The Scramble for Africa

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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. 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. 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. The work is disproportionately weighted toward the British experience, and the Portuguese are virtually excluded. 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.

On the other hand, the story he tells is a first-rate chronological narrative of “the motives and methods of the invaders.” The focus on King Leopold II of Belgium as a shrewd entrepreneur, dedicated to enlisting unsuspecting European states in a scheme for making his personal fortune, is one of the best features of this work.

THE SCRAMBLE FOR AFRICA is an epic tale of the Europeans in Africa who braved hostile climates, tropical diseases, wild men and beasts, when they might well have been living comfortably in Paris, London, or Berlin. It is a success story which benefits from Pakenham’s considerable literary talents. However, the European achievement seems hollow without a better portrayal of the complex motivations of the invaders and the human cost to the native peoples of Africa. This is a well-told tale of conquest as the imperialists wish it to be remembered.

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXIX, January, 1992, p. 114.

The Christian Science Monitor. January 7, 1992, p. 10.

Library Journal. CXVI, November 15, 1991, p. 94.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 15, 1991, p. 2.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, December 8, 1991, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, November 1, 1991, p. 65.

The Spectator. CCLXVII, October 26, 1991, p. 32.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 1, 1991, p. 5.

The Wall Street Journal. December 10, 1991, p. A12.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, December 22, 1991, p. 3.