Africa, a biography

Just finished “Africa, A Biography of a Continent”” by John Reader. I don’t recall how this book came into my possession. It may have been on my mom’s bookshelf when we stopped by after they moved to take whatever we wanted. Whatever its provenance, I had only read a little African history: “King Leopold’s Ghost” and a book on the Boer War are the only ones I can recall. I also read Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” which is a thinly veiled account of Conrad’s own journey up the Congo River in the Belgian Congo Free state. I figured it was time for a deep dive into African history.

This is truly a biography of a continent. It starts with geological history and the origin of the African continent as it split from Pangea. Reader explains the geological mechanisms that account for the mineral wealth of the Africa, as well as the ways that the geography that emerged accounts for the distribution of rainfall and the paths of rivers. He next steps through the emergence of plant and animal life and the imperatives that drove their evolution on the African continent. The narrative, of course, converges on the ancestors of Homo sapiens and eventually, the emergence of our species. As few as 50 individuals spilled out of Africa across the isthmus of Suez into what is now the Middle East about 100,000 years ago, and their descendants account for all of the rest of humanity around the globe.

Reader goes into great detail on the role of climate change in selecting for upright walking, the role of tools in processing food (as extensions of the teeth) and the role of speech in negotiating social interactions and group size. Along the way, he shows how assumptions that drove the research into each dimension of human evolution were challenged by that research and resulted in new paradigms. One point that he establishes early on is that humans in Africa were nomadic. Thus, migration is part of what we are as a species, and our society ought to be about adapting to this reality rather than attempting to lock out others.

A substantial part of the book is given over to discussion of trade and manufacture. Contrary to some historical beliefs, many African crafts and tools were not imported from outside the continent. Reader discusses the smelting of iron and its contribution to deforestation, which itself helped drive farming and herding. Gold was about as valued as copper among the indigenous people who mined them; salt was a much bigger item of commerce than either. Farming, more so than the ivory trade, was responsible for the deaths of the massive elephant herds.

The wheel didn’t make much contribution to ground transportation in Northern Africa because wheels sink in sand. It was the camel, not the wheel, that greatly expanded trade. Camels, which were imported from the Middle East, could travel farther and at greater average sustained speed than horses or oxen, and with greater distances between water sources.

Reader also discusses the role of slavery in African society. He argues that slavery was fundamentally a societal response to low population density. There simply wasn’t enough voluntary labor to make a small agrarian community work without forced labor. And eventually, the poorest were forced to barter their freedom for food and shelter. There were various manifestations of this commodification of human freedom, but for centuries, there were almost as many humans in slavery as there were free people in Africa.

In the second millennium CE, the documentary evidence from Europeans of Africa’s human populations replaces archeology, at least for this English author. Africa was known to traders from the Middle East and India, and I don’t know whether there is a paucity of written accounts from those explorations or if the documents just haven’t yet been compiled and translated. That said:

“In considering the relationship between Africa and Europe, received wisdom suggests that Africa was a dark and passive continent, supine with tropical lethargy, awaiting the enlightenment that European discovery and exploration ultimately would bring. The truth is otherwise. Far from being passive, Africa responded vigorously to European attempts to establish a presence on the continent; furthermore, Ethiopians were exploring the city streets of Europe long before Europeans visited Ethiopia or any other part of sub-Saharan Africa. The first European to visit Ethiopia was an Italian, Pietro Rombulo, who made the journey in 1407; Ethiopians had visited Italy in 1306—101 years earlier.”

The earliest European accounts of sub-Saharan Africa emerge from the Portuguese ships sailing under the commission of Henry the Navigator. They definitively showed the dimensions of the continent, and opened trade routes to India around the Cape of Good Hope. From the 16th century onwards, Portuguese conquests on both coasts of Africa—often achieved through brutal means and justified by appeals to Christian conversion and anti-Muslim antagonism—lead the European invasion and eyewitness accounts of life in Africa, with all the bias and partiality that implies.

Slavery features prominently in the history of Africa, and Reader gives mind-numbing statistics and accounts of slavery’s impact. This includes not only the European slave trade, but also the much larger indigenous slavery. Both population growth and economic development in Africa was significantly blunted by slavery, with consequences that are still felt today. Reader takes on the settler myth of the violent Zulu under their autocratic leader Shaka. While there was certainly Zulu violence, it was more often than not defensive and provoked by Europeans interested in land and slaves.

The modern era of African history was inaugurated by the discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa. The intensified labor demands in the mines drove the official racial segregation under British rule. Within a few decades, diamond mining became a monopoly controlled by Cecil Rhodes and De Beers Consolidated Mines. The trust deed Rhodes drew up for De Beers allowed the company to engage in any business enterprise, to annex land in any part of Africa, to govern foreign territories and to maintain standing armies in those territories. De Beers eventually resorted to a private prison system from which it could use inmates as free (slave) labor for the duration of their sentences. This model was used for housing of contract miners, who, while paid a wage, were obliged to purchase food from company stores and pay for their company-owned housing. A similar model was adopted for Black labor at the Witwatersrand gold mines. Wages that had been rising for Black miners before consolidation now fell with the hegemonic labor market controlled by the White diamond and gold mine owners.

The chapter on how Belgium’s King Leopold II came to control the “Congo Free State” as a private individual and not a Belgian state enterprise is a riveting tale of geopolitical intrigue. This opened the door to the cruel and ruthless exploitation of native labor for rubber extraction that is the core of “King Leopold’s Ghost.” The construction of a 250 km railroad to facilitate extraction was purchased at the price of ca. 150 African worker deaths/month under essentially slavery conditions.

The current African states and their boundaries were created in Europe, and have served to confound the needs of their citizens. Much like the states that emerged from the Treaty of Versailles, arbitrary boundaries disrupted historical relationships and set the stage for future economic, cultural and military conflicts. Reader spells out some of these and their consequences from the late 19th century to the present. The European goal was exploitation of the African land and people. Many of the kings and chiefs saw through this and rejected the intrusion. For example, here’s Wobogo, King of the Mossa (now Burkina Faso), telling an officer commanding French colonial forces:

“I know that the whites wish to kill me in order to take my country, and yet you claim that they will help me to organize my country But I find my country good just as it is. I have no need of them. I know what is necessary for me and what I want: I have my own merchants: also consider yourself fortunate that I do not order your head to be cut off. Go away now and above all, never come back.”

Ultimately, the Europeans prevailed through force of arms, in particular the introduction of the Maxim gun, an early battlefield weapon of mass destruction. But European conquest was greatly aided by contemporaneous climate changes across most of the continent. Native populations were severely weakened by drought. Even worse were plagues of smallpox, locusts, sand fleas and rinderpest (a viral disease of cattle). Thus, resistance to European colonization of Africa was weak, and in some places, the belief that the colonists could bring relief caused some populations to welcome the outsiders. Rinderpest, in particular, was not only devastating to cattle (as well as goats, sheep, buffalo and giraffe), but since cattle were a currency of wealth in many African societies, the basis for wealth and the primary food source was instantly wiped out by this viral scourge. Moreover, without grazing, the former pastureland became a habitat for the tsetse fly, which is a vector for the sleeping sickness trypanosome. Sleeping sickness became epidemic in east Africa. All of this holds lessons in the age of global warming.

As colonialism began to give way to nationalism and indigenous movements after World War I, tribalism gained ascendency in government. No matter whether the issue was local or national, leaders were in many cases supported or opposed based on tribal membership. This played out in particularly tragic form in Rwanda and Barundi, where the Tutsi minority was favored for education and leadership over the far more numerous Hutus, first by the Belgian colonial government (which had taken over from the Germans after World War I) and then by the church when it took over operation of the schools.

Minerals from Africa were indispensable for allied victory in World War II. Uranium ore from the Belgian Congo, in particular, supplied the Manhattan Project. Meanwhile, the Atlantic Charter forged by FDR and Churchill to provide US aid to England in its darkest hour fueled independence movements throughout the British colonies at war’s end. These movements progressed at different rates and were often violent. The transition in the Congo was a particularly sordid example, rating its own chapter in the book.

From the preface to the final chapter:

“The dreams of Africa becoming a continent of peaceful democratic states quickly evaporated. More than seventy coups occurred in the first thirty years of independence. By the 1990s, few states preserved even the vestiges of democracy One-party states, presidents-for-life, and military rule became the norm; resources were squandered as the elite accumulated wealth and the majority of Africans suffered. Nigeria and Rwanda exemplify the nightmare; South Africa preserves a flickering hope of transforming dreams into reality.”

“Africa, A Biography of a Continent” is a thoroughly researched and highly readable history. At 682 pages (not counting appendices and endnotes), it is epic in scope. The chapters are short and the pacing brisk. The narrator is authoritative without being oppressive, and wry observations leaven the writing. I’m a big consumer of history, and this is one of the best histories I’ve read in awhile.

The dominant theme of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is that the civilization that Europeans lorded over the Africans is a thin and fragile veneer. We are all, as a species, African. Understanding the African continent is an important key to understanding ourselves. I strongly recommend this book.