[Marxism] Empires in the Sun: The Struggle for the Mastery of Africa

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Apr 3 19:50:54 MDT 2018

NY Review
A History of Denial
Howard W. French APRIL 19, 2018 ISSUE

Empires in the Sun: The Struggle for the Mastery of Africa
by Lawrence James
Pegasus, 391 pp., $28.95

Ben Heller Collection, New York/Werner Forman Archive/Bridgeman Images
A sculpture from the Fon people of Benin, date unknown
In the year 1415, an unnamed envoy from the East African city-state of 
Malindi sailed from the Red Sea to China aboard a ship commanded by the 
great Chinese admiral and explorer Zheng He. Upon his arrival in 
Beijing, the envoy was escorted to the inner gates of the imperial 
palace, where he presented a live giraffe to the Ming emperor as a form 
of tribute. The giraffe so dazzled the imperial audience that its 
presentation was depicted in paintings, some of which entered the 
imperial collections and survive to this day. In fact, Chinese curiosity 
about Africa was piqued to such a degree that during the last two of 
Zheng’s seven famous voyages, culminating in 1433, his enormous and 
heavily armed fleet plied the East African coast, establishing relations 
between the Ming and local rulers in Dar es Salaam, Kilwa, Malindi, 
Mogadishu, and Mombasa. In one of history’s great coincidences, Zheng’s 
voyages and the abrupt and fateful inward turn by China that followed 
them coincided almost exactly with Europe’s “discovery” of western Africa.

Upon his return from the capture of a trading island off the coast of 
North Africa in 1415, the poor Portuguese prince who came to be known as 
Henry the Navigator gathered a team of cartographers to begin charting 
the West African coast. Cut off by Spain from the Mediterranean’s rich 
trading opportunities, tiny Portugal, with Henry’s encouragement, 
wagered on southward exploration of the Atlantic. A primary objective 
seemed to be the discovery of the African source of the trans-Saharan 
gold supply, but Portugal soon also sought to establish a sea route to 
the silk and spices of Asia that would allow it to bypass the 
stranglehold of the formidable Ottoman Empire on the land routes.

The Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão first made contact with the Kingdom of 
Kongo in west central Africa in 1483. Over the next few years, as 
diplomatic relations were established, Kongo nobles were brought back to 
Portugal for conversion to Christianity, then returned to their country. 
The Portuguese quickly came to depend on the kingdom for a large portion 
of their slave trade, and the Kongo elite sent envoys to the Vatican and 
numerous students to European capitals. After an initial period of 
remarkably equal exchanges, however, conflict arose over Portuguese 
efforts to undercut rules in Kongo aimed at limiting what was fast 
becoming a bottomless demand for slaves. In 1526, amid a series of 
written entreaties to Lisbon to respect these rules, Afonso, the ruler 
of Kongo, composed a striking complaint to his Portuguese counterpart:

Each day the traders are kidnapping our people—children of this country, 
sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our family. This 
corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely 
depopulated. We need in this kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, 
and no merchandise, unless it is wine and flour for Mass. It is our wish 
that this kingdom not be a place for the trade or transport of slaves.

The disaster that the unbridled slave trade inflicted on Kongo is 
emblematic of slavery’s effects on the economic and political 
development of Africa as a whole. From the earliest times, the scarcest 
resource of African kingdoms had been people. Population growth in 
Africa was severely depressed compared to other parts of the world 
because of the many life-shortening diseases and parasites that were 
endemic to its tropical climate. Beyond Africa’s historic challenge of 
underpopulation, its vastness made it difficult for kingdoms to get 
people to settle in one place, especially against their will. Africans 
had always practiced slavery among themselves, but slaves were usually 
war captives and the victors typically sought to absorb them quickly, 
through marriage, military service, or the manumission of their 
children. Without such assimilation the risk of flight or rebellion was 
too great.

By some estimates, the Kongo kingdom and its immediate region lost a 
third of its population to the European slave trade. Between 1500 and 
the late 1800s, tropical Africa altogether lost roughly 18 million 
people to the slave trade, most of them in their prime reproductive 
years. This impact is better understood if one considers that the 
population of the continent remained stagnant at 50 million between 1700 
and 1850 instead of doubling, as some demographers believe it might have 
without slavery’s heavy toll.

As the demand for bonded African labor skyrocketed in the early 
eighteenth century, European traders sold firearms in large numbers to 
well-organized African states like Dahomey and Oyo, transforming them 
into single-product economies, i.e., mass slave exporters. These 
powerful kingdoms, typically situated near the coast, mounted seasonal 
razzia, or raiding campaigns, initially against weaker neighboring 
peoples but eventually far inland. This turned much of tropical Africa 
into what the Yale political scientist James C. Scott has called 
“shatter zones”—inhospitable places where fragmented groups fled the 
predations of the more powerful: the remotest swamplands of today’s 
Central African Republic, the inaccessible buttes of Mali, and many 
other semidesert and forest zones. Economists like William Easterly and 
Nathan Nunn have argued that there is a strong correlation, even 150 
years later, between areas where razzia were most intense and 
contemporary African poverty levels, a correlation they attribute in 
part to the persistence of social mistrust, which limits trade and 
undermines the development of a business culture.

All too many publications about the history of Europe’s relationship 
with Africa fail to sufficiently convey the damage that was done to the 
African economy, peoples, and political development by the slave trade 
and European colonialism. Perhaps the most striking recent example of 
this is Empires in the Sun: The Struggle for the Mastery of Africa, by 
Lawrence James, an English author who has written extensively on the 
British Empire.

James does not practice outright denialism about European behavior in 
Africa. But at almost every significant turn in his account, which spans 
the five centuries from early modern European contacts with the 
continent to its decolonization beginning in the 1950s, he tends to 
downplay its ill effects on Africa and wonders aloud why, as he sees it, 
non-Europeans don’t get held up for comparable scrutiny. Wherever 
possible, he emphasizes principled motives, particularly as a way of 
distinguishing the actions of the British from those of their European 
counterparts. In doing so, he puts the reader in mind of other writers, 
for instance popularizers of United States history, who likewise 
emphasize past virtue and decry more critical assessments as unwarranted 

On his very first page, James concedes that “change” driven by European 
imperialism generated conflict in Africa, but he never returns to dwell 
upon this at length. Instead, he immediately offers what seems like a 
pat, exculpatory defense: Europeans “believed [change] would benefit 
them and their African subjects.” This passage sets the tone for much of 
what follows. “Strange as it may seem, Charles de Gaulle, Mussolini, 
Cecil Rhodes and Nikita Khrushchev believed that their countries had 
something of value to offer Africans.” He calls the slicing up of 
different parts of the continent by its new colonial masters “a dual 
partnership of physical and spiritual regeneration [that] was 
appropriate for Africa, which in the popular imagination was depicted as 
a ‘dark’ continent.”

In fact, it is not at all strange that Western powers, as they set out 
to subdue and colonize Africa, would create whatever justifications they 
needed to defend and promote their objectives. This, indeed, is the 
general rule, not the exception, with imperial projects throughout 
history: emphasizing the civilizational virtues that are being shared 
with less fortunate or explicitly inferior peoples, while minimizing 
one’s own self-interested objectives and downplaying the violence and 
dispossession that are usually essential to the subjugation of others.

James’s jarring claims begin early on, in his discussion of the European 
slave trade in Africa, which began in the fifteenth century. “Slavery 
and the slave trade were vast but not immovable obstacles to progress in 
Africa; they skewed economic and social development, and were a constant 
cause of wars,” he writes in the first chapter, having already told us 
in the preface that “war had always been endemic in Africa.” What he 
seems to be saying here is that as traumatic as slavery, and its 
associated violence, may have been, it should not be considered a major 
factor in impeding Africa’s subsequent economic and social 
progress—something that modern scholars widely dispute. A few pages 
later, James remains neutral as he uncritically describes a European 
rationale for domination: “So far as it was known there was no African 
Taj Mahal or Forbidden City. Why this was perplexed Europe’s men of 
reason during the eighteenth century. The answer seemed to lie in a 
genetic intellectual deficiency.”

It is certainly true that Western notions about the innate inferiority 
of Africans were used to justify both enslavement and colonization. But 
this sort of justification, in addition to being inadequate—deeming a 
people “inferior” does not provide the grounds for enslaving or 
murdering them—is based on a false premise, underexplored by James and 
many other historians. A more curious observer might have also noted 
that the monumental architecture of the Mayans, the Incas, and the 
Aztecs gave no pause to Europeans and their designs of conquest. Early 
on, in any case, European explorers did encounter impressive signs of 
African achievement, from large and tidy cities to sublime art. They 
found precolonial African states that dominated entire subregions, 
controlled lucrative trade routes, and maintained elaborate structures 
of government. To take but one example, for six hundred years 
sophisticated kingdoms had succeeded one another astride the Niger River 
in the region of present-day Mali.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century, nearly two hundred years 
before Columbus’s voyages, Abubakari II, the ruler of the Malian empire, 
built a fleet of ships to search for the western shores of the Atlantic. 
When only one of hundreds of boats returned, Abubakari ordered and 
personally commanded an even larger expedition, but was never seen 
again. His more famous successor, Mansa Musa, used Mali’s wealth to 
recruit Islamic scholars from Egypt and architects from Andalusia, and 
distributed so many tons of gold while leading an immense pilgrimage to 
Mecca that he set off a wave of inflation in the Middle East and Europe 
and crashed the price of the metal for a decade. Musa was so renowned 
that his image began turning up on the maps of European cartographers.

Evidence of African achievement—from the pyramids of Egypt to the 
bronzes of Benin, among many other examples—was persistently explained 
away by Europeans as the possible legacy of mysterious outsiders who 
came to Africa, left their mark, and then disappeared. To accord local 
agency in such matters would have undermined a long-standing narrative 
about the inherent inferiority or even subhuman nature of Africans, 
which was vital in giving Europeans license for their actions.

James places greater emphasis on intra-African profiteering from the 
Atlantic slave trade than he does on its economic advantages for the 
West. “The wealth generated by slavery was a key factor in African 
politics,” he writes. “Fortunes were amassed by the indigenous 
entrepreneurs and invested in the soldiers and modern weaponry that were 
necessary to establish and defend their hunting grounds.” It is of 
course true that African societies, like Kongo, sold slaves to Europeans 
in exchange for guns, cloth, and tons of cowrie shells, which were 
established early on as a form of currency for the trade.

By comparison, however, as recent research by Thomas Piketty, among 
others, has shown, in the early nineteenth century the value derived 
from the trade and ownership of slaves in America was greater than the 
value of all of the country’s factories, railroads, and canals combined. 
It was also greater than the value of all of its agricultural land. 
After it abolished slavery, London indemnified three thousand 
slave-owning families by today’s equivalent of $16.5 billion, or 40 
percent of the British treasury’s annual output at the time. Economic 
historians like Kenneth Pomeranz, meanwhile, have pointed to the 
“exceptional scale of the New World windfall, the exceptionally coercive 
aspects of colonization there and the organization of production,” by 
which he means slavery, to explain the great divergence in wealth 
between the West and China that began in the nineteenth century, after 
many centuries with China in the lead.*

In explaining the European “scramble” to take over Africa, James heaps 
disproportionate blame on France and pins much of its behavior on the 
purported French obsession with gloire—glory. “Nineteenth-century France 
was mesmerised by that heady abstraction, La Gloire,” he writes. 
“Napoleon had been its latest and greatest embodiment: his genius for 
war had (briefly) made France master of Europe and convinced his own and 
later generations that winning wars was part of their national 
birthright.” To emphasize this among the diverse motives behind France’s 
imperial history in Africa is historically unsatisfying.

When France began its decades-long conquest of Algeria in 1830, as James 
himself writes, the Congress of Vienna had just confined France to its 
own borders in Europe. Africa therefore beckoned as a badly needed, 
unclaimed region where it could compete with Britain and others. The 
late historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote: “Between 1876 and 1915 about 
one-quarter of the globe’s land surface was distributed or redistributed 
as colonies among a half-dozen states. Britain increased its territories 
by some 4 million miles, France by some 3.5 millions.” Glory and its 
effects, which are hard to measure, may have been part of that, but 
Hobsbawm seems persuasive when he writes that “a more convincing general 
motive for colonial expansion was the search for markets.”

The emphasis on French glory is just one of numerous instances in which 
James labors to morally elevate his own country over its rivals. France, 
he says, was the primary driver of the scramble for Africa. British 
motives in this and in many other matters are far less seriously 
questioned. “Imperialism was integral to the spirit of the [French] 
Third Republic,” James writes, without making any comparable observation 
about the British. “It represented progress and prized what republicans 
believed to be the unique and superior culture of France.” When speaking 
of Britain, he is relentless in highlighting supposedly more progressive 
motives, as in this characteristic passage:

Britain’s businessmen were willing to brace themselves to meet the new 
conditions of global trade…. The commercial mind was aware that there 
were advantages in keeping as much of the world’s trade as possible open 
to Free Trade, even if this meant permanent occupation of areas not yet 
under foreign control. In the long term, the people of Africa would 
benefit from competition and an abundance of goods.

Elsewhere, he writes, white and black alike suffered a “torpid” 
administration under the Dutch in the nineteenth-century Cape Colony, in 
present-day South Africa. Once London took over, though, “the long-term 
aim of the rulers of the Cape was the creation of a tranquil colony 
under humane, British laws, and a passive population that would take 
advantage of the civil peace to enrich themselves.” “Britain,” in 
apparent contrast to others, he writes of the 1850s, “was the friend of 
the weak and the oppressed and a nation deeply aware of its collective 
Christian duty.” This would be the very moment, of course, that the 
Chinese were under siege from Britain during the Opium War.

James seems similarly preoccupied with the Arab slave trade in Africa: 
“The literature on African slavery is selective and imbalanced since it 
largely ignores the Arab–African slave trade.” Arab and African slavers, 
he writes, “insisted that they were engaged in a historically 
legitimate, economically necessary and rewarding enterprise,” though he 
never delivers such a blunt assessment of Western motives. Amid this 
discussion, and with no attribution, he claims that the Muslim trade in 
African slaves was as large or larger than the Atlantic trade. It is 
true that Islamic markets for African slaves date back to the ninth 
century. But of the roughly 18 million Africans sold into slavery in the 
four centuries prior to 1850, roughly 11 million left from the 
continent’s west coast alone, virtually all of them bound for the New 
World. During this time, Western agents were active in other regions as 
well. Numbers aside, James concludes that “the collective moral shame 
and regret felt by subsequent generations of Europeans and Americans 
have never been shared by Turks, Egyptians and Arabs,” though many 
Americans and Europeans would strongly question the scope of this “moral 
shame and regret.”

Despite its defensiveness and persistent pro-British slant, Empires in 
the Sun has a number of interesting things to say about intra-European 
competition and the vicissitudes of migration to and from Africa. One 
learns, for example, that many European countries in the early twentieth 
century conceived of emigration to their African colonial holdings as a 
solution to their own population pressures. In 1905, on the other hand, 
in response to the lobbying of industrialists in need of workers, France 
lifted a ban on immigration from Algeria. During World War I, James 
writes, “huge numbers of Algerians were drafted into French factories, 
mines and dockyards to release workers for service at the front.” 
Without African colonies it could tap this way, he writes, Germany 
resorted to subjecting fellow Europeans to forced labor under military 
administration. In the decades after the war, French Algerians faced 
widespread hostility and discrimination. “They were kept under close 
police surveillance and were disdained by the French, who stigmatised 
them as a threat to women, carriers of syphilis and child molesters,” he 

Late in his book, James situates the sources of Africa’s present 
problems in the recent decades of independence, variously blaming poor 
African governance and the legacy of US–Soviet competition during the 
cold war. There is, of course, plenty of blame to go around. But what 
are we to make, finally, of the White Man’s Burden and commitment to 
progress, which James identifies as the predominant rationale for 
Europe’s actions in Africa? From the eve of World War I, by which time 
it had achieved its nearly complete takeover of the continent, to the 
conclusion of World War II, Europe invested little in Africa, especially 
by comparison with other regions under its colonial control.

By the late 1930s, France had a mere 385 colonial administrators 
commanding the destinies of 15 million African subjects. British Africa, 
with 43 million people, had a roughly comparable 1,200. By the late 
1950s, the dawn of the independence era for the continent, out of a 
population of 200 million sub-Saharan Africans, European stewardship had 
produced only 8,000 secondary school graduates, half of whom were from 
just two colonies, Britain’s Ghana and Nigeria. In France’s territories 
only about a third of school-aged children received any primary 
education at all.

Beyond its problems of emphasis and of selectively used facts, though, 
James’s biggest missed opportunity is his failure to seriously invoke 
Africa’s future. Within the last half-century, Africa has finally 
overcome its long-term population deficit in comparison with other 
continents, and is now barreling into a globally unprecedented 
demographic takeoff. According to the United Nations Population 
Division’s 2017 revision, its population, which stands at 1.25 billion 
today, will double to 2.5 billion by 2050. By this century’s end, the 
UN’s median estimate predicts there will be 4.4 billion Africans, 
slightly fewer, in other words, than twice the combined populations of 
present-day China and India.

Europe is already in a state of distress about the flow of refugees and 
migrants from Africa, and in seeming denial about the scale of this 
pending demographic transformation and the potentially devastating 
impact of climate change on the continent. The Africa question looms as 
one of the most momentous human challenges for the remainder of this 
century. How can the damage of colonial balkanization be remedied and 
Africa become much more integrated into global economic systems? Despite 
the scope of the challenge, one hears surprisingly little discussion of 
this from James or anyone else.

Frederick Cooper, Africa in the World: Capitalism, Empire, Nation-State 
(Harvard University Press, 2014), p. 12. ↩

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