by Kwasi Kwarteng
In the summer of 1940, when it became clear that France would collapse, Mussolini presented Hitler with a shopping list. It included parts of the British and French empires which, Mussolini believed, were rightfully Italian. Egypt, Sudan, Kenya and Djibouti would form part of a new Roman empire in Africa. Even Hitler was astonished at Il Duce’s greed.
The Second World War points back towards a colonial past in Africa, to bygone scrambles for imperial power. It also glances forward to decolonisation. This global conflict is at the centre of Lawrence James’s excellent survey of African history from 1830 to 1990. Empires in the Sun is a brisk, well-written and jaunty account of European empire-building in Africa.
James has made his name as a historian of the British Raj in India. In his latest book, however, he demonstrates a skill far beyond retelling the usual stories of British officers in pith helmets being ministered by punkawallahs under an Indian sun. In Africa, the imperial scene was more competitive. Britain, Portugal, Italy, France, Belgium and even Germany jostled for their piece of the continent.
In the late 19th century the British led the charge. Cecil Rhodes, perhaps the most famous of all imperialists in Africa, was also the most dominant and greedy. He had made a fortune in the diamond trade and used his wealth to promote imperialism. It seems that Rhodes’s appetites and acquisitiveness were instinctive. A young Edmund Allenby, later a field marshal, shared a tent and blanket with the tycoon — he observed that every morning he would awake feeling icy cold; Rhodes always managed to take all the blanket for himself.
The French prided themselves on promoting civilisation, la mission civilisatrice, but their rule was predicated on an absolute racial hierarchy, with the French on top. Assimilation, a stated goal of the “civilising mission”, proved elusive. In 1940s Algeria the Arab was a figure of menace and danger to the 900,000-strong community of European colonists. “The Arab threatens you? You believe he threatens you? Kill him”, is the attitude portrayed by the French-Algerian Albert Camus in L’Étranger.
The antipathy between the Europeans and their subjects stemmed largely from the violent nature of the beginning of the imperial adventure. The French in Algeria were particularly ruthless. In 1851 the town of Laghouat, 300 miles south of Algiers, was punished by une terreur salutaire, a “salutary terror”, for supporting an uprising led by a deranged Muslim holy man. The town was shelled and stormed by French soldiers, who fought and looted their way through the streets, destroying houses and slaughtering livestock. A quarter of the 4,000 inhabitants were massacred. The survivors fled the town.
Four mosques were demolished, one of which was converted into a church. At the first Mass the French cleric told his congregation of soldiers: “In conquering Algeria . . . you do the work of God.” The “sword of France was like a cross, that shines throughout this country like a radiant star . . . banishing the crescent, the lugubrious night of sleep”. As James says: “The ghastly events in Laghouat were repeated many times during the conquest of Algeria.”
In 1920s Morocco gas was still being used against villagers who resisted Spanish rule
The Spanish fought equally aggressive campaigns in Morocco. As late as the 1920s, gas was used indiscriminately against recalcitrant Moroccan villagers who continued to resist Spanish rule. The insane absurdities of this form of violent imperialism were summed up by the motto of the Spanish Foreign Legion, a band of mostly Spanish desperadoes: “Viva la muerte!”, “Long live death!” These mercenaries once appeared at a ceremonial public parade with Berber heads, ears and arms spiked on their bayonets. It was troops such as these that Franco used to crush the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 to 1939.
While James does not shrink from telling the blood and guts side of the imperial story, he also pays admirable attention to missionary work and social policies, particularly with regard to the thorny issue of race and sexual relations. Official policy often strongly discouraged sexual relationships between colonial officials and natives; the British were particularly stern in this regard. The French were more relaxed; “a temporary liaison with well-chosen native women” was regarded as invaluable for mastering local languages.
A series of scandals in Kenya in the early 1900s revealed much of the British hypocrisy on this subject. One British district officer was discovered to have kept a harem of 12 Nandi women, while one of his colleagues was exposed as having purchased three girls, one aged 12, for 40 goats. Such outrages led to the ban on native mistresses in the form of a memorandum in 1909 written by Lord Crewe, the colonial secretary. All officials were required to set “an honourable example” to those they ruled. Yet, implementation of such a code was difficult. The behaviour of district commissioners in more remote areas could not easily be controlled.
It is impossible to say how long these empires would have lasted if the Second World War had not broken out. It is indisputable, however, that the war accelerated the demise of imperialism in Africa. Given the sacrifice of many African soldiers (100,000 Africans in 1940, serving under French colours, defended France from German invasion), some change seemed inevitable.
British propaganda never failed to point out that Hitler had referred to Africans as “half-apes”, predestined to servitude, in Mein Kampf. Intelligence reports of civilian morale in African colonies during the war frequently revealed a widespread fear of and revulsion towards the Nazis. Hitler’s overt racism discredited many of the assumptions that supported imperial rule.
The Cold War also had its effect. Both the US and the Soviet Union were hostile to European colonialism. The growing power of the Soviet Union drew confused responses from many Africans. “Can Russians speak Swahili?” asked one local chief. The KGB, as James tartly observes, “was clearly making little headway in Kenya”. Decolonisation naturally took place at different speeds across the continent. While the “wind of change” was sweeping across the rest of the continent, in South Africa militant Boers took the place of the British as the new masters. The National Party effectively employed the crude slogan “Die kaffer op sy plek”, or “The black man in his place”, at elections.
The end of empire, when it came, was more violent and protracted than people have sometimes imagined. In Kenya the Mau Mau fought a brutal campaign, which elicited equally brutal responses from the British. More than a million Kikuyu were uprooted from their homes and herded into fenced villages, where they endured a regime of forced labour; 20,000 Mau Mau were killed, and flogging and torture were common.
The French fought an increasingly bloody, desperate campaign to keep Algeria. Between 1954 and 1962, 1.7 million French soldiers served in a struggle that left 25,000 of them dead; the Arab toll was much heavier — between 700,000 and a million died. France is still living with this conflict. The political fortunes of the Le Pen family and the large numbers of radicalised young Muslims have been shaped by the legacy of French decolonisation.
Those who are looking for sociological or intricate economic explanations for imperialism will find this book a trifle disappointing. Empires of the Sun is old-fashioned history. It is filled with racy anecdotes. Intrigue and devious political calculations propel the fast-moving narrative. The book is a timely reminder of the complexity of international politics, and the nuanced balance of forces that have shaped our modern world.
Kwasi Kwarteng is author of Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World and MP for Spelthorne
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