February Books 15) Africa: A Biography of the Continent, by John Reader

This came up in recommendations after I read Fage’s History of Africa last year. It starts awfully well, with sections on African geology in the context of continental drift, and on the evolution of humanity in the context of climate change.

From then on I found it a bit patchy. Fage’s book was good on the general ebb and flow of states and cultures; Reader prefers to take particular vignettes, and then is a bit frustrating in how he fits them into the general picture: lots of (very interesting!) material about Ethiopia, very little about Islam (for Reader, most of Africa’s history seems to start with the Portuguese in the fifteenth century); a general focus on the southern part of the continent which means the Horn (apart from Ethiopia) and West Africa (apart from the prehistory of the inland Niger delta, and a later section on Nigeria) get rather neglected, and anything north of the Sahara isn’t covered at all (apart from one early section on the prehistory of the Nile Valley).

There are two overarching themes which Reader does address well and eloquently: slavery and colonialism. Particularly on slavery – he makes a convincing case that the Atlantic slave trade was hugely damaging to Africa’s development, in terms of lost population growth and social harm. On colonialism, he is (I guess rightly) excoriating of the Belgians, and damning also of the British and Germans, but the Portuguese (in the modern era) get off rather lightly and the French are mentioned only really in passing, which I found a little odd.

Anyway, all very interesting, and thanks to those (, , ) who recommended it.

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