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Africa’s Lost History

The African Experience: Major Themes in African History from Earliest Times to the Present

by Roland Oliver
Harper Collins, 284 pp., $23.00

The Scramble for Africa: The White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912

by Thomas Pakenham
Random House, 738 pp., $32.00

It is now sixteen years since Dr. David Western, an ecologist, threw a ball of dry elephant dung at Dr. Andrew Hill, a paleontologist. The two scientists were gamboling, as learned mammals sometimes do, on a dry riverbed in Tanzania. Dr. Western missed, but Dr. Hill fell over. Given their respective professions, this was a lucky division of functions, because while on his knees Dr. Hill noticed a series of pockings on the rock surface around him.

These turned out to be raindrops which had fallen, something over 3.6 million years before, into a quick-drying layer of volcanic ash. Soon animal tracks were found too. Two seasons later, the footprints of hominids were uncovered—that “Laetoli Trail” which has become recognized as one of the wonders of the world, and down which three somebodies or somethings ambled splashily across a mudflat. The smallest somebody or something halted and half-turned for a moment to gaze sideways. The third one came along a little later, and amused itself by putting its feet rather imprecisely in the first one’s prints. They were tiny people or creatures, probably with apelike heads, but the high arch of their insteps and the splay of their toes (the wet mud squeezing up between them) is entirely modern. No relic in paleontology is as charming and touching as the trail of the Laetoli walkers.

Because of Laetoli, because of all the archaeological toil of the Leakey dynasty in Olduvai Gorge and Turkana, because of “Lucy’s” skull in the Afar desert, the world now accepts that the human species originated in Africa. More recently still, the so-called African Eve” hypothesis indicates a single common female ancestor, located in Africa at that place where the countless ramifications of the gene tree run together.

It is not new that Africa, more than any other continent, should be used as a means of divination for the anxieties of the “developed” world. But in every generation, the omens extorted from Africa are different. Once, in the later nineteenth century, Africa appeared at the same time unspeakably rich and the place of unspeakable wickedness. Its jungle glades glittered with gold and diamonds, while Satan ruled over cannibal orgy and slave-raid. Much later, the image of Africa was of culture and constitutions, of Ife bronze heads and the anticolonial struggle of a continent. Now the “significance” of Africa has become even more desperate. On the one hand, the place which Europeans for five hundred years regarded as the stagnant backwater of human development has turned out to be the fountain-head of all human development. Man began there; Africa is Mother. On the other hand—to give those already contorted emotions a further twist—Africa is represented as the very emblem of human failure. There, on those dried-out savannahs and eroded hills, the politics of optimism and the energy of international altruism and the hope that human ingenuity will always keep one hop ahead of the population surge seem all to have come to grief in one gigantic refugee camp. The image of Africa is one of emaciated babies dying for the television camera, while the face of African liberty looks like that of a helmeted black soldier with a Kalashnikov.

This is not the way Roland Oliver understands Africa. The African Experience, which runs its narrative all the way from Laetoli to the independence of Namibia in 1990, ends with an expression of hope so mild, yet so benign and convinced, that the reader is for a moment shocked. To Professor Oliver, the famines and military dictatorships and debt mountains amount only to a bad moment following the entry of independent Africa into the contemporary world. The trauma of that change will pass; matters will settle down again; the beginning of better times is already to be seen in the decision by so many African countries, in the wake of the East European revolutions, to “review the operation of their single-party systems.” As Africa steadies, so its political systems will open to accommodate a far wider elite than the handful which took the colonial territories to independence. The “era of mass participation in the political process” is about to begin.

Perhaps he is right. His perspective encourages optimism—partly because it is a fresh perspective. African history is still the baby of the universities, and not always the object of kindly croonings and ticklings, either. I remember very clearly a conversation between two Cambridge professors more than thirty years ago prompted by my suggestion that I should do a postgraduate thesis on Ugandan history. The older one, a mighty anthropologist, said flatly that there was no such thing as African history. This was partly because there were no documents to speak of, and only a very little archaeology. But it was mostly, he said, because the essence of Africa was that nothing much had ever changed there. Africa, unlike the rest of the world, was static. A continent with no change or development plainly had no history—although he could envisage young troublemakers going out to invent some. The other professor gently rebuked him. He could see, he said, how convenient it was for an anthropologist of the old Cambridge school to imagine a sort of specimen continent held motionless for its kinship patterns to be taxonomized, an Africa from which the whole inconvenient dimension of time had been exhausted like air from a vacuum. However, he thought that time leaked even into the social arrangements of Nilo-Hamitic pastoral nomads, spoiling them no doubt, from one point of view, or, as another scholar might say, simply changing them. Africa probably did have some sort of history. The trouble was we did not know it. This was because we had never bothered to study it.

I did not get the grant, but times and universities have changed greatly since. The historians are chewing into Africa, and fortunately many of them are Africans themselves. All this is quite largely owing to Professor Oliver himself, who back in 1948 got a junior academic job in African history at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. No such post had existed before. Since then, Professor Oliver has become the father of a new profession, inspirer of countless conferences, editor of both The Journal of African History and The Cambridge History of Africa. With this book, which is not quite the first but (in English) certainly the best and most readable single-volume history of the African continent as a whole, he offers his lifetime’s work to the general public.

This is a book perfectly designed for an intelligent reader who comes to the subject of Africa reasonably fresh and unprejudiced. Unfortunately, those are still fairly uncommon qualifications in Europe. The first category of baffled consumers will be those who until yesterday spent much energy denying Africans their history. They did not quite say, like the Cambridge professor, that Africa had no history at all. They said that anything ancient, beautiful, or sophisticated found on the continent could have had nothing to do with the talentless loungers incapable of making a decent cup of tea or plowing in a straight line. The ruins of Great Zimbabwe had been built by Phoenicians, the Benin bronzes were probably Portuguese, and all ironwork was Arab. A more sophisticated version of this line was that although Africa had made a promising start, some unknown disaster or lurking collective brain damage had immobilized Africans halfway down the track. This meant, among other things, that the history and archaeology of Africa belonged to the Europeans, who had dug it up and were alone able to understand it. Back to Europe it went and there, to a great extent, it remains.

Oliver’s book, being synoptic, blows all that away. While not precisely a chronological history of the human race’s four million years in Africa, it reveals a continuity through its structure of roughly consecutive themes: the paleontological picture, the state of knowledge about the beginnings of food production through herding and seed-planting, the first linguistic families of the continent, the problems of early metallurgy, and so on to the present. The condition of African history at the end of the twentieth century, in fact, resembles a map of Africa from about 1830. The outlines are now clear, and the interior is no longer a grand white blank of “unknown.” Empty spaces of mystery remain, and the sources of some of the broadest historical rivers are still a matter of controversy; the origin of domesticated Bos africanus cattle, for example, or the beginnings of iron-smelting (which was probably a discovery made in different places at different times rather than a single secret diffusing across the world). But Africa now has an irreversibly joined-up history. It is possible, in a rough-and-ready way, to see what was taking place at a given moment in the Sehel belt, in the upper Nile valley, and in the open plateau country south of the forest zone.

Oliver demonstrates that the human race in Africa was far from static. Even in eastern and southern Africa, where small and widely scattered populations lived in transient settlements from the early Iron Age until the colonial period, there was restless change: the discovery of banana cultivation in the Rift Valley in East Africa, new varieties of cattle, the development around the tenth century AD of an “industrial area” in southern Zaire, the growing impact of trade goods from Asia reaching the interior from the Swahili ports on the Indian Ocean. To the north, a vigorous urban life developed in West Africa which lasted for at least three thousand years; a complex and fast-moving succession of political relationships between mud-walled cities, cavalry empires, and the trading interests which sent caravans across the Sahara and brought kola nuts and gold up from the forest zones.

The colonial period, in this perspective, was at once sudden and exceedingly short, and its central event—the scramble of the European powers to divide up the continent—lasted scarcely twenty years. Until then, the European presence had been little more than a fringe of minute forts and trading posts around the coast, with the exceptions of the French conquest of Algeria and the Dutch-British presence at the Cape. The middle of the century, however, brought about a rapid political destabilization throughout much of Africa. Roland Oliver attributes it in part to the invention of the rifle rather than to the spread of firearms as such. (Many African blacksmiths could repair or even manufacture a simple old musket, but the rifle was a technology which could not be copied and which was imported only by the wealthiest rulers.) More gradually, the French establishment of slave-worked plantations on Reunion and Mauritius in the previous century had encouraged the Swahili-Arab traders of the coast to push inland in far greater force and depth in search of slaves, unsettling the whole interior between the Indian Ocean and the middle Congo basin.

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