Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

A Chronicle of Europe's Race to Conquer Africa


WHILE some epochs are known for their reasonableness or sobriety, the era chronicled by Thomas Pakenham in "The Scramble for Africa" could be best described as an age of unbridled aspiration.

About these ads

In the minds of late-19th-century Europeans, the push to explore and colonize Africa started with benign motives. As Pakenham relates, explorer David Livingstone (of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame) called for the three C's - commerce, Christianity, and civilization - to pull the continent out of darkness and ignorance. Accounts of Livingstone's discoveries caught the imagination of people everywhere. Unfortunately his three C's proved to be an excellent cover for less-well-intentioned impulses - namel y greed and the thirst for power.

Pakenham's 738-page volume, a 10-year project, is fastidious in its detail and rigorous in its approach. The sheer weight of this volume tends to encourage a reader's confidence in the accuracy of the history presented.

While most people think of histories as dry, this monumental volume will not collect dust. It will no doubt be widely used as a text for college courses on Africa.

But students who seek a balanced history of African politics and economics will be disappointed. The point of view of the conquering armies and politicians gets full play here, while the plight of the victims is only feebly represented.

And victims abound. Conquerors committed horrendous crimes against Africans. But instead of looking at the destroyed lives, Pakenham presents these disasters as ineffective applications of force. His history is seductive in the manner of historical fiction: Once readers suspend their disbelief and hand the reins to the author, they get taken along for the ride. In this case, Pakenham's version of history reinforces inaccurate preconceptions held by many Westerners, such as the notion that Africa is simpl y impossible to manage.

Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, Portugal, and to a lesser degree Italy and Spain all established colonies in Africa - sometimes with the complicity of the United States. Pakenham describes the gathering forces of nationalism, patriotism, religion, and economics that sent explorers and brutal conquering armies abroad. African empires were built as extensions of each nation's collective ego.

Leopold II, king of the Belgians, for example, was a chief architect of the plan for carving up "the African cake," as Pakenham puts it. Despite protests from advisers and ministers who considered colonial aspirations to be absurd, Leopold felt compelled to prove to Belgians that they were an "imperial people capable of dominating and civilizing others."

About these ads

The first quarter of the book introduces the leading actors from each nation who helped provide the impetus for colonization. In a lucid passage, Pakenham explains: "Stanley had found the Congo. Leopold had backed him. Brazza had raced Stanley [to explore the Congo]. The rivalry caught the imagination of the French public.... In this strange sequence, fraught with accidents, later historians would discern the start of the Scramble. But at the time no one in Europe could have guessed that a race for a who le continent had begun."

Pakenham chases the sometimes inscrutable machinations of European politics, tracing the political alliances, military defeats, and growing trade that made expansionist European policies the order of the day.

In doing so, several of the African actors are painted in colorful detail. Samori, a successful ruler of a large West African empire, is described as a military genius who organized his army so that loyalty focused on him personally. This strategy for concentrating power presaged methods used by many of Africa's post-independence rulers to maintain control.

In accounts like that of Samori, Pakenham's writing breathes fire, bringing people and events alive. Yet the next passage is likely to be frustrating, wooden, and pedantic. A volume written over 10 years can vary in tone, but editors could have spent more time calming the uneven prose.

Pakenham discusses events that range over the entire continents of Europe and Africa, are described in several languages, and cover the years from 1876 to 1912. During that period, names of villages, cities, and regions changed dramatically, sometimes several times. Twenty-one maps help sort out shifting place names, but about double that number would have been welcome.

European powers set records rushing in to conquer Africa around the turn of the century. Several generations later, they broke those records hurrying back out of the continent. Starting with north Africa in the 1950s, Ghana in 1957, right up through Zimbabwe in 1980 and Namibia in 1990, Pakenham provides a concise and useful postscript summarizing the race to abandon African colonies.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.