their earliest formulations, inevitably raised issues of culture and consciousness. As early as the 1960s, scholars began widening their definitions and complicating what once appeared to have been clear distinctions between accommodation and resistance. The absence of organized resistance, they said, did not necessarily imply accommodation, and certainly not acquiescence. All forms of critique could be seen to be examples of resistance. In the study of slavery in the Americas, scholars called attention to symbolic rather than directly confrontational forms of resistance. Songs might criticize the planter class. The preservation and reworking of African beliefs and practices pointed to the creation of identities and consciousness independent of the slave master. The accumulation of personal property offered some, albeit often very small, degree of economic autonomy and indicated the success slaves had in mitigating their condition. The existence and preservation of family networks were another way slaves created a world separate from their masters and, in so doing, brought into question the solidity of slavery as a system of domination.

Indeed, in this new way of looking at slavery, masters were discovered to have accommodated to the demands of their slaves in order to protect their economic investment and preserve a modicum of stability. Slavery came to be seen in less stark terms, slave societies as intensely negotiated worlds. At the same time, as topics such as songs and rituals began being included within the more expansive definitions of resistance, so also did theft, slowdowns, and other actions that did not have as their immediate object the overthrow of slavery itself. Because slaves had access to the master's valuable economic resources, they could steal from planters, damage crops, livestock, and machinery, or simply work slowly or inefficiently. Behaviors that Elkins and others had viewed as examples of moral defeat and acquiescence came to be viewed far differently, as creative expressions of resistance.

In Africa and elsewhere in the colonial world scholars were making similar points, focusing increasingly on symbolic and "hidden" forms of resistance. The older dichotomies of resistance versus accommodation fell out of favor. Historians called attention to social banditry, theft, and myriad activities ranging from tax evasion to migration, whereby the colonized resisted domination. One important concept was "moral economy," the cultural and ideological logic by which people understood social and economic relationships. The dominatedwhether slaves or the colonizedexpected their superiors to abide by certain codes of conduct that created a kind of consensus about how the community should function. These norms and obligations might range from how hard people should work to the provisioning of food. This logic could at times be articulated in ways that helped to foment active resistance or to force masters or colonizers to somehow accommodate to the demands of slaves or colonized peoples.

Statement of Hendrik Witbooi (Nama Chief) on the German Administration, South West Africa [Namibia]

The German himself is just what he described the other nations as he makes no requests according to truth and justice and asks no permission of a chief. He introduces laws into the land [which] are entirely impossible, untenable, unbelievable, unbearable, unmerciful and unfeeling. He personally punishes our people at Windhoek and has already beaten people to death for debt. it is not just and right to beat people to death for that. He flogs people in a shameful and cruel manner. We stupid and unintelligent people, for so he thinks us to be, we have never yet punished a human being in such a cruel and improper way for he stretches people on their backs and flogs them on the stomach and even between the legs, be they male or female, so Your Honour can understand that no one can survive such a punishment.

source:, "German Imperialism in South West Africa."

Oral histories and the recording of songs and other cultural productions pointed to the elaboration of rich critiques of colonial power. They also revealed the important roles of gender and generation. Women contested colonialism in ways that were often very different than men, and younger adults did so differently than their elders. In Mozambique, women complained of the burdens of forced cash-crop production of cotton and of sexual abuse by local colonial functionaries. Pounding grain into flour offered women an opportunity to converse and to compose songs about their condition as exploited people. "I suffer, I do," women lament in one song (see White and Vail),

I cultivate my cotton,
I suffer, my heart is weeping,
Picking, picking a whole basketful,
I suffer, my heart is weeping,
I've taken it to the Boma [market] there,
I suffer, my heart is weeping,
They've given me five escudos
I suffer, my heart is weeping.

Other songs the women sang parodied colonial officials, using rich and ribald language; the critique of colonialism remained implicit, so as not to invite retribution.

In the 1980s, the beginning of a cultural turn in studies of accommodation and resistance shifted attention away from collective acts such as rebellions. Increasingly, scholars emphasized culture and what people believed and how they felt. The definition of both words shifted from the physical to the mental to embrace historical conditions that could be political, cultural, even psychological. Scholars demonstrated the ways in which the creation of meaning, the ways people imbued the world around them with significance, could be powerfully constitutive of new identities that stood in opposition to slavery or the colonial order. Compliance therefore did not automatically indicate an absence of resistance. Indeed, some forms of accommodation could mask resistance as long as actions somehow mitigated conditions.

Cultural as opposed to political definitions of resistance have emphasized concepts such as moral economy, ritual, hegemony, and hybridity. Scholars of the subaltern school of South Asian history have been especially important in expanding the definitions of resistance and accommodation. They have, for instance, argued that since colonial domination was never totalthat is, hegemonicthe culture of the colonized remained autonomous; their behavior cannot be reduced to so many reactions to colonialism. The emphasis thus shifts from resistance or accommodation to the kinds of engagements people had with those who wielded power. The decision the Melians faced more than two thousand years ago was exceptionally stark. Since most forms of dominationincluding slavery and colonialismentail some sort of negotiation, scholars in the early twenty-first century focus on the complex cultural borrowing that typically characterizes slave and colonial societies.

For example, rituals and what some have described as "invented traditions" incorporated parts of the slave master's or the colonizer's world, such as dress, ceremony, or even state procedures such as criminal trials. This mixture of artifacts and other facets, what is called syncretism, can be seen most clearly in religion. Slave religions and religious movements throughout the colonial world have combined Christianity with earlier conceptions based on local gods and ancestor worship. The new beliefs have frequently critiqued the slave or colonial order as not simply unjust but immoral, even evil. They also have helped shape resistance movements such as the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya (19541956) and the 1915 Chilembwe revolt in Nyasaland (Malawi).

Definitions of resistance and accommodation now embrace far more than treaties, formal acceptances of defeat, and in the alternative large-scale organized movements against slavery or colonialism. As Fanon suggested, even looking the colonizer in the eye could be a form of resistance. Extending the definitions beyond formal settlements and organized resistance has not only broadened the range of possible examples but ultimately blurred the lines separating words that once had clearly opposed meanings. Even conventional acts of resistance are becoming seen as more ambiguous, since resistance often entails some sort of recognition of and accommodation to the colonizer's world. But the understanding of culture and consciousness raises thorny questions. Can one resist without consciously doing so? Can resistance include at the same time accommodation? The central challenge now facing scholars of slave and colonial societies is how to understand meaning and action within highly unequal relationships and how to creatively rethink those moments when people actively reassert their humanity in the face of power.

See also Anticolonialism ; Civil Disobedience ; Colonialism ; Empire and Imperialism ; Slavery .


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Clifton Crais