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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.

Slavery is a major theme of Oliver’s book, inevitably. But if The African Experience does reach the wide audience that it deserves, then it will reveal to many readers for the first time that the Atlantic slave trade was not the central event in the history of African slavery. It was decisive, but only because European nations (Britain especially) eventually became disgusted with themselves, abolishing first the trade, then the institution in their own countries and colonies, and finally slavery in Africa itself. Roland Oliver’s perspective sees the Atlantic trade against the fact that slavery was an almost universal and immemorially ancient custom throughout the African continent. Slavery existed in dynastic Egypt, and Herodotus recorded slave-raiding into the central Sahara (then still in parts fertile) in the first millennium BC. Excavation shows that villages in the Niger Delta began to build defenses at about that time, and slavery was certainly well-established all down the western coast of Africa when the first Portuguese voyagers landed there in the fifteenth century AD.

In most cases, slaves were the outcome of aggressive war. Professor Oliver points out the crucial distinction between a slave and a mere captive: a slave is a captive who has been taken so far from his or her home that escape becomes unthinkable and bonds or fetters can be safely removed. (A slave with tied feet or hands would be of little use to anyone.) But this distinction also implies an organized long-distance commerce in slaves. African states were very small and made war locally, so that the very existence of slavery as an institution required traders who could move captives to a sufficiently distant point of sale.

The general practice was to take women and children for sale as slaves, and to kill captured men. This practice was given heavy impetus by the spread of Islam through Africa:

The Prophet Muhammad had, after all, lived his life in a slave-raiding, slave-owning, polygynous society, in which it was customary for the men of the defeated group to be put to the sword and for the women and children to be taken as slaves by the victors.

The European slave trade, at its peak for only some two hundred years, forcibly removed some eleven to twelve million Africans across the Atlantic. And yet it was almost entirely parasitic on the main African domestic trade; the slaves who arrived in the Americas had generally been bought secondhand from African owners or dealers, while direct slave-raiding by white or white-led expeditions was rare. Where the Atlantic trade made a difference was in the preference of its plantation-owning customers for male slaves. This was obviously better news for male captives. They were preserved to be sold to Europeans, rather than killed off. But it also meant that, as the coastal states built up their enormously lucrative trade in human bodies with the white purchases, more and more women slaves were left on their hands. Oliver suggests that, given the practice of having two or more wives at the same time, this led to a rapid population rise all down the coastal belt, which probably out-weighed by far the population loss in the southern savannah where most of these slaves were originally captured.

A second gift to the general reader is Oliver’s discussion of “tribes.” Like his treatment of slavery, this is a resumé of long and sometimes rancorous controversies which are little known outside universities. The revisionists, to whom Professor Oliver belongs, now say that the social entity known as an African “tribe” was unknown before the colonial period. Professor Terence Ranger, for example, writes about the conflict between the Shona and Ndbele in postindependence Zimbabwe that “far from being immemorial, natural, deeply rooted, tribalism of that sort did not exist in precolonial Zimbabwe at all.” In other words, all the chatter about Africa “reverting to tribalism” is irrelevant. Terence Ranger’s statement would still induce apoplexy among surviving white Rhodesians, and I have heard liberals in London bewailing the arrival of “Europe of the tribes.” But the tribe is a European invention.

It exists now, all right. The new European masters, as they moved from a trading relationship to direct or indirect rule in Africa, looked for something roughly equivalent in scale and cohesion to what they understood in the nineteenth century by the term “nation.” They needed that sort of political unit in order to govern, either through a District Officer or indirectly through some collaborating class. So they crammed many kinds of community—language groups, conquest states of multi-ethnic origin, loose alliances—into the definition of “tribe.” Since then, the invention has grown to be authentic—much in the manner that invented or forged nations can grow to be authentic and command the loyalty of their inhabitants. Many African politicians operate these days in tribal categories, adding fictional foundations in precolonial history to gain conviction.

What did exist, then, before the Scramble? Professor Oliver writes here that “most Africans…lived, apparently from quite early in the Iron Age, in states, and these states were invariably in some sense hereditary monarchies.” Yet these states were not tribes. Most were minute, Athenian-sized polities numbering between five thousand and ten thousand people. But they tended to form clusters of twenty to thirty statelets, “each cluster representing a common language or culture.” It was to these clusters that Europeans attached the name of “tribe.”

Seen like this, the impact of the European seizure of Africa looks so different that its history must be rewritten. We are all accustomed to the reproach that capitalism drew artificial frontiers which cut across “tribal” territories and divided them between different empires. The image of the Scramble is inevitably one of a carving-up, the ripping to pieces of some larger unity. But as Professor Oliver brilliantly points out the “tribe” controversy renders that sort of imagery quite misleading. The so-called partition of Africa was in reality “a ruthless act of political amalgamation, whereby something of the order of ten thousand units was reduced to a mere forty.”

The first generation of independent African rulers, before and after they achieved the liberation of their countries, usually perceived “tribalism” as a dangerous adversary. While few, perhaps, went so far as to understand the whole concept as an invention, they were united in their hostility to the way in which the imperial power, on the defensive, fell back on the manipulation of neo-tribalism in order to delay the inevitable moment of defeat and departure. Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Patrice Lumumba in Congo/Zaire (who became a victim of neo-tribalism fomented by the Belgians and by the European mining interests in Katanga), Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia, and—above all—Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress in South Africa are all examples of leaders who believed that progressive and successful national liberation required another act of “political amalgamation” to transcend ethnic divisions.

Nonetheless, that last-ditch manipulation took place repeatedly. The Smith regime in Rhodesia feverishly encouraged opposition between “Ndbele” and “Shona”; although unable to stave off the collapse of white rule, it bequeathed a disastrous civil war to Zimbabwe after independence and defined the political landscape for the next few years. The same divide-and-rule strategy has been practiced by successive South African governments, including the present one, in the hope that Zulu nationalism could be built up to the point at which black politics would be split beyond remedy.

As in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe, the consequence is likely to be a generation of continuing bloodshed between Africans, although not the salvation of Afrikanerdom. The neotribe has come to Africa to stay, and most of the territories which became independent states between 1960 and 1980 have fallen victim to tribal politics. Meanwhile African intellectuals—writers, teachers, journalists—are forced toward a choice between tribal-political allegiance, even when they understand its fraudulent nature, and an impotent, dangerous existence on the political margins where they can at any moment be denounced as “traitors” to their ethnic roots.

This quality of reflection is not found in Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa. In its 738 pages there is no hint that the tribes might be a European projection on African society and no attempt to set European and Swahili-Arab slave-trading against the background of African political history. But Mr. Pakenham did not set out to write “African” history, as he very candidly announces in his introduction. He puts forward two aims. The first is to remedy the lack of “a general explanation [of the Scramble] acceptable to historians,” and to answer his own rhetorical question: “Why this undignified rush by the leaders of Europe to build empires in Africa?” The second is simply to tell the story. Since Scott Keltie’s book on the subject in 1893, “no one…has attempted to write a one-volume narrative of the Scramble, covering the whole continent.” In the first aim, Mr. Pakenham fails. The book explains in enormous detail how those leaders entered the struggle for Africa, but attempts no “general explanation”—only particular ones which relate to a statesman’s personality or to the constellation of his domestic politics. But in his second aim—to produce a single narrative—Mr. Pakenham succeeds on a colossal scale.

The book begins with the death of Livingstone at Chitambo’s village in 1873, and ends with the death of King Leopold of the Belgians at his palace of Laeken in 1909. In between is the story, or rather a tightly threaded necklace of individual stories, recounted with terrific verve and color and entirely from the point of view of “the white man.” That is not to say, of course, that Mr. Pakenham takes some simple moral view of the rightness of colonialism in Africa. The Scramble for Africa is the last grand Victorian history, and as such it takes a fairly austere view of its cast of characters. Those who are cruel to the natives are rebuked; those who are merely greedy as opposed to commercially creative are put in then place; those who rebel (the Mahdi, Menelik) are treated with respect. But this is overwhelmingly an account of how white politicians and soldiers and explorers approached Africa, of how they handled the subject of African annexations within the frame of their own domestic politics and of European great-power relationships, and of what happened in a dozen or so “decisive battles.” The Africans themselves scarcely figure except as black, assagai-waving masses pouring this way and that through the chapters. If African historians have begun to establish their own priorities about what mattered during these decades, they find no voice here.

This is, in fact, a strange and anachronistic book to encounter in the last few years of the twentieth century. Much here is admirable. The author undertook a tremendous, single-handed work of research carried out in many countries. And it should also be said that, as he showed in his book on the Boer War, Mr. Pakenham is some sort of world champion at rendering the traditional battle-piece in minute detail and with apt comments on the ruses or blunders of the officers in command. I still remember his account of the battle of Magersfontein vividly, almost excelled here by his tales of the battles of Isandhlwana, Diena, Khartoum, Omdurman, Adowa, Tel el Kebir, Majuba, etc.

This genre, already old when Caesar perfected it, is deeply respectable, if not much undertaken these days, and there is nothing to be criticized about Pakenham’s battle-pieces themselves. The trouble is that the genre is highly authorial: the general or Caesar orders this or that and it works or it doesn’t work. It scarcely allows for the more familiar experience of combat as a collision of unexpected bungles, miscalculations, acts of God, misheard radio messages, sleepiness, and terror whose outcome is more a matter of random effort than any rational actor’s result. Applied not just to a war or even a series of wars but to a complex episode of international history, traditional battlefield auteurism simply does not work. It reduces political action to the psychology (recorded or imaginatively reconstructed) of individual statesmen.

To take an example, Pakenham provides a chapter about the French seizure of Tunis in 1881—an episode still almost unknown to non-French readers, which as Pakenham demonstrates played an important part in setting off the Scramble. The takeover and its prelude are presented through colorfully described personalities: “Tall, dome-headed, forty-six-year-old Baron Alphonse de Courcel” at the Quai d’Orsay, “Théodore Roustan, the energetic, swarthy French Consul at Tunis,” and so on. These characters all have schemes and ambitions which may be either frustrated or fulfilled.

This is history very much as the participants would have seen it, preoccupied with immediate events, the manipulation of personalities, the latest telegram, the incongruity of some social occasion the same evening. It is the sort of history provided by that new form of British political literature: the clandestine Cabinet diary dictated by ministers at night. Nobody, I think, wishes to study a dry-bones history from which all the superficies have been boiled away, and nobody would wish to lose the mass of immediate contemporary detail which Thomas Pakenham has rescued. But the problems raised by that way of writing history are obvious, serious, and essentially two in number.

The first is the absence of analysis. Questions like those mentioned by Roland Oliver but lying before all African historians—the authenticity of the “tribe,” or the nature of slavery and war—are simply not raised: traditional versions are repeated with critical but minor emendations. Why, again, did the Scramble happen? The answer which seems to emerge here is merely that some European kings or statesmen suspected other European kings or statesmen of intentions to grab African territory and resolved to grab first. The “how” of this process is excellently done, at a formal diplomatic level. Here Pakenham’s panoramic and multinational approach pays off: for the first time it became clear to me how original, as well as how acquisitive and cunning, was King Leopold II of the Belgians. Apart from the expansions inland at the north and south extremities of the continent, European colonies had remained coastal until Leopold designed his enormous “Congo Free State” in the interior of Central Africa—the decisive provocation to his rivals, who then did likewise. And the rivals imitated Leopold in a second way: the scale of atrocities with which they suppressed rebellion and then extorted labor, wild rubber, and ivory from African populations.

Here again, Pakenham’s synoptic method of chronicling Europe’s conquest of the African interior is useful, for it provides—almost for the first time, in any reliable form—a comparative reckoning of the cost of the Scramble in African lives. Cases of planned genocide are fairly rare (three quarters of the Herero people in German Southwest Africa died as the result of von Trotha’s Vernichtungsbefehl in 1904), but more casual slaughter was almost universal. The railway from the Atlantic to Brazzaville cost the lives of 17,000 forced laborers (a fact brought out with stunning force at the trial of Klaus Barbie in Lyon, as his advocate Jacques Vergès defended him by accusing the French state of worse crimes against humanity than those committed by the Nazi occupiers of France). Leopold in the Congo Free State and then the concession companies in the French Congo depopulated whole regions. For the British, Lugard in 1906 ordered the “annihilation” of a small peasant uprising in Nigeria, and executed two thousand men, women, and children at the village of Satiru.

But the fundamental “why” and “in whose interests” questions remain unanswered by this book. That old classic Africa and the Victorians* may seem obsolescent now, but it did release a firework-display of imaginative ideas: about the reluctance of the Colonial Office to acquire possessions, about the pressure to protect the shores of the route to India, and about the influence of the missionary interest. The suddenness of the rush to seize the interior has some of the characteristics of a war: it was one of those changes into a far higher gear of development which usually take place when one state or alliance challenges another.

On the other hand, as Pakenham observes, the “Scramble out of Africa” through decolonization between about 1960 and 1980 was almost equally rapid and complete, and that cannot be fitted into any “warlike” category of state conflict. Mysteries of explanation, problems of interpretation and method, still remain. I closed Pakenham’s book feeling that, in spite of the benefit of another thirty years’ research, Africa and the Victorians had still told me more about the origins of the Scramble.

  1. *

    Ronald Robinson et al., Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism (St. Martin’s, 1961; London: Macmillan, 1981).

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