The Scramble for Africa

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

From the founding of a Belgian humanitarian state in the Congo river basin in 1876 until the French declaration of a protectorate in Morocco in 1912, virtually the whole of the African continent fell under European domination. Only tiny Liberia in the West and Ethiopia in the horn of Africa maintained even nominal control of their territories. There had been significant interaction between Europe and Africa since the late eighteenth century, but little was known about the vast interior until the mid-nineteenth century, when a variety of European adventurers set out systematically to unlock the geographic secrets of the continent and to make their discoveries known to the Western world. From 1841 until his death in 1873, David Livingstone tirelessly worked to bring the three C’s—Christianity, Civilization, and Commerce—to the peoples of inner Africa. Unfortunately, few Europeans who followed the great Scottish explorer and missionary were interested in the humanity of Africa. Rather, they were seeking knowledge, wealth, or fame

for themselves or their countries. Whether benevolent or inhumane, few Europeans saw African natives as anything other than peripheral players in a great European drama. By 1876, imperialistic pressure was rising at an unprecedented rate, spurred by economic, strategic, and personal rivalries among the British, French, Germans, Belgians, Italians, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Thomas Pakenham has taken this final phase in Europe’s epic expansion into Africa as the subject for his work, peopled it with living, breathing figures, and left the exhilarated reader to analyze the tangle of competing methods and motivations. Having similarly treated Southern Africa in The Boer War (1979), he now expands his study of European imperialism to include the whole of Africa, with its great diversity of peoples and traditions, and almost the whole of Europe, with its fragile balance of power and aggressive ethnocentrism. No author has attempted so much, and the results are predictably mixed.

Scholars of both Africa and Europe will find points with which to quibble. For all of its thoroughness, The Scramble for Africa is still uneven. The Spanish might legitimately be excluded from a study of this sort, but one cannot safely ignore the deadening influence of the Portuguese and its effect on the British and German scramble on the margins of Angola and Mozambique. The study is also disproportionately weighted toward the British experience. Thus there is virtually nothing on the difficult French conquest of the Sahara, presumably because it was “light land” and therefore not much competed for. The tone of the text is sometimes misleading, with Pakenham filling his pages with vivid words and phrases that seldom match the political reality of the Victorian period. The problem is that Pakenham, intent on telling a good story, has sometimes misread the necessities of the moment, foisted on metropolitan governments by aggressive and distant agents, for willing complicity. Moreover, although his bibliography is long, it is far from complete, focusing on Europeans in Africa to the detriment of both Europeans and Africans in their homelands.

Imagine, then, the difficulties in assessing the African response to conquest, where conclusions are more tenuous and research more diffuse. Pakenham makes a feeble effort to incorporate the Africans as real players in the drama, but they are seldom measured against anything other than a European yardstick, and against this they always come up short. Thus, it is no wonder that Mwanga, the Kabaka of Buganda, is destroyed by Frederick Lugard and the British government, for he is concerned only that he has signed away treaty rights without getting anything in return. By presenting the Europeans’ cause from their own perspective and frequently in their own words, Pakenham risks his credibility by going against the prevailing historiographical trend toward greater ethnic sensitivity in the portrayal of non-Western cultures.

On the other hand, the story he tells is a first-rate chronological narrative of “the motives and methods of the invaders.” Never before has anyone attempted to thread this immensely fine eye of the imperialistic needle. The nearer one gets, the more narrow it becomes, clogged by immense...

(The entire section is 1765 words.)