Sunday, July 16, 2006

Thomas Pakenham - The Scramble for Africa

Thomas Pakenham’s monumental book (my copy weighs in at 680 pages, excluding indices etc) documents the inglorious ‘scramble’ undertaken by the European powers at the end of the 1800s. This scramble, was, in the words of Dr. Livingstone designed to bring the three C’s “Civilisation, Commerce and Christianity” to the African’s, whether they wanted them or not.

In return, the European powers were to get ample reward for their philanthropy – diamonds, mahogany, rubber and gold were among the raw materials that they hoped to suck from Africa – and Vampire like, they certainly tried to suck that continent dry.

Superior firepower and the classic tactics of divide-and rule, allowed countries like Britain to run all over the tribes and peoples of the continent. Pakenham describes the appalling way which these people were exploited – often in the name of God.

At the centre of the story is the Congo – a completely artificial country carved out of West Africa on the personal whim of King Leopold of Belgium, who invested his personal fortune into setting up a massive trading empire. The Congo made Leopold very rich indeed – the people of the Congo were turned into little more than slaves, eventually provoking outcry around the world. Though it must be said that similar tales of exploitation could be told about almost all of the colonies, whether British, German or Belgian.

Pakenham tells this complex story with ease – the lives of individuals like Livingstone or Stanley serving to illustrate the carve-up. But often these stories are lost in the complex background – the political machinations of the British parliament or the German Kaiser’s international manoeuvres. Not that this is necessary a bad thing, after all most of the individuals - Henry Stanley for instance - were little more than tools representing one bloc or the other, rather than the philantropists and great explorers that history books have led us to believe.

We hear perhaps, all to little of the African people themselves – too often their rebeillions lead to complete massacres at the hands of British, German or French machine guns. Though occasionally, as at the battle of Adowa in 1896, the natives managed to destroy an Italian army, killing more than 4000, and capturing 2000 more. However such victories were the exception rather than the rule, and one by one, the people’s of Africa fell, were destroyed by disease, or forced from their traditional ways of life and forced to work for the white invaders.

It’s fitting then, that the last chapter of this work, after documenting in great detail the takeover of Africa (done in a matter of a few decades), how quickly the post-war independence movements forced the colonials out of Africa. Though this story itself deserves a far more detailed treatment.

The debate about the legacy of colonialism is far from settled, right-wing historians and pundits will still say that while the consequences of colonial rule were brutal and unhappy, it was all done in the name of progress, no one can read Pakenham’s great book and think that anything beneficial came from the invasion of Africa. A few individuals made a huge amount of money and the people of Africa suffered monumental deprivations, a lesson we should learn perhaps for the new-colonialism currently being undertaken in the Middle East.


Anonymous said...

Maybe in another twenty years someone will write the similar book about The United States' colonization of Central and South America.

Anonymous said...

I guess such a book was written already