Africa: A Biography

One of the major faults of Africa : A Biography of the Continent is a lack of maps. I like to look at a map of the region whne reading about it and I missed that sorely while reading John Reader’s book.

The book covers only subsaharan Africa, but that is not a problem in my opinion since it was subsaharan Africa that I wanted to know about.

John Reader starts out at the dawn of time and ends around the time of African independence. The earlier chapters which discuss the advent of man etc. are better than the later ones, but the whole book is worth reading.

Obviously, one can’t cover everything (or even 1% of it) about African history in a single book. Reader’s approach is to cover some general ideas, like slavery, cities, imperialism, by writing about some specific case studies of those phenomenon. This technique works for this book, but it definitely leaves a lot more questions than it answers.

A lot of history books give me the feeling of deja vu, like we in present times are experiencing some aspect of history again. One constant is the contempt for the enemy that we humans have and our belief that only through force can we convince our enemy to respect us. An example would be the British governor of the Cape Colony, John Cradock, speaking after the military campaign against the Xhosa in the early 19th century:

I am happy to add that in the course of this service there has not been shed more Kaffir blood than would seem to be necessary to impress on the minds of these savages a proper degree of terror and respect.

Among the injustices of colonialism, there is also a discussion of the arbitrary borders that the colonial powers imposed on African countries. While Africa has the largest number of countries of any continent, the borders of these countries divide quite a few ethnic groups into two or more countries while putting ethnic groups with old enmities in the same country.

A survey shows that no fewer than 177 ethnic “culture areas” in Africa are divided by national boundaries. Every land boundary cuts through at least one. The Nigeria-Cameroon boundary divides fourteen, while the boundaries of Burkina Faso cut through twenty-one.

The worst example of strange borders is probably Gambia, a country 500 kilometer long but only 20 km wide at places. The Gambia was carved out around the Gambia river by the British. It is surrounded by Senegal which was under French rule.

Another related issue is the transport infrastructure which was built to transport raw materials from the interior to the ports for shipping to the colonial powers. This has meant a lack of road and rail connections between African countries, hampering trade among these countries.

The chapters about South Africa, a country I visited in 1996, provided me with some new information as well, even though I am somewhat familiar with their history. For example, I didn’t know that more blacks were incarcerated in concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer war by Kitchener than were Afrikaners. At least 14,154 blacks died in the camps by May 1902.

Belgium comes looking like one of the worse colonial powers in the sections on colonialism and independence for its mismanagement of Congo and Rwanda-Burundi. From the Congo Free State to the practice of forced labor in Congo and Rwanda-Burundi to its contribution in the Tutsi-Hutu conflict, Belgium doesn’t sound like the modern country with universal human rights jurisdiction.

The Belgian colonial government passed a law in 1926 to classify everyone into Tutsis and Hutus on their identity cards.

Where appearance was indecisive and proof of ancestry was lacking, a simple formula was applied: those with ten cows or more were classified as Tutsi, those with less were Hutu.

You should also read Pedantry’s four-part series on Congo history.

Categorized as Books

By Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer


  1. Africans: The History of a Continent

    “Africans” is a good book packing a lot of information in a mere 300 pages. This density along with its dry, academic writing style makes this a slow read. But I would still recommend it to anyone interested in African history.

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