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April Books 12) A History of Africa

12) A History of Africa, by J.D. Fage

Since I changed jobs at the start of last year I've been working with two African groups, the Polisario Front of Western Sahara and the government of Somaliland. Part of my motivation for getting this job was that I wanted to do more on Africa; I feel that if you're working in international relations and not working on Africa you need to ask yourself why not. But I confess my overall knowledge was not very extensive, and while I've deepened my understanding of the Western Sahara and Somaliland situations in particular, I wanted some more general information. artw had picked up this book years ago somewhere, and so I worked through it over the last week.

I found it a pretty fascinating guide to the interlocking ebb and flow of kingdoms and empires across the continent up to the colonial period. The particular strength is in West Africa south of the Sahara, which I have been long fascinated by despite knowing very little about it, but he's good on the rest as well. Two things I was particularly interested to read about: i) The first massive external colonialist intervention, based on greed and collapsing in mismanagement and ignominious withdrawal, seems to have been the Moroccan destruction of the Songhai empire based on the Niger river in 1591, which resulted in the impoverishment of the whole of West Africa. ii) The rape of southern central Africa ("Bantuland", as Fage calls it) by slave traders at the start of the nineteenth century, and its subsequent easy penetration by European colonialists, was mainly due to the exploratory, trading and colonising efforts of Sayyid Said, the Sultan of Oman, who got so engaged with his successful African trade that he moved the seat of his Arabian sultanate to Zanzibar.

However, it's probably not the best place to start for today's reader; published in 1978, it therefore misses the crucial transitions in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and covers less than the first half (in many cases not even the first third) of most countries' post-independence history. The unresolved Rhodesia and apartheid questions I think also make it more difficult for the author to assess the colonial and post-colonial eras in the round, and of course the Portuguese and Spanish had only just disengaged. Also, rather surprisingly, the Cold War is not mentioned at all. I've been doing a bit of digging and am interested to see John Reader's Africa: A Biography of the continent coming up in recommendations; has anyone out there read it?


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 13th, 2008 10:16 pm (UTC)
I quite enjoyed Reader's book.

You might also be interested Ali Mazrui's The Africans: A Triple Heritage (Amazon, , website), a persuasive examination of modern Africa as a product of African, Islamic, and Western cultural influences. Mazrui does wrote from a pan-African perspective, but he does so with what seemed to me a strong sense of intellectual rigour.
Apr. 14th, 2008 08:40 pm (UTC)
I remember Mazrui from the TV series of The Africans, and more recently in spy school came across a couple of things he wrote on political islam. He is a very persuasive figure.
Apr. 14th, 2008 08:43 pm (UTC)
The other really big development missed by any book on Africa published in 1978 is the impact of HIV/AIDS.

Like you I am ashamed of my relative lack of knowledge of things African, even more so because I turned down a course in African politics last year. But I have the reading list, and intend to work through it.
Apr. 20th, 2008 02:14 pm (UTC)
Do read John Reader! I found the perspective on the impact of slavery v. colonialism interesting, and indirectly quite relevant to some of the political discourse washing around in southern Africa at the moment. On Somalia, have you read 'Me against my brother' and 'The Zanzibar chest'? - both effectively journalism, but give you a feel, I think. Also, I've just finished reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book. I have lots of ideas of books to read on Africa - and books not to; I've been through an awful lot of them.
Apr. 23rd, 2008 05:39 am (UTC)
Both of those Somalia books looks fascinating. Thanks for the extra vote for Reader - I'm working myself into Africa gently since it's only a part of my day job!
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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