REVIEW: The Colonisation of Time by Giordano Nanni

Today’s ‘spring forward’ in the UK (clocks changing one hour to British Summer Time) suggests it’s a good moment to post the following, a review of Giordano Nanni’s wonderful book The Colonisation of Time.

Cover ImageIn 1884 Greenwich Mean Time was ‘officially’ deployed, from the heart of the British Empire, to, supposedly, the rest of the world. This ‘temporal hubris’ (p. 3) was not only practical and mechanical – based on scientific knowledge tethered to imperial advance through the discovery of longitude and thus imperial seafaring – but both created and relied upon a particular culture of time: a temporal ideology that linked the harnessing of time with enlightenment and productivity. The west’s mechanical mastery of timekeeping ‘created the necessary culture of time for building empires’ (p. 3), and capitalist/British/western/colonial timekeeping, and the moral ideologies associated with productivity vs. idleness, were thus exported throughout the world as an elemental part of colonial culture. ‘At the most fundamental level, therefore, time was both a tool and a channel for the incorporation of human subjects within the colonisers’ master narrative; for conscripting human subjects within the matrix of the capitalist economy, and ushering “savages” and superstitious “heathens” into an age of modernity’ (p. 4).

To some extent, this is a familiar narrative: longitude, seafaring, imperialism; but in this engaging and thought-provoking book, Giordano Nanni takes us much further, delving into the complex cultural history of time through an exploration of both time-practices and temporal ideas in the colonial context. Indeed, time and its regulation was not only implicitly linked to the technology of imperialism, but to its moral economy: ‘the widespread belief that non-European societies were somehow “not attentive enough” to the passage of time, for instance, functioned as a powerful legitimising discourse for colonial and missionary projects, and therefore European hegemony’ (p. 2). At the same time, ‘it was partly by imagining itself as a time-conscious civilisation in opposition to a time-less Other, that western Europe staked its claim to universal definitions of time, regularity, order; hence also to definitions of knowledge, religion, science, etc.’ (p. 3). ‘Clocks, it is often forgotten, do not keep the time, but a time’ (p. 1). Perhaps even more to the point, Indigenous peoples’ ‘savagery’ and ‘primitiveness’ were directly constructed around their perceived inability to harness, utilise and quantify time as an abstract notion based upon mathematics, rather than a practical tool based upon nature. Temporal moralities both shaped and reflected colonial discourses of difference.

Time was thus both Othering, and a tool of colonialism. As this book explores, colonial Others were made and fashioned through complex perceptions of temporal morality, and were then un-made and re-fashioned through colonial and humanitarian attempts to ‘reform’ Indigenous understandings of time. Missionaries were crucial to this process – as the harbingers of ‘bells, bibles and the civilising mission’ (p. 16), and as the gatekeepers of western civilisation in colonial and frontier contexts. Often seeking to ameliorate the impact of imperialism and colonisation through the seemingly beneficent effects of the civilising mission, missionaries imported and instituted western time-practices with particular ideological roots, and practical effects. Through mission stations, ‘native schools’, reserves and institutions, Indigenous peoples were enclosed into a western timetable – the seven-day week, the 24-hour day, and perhaps most significantly, the moral underpinnings of time’s ‘correct’ use: productivity vs. idleness, regularity vs. irregularity, time-thrift vs. ‘timelessness’. Time was thus dislocated from nature and hitched to scientific ideas of rationality and moral conceptions of usefulness. The mission bell in particular marked out both temporal and spatial boundaries, delineated around who could hear its ringing, and who would respond to its moral imperatives of work, useful leisure and worship. ‘Colonisation was about temporal, as well as spatial, invasion and displacement’ (p. 14).

Nonetheless, time was not imposed without differing levels of resistance from pre-colonial peoples, and Nanni is here particularly good at teasing apart the history of Indigenous resistance to ‘colonial time’. This resistance ranged from outright rejection (through, for example, ‘walkabout’ or leaving colonial space and time for traditional practices), through everyday negotiation and subversion (such as lateness, ‘stubborness’, use of Indigenous time-practices to reckon payment schedules etc.), to re-appropriation (through negotiating work contracts, or insisting on the Sabbath as a day of rest). This is not a history of imposition and resistance, but of negotiation and interculturation. ‘Time, like colonialism in general, was not coherently imposed, nor coherently resisted; it functioned, rather, as one of the many sites of cultural exchange, tension and negotiation which came to characterise nineteenth-century relations between colonisers and colonised across the British Empire’ (p. 180). This is not to downplay the strength or power of imperialism, Nanni insists, but rather to recognise Indigenous agency and resistance in the formation of colonial cultures – to recognise, in the words of Franz Fanon, that ‘colonialism must accept the fact that things happen without its control, without its direction’ (cited p. 210).

This is an excellent book – well-crafted and written, thought-provoking and filled to the brim with fascinating detail, extensive research and numerous well-chosen illustrations. Looking at the colonial view of Indigenous time-systems in both Victoria (Australia) and the Cape (South Africa), and the attempted imposition of ‘colonial’, ‘sacred’ and ‘capitalist’ time by colonial reformers and missionaries, the book makes the overall argument that the attempted imposition of western time onto colonial landscapes was a temporal, spatial and ideological project. Ideas of western time, stacked against its Indigenous antitheses on a moral, cultural and ultimately racial hierarchy, legitimised imperialism (for example, in the way that terra nullius also became ‘terra sine tempore – a timeless land’, p. 60), was practised in accordance with the demands of the colonial state (such that in Australia, where settler-colonialism was directed at the appropriation of land, seasonal time was adopted; whereas in South Africa, where settler-colonialism was directed at the appropriation of labour, capitalist time was key), and fundamentally aimed to destroy Indigenous cultures at a social, ideological and psychological level. Stripping away Indigenous time took away, and de-legitimised, Indigenous culture – with dire social consequences in Australia (the ‘lost generations’) and South Africa (apartheid).

It is ironic that having spread ‘western time’ around the world, there is now such anxious debate and worry over the dictates and demands of what has become ‘global time’ – exacerbated apparently by the internet, smart phones and ideas of instant accessibility. Time is, as this book so powerfully demonstrates, always encoded with moral meanings that shape and underpin its practical effects. ‘Indigenous time’, more often than not linked with nature, the movement of the stars and flexibly-defined seasons, is now romanticised, and having spent most of the nineteenth century trying to eradicate it, it is now westerners who dream of going ‘walkabout’: leaving the temporal matrix of modernity behind. Without wishing to join this romanticisation too completely, it seems only fitting to leave the last words to the Australian Aborigines of the Northern Territory, from whom the following poem was transcribed in the 1950s:

White man properly different kind,
Watch on wrist, then wind… wind… wind;
Pull up sleeve and look all day,
Look when work and look when play.

My man listen and then him say,
‘No time sleep,’ and ‘No time stay,’
Too much hurry down the street,
Terrible place when, ‘No time eat.’

(cited p. 227-8).

– Emily Manktelow

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