Ben Heller Collection, New York/Werner Forman Archive/Bridgeman Images

A sculpture from the Fon people of Benin, date unknown

In the year 1415, an unnamed envoy from the East African city-state of Malindi sailed from the Red Sea to China aboard a ship commanded by the great Chinese admiral and explorer Zheng He. Upon his arrival in Beijing, the envoy was escorted to the inner gates of the imperial palace, where he presented a live giraffe to the Ming emperor as a form of tribute. The giraffe so dazzled the imperial audience that its presentation was depicted in paintings, some of which entered the imperial collections and survive to this day. In fact, Chinese curiosity about Africa was piqued to such a degree that during the last two of Zheng’s seven famous voyages, culminating in 1433, his enormous and heavily armed fleet plied the East African coast, establishing relations between the Ming and local rulers in Dar es Salaam, Kilwa, Malindi, Mogadishu, and Mombasa. In one of history’s great coincidences, Zheng’s voyages and the abrupt and fateful inward turn by China that followed them coincided almost exactly with Europe’s “discovery” of western Africa.

Upon his return from the capture of a trading island off the coast of North Africa in 1415, the poor Portuguese prince who came to be known as Henry the Navigator gathered a team of cartographers to begin charting the West African coast. Cut off by Spain from the Mediterranean’s rich trading opportunities, tiny Portugal, with Henry’s encouragement, wagered on southward exploration of the Atlantic. A primary objective seemed to be the discovery of the African source of the trans-Saharan gold supply, but Portugal soon also sought to establish a sea route to the silk and spices of Asia that would allow it to bypass the stranglehold of the formidable Ottoman Empire on the land routes.

The Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão first made contact with the Kingdom of Kongo in west central Africa in 1483. Over the next few years, as diplomatic relations were established, Kongo nobles were brought back to Portugal for conversion to Christianity, then returned to their country. The Portuguese quickly came to depend on the kingdom for a large portion of their slave trade, and the Kongo elite sent envoys to the Vatican and numerous students to European capitals. After an initial period of remarkably equal exchanges, however, conflict arose over Portuguese efforts to undercut rules in Kongo aimed at limiting what was fast becoming a bottomless demand for slaves. In 1526, amid a series of written entreaties to Lisbon to respect these rules, Afonso, the ruler of Kongo, composed a striking complaint to his Portuguese counterpart:

Each day the traders are kidnapping our people—children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our family. This corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated. We need in this kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, and no merchandise, unless it is wine and flour for Mass. It is our wish that this kingdom not be a place for the trade or transport of slaves.

The disaster that the unbridled slave trade inflicted on Kongo is emblematic of slavery’s effects on the economic and political development of Africa as a whole. From the earliest times, the scarcest resource of African kingdoms had been people. Population growth in Africa was severely depressed compared to other parts of the world because of the many life-shortening diseases and parasites that were endemic to its tropical climate. Beyond Africa’s historic challenge of underpopulation, its vastness made it difficult for kingdoms to get people to settle in one place, especially against their will. Africans had always practiced slavery among themselves, but slaves were usually war captives and the victors typically sought to absorb them quickly, through marriage, military service, or the manumission of their children. Without such assimilation the risk of flight or rebellion was too great.

By some estimates, the Kongo kingdom and its immediate region lost a third of its population to the European slave trade. Between 1500 and the late 1800s, tropical Africa altogether lost roughly 18 million people to the slave trade, most of them in their prime reproductive years. This impact is better understood if one considers that the population of the continent remained stagnant at 50 million between 1700 and 1850 instead of doubling, as some demographers believe it might have without slavery’s heavy toll.

As the demand for bonded African labor skyrocketed in the early eighteenth century, European traders sold firearms in large numbers to well-organized African states like Dahomey and Oyo, transforming them into single-product economies, i.e., mass slave exporters. These powerful kingdoms, typically situated near the coast, mounted seasonal razzia, or raiding campaigns, initially against weaker neighboring peoples but eventually far inland. This turned much of tropical Africa into what the Yale political scientist James C. Scott has called “shatter zones”—inhospitable places where fragmented groups fled the predations of the more powerful: the remotest swamplands of today’s Central African Republic, the inaccessible buttes of Mali, and many other semidesert and forest zones. Economists like William Easterly and Nathan Nunn have argued that there is a strong correlation, even 150 years later, between areas where razzia were most intense and contemporary African poverty levels, a correlation they attribute in part to the persistence of social mistrust, which limits trade and undermines the development of a business culture.


All too many publications about the history of Europe’s relationship with Africa fail to sufficiently convey the damage that was done to the African economy, peoples, and political development by the slave trade and European colonialism. Perhaps the most striking recent example of this is Empires in the Sun: The Struggle for the Mastery of Africa, by Lawrence James, an English author who has written extensively on the British Empire.

James does not practice outright denialism about European behavior in Africa. But at almost every significant turn in his account, which spans the five centuries from early modern European contacts with the continent to its decolonization beginning in the 1950s, he tends to downplay its ill effects on Africa and wonders aloud why, as he sees it, non-Europeans don’t get held up for comparable scrutiny. Wherever possible, he emphasizes principled motives, particularly as a way of distinguishing the actions of the British from those of their European counterparts. In doing so, he puts the reader in mind of other writers, for instance popularizers of United States history, who likewise emphasize past virtue and decry more critical assessments as unwarranted self-flagellation.

On his very first page, James concedes that “change” driven by European imperialism generated conflict in Africa, but he never returns to dwell upon this at length. Instead, he immediately offers what seems like a pat, exculpatory defense: Europeans “believed [change] would benefit them and their African subjects.” This passage sets the tone for much of what follows. “Strange as it may seem, Charles de Gaulle, Mussolini, Cecil Rhodes and Nikita Khrushchev believed that their countries had something of value to offer Africans.” He calls the slicing up of different parts of the continent by its new colonial masters “a dual partnership of physical and spiritual regeneration [that] was appropriate for Africa, which in the popular imagination was depicted as a ‘dark’ continent.”

In fact, it is not at all strange that Western powers, as they set out to subdue and colonize Africa, would create whatever justifications they needed to defend and promote their objectives. This, indeed, is the general rule, not the exception, with imperial projects throughout history: emphasizing the civilizational virtues that are being shared with less fortunate or explicitly inferior peoples, while minimizing one’s own self-interested objectives and downplaying the violence and dispossession that are usually essential to the subjugation of others.

James’s jarring claims begin early on, in his discussion of the European slave trade in Africa, which began in the fifteenth century. “Slavery and the slave trade were vast but not immovable obstacles to progress in Africa; they skewed economic and social development, and were a constant cause of wars,” he writes in the first chapter, having already told us in the preface that “war had always been endemic in Africa.” What he seems to be saying here is that as traumatic as slavery, and its associated violence, may have been, it should not be considered a major factor in impeding Africa’s subsequent economic and social progress—something that modern scholars widely dispute. A few pages later, James remains neutral as he uncritically describes a European rationale for domination: “So far as it was known there was no African Taj Mahal or Forbidden City. Why this was perplexed Europe’s men of reason during the eighteenth century. The answer seemed to lie in a genetic intellectual deficiency.”

It is certainly true that Western notions about the innate inferiority of Africans were used to justify both enslavement and colonization. But this sort of justification, in addition to being inadequate—deeming a people “inferior” does not provide the grounds for enslaving or murdering them—is based on a false premise, underexplored by James and many other historians. A more curious observer might have also noted that the monumental architecture of the Mayans, the Incas, and the Aztecs gave no pause to Europeans and their designs of conquest. Early on, in any case, European explorers did encounter impressive signs of African achievement, from large and tidy cities to sublime art. They found precolonial African states that dominated entire subregions, controlled lucrative trade routes, and maintained elaborate structures of government. To take but one example, for six hundred years sophisticated kingdoms had succeeded one another astride the Niger River in the region of present-day Mali.


At the beginning of the fourteenth century, nearly two hundred years before Columbus’s voyages, Abubakari II, the ruler of the Malian empire, built a fleet of ships to search for the western shores of the Atlantic. When only one of hundreds of boats returned, Abubakari ordered and personally commanded an even larger expedition, but was never seen again. His more famous successor, Mansa Musa, used Mali’s wealth to recruit Islamic scholars from Egypt and architects from Andalusia, and distributed so many tons of gold while leading an immense pilgrimage to Mecca that he set off a wave of inflation in the Middle East and Europe and crashed the price of the metal for a decade. Musa was so renowned that his image began turning up on the maps of European cartographers.

Evidence of African achievement—from the pyramids of Egypt to the bronzes of Benin, among many other examples—was persistently explained away by Europeans as the possible legacy of mysterious outsiders who came to Africa, left their mark, and then disappeared. To accord local agency in such matters would have undermined a long-standing narrative about the inherent inferiority or even subhuman nature of Africans, which was vital in giving Europeans license for their actions.

James places greater emphasis on intra-African profiteering from the Atlantic slave trade than he does on its economic advantages for the West. “The wealth generated by slavery was a key factor in African politics,” he writes. “Fortunes were amassed by the indigenous entrepreneurs and invested in the soldiers and modern weaponry that were necessary to establish and defend their hunting grounds.” It is of course true that African societies, like Kongo, sold slaves to Europeans in exchange for guns, cloth, and tons of cowrie shells, which were established early on as a form of currency for the trade.

By comparison, however, as recent research by Thomas Piketty, among others, has shown, in the early nineteenth century the value derived from the trade and ownership of slaves in America was greater than the value of all of the country’s factories, railroads, and canals combined. It was also greater than the value of all of its agricultural land. After it abolished slavery, London indemnified three thousand slave-owning families by today’s equivalent of $16.5 billion, or 40 percent of the British treasury’s annual output at the time. Economic historians like Kenneth Pomeranz, meanwhile, have pointed to the “exceptional scale of the New World windfall, the exceptionally coercive aspects of colonization there and the organization of production,” by which he means slavery, to explain the great divergence in wealth between the West and China that began in the nineteenth century, after many centuries with China in the lead.*

In explaining the European “scramble” to take over Africa, James heaps disproportionate blame on France and pins much of its behavior on the purported French obsession with gloire—glory. “Nineteenth-century France was mesmerised by that heady abstraction, La Gloire,” he writes. “Napoleon had been its latest and greatest embodiment: his genius for war had (briefly) made France master of Europe and convinced his own and later generations that winning wars was part of their national birthright.” To emphasize this among the diverse motives behind France’s imperial history in Africa is historically unsatisfying.

When France began its decades-long conquest of Algeria in 1830, as James himself writes, the Congress of Vienna had just confined France to its own borders in Europe. Africa therefore beckoned as a badly needed, unclaimed region where it could compete with Britain and others. The late historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote: “Between 1876 and 1915 about one-quarter of the globe’s land surface was distributed or redistributed as colonies among a half-dozen states. Britain increased its territories by some 4 million miles, France by some 3.5 millions.” Glory and its effects, which are hard to measure, may have been part of that, but Hobsbawm seems persuasive when he writes that “a more convincing general motive for colonial expansion was the search for markets.”

The emphasis on French glory is just one of numerous instances in which James labors to morally elevate his own country over its rivals. France, he says, was the primary driver of the scramble for Africa. British motives in this and in many other matters are far less seriously questioned. “Imperialism was integral to the spirit of the [French] Third Republic,” James writes, without making any comparable observation about the British. “It represented progress and prized what republicans believed to be the unique and superior culture of France.” When speaking of Britain, he is relentless in highlighting supposedly more progressive motives, as in this characteristic passage:

Britain’s businessmen were willing to brace themselves to meet the new conditions of global trade…. The commercial mind was aware that there were advantages in keeping as much of the world’s trade as possible open to Free Trade, even if this meant permanent occupation of areas not yet under foreign control. In the long term, the people of Africa would benefit from competition and an abundance of goods.

Elsewhere, he writes, white and black alike suffered a “torpid” administration under the Dutch in the nineteenth-century Cape Colony, in present-day South Africa. Once London took over, though, “the long-term aim of the rulers of the Cape was the creation of a tranquil colony under humane, British laws, and a passive population that would take advantage of the civil peace to enrich themselves.” “Britain,” in apparent contrast to others, he writes of the 1850s, “was the friend of the weak and the oppressed and a nation deeply aware of its collective Christian duty.” This would be the very moment, of course, that the Chinese were under siege from Britain during the Opium War.

James seems similarly preoccupied with the Arab slave trade in Africa: “The literature on African slavery is selective and imbalanced since it largely ignores the Arab–African slave trade.” Arab and African slavers, he writes, “insisted that they were engaged in a historically legitimate, economically necessary and rewarding enterprise,” though he never delivers such a blunt assessment of Western motives. Amid this discussion, and with no attribution, he claims that the Muslim trade in African slaves was as large or larger than the Atlantic trade. It is true that Islamic markets for African slaves date back to the ninth century. But of the roughly 18 million Africans sold into slavery in the four centuries prior to 1850, roughly 11 million left from the continent’s west coast alone, virtually all of them bound for the New World. During this time, Western agents were active in other regions as well. Numbers aside, James concludes that “the collective moral shame and regret felt by subsequent generations of Europeans and Americans have never been shared by Turks, Egyptians and Arabs,” though many Americans and Europeans would strongly question the scope of this “moral shame and regret.”

Despite its defensiveness and persistent pro-British slant, Empires in the Sun has a number of interesting things to say about intra-European competition and the vicissitudes of migration to and from Africa. One learns, for example, that many European countries in the early twentieth century conceived of emigration to their African colonial holdings as a solution to their own population pressures. In 1905, on the other hand, in response to the lobbying of industrialists in need of workers, France lifted a ban on immigration from Algeria. During World War I, James writes, “huge numbers of Algerians were drafted into French factories, mines and dockyards to release workers for service at the front.” Without African colonies it could tap this way, he writes, Germany resorted to subjecting fellow Europeans to forced labor under military administration. In the decades after the war, French Algerians faced widespread hostility and discrimination. “They were kept under close police surveillance and were disdained by the French, who stigmatised them as a threat to women, carriers of syphilis and child molesters,” he writes.

Late in his book, James situates the sources of Africa’s present problems in the recent decades of independence, variously blaming poor African governance and the legacy of US–Soviet competition during the cold war. There is, of course, plenty of blame to go around. But what are we to make, finally, of the White Man’s Burden and commitment to progress, which James identifies as the predominant rationale for Europe’s actions in Africa? From the eve of World War I, by which time it had achieved its nearly complete takeover of the continent, to the conclusion of World War II, Europe invested little in Africa, especially by comparison with other regions under its colonial control.

By the late 1930s, France had a mere 385 colonial administrators commanding the destinies of 15 million African subjects. British Africa, with 43 million people, had a roughly comparable 1,200. By the late 1950s, the dawn of the independence era for the continent, out of a population of 200 million sub-Saharan Africans, European stewardship had produced only 8,000 secondary school graduates, half of whom were from just two colonies, Britain’s Ghana and Nigeria. In France’s territories only about a third of school-aged children received any primary education at all.

Beyond its problems of emphasis and of selectively used facts, though, James’s biggest missed opportunity is his failure to seriously invoke Africa’s future. Within the last half-century, Africa has finally overcome its long-term population deficit in comparison with other continents, and is now barreling into a globally unprecedented demographic takeoff. According to the United Nations Population Division’s 2017 revision, its population, which stands at 1.25 billion today, will double to 2.5 billion by 2050. By this century’s end, the UN’s median estimate predicts there will be 4.4 billion Africans, slightly fewer, in other words, than twice the combined populations of present-day China and India.

Europe is already in a state of distress about the flow of refugees and migrants from Africa, and in seeming denial about the scale of this pending demographic transformation and the potentially devastating impact of climate change on the continent. The Africa question looms as one of the most momentous human challenges for the remainder of this century. How can the damage of colonial balkanization be remedied and Africa become much more integrated into global economic systems? Despite the scope of the challenge, one hears surprisingly little discussion of this from James or anyone else.