In 1876, the great European powers — France, Britain, Germany, Italy — were almost completely uninterested in empire-building. Colonies cost money and labor they didn’t have, especially now that the slave trade had been abolished. Better to let African middlemen bring a trickle of export goods to the coast from the center of an unexplored continent, and buy and sell without real risk.
But then came news from several different sources — from Livingstone, from Stanley, from Pierre Brazza — that Africa was a gold mine (sometimes literally.) It was a teeming market for European goods and an impossibly rich source of ivory, palm oil, rubber, cotton, and gold. Suddenly — within the space of only a few years — all of the great powers (and several of the smaller ones) were in a desperate scramble to take the entire continent of Africa for themselves, from Cairo to the Cape, from the Gold Coast to Ethiopia. The reasons, motivations, and methods behind this colonial whirlwind are the material for Thomas Pakenham’s enormous The Scramble for Africa.
This book is absolutely packed. I chose to read it because I am terribly, woefully ignorant about African history of any period, and I found new information on every one of its nearly 700 pages. It makes for compelling reading: Pakenham alternates the drier politicking (“and then the British said to the French… and the French said… but the Germans…”) with lively stories that put my heart in my mouth. The chapter entitled “Too Late?” that chronicles the Mahdi siege of Charles Gordon and his men at Khartoum in 1884, as the inept Colonel Wolseley blunders his way up the river to try to raise the siege, is infuriating. (Hint: yes, too late.)
The pace never slackens. Pakenham has a huge amount of information to impart, and it’s all important, but the book is well-balanced. There is a general chronological organization, which gives a “meanwhile, back on the South African veldt” feel to some of the chapters — not unwelcome, actually. Each of the great powers gets its turn, including the quite unbelievable behavior of King Leopold of Belgium. Pakenham also discusses movements and approaches within each country, since leaders came and went, often many times: would a government adhere to Livingstone’s relatively humanitarian “three Cs” (Christianity, commerce, civilization), or try a strictly commercial approach to colonialism? Would they listen to reformers or industrial pragmatists? Would an ill-timed African rebellion upset the entire apple-cart?
Several things made this book problematic for me, though. Let’s start with the subtitle: The White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912. I see at least two places, if not three, where I’d like scare quotes, please. Conquest? Carving up the African “cake” (as they unforgivably called it at the time) took some fighting, certainly, but it took more wandering around with blank treaty forms, asking for commercial and mining rights from native tribes. And the “dark” continent? Does Pakenham mean that it was unexplored, or dark-skinned, or shady, or frightening, or simply that this is what people called it at the time, in which case he should be using quotation marks? Help a reader out here.
You see where I’m going with this. I am very, very attuned to an author’s use of language and the scholarly attitude this expresses. Pakenham, with his fast-paced history and his straightforward style, doesn’t signpost this kind of thing. He frequently refers to the Africans as “savages” or even as “simple souls,” without telling us whether that’s his opinion or that of the colonizers. He doesn’t have time to dwell on the exploitation that took place, though where it’s relevant he certainly mentions it. For several hundred pages I didn’t know whether his references to “cannibals” were literal or figurative. (Many colonizers referred to native tribes all over the world as cannibals when they weren’t, to point up their need for the civilizing presence.) His final chapter, which briefly describes the scramble back out of Africa after the movements for independence, posits the notion that despite the undeniable and horrifying mess the Europeans left, few Africans would wish to turn back the clock, because Europe gave Africa “aspirations for freedom and human dignity.” Something I’m sure they had no glimmers of before 1880….?
For understanding how Africa was carved up, how the powers interacted, how the people of Africa were affected, and even for some sense of how Africa is still enduring this legacy today, this is absolutely the book you want to read. This is vital, crucial, heartstopping, heartbreaking reading. It’s terse, well-written, and consistently interesting on a topic I’d never studied, and I now feel I have at least my feet under me. However, for a really careful, explicit, critical look at attitudes, language, interplay and exploitation, the way race and gender and class interacted during this time — that’s a different book, one Pakenham wasn’t attempting to write. Don’t be disappointed that he didn’t write it; just take the very rich fruits of the one he did.