“Not so long ago Europe was the continent from where people fled” – an Interview with Jochen Lingelbach
In 2020, the Cluster member Dr. Jochen Lingelbach published “On the Edges of Whiteness” – a book on the history of Polish refugees in British Colonial Africa. In this interesting interview, the author talks about how his interest in the topic came about and why these historic events have relevance today.
In your book “On the Edges of Whiteness” you describe the situation of Polish refugees who lived in British Colonial Africa during and after the Second World War – what piqued your interest in this topic?
My research started by accident more over ten years ago. After studying in Tanzania at the University of Dar es Salaam, I wrote my Master’s thesis about the colonial history of the town. For this thesis, I did interviews with older residents, asking them about their memories of the late colonial period in town. I wanted to know about the everyday life in a racially segregated town and the afterlives and effects on its urban structure until today. As an aside, one old man told me that some Polish refugees had lived in the town during World War 2. I was not sure if I got him right, so I asked the other interview partners as well. Most of them remembered the refugees from their childhood, but none of the younger people I asked had ever heard about the Poles. I started reading some literature on these refugees and learned that they were part of a larger group. Nearly twenty thousand Poles had been living for up to eight years in refugee camps all over the British colonies in Eastern and Southern Africa. In Uganda Poles had been, by far, the largest group of Europeans during that period. The refugee camp Tengeru near Arusha was the second largest concentration of white people in Tanganyika at that time. Nevertheless, the refugees’ story was largely forgotten. This story fascinated me immediately. It defied common assumptions about colonial societies and about refugees alike. These Europeans were no colonial rulers or settlers. I wondered how the British colonial officials dealt with these refugees. How did Africans perceive these desperate white refugees? And how did the Poles perceive the colonial African societies? I wanted to write a transnational history of their stay in Africa giving room to these different perspectives.
How did this community of Polish refugees on the African continent come about? How did the British colonial administrators and African neighbors receive these groups?
They had endured quite an unbelievable odyssey before reaching a safe haven in Africa. Their forced journey started in 1940 after the dual occupation of Poland through the Nazi and Soviet armies. Soviet forces deported them together with some three hundred thousand Polish citizens from Eastern Poland to forced labor camps and special settlements in Siberia or Kazakhstan. There they had to fight for survival amidst unbearable conditions. An unknown number of deportees perished. Their fate took an unexpected turn when the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. Suddenly in desperate need of support, the Soviet government agreed to accept a British-brokered agreement with the Polish government-in-exile including the release of all Poles in the Soviet Union. Among the Poles, there had been many soldiers and they were supposed to form a Polish army to support the Allies against the advancing German Wehrmacht. This Polish army was eventually transferred to Iran and put under the command of the British Middle East army. However, when the Polish soldiers arrived over the Caspian Sea in Iran, there were also some forty thousand civilians among them – mainly women and children. First, they were put into makeshift camps around Teheran. But the British strategists deemed the civilians too close to the potential war theatre. British officials convinced the colonial governors in what is today Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe to host some of the Polish civilians. From 1942 onwards, they were shipped over to Africa. Others went to India or even Mexico.
Many of the Polish civilians were afraid to go to Africa. Like most other Europeans at that time, they held stereotypical views of the African continent and its inhabitants. They had heard racist stories about supposedly wild people, cannibalism or deadly diseases. When they arrived in the ports of Mombasa, Dar es Salaam or Beira, however, most were relieved to encounter friendly, normal people. The British officials welcomed them as well. At the same time, some officials were concerned about the carefully constructed image of white superiority, their rule rested on. Colonizers were always concerned to keep up the distance towards the colonized and show an image of superior civilization and so on. So when these emaciated, disease-ridden refugees arrived in the colonies the officials receiving them became anxious. They brought them to refugee camps situated in rather remote parts of the colonies and presided over by a British camp commandant. Poles organized and administered these camps internally, but the British commandant controlled everything that had to do with the outside.
The camps were quite different from today’s images of desolate, overcrowded, tented refugee camps. They consisted of solid houses or huts, built by thousands of African workers. Some resembled local villages, some resembled military barracks. Hundreds of African workers were also employed to work in these camps and did most of the heavy work, like digging, cleaning, carrying, cooking or guarding the camps. I interviewed some of these former camp workers and they had a mostly positive memory of the Poles. In the hierarchical order of the colonies, the Poles were closer and more approachable than the British, but they were nevertheless in the privileged position. They received housing, food, pocket money and medical care that was well above the standard of most of their African neighbors.
Can you tell us a little bit about the meaning of the title?
I chose “On the Edges of Whiteness” because I think this aptly describes the social position of this group of refugees within the hosting colonial societies. They perceived themselves and where seen as White, but this socially constructed racial category was not as clear as it seems. Colonial societies rested on the hierarchical distinction between Black and White, but this order had to be continually reinforced and reconstructed. When thousands of poor Eastern European refugees – most of them from the rural periphery of Poland, mostly women and children – arrived on the East African shores, the British administrators got anxious about their effect on the political and social situation. To keep them under control, colonial officials isolated the Poles in refugee camps and supplied them with a certain “European standard”. They wanted to make sure that the difference and distance between Africans and Europeans was kept. By focusing on the “edges” of the white communities I wanted to highlight the way in which race was constructed in colonial societies. I also wanted to connect this to the larger discussion about racism starting from the conviction that race is constructed relationally. „Black“ and „White“ or discrimination and privilege are only possible together. Whiteness studies shifts the focus to the White and privileged position thereby exposing this unmarked and powerful position. The white refugees in colonial Africa are an interesting case in this context, showing the ways in which the boundaries between the categories were contested and constructed. With my book I also react to a call for more historically and context specific studies, examining how Whiteness is constructed in specific times and settings.
How did you conduct your research - what were your most interesting findings?
My book relies on a range of different sources that – like the refugees – were scattered over the globe. One of the bases are the archival records from the colonial administration. I spent some time in the national archives in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and London to search these often sketchy and incomplete files. Other written sources are from the Polish administration, stored in the archive of the former government-in-exile in London. In London, I also looked at Polish newspapers that had been produced by and for the refugees in Nairobi. To get African perspectives on the Poles I interviewed former camp workers in Uganda and Tanzania. During these trips, the stories from the files really came to life and I could get a sense of the places of the refugee camps, where some of the houses and churches are still standing. And rather surprisingly I went to Paris, where the records of the UN’s International Refugee Organization are stored. This UNHCR-predecessor organization was responsible for the Poles as well. A very last trip took me to Oxford where some British officials had deposited their private papers. So, this was quite a journey. It is hard to pin down the most interesting findings from all this.
Let me just recount one anecdote I found in the memoirs of a British anthropologist: Together with other white men, he was sitting on the veranda in a small Zambian town. First, a Black female domestic worker entered the house. All men ignored her completely and continued their conversation. Secondly, a European woman passed the group. All men got up, greeted politely and had a little small talk. Later, a Polish female domestic worker passed. The men started to shift uneasily on their chairs but did not greet her. They did not really know what to do. This woman, who was obviously White, was at the same time a domestic servant. In Britain, this would have been no problem. She would be an Eastern European lower-class woman - clearly different and thus socially invisible for them. But in the colonies, all White women were expected to be part of the White community. This woman, like the other peasant-class Poles, was a classificatory problem for the colonial officials and White settlers.
The Polish Church in Nyabyeya near Masindi, Uganda, 2013. Image: Jochen Lingelbach
Are there still effects from these Polish communities noticeable today?
Well, this story is largely forgotten in the wider public of today’s nations. However, it still lives on in the memories of the former refugees, their descendants and the communities around the places of the larger refugee camps. Most of the Poles had left the African colonies by 1950 and only few were allowed to stay on. In Tanzania I tried to trace down some of them, but there was only one Polish man still living in Arusha at that time. He said he was the last one of the refugees. Most of the remaining Poles had left Africa following independence in the 1960s. What still stands today, are some buildings, cemeteries and memorials preserved by local caretakers. The most remarkable memorial site is maybe the so-called Polish Church in Nyabyeya near Masindi. This impressive church, built by the refugees in the 1940s, is used by the local Catholic parish until today. Around the church and the adjacent cemetery, an international network has evolved, connecting Polish missionaries, descendants of former refugees from around the world and the local church community. The Polish cemetery in Tengeru, near Arusha, has a small memorial hall telling the story of the Poles and the refugee camp, which is today used as an agricultural college. Apart from this, there are some small traces at different places. Around Moshi, in northern Tanzania, there exists a bean variety called “Polish beans“ as it was introduced by the refugees. In the Polish town of Wrocław there is a “Club under the Baobab” – an association of former refugees who had returned from Africa. In Britain – where most of the Poles were resettled – they formed the nucleus of a Polish community that grew rapidly after Poland joined the EU.
It is hard to pin down what the most important effect was. I think it were the numerous small encounters between the refugees and people around the camps. The Poles – most of them from the poor rural periphery of Poland - had never intended to travel to Africa. Most people living around the camps had never before met Europeans from this background. While there were still power-imbalances at play in the encounters between them, I still think it was something different. Especially some of the youngsters were joining without regard for their social categorization. These encounters might have helped to destroy further the carefully constructed image of a supposedly white superiority that colonial rulers and settlers tried to keep up so anxiously. I do not want to overstate this point, but maybe this might have further helped to destabilize colonial rule, therewith contributing to its eventual demise. Many of the refugees remembered it as a wonderful time of relief and adventure after the horrors in Siberia. They were grateful towards the British and the Africans for the warm welcome they received and the time spent in safety at a time when the Germans were brutally ravaging Poland.
For today, this episode reminds us, that it was not so long ago when Europe was the continent from where people fled. It also reminds us, that refugee history is complicated and refugee-status always intersects with other social categorizations like race, class, gender, religion or nationality. In my book, I tried to consider all these different aspects, thereby mapping out a complex and contradictory social landscape that evolved in and around the refugee camps. I nevertheless think it is still a readable and gripping story.
- Lingelbach, J., 2020. On the edges of whiteness: Polish refugees in British colonial Africa during and after the Second World War. Berghahn Books, New York. Link to publication