Monday, March 5, 2012

The Scramble for Africa

Book Review
Pakenham, T., (2003). The scramble for Africa: White man’s conquest of the dark continent from 1876 to 1912. New York: Perennial. (Original work published in 1991)

This is a book about the occupation, colonization and conquest of Africa during the Victorian Era. The author, Thomas Pakenham, is an Anglo-Irish historian who writes mostly about Victorian and Post-Victorian British history. Initially, I thought that the title was of the author’s invention. However, I found out from a popular online encyclopedia, that the Scramble for Africa is a term of art for this period from 1876 until World War I.
I struggled to get into the book because I have little interest in Victorian history, and Mr. Pakenham doesn’t help matters by assuming a British audience will appreciate his wry characterizations of European historical figures. Not being British, and lacking a British history education made Mr. Pakenham’s dry humor very dead for me. In addition, I was expecting the book to be more Afro-centric. I was, instead, learning more than I cared to, about Queen Victoria. However, as I struggled through the first few chapters, enough background developed to generate interest for the remainder of the book. It was then that I could begin to appreciate the meticulousness of the research of this in-depth history of the Victorian Era land grab in Africa.
The Scramble for Africa has as its central theme the contrast between the humanitarian motives of David Livingstone, and the profit-taking of Belgium’s King Leopold. Livingstone, as a Christian missionary, represented social progress moving away from Africa’s slave trade. His philosophy was the triple-bottom-line of the day: the 3 Cs of Commerce, Christianity, and Civilization. “Trade, not the gun, would liberate Africa” (p. xxii).
Unfortunately, the fourth ‘C’ of Conquest eventually became the rule as King Leopold made his rubber money, and Cecil Rhodes made his gold-and-diamond fortune. Human rights atrocities were commonplace as Europe imposed its will with the barrel of a gun. All of this makes a kind of historical sense. But, surprisingly the fallout from the Scramble helps to explain the civil wars and anarchy that continue in Africa to this day, even though independence from Europe has been won for many years.
The rebellion against, and the withdrawal of, Europe is understandable, but the new independent African states, unprepared for party politics, split along ethnic and regional lines. Civil war and anarchy were, and are, the result. I suppose it would have been too much to ask of the European conquerors, which scrambled to divide up Africa, not to have just as quickly scrambled back out of Africa, leaving a political power vacuum in the wake of their evacuation. I suppose it would have been asking too much of the European conquerors to not have better educated their subjects while occupying Africa. And so, I wonder how many Africans today would like to turn back the clock to 1875. For good reason, this book has been reprinted a number of times since its first appearance in 1990.

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