If not for a gleaming recommendation on the shelves of Powell’s Books, Packenham’s massive book would never have found its way into my hands. At 680 pages, this is a daunting and lengthy historical text on a subject not often discussed or reflected upon in my daily thoughts and conversations. Despite this, The Scramble for Africa lives up to the recommendation that persuaded me to pick it up, as this was a surprisingly enjoyable and informative read. After having completed this book over the past month I feel more informed regarding both African and European history and have a much deeper respect for the ongoing struggles faced by the African people. The civil strife that echoes throughout the continent is not merely a result of the fractured and divided borders set up by the European powers. As is apparent in this book, Africa is a continent of extreme geography with few navigable bays, meandering and marshy deltas, rivers that are difficult to navigate due to waterfalls, dense jungles, parched deserts and expansive planes that altogether make travel and commerce difficult despite all the promises of modern technology. The European explorers and colonists had a difficult time making profit in these conditions; it is no wonder that Africa continues to struggle in our modern era.
In discussing this book, I must point out that this is not a broad summary of African history, but rather a focused analysis of European intervention into Africa during the thirty year period spanning 1876 to 1912. Yes, there was a long history of European presence in the African continent during the centuries prior to this period with the awful slave trade being the main export from the continent and there were a few colonies established in the beginning of the 19th century by the Dutch, the Portuguese and later the French and British. However, prior to the 1870’s most of the African interior was unexplored and untouched by Europe until the later quarter of the 19th century. With the end of the slave trade in the middle of the 19th century and much of the rest of the world already colonized and spoken for, European explores began to look towards their closest continental neighbor as an opportunity to further expand wealth, Empire, and routes of trade.
The intense thirty-year “scramble” for the European conquest of Africa was sparked by the English Explorer Livingstone, the Italian-born French explorer Brazza, and the American-born Belgian explorer Stanley. These three men sponsored by their British, French, and Belgian authorities traveled up the Nile, Congo, and Niger rivers searching for wealth and safe routes of commerce in order to promote the the “three C’s” of Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization in a region of central Africa that was still mired in a culture of tribalism that continued to thrive on internal slavery and brutality. The hope inspired first by Livingstone and later Brazza – and to a lesser extent Stanley – was to modernize the continent and transform the culture towards the ideals of European society. Unfortunately, the ideal pursuits of explorers are often lost in the mud slinging that is inherent in the politics and economics between ruling powers. After the initial decade of exploration in the 1870’s the major powers of Britain, France, and Germany swooped into the continent, scooping up land through treaties and rights of conquest. The less powerful Italy made its mark as well with several colonies near Ethiopia and Eritrea. As the major powers developed true colonies, the tiny country of Belgium developed the most unique relationship towards Africa as Belgium’s King Leopold invested his private capital in the Congo and developed not a colony but a commercial endeavor that did not provide any sort of governance that benefited the Congolese people.
After the scramble got underway obviously their were periods of war and conflict between the Europeans and the African people. Africa is a diverse continent that is too often generalized as a single entity due to lack of understanding about the rich diversity of human culture spread across the huge continent. In each region the separate European powers faced distinct struggles such as the Mahdist Muslims in the Central Eastern region now known as Sudan, or the Boers in South Africa, or the multitude of tribal kingdoms in the dense rain forests of the Congo basin. Packenham’s book gave light to these distinct peoples and increased my appreciation for their history as his book expertly weaved each of the conflicts, treaties, and conquests in a smooth chronological telling of the continent’s developing relationship with its European influence. There are also chilling periods of violence from both African and European hands as Packenham reveals tribal power one by disregard for human life with heads and skulls often on display as trophies and warnings to encroaching powers. Europeans would often use African labor as though the men were beasts of burden that could be easily shot or had their hands severed as punishment for minor infractions. And most chilling of all was the first Reich’s genocide of the Herero people of south western Africa that foreshadowed the German capacity for systematic extermination.
Through the many conquests that occurred, the European powers lived dangerously on the edge of war with one another due to limits of the patchwork accord of agreements between the nations. During this period France and Britain were persistently pushing the boundaries of war, using the African people as pons in their expanding presence across the continent. If the European powers didn’t directly go to battle with each other, they used the African nations to wage the wars that London and Paris would not exact against one another. Oddly, at the end of the period of scramble these two rivals found peace with one another and became allies in less than a decade before the dawning of the first world war.
After having spent so much time rehashing the historical events discussed throughout the The Scramble for Africa I must give credit to the authorial style that made this such an engaging read. Packenham’s writing is deeply charismatic and he brings to life the historical characters as though they were fictional heroes with depth of character and conflicting motivations that influence their actions throughout the scramble. For example the following passage introduces the British statesman Alfred Milner:
“It was easy to underrate Milner…He was a bachelor of forty-six and looked older, with his long, thin face and melancholy grey-brown eyes…He appeared to epitomize the dullest ideals of civil service…Inside Milner, repressed but not extinguished, was the spirit of his father, romantic, bohemian, restless – and reckless as well.” (563)
Such writing characterizes all of the influential politicians, royalty, explorers, and militiamen that Packenham discusses throughout his greatly detailed and engaging Scramble for Africa. This writing created a sense of narrative urgency with climatic tones not readily observed in most historical writing. The Scramble for Africa impressed me with the book’s ability to read as a fictional house of cards, ready to fall apart in the hands of the men that shuffled the deck.