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The Scramble for Africa: The White Mans Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912 by Thomas Pakenham

The Scramble for Africa: The White Mans Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912, is a fascinating book on the European division of African territory, known as the Scramble for Africa. In this competition for territory, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy and Spain all carved territories out of the African continent, for various reasons. Spreading the three Cs (Christianity, Civilization, Commerce) was an important motivation for many European explorers, Generals and Politicians to get involved. Overt racism was another. Naked competition and greed were also major factors.

The Scramble got under way for a few reasons. First, France annexed Tunisia, nominally a province of the Ottoman Empire, in a bid to extend the security and profitability of their neighbouring colony in Algeria (annexed formally in 1834). The British similarly became involved in financial scuffles in Egypt, also nominally Ottoman, but controlled jointly by French and British financial interests. Tunisia was outright annexed to France, which ticked off Italy, which had many colonists and financial interests in the area. Britain decided to covertly submit Egypt to vassalage, and jointly flew the British and Egyptian flag over Egypt and Sudan (controlled by the Khedive as various provinces). The animosity of the annexation of Tunisia between France and Italy, and French and German annoyance at Britains heavy hand in Egypt, led to an increasingly rapid scramble for territory all over Africa, and increased tensions, leading Europe to the brink of war on multiple occasions over pieces of swamp and dessert with little commercial value. Public opinion in France and Germany demanded colonial possessions, and Italy was game as well. Britain, however, was reluctant for a long while to join the game, and only started taking land so it would not fall to its rivals.

The spoiling factor of this all was King Leopold of Belgium, who really wanted an African Empire to rule over, and couched his desires in humanitarian language, fooling much of Europe into cooperation, and bullying or playing off rivals in France, Germany and the UK against each other. His Machiavellian maneuvers allowed him to annex the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), the literal heart of Africa, where the Congo and Nile river deltas spill, and a treasure trove of ivory, rubber, mineral resources and many other valuable goods. Leopold would not be satiated with just this, however. He dreamed of a Nile Empire, and came very close to grabbing both modern Uganda and chunks of Sudan to join to the Congo colony by playing off tensions between France and Britain, and utilizing Chancellor Bismark of Germany as his patron. He used explorers and adventurers like Stanley, the British explorer who carved a bloody path through the Congo, and narrowly lost taking the entire Congo basin for Belgium. Later on, Belgian soldiers and politicians created the Free State of the Congo, a fantastical state nominally controlled by King Leopold and formally annexed to Belgium at a later date. This colony was brutally exploited, showing Leopolds overtures to free trade and humanitarianism to be farcical tools for expansion. Leopold ran one of the worst colonies the world has ever seen, killing millions of his subjects, mutilating many more, and brutally exploiting slave labour, stamping out independent Kingdoms and tribes, and exploiting resources.

Britain, as mentioned, was a reluctant colonial regime at first. Britains most profitable colonies were its Dominions, first Canada, and then Australia and New Zealand. These colonies brought profitable trade goods, were white and Christian, and nominally politically independent. Britain gained all of the profits of a colony without the headache of having to pay for garrisons or politicians. This led to a dream of Dominion in South Africa. Britain controlled the Cape and Natal regions of South Africa early on, and soon extended dominion over Zululand after the Zulu Wars. Machiavellian politicians also existed in Britain. Cecil Rhodes sought to create a diamond and gold Empire in South Africa by painting the map red. He dreamed of a corridor from Egypt to South Africa, all British. He acted on these dreams with brutal political acumen. Zululand was conquered, and covert wars were started against the Dutch republics in Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Rhodesia was annexed from its King, and modern Botswana eventually became a British colony. Dominion status was achieved eventually, but bloody wars, incompetent politics, and internal disputes made a mess of it. Native Africans were brutally exploited, and Afrikaans (Dutch settlers) fought wars of independence and struggle against encroaching British interests, which led to some of the most expensive wars in British history.

Britain also sought to extend its borders in East and West Africa, and over the Nile. Competition between British trading interests in the Niger region and Cameroon led to conflict with France and Germany, and almost to war on multiple occasions. France sought to paint West Africa Blue, and pushed into the Niger territory nominally claimed by Britain. The northern borders of Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria were in dispute, although eventually worked out politically. The French also sought territory in the Nile regions of Eastern Africa. French expeditions to Fahsoda and southern Sudan sought to annex territory to France, and Uganda was fought over by Germany, France and Britain through exploratory expeditions and missionaries. Britain lost control over Sudan to the Mahdi revolution, which sought an Islamic state in Northern Africa, and fought for independence for Sudan from Egypt/Britain. The Mahdi state expanded into modern Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia, but was eventually stamped out by Britain. France was beaten back politically, though this conflict over Fashoda, a swampy wasteland, almost led to war between France and Britain. Instead, detente was achieved.

This was because Britain was also in competition with Germany. Bismark stealthily annexed Cameroon, Togo, and Namibia, taking Britain and France completely by surprise. He also extended dominion over much of East Africa (modern mainland Tanzania) and came close to grabbing modern Kenya and Uganda as well. Bismark disliked the colonial drive, but this crafty advocate of Realpolitik sought to use German colonies as bargaining chips for eventual European concessions, successfully trading his claims in East Africa for the important naval base in Heligoland with Britain, and wishing to use territory to get France to renounce its claims in Alsace-Lorraine, taken during the Franco-Prussian War in 1872. German public opinion was strongly pro-colony, but Bismark saw them as worthless tracts of land. However, he joined the scramble with gusto, never one to pass up an opportunity to strengthen Germanys position. His was a much more Euro-focused colonial expansion. Every move was calculated to play France off against Britain. He closely supported Afrikaans independence in southern Africa, supported Italian claims in Ethiopia, and allowed Leopold in Belgium to make his moves. All was done to strengthen the German alliance system in Europe, and to try and get either France of Britain to move away from Russian support, and to keep France and Britain away from detente. His retirement from politics saw this end, and eventual French and British detente did come to fruition, and directed against the German state.

France had different motivations. They had been humiliated politically in recent years, and the state had been in flux ever since to fall of Napoleon and the Franco-Prussian war. France had lost territory in Europe, and sought to extend its prestige by grabbing large tracts of land, regardless of its worth. They competed early on with Belgium over the Congo, and grabbed the northern chunk (modern Republic of the Congo). They extended the borders of Senegal, and gained control over huge swathes of light land in West Africa and the Sahara Dessert. Competition with the British was fierce, and Anglo-phobia strong in French politics and within the public sphere. However, the danger of Germany proved greater, and the German annexation of Togo and Cameroon, both nominally in Frances West African sphere, and bordering her colonies, alarmed France to a great extent. As competition with Belgium and Britain dried up in the Congo and West Africa/Nile region, France was able to focus on Germany, and eventually joined with Britain in the alliance that has seen it through two World Wars. France also coveted much of Northern Africa, with historical claims on Egypt (Napoleonic era) and interests in protecting its valuable Algerian colony. Tunisia, as mentioned, was annexed, Morocco joined as a vassal and Germany out competed in the region. France also extended deep into the Sahara Dessert, with an interest in creating rail links through the region to its little jewel in Senegal (never happened).

France also competed strongly with Italy. Italy was miffed about Tunisia, and sought to extend its Eritrean colony into the valuable hinterlands of Somalia and Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, Italy was roundly defeated by the Ethiopia King Menelik, supplied with modern weapons and artillery by France. Italy was extremely humiliated, and furious at the French, eventually joining the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary in retaliation. Italy eventually grabbed Libya (and Rhodes in Greece) from the Ottomans in 1911, and sought territorial concessions from Britain and France in Somalia in exchange for diplomatic concessions in Europe (they betrayed the Triple Alliance in WWI, and joined the British Allies). France lost most of its claims in Eastern Africa, being left with the valuable port of Djibouti, and the islands of Madagascar. As an aside, Spain eventually gained territory in northern Morocco, parts of the Sahara coast below Morocco, and Equatorial Guinea as political concessions by France and England.

The Scramble was a blur of names and land grabs. Rhodes, Salisbury, Chamberlain, Gordon and Kitchener, to name a few, sought to paint the map red, compete for political influence and resources with Britains other colonies, and end the slave trade in Africa, while keeping shipping lanes through the Suez Canal and around the Cape of Good Hope open to British ships. Frances explorers, like Brazza, cut deep into the jungles of the Congo, and sought to grab as much territory for France as a way to reverse the humiliations of the past. Leopold baldly sought money and power in a new African Empire. Bismark sought pieces for his European chess game. Italy and Spain, as smaller powers, sought to tag along like Belgium, but had difficulty competing with the big powers. In a period of less than 50 years, every piece of Africa (save, for a time, Ethiopia) became portions of small European nations who were after resources, power and prestige. The scramble often seems like an afterthought, and indeed, less than a century later, these areas would gain independence once again, although to this day, legacies of colonial abuse, lack of resources, and unfavourable contracts with Western Nations plagues Africa.

This has been a long review so far. Suffice to say Pakenham has written probably the definitive text on this blistering period of land grabbing. The naked greed and racism that came with this Scramble is plain to see, and Pakenham does not even attempt to go beyond what actually happened; there is no need to do so. No narrative is needed, save for the speeches, pieces of text and actions of those who conquered an entire continent, and to those who were conquered. Pakenham does a wonderful job showing the thought processes of both sides. Many African Kings and politicians sought modern weapons to extend their own dominions, and tried to play sides off against each other, often successful for decades. King Menelik of Ethiopia was the only one who would succeed, and at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, and the destruction of much of Ethiopia. I could go on and on, but I will leave off by saying this book has a well deserved reputation as being one of the best history texts every written. It looks at a relatively small period of time, where massive world changes occurred, and Empires that boggle the mind were carved out willy-nilly for reasons varying from promoting trade, to protecting sea lanes, to just wanting more land. This was a serious and silly time of exploitation, imperialism and opera bouffe which cost the lives of millions of innocent Africans, used as European pawns, slaves, porters and cannon fodder. This is truly a wonderful history text, and it is easily recommended for anyone interested in this period of time.
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