Out of Africa

A Political History of Tropical Africa

by Robert I. Rotberg
Harcourt, Brace and World, 440 pp., $12.50

A History of Postwar Africa

by John Hatch
Praeger, 432 pp., $8.50

Nigeria, the Tribe, the Nation or the Race: The Politics of Independence

by F.A.O. Schwartz Jr.
M.I.T., 501 pp., $10.00

The two works heading this list are the opening salvo of a young Harvard historian, of whom we shall certainly hear more. The first shot is a hasty one, fired from the battery of his early lectures. The second is more deadly, coming from his own first-hand research. Dr. Rotberg’s Political History is nevertheless the most important work of historical synthesis about Africa which has yet been written by an American. It deals with the whole tropical zone of the continent, from the Sahara to the Limpopo, from ancient times until the present. Within the narrow limits of the author’s conception of history, the research that has gone into it is exceedingly thorough. Its facts are seldom wrong. For all that, it is a strangely unimaginative and, in many ways, an old-fashioned book. Fifty years of anthropological work on Africa is virtually ignored. The use of archaeological evidence is slight and uncertain. Even in dealing with avowedly historical evidence Rotberg has come less than half-way to meet the current trend among historians of Africa, which is to be rigorous in using the external sources for what they tell us about Africa as opposed to Europeans in Africa. Rotberg has practiced no such economy. He has three long chapters on exploration, and a fourth on the slave trade, all of which might appear more appropriately in a textbook on European expansion.

To most historians of Africa today the paramount fact about the slave trade is that it was at least a form of trade, and that the African peoples who practiced it fared on the whole better than those who had no external trade at all. The slave-trading states of western Africa were the first to benefit from the American food-crops—especially maize and manioc—which made possible the growth of dense populations in the humid regions around the Guinea and Congo forests. Those who sold slaves bought guns, which they used, not only to capture more slaves, but also to create larger political units than had existed before—to the great benefit of most of their inhabitants. The opening of the Atlantic trade enabled the peoples of the Guinea coast to turn the tables on their ancient oppressors—the armored horsemen of the sub-Saharan savannah. With questions of this kind Rotberg has not tried to wrestle. Like the colonial historians of yesterday, he has concentrated on the oceanic aspects of the trade, which are in fact more relevant to the history of America than to that of Africa.

When he comes to modern times Rotberg displays another set of ideas very different from those of most contemporary African historians. Partly because he has so largely failed to study the pre-colonial situation in the interior of Africa, he sees the colonial partition of the continent as a series of outright military conquests, following as a logical sequel upon the commercial and missionary penetration of the later nineteenth century. In contrast with this view most historians of the colonial period …

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