Conquest by slavers and pests

August 14, 1998

This is a very big book - over 800 pages - and one full of facts. "In a hot dry climate the evaporation of one litre of sweat can in theory dissipate 2,500kJ of heat" is a typical one. Or how about "While still in one piece, the massive Aksum stele weighed over 500 tonnes and was 'probably the largest single block of stone ever quarried, carved and set up in the ancient world'"? A previous age would have termed it "The Bumper Book of Facts about Africa", glorying in the multiplicity that here lies hidden under the word "biography". Yet... curiously most of these facts are rather interesting and it is John Reader's great virtue to have brought them together from many domains without having written a boring book. Reader has a journalist's ability to go straight to the heart of a good story and make it comprehensible and vivid.

As a unifying theme we have a declared vision of the primacy of human ecology, the complex interaction of man and environment. Like Goethe, Reader sees humans as only a little free. People never have an idea, rather they react to environmental stress and necessity of access to resource is the mother of all invention. In the early sections especially, this sometimes leads to a sort of Panglossian optimism that evokes the worst excesses of discredited functionalism. But just when you feel you have him pigeonholed in error, Reader switches tack on you and demolishes the myth of a pre-colonialist "Merrie Africa" towards which he seemed to be heading. So it was ecology, not conquest, that led to the fall of the empire of Ghana. And it was not a messianic reinvention of the Zulus by Shaka that led them to blaze a trail of conquest across Africa, it was illegal slaving interacting with climatic change. And as for white imperialism, the Maxim gun helped but rinderpest was more important.

All this conceals a simpler, almost evolutionist approach to disparate domains of knowledge. So part one is geology - Africa as hot rocks. Part two is evolution - organisms. Part three is palaeoanthropology - Lucy and friends. Part four is archaeology - ancient Egyptians and Aksum. Part five is early modern history - the slave trade. Part six is economics - colonialism and the world system. Part seven is modern history - decolonisation. Part eight is politics - dictators and redeemers. Such epistemological tectonic movements are not always smooth and entirely happy.

To attempt such an immense overview Reader has read widely and, for the most part, wisely. Most of the classic debates are here, outlined with great clarity - the nature of the African frontier, hunters and gatherers as the original affluent society, tribes without rulers. It is true that he seems to show a curious credulity towards the wilder surmises of historical linguistics and glottochronology, eg "The first word of all is believed to have been tik, meaning finger, which occurs as toe in English..." And sometimes the generalisations are a little sweeping. So it is bananas that finally raise agricultural productivity above subsistence, culture begins with arrow heads and digging sticks, only with the plough and literacy is actual civilisation possible, so long as trade is conducted by barter no class of professional merchants appears, etc etc. Pottery is considered as important for allowing the processing of substitutes for breast milk (though in much of the pastoral zone pottery and milk are traditionally not to be brought together). Carnivorous pastoralism introduces conflict into society by tying people to scarce grazing (whereas exactly the opposite has often been asserted). The weakest point seems a simplistic and evolutionary view of social structure, deriving perhaps from archaeology, that sees it as emerging from a sort of primordial opposition between a ubiquitous and egalitarian age-set system and centralised coercion.

Reader is perhaps at his argumentative best in this damning analysis of the African internal slave trade and his indictment of the hidden slavery of South Africa that lurks behind everything from Christian charity to refugees, through apprenticeship to convict labour. It pulls no punches and lays the beginnings of apartheid and pass-laws firmly at the door of the British administration and its subservience to rapacious international finance and Afrikaner arrogance. Lying behind it all he sees the endemic shortage of labour that has dogged African development through the ages and explains both domestic slavery and the inevitability of the district commissioner's resort to the corvee.

As in most contemporary works of a broad historical sweep, the bad news seems to exceed the good. And what we perhaps thought of as the good guys are actually the bad. Anthropology, in the service of empire, is credited with the invention of tribalism and the imposition of the dead hand of tradition that had at least the virtue of bringing a brief period of peace (though this too would be dismissed by some as largely illusory). The "unspoilt" game parks of Africa turn out, on closer examination, to be simply relatively modern reserves of tsetse infection produced from earlier pasture by ecological disaster. We end with a slog through the depressing post-colonial political history of Nigeria and only in post-apartheid South Africa do we find a ray of hope.

The moral of the story seems to be that Africa is not marginal to world history but central to it. It is the oldest stable land mass. It was here, and only here, that man evolved as a nomadic, bipedal creature incapable of breathing and eating at the same time. (Unfortunately the most successful parasites and diseases evolved here with him too.) It was in Africa that human inventiveness responded to ecological stimuli to produce agriculture and (possibly) domestication of animals. Its modern image as exclusively the heart of darkness and the domain of doom and disaster is undeserved. We are all originally Africans. If Africa had not existed we would have had to invent it. But then - as this book eloquently shows - we did.

Nigel Barley is assistant keeper, Museum of Mankind.

Africa: A Biography of the Continent

Author - John Reader
ISBN - 0 241 13047 6
Publisher - Hamish Hamilton
Price - £30.00
Pages - 840

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