Lawrence James’s Empires in the Sun: a compact account of the desecration of Africa

James tells well-known stories in a lean and fast-paced cadence that allows him to cram a great deal of detail into a small amount of space.

During the Mau Mau Uprising in British Kenya (1952-60), suspects were interned at the Thompson Falls Camp, the gallows of which are pictured above. Empires in the Sun is an acerbic account of the European scramble for colonial power. Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis via Getty Images
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Back in 1874, when Belgium’s King Leopold II first received what he considered reliable confirmation of the vast untapped natural resources of Africa, he wasted no time in proclaiming his intentions to his cousin Queen Victoria: "I have sought to meet those most interested in bringing civilization to Africa," he told her, adding, "There is an important task to be undertaken there, to which I would feel honoured to contribute."

No one asked him to contribute anything, of course. He bought, financed and ran the Congo Free State entirely as a private possession, in the teeth of opposition from his own ministers back home in Belgium, and ruled roughshod over the roughly 10 million inhabitants of the land he was expropriating. To the limited extent he thought about it at all, he thought those inhabitants would be happy to trade their ceaseless unpaid toil for the chance to wear western clothes, contract western diseases, and learn the Bible front to back.

That combination of lunging greed and complacent bigotry set the pattern for the waves of imperial conquest that would wash over Africa at the height of the Victorian era and beyond, with a whole host of western powers – France, Germany, Great Britain, Portugal, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and so on – all vying with each other for colonial possessions on the continent.

It was the rightly-named "scramble for Africa," and it's the subject of Empires in the Sun, the compact and authoritatively acerbic new book by historian Lawrence James, who wrote an excellent book about the British Raj in 1997 and yet another about the British Empire in general in 1999, and who is therefore well-versed in the evils and hypocrisies that always accompany imperialist adventures. The wilful self-delusion that is the foremost prerequisite of such adventures opens the book: "British, French, German and Italian imperialists had convinced themselves and their countrymen that they were sharing the moral, cultural, scientific and technical benefits of Europe's intellectual and industrial revolution," James writes. "The French coined the expression mission civilisatrice to describe this mass export of the 18th- and 19th-century Enlightenment."

The protracted story of that mission civilisatrice is grimly familiar. Thomas Pakenham wrote a definitive account of its first half-century nearly 30 years ago in his The Scramble for Africa; it takes up several depressing chapters of John Reader's magisterial 1998 book Africa: A Biography of the Continent; it's traced from its prehistoric deep roots in Martin Meredith's 2014 The Fortunes of Africa; and it's followed down to the present-day in Tom Burgis's biting 2016 book The Looting Machine – to name just a few titles.

The amazement of James’s book is its fierce concision: in fewer than 400 pages, he takes readers act-by-act through the earliest days of the scramble (Cecil Rhodes, "Doctor Livingstone, I presume," and all the other familiar stories), through the convulsions Africa felt when it was dragged piecemeal into two world wars that didn’t concern it in the slightest, and through the upsurge of patchwork nationalism and Cold War manoeuvrings that followed in the wake of the Second World War, when British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan could dolefully remark, "Africa may become no longer a source of pride or profit to the Europeans who have developed it, but a maelstrom into which all of us will be sucked."

If the maelstrom had a motto, it was throughout this long sordid story the motto of the Boer National Party of South Africa in the heyday of its strength: "die kaffer op sy plek" – the black man in his place. Slavery, apartheid and vicious opportunism fill the pages of Empires in the Sun, and James chronicles it all with a near-perfect balance of broad strokes and telling specific details.

At regular intervals the bumbling malevolence of the colonial powers is laid bare; when James recounts the inept spying activities of former Senegalese soldier "agent Joe" in 1930s Paris, for instance, he quips, "Inspector Clouseau would have sympathised."Such moments of grudging levity balance a litany of horror, slaughter and exploitation. The Italian intrigues in Abyssinia, Mau Mau insurrection, the Algerian War of Independence, the atrocities of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin ("Once it became clear that Amin was Africa’s Caligula, western aid dried up and he turned to the Russians, who gave him $100 million in arms," we’re told. "They too dropped him, exasperated by his utter unreliability"), the multifaceted oppressions of South African apartheid … James tells all these well-known stories in a lean and fast-paced cadence that allows him to cram a great deal of detail into a small amount of space.

Despite the well-known dramatics of the "scramble" in its early decades, Empires in the Sun actually grows stronger in its storytelling in the later stages of the tale. Simmering underneath the Cold War strategising that kept the French, British, Russians and Americans occupied in a dozen African countries, there were stronger forces at work, fires of long-suppressed nationalist fervour flaring up in every corner of the continent.

Lightning-rod emblems of these nationalist drives stand out in James’s story, figures like Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose victory in 1956’s Suez Crisis temporarily put him in the spotlight of the grand international chess game being played by the world’s superpowers in Africa. "Soviet propaganda exploited Nasser’s success for all it was worth," James writes.

"Using the General Assembly of the United Nations as his platform, [Soviet premier Nikita] Khrushchev affirmed his support for colonial liberation movements with his characteristic knockabout rhetoric."

In addition to everything else, Nasser and figures like him were harbingers of a changing world. In 1960, James reminds his readers, one-third of the General Assembly’s 99 representatives came from former colonies or protectorates, a number that would increase in the following decade. And the nationalist drives of such former colonies were often intertwined with religious drives: James is an excellent guide to the complexities of the continent’s Muslims living under Christian rule, for instance, and the ways they could manifest themselves in the fighting that is the book’s near-constant theme.

"Faith eliminated the soldier’s natural fear of death, which made the jihadi a formidable and terrifying adversary," James writes. "After several encounters with jihadic warriors in Senegal during the 1850s, General Faidherbe concluded that: ‘It is in the name of the Prophet that our worst enemies march against us.’"

The story of South Africa, in the standout chapter "The Last Days of White Africa", stands as emblematic of the story's waning decades. The broad outline of South Africa's ruthless implementation of apartheid to impose the will of three million whites on over 14 million blacks is filled in with excellent, economical precision. The slowly-growing international anti-apartheid movement brought social and economic pressure to bear on the white leadership of the country, an international revulsion typified by one British Methodist: "I could not look a black man in the face again if I were to accept this as an inevitable evil in which I could have no part except to acquiesce to it."

By bloodshed or bitter arbitration or by pompous declaration, the bushfire fights for independence change one nation's name after another. Abyssinia becomes Ethiopia; Tanganyika becomes Tanzania; Southern Rhodesia becomes Zimbabwe; South West Africa becomes Namibia, and so on. These changes are etched in blood and desperation, fought by an alphabet of acronyms and abbreviations like SWAPO, ANC, MPLA, UNITA, and FNLA. Slowly, with agonising, stuttering reluctance, former colonial powers like France and Britain realise that the days of their power in Africa are fading beyond reclamation. The subtlety of Empires in the Sun is at its sharpest in its refusal to assign its blame simply along lines of colour or patriotism. Idi Amin is far from the only murderous fraud and grifter to take advantage his own people's yearning to be free of the European yoke, and there are colonial agents and even missionaries who stand out in these pages for their humanity rather than lack of it.

James takes his story right down to the present day and leaves it on the brink of current headlines. "The struggle for mastery in southern Africa was over; henceforward Africans everywhere were in charge of their own affairs," he writes. "Whether or not this was a happy ending has yet to be seen."

Empires in the Sun wisely offers no predictions.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.