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The Scramble for Africa: 1876-1912.


Thomas Pakenham. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 20.00[pounds]

Contemplating crammed shelves of books on Africa, culminating in Lord Hailey's vast survey, one feels there is hardly room for this new tome of over 700 pages. Yet, with a nice balance of the anecdotal and academic, Thomas Pakenham produces a rewarding and readable mixture. Can one ever forget the picture of Bismarck chewing away at his shrimps and cherries, or the trade bead story to end all stories with Stanley's magic Chinese drum?

The early part of this book is very much a re-run of the Livingstone-Stanley and Leopold material still pouring from our gorged presses. Then a real gap is filled by the simultaneous story of the five great Powers (Britain, France, Germany, Portugal and Belgium) and Leopold plus a variety of Afro-Arab empires of the late 19th century.

There is no real consensus among historians to explain why the huge and hasty partition of Africa erupted when it did. Livingstone's comparatively placid progress towards the three |C's of Civilization, Christianity and Commerce, were, says Pakenham, inevitably followed by conflict and conquest. Though the term was not invented until later, the Scramble for Africa really took off with Leopold's machinations at the Brussels Conference of 1876. Leopold, King of the Belgians with his single-mindedness and intention to annex the huge central African area of the Congo for himself, had the good fortune to annex also Stanley for five years. For the latter was deeply discouraged at the British refusal to take over and he was ready to accept the ostensible crusade of the International African Association to open up Africa for humanitarian development. Frenzied activities followed, and, as Pakenham observes and demonstrates, there were bewildering years ahead all over the continent.

If Goethe is right in saying that genius means knowing when to stop, there was not much displayed among these avid and anxious Empire builders. From General Gordon in Sudan to the Boers in the Transvaal; from the French building up a New India as they sailed up the Niger to myriad slave traders doing very nicely, the sheer size and horrors of Africa proved too much for the sanity of some. Germany, arriving late on the scene in the Cameroons, bred one of Gladstone's more fatuous remarks as he |looked with sympathy and joy upon the extension of Germany in these desert places'. Gladstone could also sound more like Cecil Rhodes than Rhodes when he spoke of Egypt as |the germ of an Empire that will grow until we finany join hands across the Equator to Natal and Cape Town'.

It seemed only natural that by the end of the Scramble Britain should hold 15 out of the 30 new possessions and a lion's share of strategic control and lucrative products. That did not stop her joining the American moral stance against the Congo mess, a stance somewhat incomprehensible and hypocritical to the other Powers. For, like the Walrus, we wept but ate the more. The effect of all this on roughly a hundred million Africans was barely considered. Only later, doubt grew as to whether horrid and despotic local governments were in practice much worse than the three |C's, now rapidly converting to the three |G's--guns, gold and greed. Partition politics settled modern African boundaries but had little to do with tribal or human rights.

By 1912 the Scramble was over. A few last scraps were thrown to Spain and Italy and the two remaining independent countries, Abyssinia and Liberia, were not exactly shining examples of prosperity or democracy. The Scramble out of Africa was even faster than the Scramble in -- roughly 1957 to 1968, although the League of Nations Mandate System and UNO's Trusteeships had paved the way. The author provides brief disparagement of the mandatory system and does not mention Trusteeship. |Worthy if inadequate efforts'. Indeed only on the very last page do we hear about the civil wars and military coups of independent Africa and the sad fact that President Mobutu has bled the Congo of her wealth far more efficiently than Leopold.

This Epilogue section was perhaps a mistake and it shows signs of an unbalanced Scramble together. The eulogy on Zimbabwe's independence could be unduly optimistic. One thinks back sadly and cynically to neighbouring Zambia which in 1964 appeared to have an equally glowing and prosperous future, only to crash, through mammoth incompetence and corruption, into catastrophe. Pakenham asserts proudly that Zimbabwe will succeed because the men who took over are as well educated as their masters. Not a squeak or a nod to the British for the magnificent multi-racial University of Rhodesia which helped to produce these men. Indeed there is hardly a good word for the colonials except, again, on the last page when Pakenham allows that Europeans have left |aspirations' to freedom and dignity to the 47 African nations now stepped on stage.

Perhaps the tragedy conveyed by this book, whether or not wittingly, is our inability to comprehend the minds of 19th century men, or to believe what we do understand. We have so cast them in terms of creed and greed and we cannot throw off the hindsight of Freud and Marx. Raffles, one of the wisest early colonials, much admired by Lee Kuan Yew, could write seriously: |If commerce brings wealth to us it is the spirit of literature and philanthropy that teaches us how to employ it for the noblest purposes. It is this which has made Britain go forth among nations strong in her native light to dispense blessings all round her. .. when her Empire shall have passed away these monuments will endure. Let it still be the boast of Britain to write her name in Letters of Light. Alas, a cynical raspberry is likely to be all the response from this generation so indoctrinated with our failings.

The generously synchronised chronology, ample photographs and sketch map make the Scramble a necessity to any Africanist.
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Author:Mortimer, Molly
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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