The Scramble for Africa

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.

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14 Responses to The Scramble for Africa

  1. King Rat says:

    I started reading this a few years ago, but wasn’t ready for the density of facts in it. At some point I’ll get back to it, because it had so much.

    • Jenny says:

      It is very dense, isn’t it? It stopped me dead for about two and a half weeks, reading nothing but this. But I thought well worth the effort.

  2. amymckie says:

    Ehhh… this sounds interesting, but also troubling. I think that while I’d enjoy this one I’d be more interested in seeing the same information without the clearly ‘Western’ orientation of the writing and language!

    • Jenny says:

      It’s not horrendous. It is, as you say, clearly Western in orientation, but I note that more to be aware of the filter than to say it’s horrible or offensive. I did think it was well done.

      • amymckie says:

        That makes sense Jenny – definitely good to point it out. I guess I should be more clear too in saying that I still want to read it I just want to read more books too :)

      • Jenny says:

        No, you’re right! If I thought there was another book that had this much history packed into it with better-balanced language, you’d better believe I’d be recommending it! That’s why I pointed out that it was problematic to begin with. But I don’t want to put people off it altogether, because (I think) few people in the US know all this history. I certainly did not. It’s good to know, even at a slight cost of language bias.

  3. Jenny says:

    I am going to wait a month or two and see if Amy finds a book that contains all the same information without the clearly Western orientation of the writing and language. :p

    Seriously, though, this sounds very interesting. I kind of need exactly this book (but without the “savages” language) because I am working on a project at work that deals with African history, and although I know fifteen hundred times more information about African history now than I knew when I started, it’s still more gaps than knowledge. I can start with this and find a less offensive book later.

    • Jenny says:

      P.S. The Gordon-at-Khartoum story is just hella tense. That is a tense story. Even knowing they were going to be too late, I was all keyed up.

      • Jenny says:

        Right? Right??? I mean, it’s history, you shouldn’t have to peek at the ending to relieve the suspense! But it was awful!

    • amymckie says:

      Jenny, may I recommend Chinua Achebe’s collection of essays The Education of a British-Protected Child? It does not talk about the same things, really, but it talks about how attitudes in writing changed to accommodate differing world views held in Europe and why these writings are problematic.

      :D (I am working on my review of it at the moment so had to mention it!)

    • Jenny says:

      Other Jenny, I don’t want to give the impression that people shouldn’t read this book because it’s got a certain approach. It’s not horribly offensive or demeaning. Indeed, the author has a lot of sympathy for the Africans and the plight they were put in. He just doesn’t filter his language or his bias as carefully as I wish he would have.

      And the material is fasssssscinating. This book is really a great place to start, well noted, well indexed, well written.

  4. Rebecca Reid says:

    I read THE FATE OF AFRICA which is about post-1950 Africa and I found lots of bias about the issues in it too — this sounds far worse with the authorial bias.

    But I’d still be interested to know how the nations were formed, it seems so arbitrary. Sounds like a hard book to read, albeit a useful one for factual understanding…

  5. Therese says:

    I served in the Peace Corps in Ghana, and no surprise, most Americans think of Africa as one large country. I’m with you 100%. Read something riveting and accurate and overlook the bias. You have to start somewhere. Then branch out from there. The explosion of literature and memoirs from India into the West has caused readers to hunger for more. Read both history and Chinua Achebe. I’m happy to see this review. Although it has a few flaws of its own, I’m happy to see Little Bee stay on the NY Times best seller list for so long. Most Americans don’t know of the great Ghanian, Kwame nkrumah, who first preached pan African unity.

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