It is unclear where Africa would be today without the rapacious impact of colonialism. Fanciful retrospective views would often proclaim that its future would have been so bright that without the intrusive force of colonialism Africa would have been the envy of the rest of the world. Racist views on the other side deduce that without the benevolent intervention of the West, Africa would have remained a backwater to date. More considerate views would conclude that without the destructive and evasive effect of the West, the future of the African continent was unknown, as no one knows what the people themselves would have made of themselves over three thousand years later. What is certain and acceptable to anyone devoid of insincerity is that the plunder and exploitation of the continent and its resources disfigured Africa so badly that it is impossible to understand its present without incorporating the effect of the past on the conquered and her conquerors.
The Fortunes of Africa is a panoramic view of the continent that spans back as 3000 years. It captures the fortune of the continent in this period. A panoramic view that encapsulates the economic, social and cultural themes in the period with economic themes taking a center stage. It makes a clear and undeniable claim that the riches of the continent have shaped the past and present of Africa. The greed and plunder by the West were only triggered because there were resources to be exploited. If Africa had been less endowed, the story might have been very different. Not satisfied with shipping slaves and resources away in the course of regular expeditions, European conquerors in the spirit of explorative adventure invaded and overrun African locals in a bid to not just access the resources but also the land that hosted the resources. The Fortunes of Africa chronicles the way many cast characters played a part in the history of the continent; from religious leaders to kings to explorers to freedom fighters to warlords. From exploiters masquerading as explorers to foreign corporations, the cast has been varied but the purpose has remained the same – plundering the wealth in various guises.
A history of a continent as large as Africa and dating back so far back is a huge task that Martin Meridith undertakes with great aplomb. His narrative is crisp, concise and coherent. He obviously lays greater emphasis on some countries than others (Egypt, South Africa and Ethiopia get more detailed insights) but by taking a pre-colonial view of the continent’s boundaries, a holistic view is presented.
The thing about greed is that it is often limitless. Europeans went from plundering African resources in occasional forages to not only conquering the locals but taking their land. Land remains a touchy subject in Africa and of the many interesting anecdotes in The Fortunes of Africa, none highlights this as well as that told about the 1659 battle between the local KhoiKhois and the Europeans. In the negotiations that followed, a Dutch participant recorded one of the Khoikhoi’s grievances as follows; “They spoke for a long time about our taking every day for our own use more of the land which belonged to them for all ages, and in which they were accustomed to pasture their cattle. They also asked whether if they were to come to Holland, they would be permitted to act in a similar manner?” That question has still not been answered almost 400 years later and puts into context the ongoing land agitation in South Africa.
The Fortunes of Africa is not only about the distant past. It is also about the relatively recent past. Post-colonialism, the plundering has continued, this time by Africans themselves. The future is yet unknown but in charting the course, the past must be reckoned with and the economic past is what Martin Meridith has captured so succinctly in The Fortunes of Africa. I slugged through this as I found the early parts too ancient for my non-history-loving self but the structure and narrative kept me going and the impeccable summary of a long time period makes for an interesting reading experience with lots to ponder on long after the last page.