Henry S. Wilson is an accomplished scholar and a specialist in the history of Africa south of the Sahara. In The Imperial Experience in Sub-Saharan Africa Since 1870 he tackles a subject rendered difficult by its scope and diversity. The resulting book is the eighth volume in the important new series, Europe and the World in the Age of Expansion. Wilson makes a significant contribution to this series, which is designed to incorporate new questions and interpretations unearthed by modern historical scholarship on Europe’s expansion in the modern era.
This volume provides a focus on both African and imperial history. Wilson claims that only when the two “are drawn together as mutually complementary factors can a satisfactory historiography of the imperial experience in Africa develop.” In this volume, the compelling and important reinterpretation of the imperial experience that Ronald Robinson, John Gallagher, and Alice Denny set forth in their well-known study Africa and the Victorians, which among other things accentuated the non-European or African factors in the partitioning of that continent, is placed in a wider perspective. Wilson acknowledges and uses the products of recent research on the African factor in the imperial equation, but he doubts that the imperial factor in that same equation can be reduced to a subsidiary element, a type of imperial response to a local situation. Although Wilson places his principal emphasis on the imperial episode, for the sake of setting and continuity he also includes material on the prelude to the partition of Africa as well as on its twentieth century aftermath.
No single volume on so vast a subject could be comprehensive. Recognizing this fact, Wilson elected to structure his book around chapter-length topics essentially placed in chronological order. Wherever possible within each of these selected topics, he illustrates specific dimensions of the subject by utilizing examples drawn from recent case studies. Such a method allows the author to illustrate various practices, attitudes, and assumptions that characterized both Africans and Europeans at specific times and places of their imperial experience.
The Imperial Experience in Sub-Saharan Africa Since 1870 is filled with revisionist arguments that in turn enhance the significance of the work. The idea, for instance, that African societies existed in “static equilibrium” before the so-called “scramble” for colonies and position in Africa began is now challenged by the contention that during the century before the European partition, the inhabitants of the continent underwent an “African partition of Africa.” In fact, the European presence in Africa intruded into existing diplomatic and military patterns of competition. In a similar manner, traditional historical accounts have failed to consider African religious ideas as a subject comparable to Christianity or Islam. In the past the belief was commonly held that African religions lacked the...
(The entire section is 1235 words.)