In African Heroes, Naomi Mitchison describes in a narrative literary style eleven powerful and influential African leaders. These men—some kings, such as Shaka, Lobengula, and Cetshwayo, and some astute statesmen, such as Kgamanyane—are described in heroic terms. They consistently displayed ingenuity in developing, organizing, and defending their countries through trade, commerce, and war during the encroachment of European colonialism. The historical account of each leader is documented through primary sources (often located in diaries of the European participants), through the official correspondence of the kings and queens of Europe, and through the well-established oral literature of the present-day people of Africa. With each leader, Mitchison describes humble beginnings, life-threatening obstacles, insurmountable circumstances, and brief victories.
The book covers all of Africa south of the Sahara desert and spans the years between 1200 and 1900, when white colonialism reached its zenith. Two maps are included: The first outlines the areas in which the stories in the book take place, and the second outlines the political boundaries of Africa in 1968, when the book was published.
Each chapter begins with a descriptive account of the geographical region, resources, and boundaries where the heroes were born. This information is generally followed by the names of the tribes that were in charge of the region, as well as a list of the tribal chiefs. Next, Mitchison examines the historical circumstances surrounding the birth of each African hero in relation to the existing leaders and his rise or succession as political ruler or king. The narrative of each leader emphasizes the historical viewpoint, explaining how the European colonists came to Africa with two main purposes: to establish, consciously and deliberately, the slave trade and to disenfranchise the African people, stealing their land, cattle, mineral rights, and eventually their cultural heritage.
Mitchison describes each hero against the backdrop of European greed, continual tribal and family disputes, and those major obstacles and climactic events that credit each character with heroism. Finally, she concludes each chapter by showing that, in spite of all the efforts of these African heroes, they were never able to reconcile the needs of their people with the demands of the changing face of Africa.