A history of “the transformation of Africa during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when almost the entire continent became a part of Europe’s global empires.”
This is history written in the grand narrative style. James (Churchill and Empire: A Portrait of an Imperialist, 2014, etc.), a founding member of the University of York, takes on a massive subject and addresses it in sweeping, muscular prose. The author chronicles the colonization of Africa from the 1830s to the end of World War II, ending on the cusp of the era during which the reversal of these processes would begin. This is a fascinating story, and James displays solid storytelling skills. However, his perspective is thoroughly European, a view in which the vast majority of the actors are Europeans, with the Africans serving as victims, tragic but nameless. In an earlier era, the author’s approach would have been standard, and this book would have gone down as a notable epic history. However, we no longer live in that era. James is masterful in tracing the European-centered geopolitical rivalries, sketching out the leading figures in the colonial endeavor, and depicting the seemingly inexorable march toward conquest. He gracefully bounds from region to region and shows how the various processes of colonizing Africa manifested differently in different locales. He is less adept at giving life to African resistance and agency, and he occasionally resorts to anachronistic language in his description of African societies and cultures when he does address them. The bibliography also has some serious gaps—e.g., nothing by Basil Davidson or Martin Meredith. The maps at the beginning are useful, noting the boundaries of African nations and colonies in 1850, 1914, 1945, and 1990.
An often scintillating but flawed depiction of the European domination of Africa over more than a century.