The Scramble for Africa, 1870-1912

ANDREW PORTER, "From David Livingstone to King Leopold's Congo," TLS (November 1, 1991): 5. (a review of Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa, 1870-1912 London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 1990).

Early in the 1870s, Africa meant little to Europeans. Most of its interior was virtually unknown to them. Apart from areas of settlement by Britons and Afrikaners in the south and by the French in Algeria, Europe's real presence was limited to a few coastal toeholds, such as St Louis, Lagos, Luanda, Zanzibar and Alexandria. This motley collection of expatriate communities and limited colonial claims represented the commercial de- bris of the old Atlantic slave trade, and the somewhat forlorn legacy of more recent attempts to develop exchange of African staples for European manufactures. In 1872, the Dutch, following the earlier Danish example, abandoned the West Coast entirely. Yet within little more than twentyHfive years the situation was transformed. Africa had been carved up into colonies, claimed and conquered by the Great Powers of Western Europe; her resources were being developed or exploited by whites on an unprecedented scale, and in many places civilian colonial administrations were becoming a regular feature. By 1912, only Liberia and Ethiopia survived as independent African states. The French explorer Brazza, who in August 1880 had reached the Congo near Stanley Pool in tatters, after months of hideous overland journeying from Gabon, passed the same spot in 1906 on a double-decked steamer with ice-making machine, only days from the coast.

Knowledgeable onlookers at the time were astounded at the magnitude of the changes, puzzled at their momentum, appalled by the atrocious brutality generated on all sides by penetration and conguest, and intoxicated by prospects of plenty, progress or personal advancement. Lord Derby found "something absurd in the sudden Scramble for colonies", and right-wing French deputies mocked Etienne's visions of "a vast domain which it is for us to colonize and make fruitful" in the "light soils" of north-west Africa. The alliterative, connecting the Cape to Cairo, and the alluring, "pegging out claims for the future", generated enthusiasm and dire prophecies galore; Sir William Harcourt mticipated "nothing but endless expense, trouble and disaster" if Britain acquired Uganda.

Thomas Pakenham now provides, in The Scramble for Africa, 1870-1912, striking evidence af the continuing fascination and challenge inherent in attempts to grasp this slice of world history as a whole. He has produced an extensive hronological narrative, intended not only to unravel the dynamics of change in both Europe and Africa but to provide a general explanation For the Scramble and colonial partition. A single theme binds his work together, the interplay in "the motives and methods of the invaders" of well-meaning humanitarian concerns to better Africa with crudely acquisitive, materialistic profiteering or ambitious Realpolitik . These poles are personified in the repeated juxtaposition of David Livingstone and his "three Cs": commerce, civilization and Christianity, with King Leopold and "the severed hands" of reluctant Congolese rubber collectors.

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