on 22 January 2010
Elspeth Huxley is the author of two better known books which are about East Africa: Red Strangers and The Flame Trees of Thika, where she grew up. Red Strangers is a classic, with a good introduction by Richard Dawkins. Four Guineas is a slightly misleading title, as the book is not, as you might think, about money at all, let alone an impoverished hero making good; the Four Guineas of the title are four countries along the West African Coast, written about in 1952 as they prepare for independence after 50 years of British rule.
Elspeth is a very poetic writer, writing with vivid imagery that stays with me, even though I read the book about 10 years ago now. I treasure her descriptions of Africa, how history is swallowed by the forest as it encroaches and destroys man's puny structures; the ghosts and trolls that are believed to inhabit the forest; the lazy river meandering towards the open sea. Some of the four countries (I think The Gambia is one - names have changed in the intervening years) had a history of democratic rule before the Europeans arrived, others had kings with terrible religious practices involving human sacrifice. Some of the eye-witness descriptions quoted from this latter part I could not read. Elspeth writes how slavery was a common practice in West Africa when the Europeans first arrived in the 1600s; sadly it was industrialized by them, but at least they later made laws to abolish it.
I liked the way this book helped me to put Africa in context culturally, I could see how the impenetrable forest landscape had imprisoned the people in 'our' pre-history, I felt that this was the culture written about in Robert Graves' White Goddess, the culture of Lindow Man.
Soon it will be 50 years after Elspeth Huxley wrote the book wondering how the countries will get on without British rule. Perhaps someone else will travel to the four 'Guineas' to see how they got on.