Sunday, 12 May 2013

The Scramble For Africa - Thomas Pakenham

A couple of years ago now, I read, and enjoyed immensely, Thomas Pakenham's account of The Boer War.  It has taken a little time, but I have finally got around to reading another of his books, The Scramble For Africa.

The opening chapters are largely devoted to the efforts of some of the pioneering explorers who made discoveries in the interior of the continent.  Pakenham vividly describes the hugely complicated web of dilemmas and hardships which these (and later) expeditions had to navigate.

One of the threads which underpins the story is the extent to which domestic political considerations in the Powers (mainly Britain, France and Germany) constantly impinged on colonial adventures, and vice versa.  For British readers, this book can also serve as a kind of edited guide to the political arena of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Whilst giving due prominence to the famous statesmen who directed efforts, the author also delves beneath the surface of affairs, introducing us to the lesser-known civil servants, diplomats, missionaries, explorers, soldiers and businessmen who all played a crucial role, often harbouring conflicting agendas. The need to improvise often dictated what occurred on the ground, and primitive communications meant that matters were occasionally beyond the effective control of the men in the corridors of power in the capitals of Europe.

Pakenham deftly keeps things bubbling along, and this is greatly helped by the decision to relate the "Scramble" in more or less chronological order, rather than dividing the project into distinct sections according to region/country/power etc.  In this way, we can appreciate how developments in one area had to be cross-referenced and offset against anxieties in another, and weighed in the context of overall strategic pressures. Also, the shape of the imperial map of Africa gradually emerges in the mind's eye of the reader, as the reshuffling and horse trading unfold.

It is telling also how Britain, although probably the most powerful of the worldwide empires, was correspondingly aware of its vulnerability, with eyes constantly fixed on the routes to India, via Egypt and the Cape.  The book ably documents how other parties played on these concerns, both in the field and at the conference table.

I detected a certain gentle sarcasm running through some observations on events, which is perhaps the author's way of making subtle but effective commentary on attitudes and practices which are unthinkable and perplexing to modern sensibilities.

Towards the end of the book the tone turns much bleaker, as we learn about the horrors of the Boer War, the sickening reality of the Congo Free State and the arbitrary and callous methods employed to subdue various rebellions and uprisings. The Scramble For Africa therefore concludes on a rather downbeat and sobering note, and perhaps this is not inappropriate.  For all the noble sentiments expounded at the outset of the "Scramble", the often brutal reality is dispiriting, leaving a nasty taste.

The final chapters put the Scramble into its historical context, detailing how it unraveled almost as quickly as it had begun, and speculating on how the events impacted on the difficulties and challenges facing modern Africa.  Remembering that this book was originally published in the early 1990s, the comments about the state of play in Zimbabwe in particular make for interesting reading.

This was a riveting read, which chronicles an era in all its shades.

A link to my earlier article about the same author's The Boer War:   The Boer War

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