10 Jun 2014

High noon of imperialism / Kaye Whiteman / Business Day, Nigeria

High noon of imperialism / Kaye Whiteman / Business Day, Nigeria
10 June 2014

This week I intended to cover once more the investment conference syndrome. Riding the present wave of Afro-optimism, country after country comes to London to pronounce themselves 'open for business', the latest being Cote d'Ivoire, staging a hugely well-attended event. However, that was before I was struck rigid with fascination by an unexpected radio programme on the Scramble for Africa, seen through the perspective of the Berlin Conference of 1884-5. This was in a series I listen to regularly called 'In our Time,' presided over by the smooth polymath Melvyn Bragg, one of our great broadcasting gurus, specialising in the promotion of high culture, formerly on TV but now confined but by no means limited to the non-visual broadcast airwaves.

Lord Bragg's soothing rituals on Thursday mornings have covered everything from the Mamluks (medieval rulers of Egypt and Syria), to the French philosopher Blaise Pascale and the Exoplanets (planets outside the solar system). Sometimes my poor brain has difficulty grasping the basic subject matter, especially if linked to physics or mathematics, difficult subjects for someone more at home with words. I listen to the programme mainly as therapy, in the hope that scraps of knowledge may rub off, even at my advanced age. However, when the subject-matter was that most awful moment in the history of Africa, in the late 19th century, when European powers in their overweening and bloated arrogance decided to swallow a whole continent, I became almost physically glued to the radio.

It was particularly satisfying to hear the marvellous Richard Rathbone, Professor Emeritus at SOAS in London University, author of Nkrumah and the Chiefs at the top of his form, helping formulate the historical context. His co-speakers were Guyanese-born Richard Drayton. Rhodes Professor of Imperial History (yes, imperial history is still considered worth inclusion in curricula) of King's College London, and the London School of Economics' Joanna Lewis, a specialist in imperial history. The discussion began with the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1492 in which Latin America and Africa were split between Portugal and Spain, the first example of Europe deciding how to divide the world. It passed through the industrial revolution and the impact of two decisive factors — technological changes in transport and armaments, setting the scene for the partition of Africa.

The European context of the Berlin Conference were adroitly compressed into the short time available — the Anglo-French rivalry that was "the nub"; the dominant figure of Bismarck in the newly united Germany; the vacuum left in North Africa by the decline of the Ottoman Empire; the way Bismarck used the greedy, ambitious King Leopold II (in Bismarck's view a "swindler and fantasist") to counter the British. Other points made were that Bismarck held the meeting in Berlin in order not to have it in London, and that the immediate trigger for holding the meeting was a treaty between the British and the Portuguese to divide Southern Africa, even if the Portuguese, still a major presence in Angola and Mozambique, were also a declining power; the shocking consequences of Leopold's brutality in the twenty-year rule of his private kingdom. The role of explorers (the pious Livingstone and the opportunist Stanley) was also mentioned, but what still shocks the most is the complete lack of any African presence at the Conference. It was important that the crushing of the Italians by the Ethiopians at Adowa in 1996 was mentioned — I would add Isandlwana in 1879, when the British were spectacularly defeated by the Zulu kingdom.

One particular message I drew from the discussion was how much of what went on at that time has echoes today. For example there was the way in which the texts produced in Berlin were wrapped around in the high moral language of anti-slavery, and the dread hypocrisy of the 'civilising mission'; and the way in which small states were brought into the conference to act as a counter-balance. Also in this long-distance frame are charter companies like the Royal Niger, a phenomenon reproduced in today's outsourcing; and the impact of revolutions in technology on history, then as now a major driver of change.

Hearing the programme took me back to my own two favourite sources on the subject — Thomas Pakenham's rich source of detail, The Scramble for Africa; and the collection of essays The Curse of Berlin by my long-time friend and collaborator Dr Adekeye Adebajo, who has been doing pioneering work at the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town. One essay in particular, on the Manichean link between diabolical Rhodes (a name absent from the Bragg programme) and the saintly Mandela, lingers in my imagination. In it Adekeye describes his misgivings as the one Rhodes Scholar from Nigeria in his year at Oxford. At Rhodes House dinners he experienced a "stomach-churning" toast by the assembled dignitaries to "the Founder", namely Rhodes himself. Adekeye writes "my own silent protest involved refusing to take part in this strange ritual of the most secret of societies."

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