16 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars
Better as story-telling than as history, 6 May 2011
Pakenham's a great stylist - if at times a little melodramatic - and I thought the book was an absorbing and evocative read. But I had a few niggles. A couple of other reviews have mentioned the focus on British activity at the expense of the other European powers; that's true to some degree (though France, Germany and, of course, Belgium are all covered in decent amounts of detail), but for me a far bigger problem is the emphasis on European rather than on African experience. Of course you could argue that this is just a reflection of the topic, with decisions that affected millions of African lives being made in the corridors of government departments thousands of miles away by men who'd never dream of setting foot in the new states they were creating. But the overall impression this leaves is rather like the descriptions of Africa in Stanley's exploration books: vast and virtually empty of human life. There's little or no explanation of the history, culture or social structure of the countless ethnic groups affected by the Scramble; Pakenham's a little too fond of throwing phrases like 'native' and even 'savage' around in an apparently unironic way, and when the narrative does focus on Africans (particularly in relation to Buganda and the Congo Free State's war with 'Arab' slave traders) they're violent, cruel and cannibalistic. The last section (Resistance and Reform) goes some way to redressing the balance with chapters on human rights abuses in the French and Belgian Congos, as well as an excellent section on the genocide of the Herero and Namaqua in modern-day Namibia. But overall I felt frustrated with the book's focus on European high politics at the expense of indigenous perspective.
More positively, it's an extremely well-written, engaging overview of a complex subject. What Pakenham excels in above all else is character sketches, from Stanley, Leopold, Brazza and Rhodes to bit-part players like the missionary Dan Crawford, and it's this that makes the book such a compelling read (particularly hard to achieve when the narrative, by necessity, leaps from country to country and back and forth in time between chapters). There's an extensive bibliography, and the book as a whole has clearly been researched with diligence and love of the subject; the only other slight question I'd raise is whether the last chapter's brief look at decolonisation could use a bit of an update, with its now sadly misplaced optimism in the leadership of Robert Mugabe.