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This came up in recommendations after I read Fage's History of Africa last year. It starts awfully well, with sections on African geology in the context of continental drift, and on the evolution of humanity in the context of climate change.

From then on I found it a bit patchy. Fage's book was good on the general ebb and flow of states and cultures; Reader prefers to take particular vignettes, and then is a bit frustrating in how he fits them into the general picture: lots of (very interesting!) material about Ethiopia, very little about Islam (for Reader, most of Africa's history seems to start with the Portuguese in the fifteenth century); a general focus on the southern part of the continent which means the Horn (apart from Ethiopia) and West Africa (apart from the prehistory of the inland Niger delta, and a later section on Nigeria) get rather neglected, and anything north of the Sahara isn't covered at all (apart from one early section on the prehistory of the Nile Valley).

There are two overarching themes which Reader does address well and eloquently: slavery and colonialism. Particularly on slavery - he makes a convincing case that the Atlantic slave trade was hugely damaging to Africa's development, in terms of lost population growth and social harm. On colonialism, he is (I guess rightly) excoriating of the Belgians, and damning also of the British and Germans, but the Portuguese (in the modern era) get off rather lightly and the French are mentioned only really in passing, which I found a little odd.

Anyway, all very interesting, and thanks to those (rfmcdpei, inuitmonster, kulfuldi) who recommended it.


( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 14th, 2009 08:52 am (UTC)
Perhaps the damning of the British is a wee bit of self-loathing? Nothing about the Spanish at all?
Feb. 14th, 2009 09:22 am (UTC)
Well, in sub-Saharan Africa the Spanish weren't very visible. And probably the emphasis on the Brits reflects the accessibility of the source material!
Feb. 14th, 2009 11:47 am (UTC)
I guess so, just Spanish Guinea.

I would have thought the worst would be Leopold II (Who deserves the blame for the CFS), the German Empire (The Herero Genocide), The Portuguese Empire (Fascism to the 70s), France (Algeria). The American Colonization Society's Liberia is pretty bad due insofar as it was just neglected - dump the free slaves and let 'em get on with things. Whilst Britain does have the Boer War to contend with - their activity against the slave trade from the 1830s does provide a bit of balance, IMHO.

"probably the emphasis on the Brits reflects the accessibility of the source material"

I'm sure there's a technical term for that, but accessible-source bias sounds too unwieldy to be correct.
Feb. 14th, 2009 12:46 pm (UTC)
Yeah, but then there's Kenya and Rhodesia as well to put on the British rap sheet.

Feb. 14th, 2009 01:06 pm (UTC)
Kenya is one that I'm quite wary of. I know there was a big stir with a book by a lady called Caroline Elkins a few years back. However, the methodologies used to get the stats in her book have been called into question. I haven't read the book, as it's not widely available in Japan - but I have read an article by her that was carried in the Daily Yomiuri and she seems to be motivated by a hate of the British, even up until the current day.

Rhodesia? Well, the UK was trying to set-up a multi-ethnic Dominion in Southern Africa, South Rhodesia opposed it, declared Independence. The UK cracked down on Rhodesian exports, placed financial restrictions on the regime, and maintained an expensive naval blockade to try and hit the oil imports that were being smuggled into Rhodesia through Mozambique. I can't see how the UK can be faulted in their response.

We could have done better in Zanzibar though - 'boots on the ground' could have kept blood letting to a minimum and perhaps kept it as an independent state. Probably Cold War realities and African Nationalism would have mitigated that though.
Feb. 14th, 2009 01:19 pm (UTC)
Reader has little on Kenya (two brief bits on Kenyatta's career), less on Zimbabwe and nothing on Zanzibar.
Feb. 14th, 2009 02:47 pm (UTC)
Hmmm. What did the author damn the British on - Ghana, South Africa?
Feb. 14th, 2009 01:58 pm (UTC)
I think Elkins statistical methodologies have been called into contention, but not the basic contention that Britain ran something comparable to the Gulag in late colonial Kenya. See also the book "The Kenyan Hanged" (or something similar) by, eh, someone else.
Feb. 14th, 2009 02:49 pm (UTC)
I'll see what I can find on that book. Sadly though it will not be available to me, well - in English anyhoo. Zannen Deshita!
Feb. 14th, 2009 01:15 pm (UTC)
The campaign against slavery actually formed one of the justifications for the later colonial push, so it's not without its ironic consequences!

By my reference to the "accessible sources" I really meant to imply that Reader might not have looked much at non-English language sources. Belgium and the Herero are well covered in English; the same may not so true of the French.
Feb. 14th, 2009 01:56 pm (UTC)
With the Spanish, don't forget Spanish Sahara (or whatever they called it), now the unrecognised and largely occupied Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, usually known as Western Sahara.
Feb. 14th, 2009 01:58 pm (UTC)
I'm certainly not forgetting them, since I actually work for the Polisario Front! But they are north of Reader's rather arbitrary cutoff point.
Feb. 14th, 2009 02:51 pm (UTC)
Western Sahara seems to have dropped off the radar for a long time. I've a feeling the last time it was 'current' was maybe the early 90s, sad to say.
Feb. 14th, 2009 01:54 pm (UTC)
Did I recommend this book? I don't think I have read it.
Feb. 14th, 2009 02:00 pm (UTC)
You're quite right, you didn't. I withdraw my gratitude!
Feb. 14th, 2009 04:31 pm (UTC)
It sounds to me like he considerably understates the French's actions in Sub-Saharan Africa. Apparently there's still a lot of dodgy stuff going on - propping up of unpleasant dictators, dumping of nuclear waste that can't be disposed of in France itself, that sort of thing.
Feb. 15th, 2009 06:18 pm (UTC)
It's a very noticeable gap in the book.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )

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