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Book Review


Chamberlain, M. E. The Scramble for Africa. 2nd edition (Essex: Pearson Education Ltd., 1999). 144 pp, $17.80.

     The scramble for Africa is unquestionably a significant world history moment and the beginning of a hugely transformative process for Africans. This particular text is a second edition, based on the 1974 original. The author begins with an introductory chapter on the African background. The various regions of Africa are surveyed with brief introductions provided on various empires and trade networks of the precolonial period. This chapter appears to have undergone little revision in this second edition. Though eminently readable and sensibly organized, the tone is very heavily infused with 1970s nationalist vigor. The author reiterates throughout the chapter that though Europeans once thought Africa had no history beyond the history of non-Africans within Africa, it does indeed have a rich history of its own. None of the material is erroneous, or even superfluous, but it is presented with a tone that now seems old-fashioned.

     This chapter is followed by one on the Victorian image of Africa. This is a strong chapter that does a fine job describing various factors, such as slavery, technology, scientific racism, and humanitarianism, which impacted England's image of Africa. The author argues that such factors influenced both the public and private images of Africa; images that were often intertwined. Yet the focus upon Victorian England alone seems a significant shortcoming. No doubt many of these factors had an influence on all the future colonial powers of western Europe, but it is the reader who must make such thematic assumptions. One gains no understanding of how such themes influenced the intellectual climate of other portions of western Europe, nor of how such aspects such as nationalism or denominationalism may have proscribed such themes. This reviewer feels that the coverage of this chapter is illustrative of two significant and interwoven shortcomings that are echoed throughout the text.

     Firstly, the title of the book is a misnomer. It is, in fact, not an examination of the scramble for Africa, but rather a history of a scramble for Africa--the British scramble. This is not necessarily negative; an understanding of the British role in the scramble is certainly important. But the title does make grander claims than the brief text delivers. (In fairness, this is common to books on colonial Africa.) If one approaches the text seeking discussion of the scramble on a continental scale, one will be disappointed. However, if one approaches the text with the aim of understanding the British role in the scramble, this book will provide a wonderful introduction to the subject.

     Secondly, and relatedly—yet far more importantly—the British are the only historical actors that are portrayed in a more than one-dimensional fashion. The French, Germans, and Portuguese are passively mentioned as they frustrate British ambitions, accept boundaries, or are occasionally defeated in colonial skirmishes. Africans are likewise reactive actors, almost ethereal in their passivity, maneuvering around the active British. The frequency in the mention of Africans seems appropriate. But African agency, interests, and strategies unquestionably need to be more sophisticatedly addressed.

     Despite these shortcomings, there is much in the work to praise. The bulk of the text is an analysis of various regional case studies of British African imperialism in Egypt, West Africa, East Africa, South Africa, and the Sudan. With the exception of British territories in the Horn of Africa, the case studies tell the story of the acquisition of all parts of British Africa, though southern Africa beyond the colony of South Africa is given brief attention. The author does a fine job in illustrating the rather haphazard nature of British imperialism in Africa, which lacked much of an overall strategy (much like British decolonization strategy in Africa decades later). This theme is again reiterated in the conclusion. A strength of the work is the balance the author strikes among the various British players involved, be they policy-makers, investors, intrepid nationalists, or the British public. One does gain an appreciation of the multiple interests involved in the British attempt to secure pieces of the African cake.

     There are two additional strengths of the work, strengths that would likely be of greatest interest to world history instructors. This includes reproductions of twenty-seven primary documents at the end of the text. The documents are referenced within the text, thus contextualizing the document for the reader. In addition, the concluding chapter has a fine summation of the most significant works of theory on the "new imperialism" including Hobson, Lenin, and Robinson and Gallagher, among others. Chamberlain nicely outlines the transition from earlier mono-causal explanations to more multi-causal understandings in recent decades. I believe many world history teachers could benefit from this historiographical survey.

     The greatest strength, from a theoretical perspective, is Chamberlain's challenge to postcolonial and postmodern theories. (I should note that this challenge makes the antiquated tone of chapter one all the more glaring.) Postcolonialists and postmodernists both engaged in a most important quest to locate and voice indigenous agents, thereby challenging the previous colonial narratives grounded upon Eurocentrism. Yet in that quest to slay the evil beast of Eurocentrism, the valiant postcolonial writer often villainized everything Western and romanticized all things indigenous. Chamberlain reminds us that history is more complicated than that. Scoundrels and heroes are found in all times and places. The author often points out the internal British critics of imperialism [pp. 25-26, 26-27, 57]. They are not romanticized or celebrated in the text; Chamberlain does point out that their voices were few and largely ineffectual, but that does not mean that their voice did not have some impact on public discussions and decision-making. Those voices did exist, illustrating that the scramble was a more complicated moral affair than either Eurocentrism or postcolonialism can illustrate. However, adding more indigenous agency to the voices of Africans, wherever those Africans stood in their shifting relationship to colonialism, would advance this theoretical point further. Chamberlain reserves this sophisticated understanding of the past to the British. But it is not the British (or Europeans) alone who were situated in complicated and ever-changing relationships to colonialism; so too were Africans, and more of that story bears telling here.

     One will not gain a continent-wide understanding of the scramble for Africa from this text. Nor will Africans seem to be more than murky figures that briefly come to the fore amid the far larger tale of British machinations. Nonetheless, Chamberlain has provided a fair and theoretically sophisticated examination of the British scramble for Africa that could be of benefit to any teacher of modern world history.


Joel E. Tishken
Columbus State University


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