The bat­tle for Africa

Lawrence James’s con­cise ac­count of waves of im­pe­rial con­quest fol­lowed by world wars is a com­pelling ex­am­i­na­tion of atroc­i­ties, lib­er­a­tion and ex­trem­ism.

The National - News - The Review - - Books - Steve Donoghue reports Steve Donoghue is man­ag­ing edi­tor of Open Let­ters Monthly.

The sub­tlety of Em­pires in the Sun is at its sharpest in its re­fusal to as­sign its blame sim­ply along lines of colour or pa­tri­o­tism

Back in 1874, when Bel­gium’s King Leopold II first re­ceived what he con­sid­ered re­li­able con­fir­ma­tion of the vast un­tapped nat­u­ral re­sources of Africa, he wasted no time in pro­claim­ing his in­ten­tions to his cousin Queen Victoria: “I have sought to meet those most in­ter­ested in bring­ing civ­i­liza­tion to Africa,” he told her, adding, “There is an im­por­tant task to be un­der­taken there, to which I would feel hon­oured to con­trib­ute.”

No one asked him to con­trib­ute any­thing, of course. He bought, fi­nanced and ran the Congo Free State en­tirely as a pri­vate pos­ses­sion, in the teeth of op­po­si­tion from his own min­is­ters back home in Bel­gium, and ruled roughshod over the roughly 10 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants of the land he was ex­pro­pri­at­ing. To the lim­ited ex­tent he thought about it at all, he thought those in­hab­i­tants would be happy to trade their cease­less un­paid toil for the chance to wear western clothes, con­tract western dis­eases, and learn the Bi­ble front to back.

That com­bi­na­tion of lung­ing greed and com­pla­cent big­otry set the pat­tern for the waves of im­pe­rial con­quest that would wash over Africa at the height of the Vic­to­rian era and be­yond, with a whole host of western pow­ers – France, Ger­many, Great Bri­tain, Por­tu­gal, Spain, Italy, the Nether­lands, and so on – all vy­ing with each other for colo­nial pos­ses­sions on the con­ti­nent. It was the rightly-named “scram­ble for Africa,” and it’s the sub­ject of Em­pires

in the Sun, the com­pact and au­thor­i­ta­tively acer­bic new book by historian Lawrence James, who wrote an ex­cel­lent book about the Bri­tish Raj in 1997 and yet an­other about the Bri­tish Em­pire in gen­eral in 1999, and who is there­fore well-versed in the evils and hypocrisies that al­ways ac­com­pany im­pe­ri­al­ist ad­ven­tures. The wil­ful self-delu­sion that is the fore­most pre­req­ui­site of such ad­ven­tures opens the book: “Bri­tish, French, Ger­man and Ital­ian im­pe­ri­al­ists had con­vinced them­selves and their coun­try­men that they were shar­ing the moral, cul­tural, sci­en­tific and tech­ni­cal ben­e­fits of Europe’s in­tel­lec­tual and in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion,” James writes. “The French coined the ex­pres­sion mis­sion civil­isatrice to de­scribe this mass ex­port of the 18th- and 19th-cen­tury En­light­en­ment.”

The pro­tracted story of that mis­sion civil­isatrice is grimly fa­mil­iar. Thomas Pak­en­ham wrote a de­fin­i­tive ac­count of its first half-cen­tury nearly 30 years ago in his The Scram­ble for Africa; it takes up sev­eral de­press­ing chap­ters of John Reader’s mag­is­te­rial 1998 book Africa: A Bi­og­ra­phy of the Con­ti­nent; it’s traced from its pre­his­toric deep roots in Martin Mered­ith’s 2014 The For­tunes of Africa; and it’s fol­lowed down to the present-day in Tom Bur­gis’s bit­ing 2016 book The Loot­ing Ma­chine – to name just a few ti­tles. The amaze­ment of James’s book is its fierce con­ci­sion: in fewer than 400 pages, he takes read­ers act-by-act through the ear­li­est days of the scram­ble (Ce­cil Rhodes, “Doc­tor Liv­ing­stone, I pre­sume,” and all the other fa­mil­iar sto­ries), through the con­vul­sions Africa felt when it was dragged piece­meal into two world wars that didn’t con­cern it in the slight­est, and through the up­surge of patch­work na­tion­al­ism and Cold War ma­noeu­vrings that fol­lowed in the wake of the Sec­ond World War, when Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Harold Macmil­lan could dole­fully re­mark, “Africa may be­come no longer a source of pride or profit to the Euro­peans who have de­vel­oped it, but a mael­strom into which all of us will be sucked.”

If the mael­strom had a motto, it was through­out this long sor­did story the motto of the Boer Na­tional Party of South Africa in the hey­day of its strength: “die kaf­fer op sy plek” – the black man in his place. Slav­ery, apartheid and vi­cious op­por­tunism fill the pages of Em­pires in the Sun, and James chron­i­cles it all with a near-perfect bal­ance of broad strokes and telling spe­cific de­tails.

At reg­u­lar in­ter­vals the bum­bling malev­o­lence of the colo­nial pow­ers is laid bare; when James re­counts the in­ept spy­ing ac­tiv­i­ties of for­mer Sene­galese sol­dier “agent Joe” in 1930s Paris, for in­stance, he quips, “In­spec­tor Clouseau would have sym­pa­thised.” Such mo­ments of grudg­ing lev­ity bal­ance a litany of hor­ror, slaugh­ter and ex­ploita­tion. The Ital­ian in­trigues in Abyssinia, Mau Mau in­sur­rec­tion, the Al­ge­rian War of In­de­pen­dence, the atroc­i­ties of Ugan­dan dic­ta­tor Idi Amin (“Once it be­came clear that Amin was Africa’s Caligula, western aid dried up and he turned to the Rus­sians, who gave him $100 mil­lion in arms,” we’re told. “They too dropped him, ex­as­per­ated by his ut­ter un­re­li­a­bil­ity”), the mul­ti­fac­eted op­pres­sions of South African apartheid … James tells all these well-known sto­ries in a lean and fast-paced ca­dence that al­lows him to cram a great deal of de­tail into a small amount of space.

De­spite the well-known dra­mat­ics of the “scram­ble” in its early decades, Em­pires in the Sun ac­tu­ally grows stronger in its sto­ry­telling in the later stages of the tale. Sim­mer­ing un­der­neath the Cold War strate­gis­ing that kept the French, Bri­tish, Rus­sians and Amer­i­cans oc­cu­pied in a dozen African coun­tries, there were stronger forces at work, fires of long-sup­pressed na­tion­al­ist fer­vour flaring up in ev­ery cor­ner of the con­ti­nent. Light­ning-rod em­blems of these na­tion­al­ist drives stand out in James’s story, fig­ures like Egypt’s Pres­i­dent Ga­mal Ab­del Nasser, whose vic­tory in 1956’s Suez Cri­sis tem­po­rar­ily put him in the spot­light of the grand in­ter­na­tional chess game be­ing played by the world’s su­per­pow­ers in Africa. “Soviet pro­pa­ganda ex­ploited Nasser’s suc­cess for all it was worth,” James writes. “Us­ing the Gen­eral As­sem­bly of the United Na­tions as his plat­form, [Soviet premier Nikita] Khrushchev af­firmed his sup­port for colo­nial lib­er­a­tion move­ments with his char­ac­ter­is­tic knock­about rhetoric.”

In ad­di­tion to ev­ery­thing else, Nasser and fig­ures like him were har­bin­gers of a chang­ing world. In 1960, James re­minds his read­ers, one-third of the Gen­eral As­sem­bly’s 99 rep­re­sen­ta­tives came from for­mer colonies or pro­tec­torates, a num­ber that would in­crease in the fol­low­ing decade. And the na­tion­al­ist drives of such for­mer colonies were of­ten in­ter­twined with re­li­gious drives: James is an ex­cel­lent guide to the com­plex­i­ties of the con­ti­nent’s Mus­lims liv­ing un­der Chris­tian rule, for in­stance, and the ways they could man­i­fest them­selves in the fight­ing that is the book’s near-con­stant theme.

“Faith elim­i­nated the sol­dier’s nat­u­ral fear of death, which made the ji­hadi a for­mi­da­ble and ter­ri­fy­ing ad­ver­sary,” James writes. “Af­ter sev­eral en­coun­ters with ji­hadic war­riors in Sene­gal dur­ing the 1850s, Gen­eral Faid­herbe con­cluded that: ‘It is in the name of the Prophet that our worst en­e­mies march against us.’”

The story of South Africa, in the stand­out chap­ter “The Last Days of White Africa”, stands as em­blem­atic of the story’s wan­ing decades. The broad out­line of South Africa’s ruth­less im­ple­men­ta­tion of apartheid to im­pose the will of three mil­lion whites on over 14 mil­lion blacks is filled in with ex­cel­lent, eco­nom­i­cal pre­ci­sion. The slowly-grow­ing in­ter­na­tional anti-apartheid move­ment brought so­cial and eco­nomic pres­sure to bear on the white lead­er­ship of the coun­try, an in­ter­na­tional re­vul­sion typ­i­fied by one Bri­tish Methodist: “I could not look a black man in the face again if I were to ac­cept this as an in­evitable evil in which I could have no part ex­cept to ac­qui­esce to it.”

By blood­shed or bit­ter ar­bi­tra­tion or by pompous dec­la­ra­tion, the bush­fire fights for in­de­pen­dence change one na­tion’s name af­ter an­other. Abyssinia be­comes Ethiopia; Tan­ganyika be­comes Tan­za­nia; South­ern Rhode­sia be­comes Zim­babwe; South West Africa be­comes Namibia, and so on. These changes are etched in blood and des­per­a­tion, fought by an al­pha­bet of acronyms and ab­bre­vi­a­tions like SWAPO, ANC, MPLA, UNITA, and FNLA. Slowly, with ag­o­nis­ing, stut­ter­ing re­luc­tance, for­mer colo­nial pow­ers like France and Bri­tain re­alise that the days of their power in Africa are fad­ing be­yond recla­ma­tion. The sub­tlety of Em­pires in the Sun is at its sharpest in its re­fusal to as­sign its blame sim­ply along lines of colour or pa­tri­o­tism. Idi Amin is far from the only mur­der­ous fraud and grifter to take ad­van­tage his own peo­ple’s yearn­ing to be free of the Euro­pean yoke, and there are colo­nial agents and even mis­sion­ar­ies who stand out in these pages for their hu­man­ity rather than lack of it.

James takes his story right down to the present day and leaves it on the brink of cur­rent head­lines. “The strug­gle for mas­tery in south­ern Africa was over; hence­for­ward Africans ev­ery­where were in charge of their own affairs,” he writes. “Whether or not this was a happy end­ing has yet to be seen.”

Em­pires in the Sun wisely of­fers no pre­dic­tions.

Hul­ton-Deutsch Col­lec­tion / Cor­bis via Getty Im­ages

Dur­ing the Mau Mau Up­ris­ing in Bri­tish Kenya (1952-60), sus­pects were in­terned at the Thomp­son Falls Camp, the gal­lows of which are pic­tured above. Em­pires in the Sun is an acer­bic ac­count of the Euro­pean scram­ble for colo­nial power.

Em­pires in the Sun: The Strug­gle for the Mas­tery of Africa Lawrence James Pe­ga­sus Books, Dh88

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