One of the most troubling things about colonialism is its language. Colonisation implies a degree of tentativeness and impermanence as though colonies are fragile attempts to implant humans into a landscape that has yet to support them. Colonisation assumes unoccupied space just as discovery assumes that the thing being discovered has never been found before. Jyotsna G. Singh addresses this semiotic baggage in the introduction to her book Colonial Narratives/Cultural Dialogues (1996):
Since the early modern period, this discovery motif has frequently emerged in the language of colonization, enabling European travellers/writers to represent the newly “discovered” lands as an empty space, a tabula rasa on which they could inscribe their linguistic, cultural, and later territorial claims. – Pp. 1
What is offensive about the notions of discovery and colonisation is the fact that most of the lands discovered and colonised by European settlers were actually inhabited. How can one discover land that is already well known and colonise places that are already inhabited? Easy… by making the people who were there first disappear. As a result, one should perhaps speak not of lands being ‘colonised’ but of their being ‘occupied’.
A different way of looking at this question is to point out that ‘colonisation’ remains a useful term precisely because of the moral and conceptual absurdity of its connotations. If one speaks of lands being occupied rather than colonised by the British Empire then one allows for the fact that all human inhabitation is morally neutral because nobody has a natural right to the ownership of the land they inhabit. We all occupy the land and time brings with it no legitimacy. The crime of colonialism was not that the Europeans laid claim to land that was not theirs, it was that they laid claim to territory and then used those claims to justify the exploitation of the people who were occupying the land when they first got there. Colonialism is not a crime against the land; it is a crime against people. All land is occupied. From the perspective of the land, we are all colonists.
Claire Denis’s White Material examines the process of decolonisation without the assumption that there is such a thing as legitimate ownership of the land. Denis’s film presents Africa as both perpetual virgin territory and eternally dried-out, exploited and ancient wasteland.