Thursday, February 28, 2013

'Scars and Chains': Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth

In 1953, a young psychiatrist was assigned to the Blida-Joinville Psychiatric hospital in  Algeria, at that time a colony of the French. Battling a host of racial prejudices that even used scientific studies to designate Africans as little more than animals, Frantz Fanon started documenting the cases that came to him even as the Algerian war of Independence broke out. Merely seven years later, even as the young man was dying of leukemia he dictated these notes and the other observations of his in what was later to be published as
The Wretched of the Earth.

Divided into five sections (along with a conclusion), the book is a reflection of what happens during a colonial situation. The first (and the most detailed) section is on Violence and its centrality in an unjust situation. Arguing that violence is just the natives returning what they have received from their colonial masters, Fanon argues that violent means are a strategy to counter the terrorism unleashed by the Colonial powers yet the Western Press presents the people fighting for their liberation as blood-thirsty brutes while the terror unleashed by the Colonial Powers is hardly ever mentioned: In the Algerian war, even the most liberal of the French reporters never ceased to use ambiguous terms in describing our struggle. When we reproached them for this, they replied in all good faith that they were being objective. For the native, objectivity is always directed against him. (61)

Thus it could be that in 1945, the 45,000 dead at Setif could pass unnoticed; in 1947, the 90,000 dead in Madagaskarcould be the subject of a simple paragraph in the papers, in 1952, the 200,000 victims of the repression in Kenya could meet with relative indifference. (62)

As an aside let me add that apparently, this lop-sided view of reporting has not ceased till date thus in the Wiki entry about the Algerian Revolution, which I perused before writing this post, though there is a mention of the terror unleashed by both the Algerian and French forces, the section on the former has a picture attached to it. Since visual aids leave more of an impression on the mind, this can be hardly innocent.

As Jean Paul Sartre put it so tellingly in the preface to the book:
Not so very long ago, the earth numbered two thousand million inhabitants: five hundred million men, and one thousand five hundred million natives. The former had the word; the others had the use of it. (7)

Men and natives! Yes! Because colonialism took away the manhood of a people and reduced them to non-entities. Men could use the power of their pens and paint the Natives in the colours of their imagination: It must in any case be remembered that a colonized people is not only simply a dominated people. Under the German occupation, the German remained men; under the French occupation, the German remained men. In Algeria there is not simply the domination but the decision to the letter not to occupy anything more than the sum total of the land. The Algerians, the veiled-women, the palm trees and the camels make up the landscape, the natural background to the human presence of the French.

Hostile nature, obstinate and fundamentally rebellious, is in fact represented in the colonies by the bush, by mosquitoes, natives and fever, and colonization is a success when all this indocile nature has finally been tamed. Railways across the bush, the draining of swamps and a native population which is non-existent politically and economically are in fact one and the same thing. (201)

And, lets not forget, there are scientific studies to present that the African is a hardly more than an animal! Thus Professor Porot could publish a study in which he came to the conclusion that: "The Algerian has no cortex: or, more precisely, he is dominated, like the inferior vertebrates by the diencephalon. The cortical functions if they exist at all, are very feeble, and are practically unintegrated into the dynamic of existence" (qtd. pgs 243-244).

In fact it is the fifth section - from where the above mentioned quote occurs and which details the effect of violence and blood-shed on the psyche of the people - that I found most fascinating. There is the case of a rebel whose wife was raped by the French soldiers as she refused to divulge his whereabouts and the secrets of his organisation. The Algerian who was not really in love with his wife was haunted by the torture that she suffered on his behalf and his own impotency as regards the perpetrators of the crime. Then there is the case of the French girl who was filled with a hatred towards her father who used terrible methods of inquisition and torture against the young Algerian men she had once played with while growing up.

Or the chilling case of two Algerian teens who murdered their French friend in order to make the point that the French were never punished for killing Algerians.

As Sartre puts it: Our victims know us by their scars and by their chains, and it is this that makes their evidence irrefutable. It is enough that they show us what we have made of them for us to realize what we have made of ourselves. (12)

Or as  Fanon says at the end of this disturbing book: For Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, we must turn over a new leaf, we must work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new man. (255)


First Line: National liberation, national renaissance, the restoration of nationhood to the people, commonwealth: whatever may be the headings used or the new formulas introduced, decolonization is always a violent phenomenon.

Title: The Wretched of the Earth

Original Title: Les Damnes de la Terr

Author: Frantz Fanon

Original Language: French

Translator: Constance Farrington

Publication Details: Middlesex: Penguin, 1969 [Book No. 2674]

First Published: 1961

Pages: 255

Other books read of the same author: None


Being a classic of Resistance Literature, the book can be easily purchased on the Net. I borrowed it from the college library [320.965 F 217 W].


Read for the Social Justice Theme Read hosted by Resistance is Futile.

Submitted for the following challenges: 52 Books in 52 Weeks, 2013 Genre Variety, 2013 Translation, Books on France, The Classics, Let Me Count the Ways, Nerdy Non-Fiction, New Authors, What Countries Have I Visited


  1. I'm embarassed to say I have never come across this one before Neer - a fine and illuminating review - cheers.

    1. To tell you the truth Sergio, I am a little astounded that you haven't read this author as Fanon is pretty big in this part of the world and his works are often quoted in books on colonialism/ anti-colonialism movements.

      Even if you are not inclined to read the entire book do read the last section where he discusses the psychological effects of colonialism. The Case-Studies will make you ponder.

  2. Wow, that seems like a terrifying book! Thanks for bringing it to my attention (and participating in my Social Justice theme read)! :) I might take a look for it next year.

    1. Thanks for having a look Rachel. It is a pretty disturbing book but so worth it. Thanks for hosting this event.

  3. A very good review and I hope to read the book sometime.

    1. Thanks so much Ann. Do read the book, especially the fifth section which I found to be the best.

      Thanks for the follow. Hope you like the posts.

  4. I have placed a hold on it at the library. Let's see when I get to it.

    - Nitu