12) A History of Africa, by J.D. Fage
Since I changed jobs at the start of last year I’ve been working with two African groups, the Polisario Front of Western Sahara and the government of Somaliland. Part of my motivation for getting this job was that I wanted to do more on Africa; I feel that if you’re working in international relations and not working on Africa you need to ask yourself why not. But I confess my overall knowledge was not very extensive, and while I’ve deepened my understanding of the Western Sahara and Somaliland situations in particular, I wanted some more general information.
had picked up this book years ago somewhere, and so I worked through it over the last week.
I found it a pretty fascinating guide to the interlocking ebb and flow of kingdoms and empires across the continent up to the colonial period. The particular strength is in West Africa south of the Sahara, which I have been long fascinated by despite knowing very little about it, but he’s good on the rest as well. Two things I was particularly interested to read about: i) The first massive external colonialist intervention, based on greed and collapsing in mismanagement and ignominious withdrawal, seems to have been the Moroccan destruction of the Songhai empire based on the Niger river in 1591, which resulted in the impoverishment of the whole of West Africa. ii) The rape of southern central Africa (“Bantuland”, as Fage calls it) by slave traders at the start of the nineteenth century, and its subsequent easy penetration by European colonialists, was mainly due to the exploratory, trading and colonising efforts of Sayyid Said, the Sultan of Oman, who got so engaged with his successful African trade that he moved the seat of his Arabian sultanate to Zanzibar.
However, it’s probably not the best place to start for today’s reader; published in 1978, it therefore misses the crucial transitions in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and covers less than the first half (in many cases not even the first third) of most countries’ post-independence history. The unresolved Rhodesia and apartheid questions I think also make it more difficult for the author to assess the colonial and post-colonial eras in the round, and of course the Portuguese and Spanish had only just disengaged. Also, rather surprisingly, the Cold War is not mentioned at all. I’ve been doing a bit of digging and am interested to see John Reader’s Africa: A Biography of the continent coming up in recommendations; has anyone out there read it?