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The Great African Land-Grab : THE SCRAMBLE FOR AFRICA; The White Man's Conquest of the Dark Continent From 1876-1912, By Thomas Pakenham (Random House: $32; 680 pp.)

December 15, 1991|William Boyd | Boyd, whose most recent novel is "Brazzaville Beach," wrote the film adaptation of Joyce Carey's "Mister Johnson."

The "Scramble for Africa" began, according to Thomas Pakenham, in 1876. The Germans had a handy word that summed it up more succinctly--the Torschlusspanik-- the "door-closing panic."

There the continent lay, ripe for exploitation, and nobody wanted to miss out. Europeans had been there for many years, of course, but only on the fringes--in Lagos, Zanzibar and Alexandria, for instance--where trade and climate had made a settlement necessary and possible. As the last quarter of the 19th Century approached, however, they queued up, in an unseemly turmoil, like avid shoppers on the opening day of a sale, to see what they could lay their hands on.

The "shopaholic" analogy is worth pursuing a little further: Some of the would-be colonists had vaguely justifiable reasons to be in the race, but others were there fortuitously, simply to participate. There was land to be grabbed, vast tracts of it, and, so they believed, unimaginably large amounts of money to be made. In their train came the added bonuses of strategic and political influence, of setting the agenda for the power struggles of the new century.

And so they moved in on Africa: Britain, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Germany all at once found themselves involved in an extraordinary "Sale of the Century." A whole continent was available, and surely everyone would be able to claim a piece of the action.

But the avid metaphors of commerce can only be sustained so far. This was no real sale, there were no real "vendors." The multitudinous populations of Africa were not consulted about the identity of their new landlords. Heavy and powerful fists were beating at the door and property was going to be sequestered, like it or not. Suddenly the image of a smash-and-grab raid appears more apposite, and it would take another half-century to set that particular injustice right. After a fashion.

A glance at a map of Africa, circa 1912, is a daunting testimonial to the sheer efficacy and uncompromising nature of that overwhelming urge to stake a claim. We now see that the entire continent, this vast unexplored landmass, most of which, 50 years before, had been terra incognita, has been parceled up. Only two independent states exist: the empire of Ethiopia and the state of Liberia. All the rest belongs to Europe.

Thomas Pakenham's fine book tells the story of this particular gold rush with admirable and judicious poise. These four decades of European colonization contain some of the best-known episodes of 19th-Century history as well as some of the most mythologized and colorful characters the world has ever seen.

Pakenham steers us through the familiar and less familiar chapters lucidly and expertly. He is particularly good on the famous battles and short, brutal wars that characterized this period of history--notably Isandhlwana, Tell el-Kebir and the savage genocide of the herero uprising. We encounter Livingstone and Stanley, Brazza and Rhodes, Kitchener and Gordon, Lugard and Jameson. We relive the siege of Khartoum and the Boer War, the relief of Emin Pasha and the Fashoda incident, and investigate the sinister manipulations of that most malign of colonists, Leopold II, the King of the Belgians.

Inevitably, any attempt to provide a conspectus of these tumultuous decades, however detailed (and this is the first attempt since 1893), is bound to be accused of sins of omission. In the last year, for example, I have reviewed a massive life of Cecil Rhodes and a hefty biography of Stanley, both books considerably longer than "The Scramble for Africa." In order to subsume this type of exhaustive documentation, Pakenham has had to condense, summarize and elide constantly, yet there is never any sense of sketchiness or corner-cutting--and the fact that he has brought the book in under 800 pages is a phenomenal achievement.

To take one small instance: The annexation of Bechuanaland in 1884 is both a key episode in the career of Cecil Rhodes and also of major importance in the subsequent evolution and history of southern Africa. The bibliography of this forgotten but highly complex episode is considerable--shelves of learned articles and doctorates and at least one highly documented, and excellent, scholarly monograph. Pakenham manages to summarize the whole affair, identify the key players and outline the vital consequences in little more than two highly readable and comprehensible pages. His ability to ingest libraries of primary source material and transform them into a clear, authoritative and compelling narrative is a remarkable talent and one that this book bears witness to again and again.

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