Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Colonial Conquest of Africa

Joanna Lewis follows the fearless explorers who took on and helped take over the Dark Continent

March 31, 2011

The very first sentence of this book draws the reader in: "In March 1896, while the British and French dickered over who would control Western and Central Africa, the government in Paris took a bold, if reckless step...". What does "dickered" mean here - and is it legal? Well, it's not what you might expect. This book examines five men whose exploits and media presence in the late 19th century helped push dithering and quarrelsome governments further into the annexation of Africa. Edward Berenson, an expert on French history, has written an extremely readable book comparing Henry Morton Stanley, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, Charles Gordon, Jean-Baptiste Marchand and Hubert Lyautey.

Finding a book about "heroes of the Empire" published by the University of California Press is about as surprising as discovering that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is planning a series of Tupperware parties. And that's not the only shock for a British reader used to empire-bashing: a US academic based in New York, male and white, has not written a book centred around revelations of sadomasochism, brutality towards Africans and repressed homosexuality (although there is a bit of that). Nor does he blame British imperialism for all the subsequent ills of the 20th century, from global warming to Islamofacism to Heathrow Airport (in fact, France comes off worst).

In other ways, however, Heroes of Empire is full of the familiar for a UK readership acquainted with the Victorian engagement with Africa via popular culture and the stories of key individuals. Berenson acknowledges his debt to the imperial "greats" in cultural studies, including John MacKenzie, MacKenzie's ex-students, and his Studies in Imperialism series. While it is Berenson's French case studies that will be of most interest to UK scholars, nevertheless his analysis of British media manipulation and public hysteria is full of charming new detail. In 1890, Stanley enjoyed a crazed fan-base that would turn even Justin Bieber green. Editorials sang of the "the poor Welsh boy" greater than Napoleon, whose lesson for "every British man and every British boy" was "Dare and do! And Suffer and be Strong."

Berenson also opens up the issue of charisma. He uses the classic theory of charisma developed by Max Weber, who analysed political power, authority, command and influence not derived from laws or traditions. Special, almost divine or superhuman qualities could, Weber argued, create a close bond between a leader and society (Nelson Mandela's charisma would fit here). Berenson then adds John C. Turner's theory of the capacity to change people's expectations (think of Barack Obama), and Jaak Panksepp's neuroscientific take on the role of four core human emotions: curiosity, anger, fear and panic. Charismatic power comes from satisfying the emotional need of the moment. Hence Berenson's argument about the charismatic appeal of manly, fearless explorers at a time of national insecurity: they acted while others dickered.

Charisma, of course, is every bit as unreliable an indicator of wise leadership now as it was in ages past. The "charismatic" Idi Amin offered to marry Princess Anne and enjoyed the sound of bagpipes. Meanwhile, he was ordering rivals to be boiled in their own juices. Bill Clinton was famously charismatic: a man who could cry in public, hug black people and turn women weak-kneed, while off camera, he made Paddy "Pantsdown" Ashdown look like a celestial virgin.

But what has not changed since the Victorian age is the way society meanly bestows the power of charisma on women; more than a century after the events described here, we are still faced with shockingly low numbers of women in positions of political power. Society credits some women with allure, the power of attraction and comfort, but almost inevitably links them to a state of youthful beauty, innocence and vulnerability. None of these are exactly the hallmarks of leadership - and they are qualities that rapidly disappear if you try to make it in any ruthlessly competitive environment. Trust me!

Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Colonial Conquest of Africa

By Edward Berenson

University of California Press 376pp, £20.95

ISBN 97805202347

Published 12 November 2010

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