The Scramble for Africa – Thomas Pakenham
The Scramble for Africa astonished everyone. In 1880 most of the continent was still ruled by Africans, and barely explored. By 1902, five European Powers (and one extraordinary individual) had grabbed almost the whole continent, giving themselves 30 new colonies and protectorates and 10 million square miles of new territory, and 110 million bewildered new subjects.
The race for African territory swept the political masters of Europe off their feet. The British Colonial Secretary, Lord Derby, protested at this `absurd scramble’. The German Chancellor, Prince Bismarck, complained that he was being led into a ‘colonial whirl’. The French Prime Minister, Jules Ferry, called it a ‘steeplechase into the unknown’.
The inspiration came from the heroic death in 1873 of the missionary-explorer, David Livingstone. He had exposed the horrors of the slave trade still in progress. His call for Africa to be redeemed by the three ‘C’s’ — Commerce, Christianity and Civilisation — was aimed at the conscience of the civilised world.
The response came from rival colonial enthusiasts in Europe. There were journalist-explorers like Henry Stanley, sailor-explorers like Pierre de Brazza, soldier-explorers like Frederick Lugard, pedagogue-explorers like Carl Peters, gold-and-diamond tycoons like Cecil Rhodes. At first the governments of Europe tried to hold aloof from the race.
There seemed little to gain from the expense of building new empires in bush, swamp and desert. But this was the age of the Great Depression. Black Africa might be (as parts of South Africa had already proved) an Eldorado, a huge new market and tropical treasure house.
Soon colonial fever swept Europe, and overseas empire was identified with national prestige. As the race gathered momentum, a fourth `C’ —Conquest — became dominant. The Maxim gun, not trade or the cross, became the symbol of the age. In many colonies atrocities were commonplace and Africans were treated no better than animals.
At the centre of it all, cunningly exploiting the rivalries around him, stood one enigmatic individual controlling the heart of the continent — Leopold II, King of the Belgians and personal owner of the Congo State.
In a tour de force of historical narrative, Thomas Pakenham has written the first full-scale history of this extraordinary episode in The Scramble for Africa. It took him 10 years and involved trips to 22 African countries including research in Britain, France, Belgium and Germany.
The Scramble for Africa is historical narrative on the grand scale, cross-cut between Europe at the height of its power and Africa in its political infancy, covering a vast terrain and including a huge cast of characters, yet as vivid and fast-moving as a novel.
Also see The Boer War by the same author.