Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, October 1992
The African Experience, Roland Oliver, Harper Collins, 1991, 284 pp.
At a time when history is so often distorted to suit ethnic sensibilities, it is refreshing to find an objective account of that most troubled continent: Africa. The author, Professor Roland Oliver of the University of London, wrote The African Experience “for pure pleasure,” in retirement after 40 years of distinguished African scholarship. His graceful style and effortless mastery of the material guide the reader through several million years and across thousands of miles. To have fit a work of such scope into a single introductory volume is a remarkable achievement.
As Prof. Oliver explains, there now seems little doubt that man began in Africa. Australopithecines made their appearance perhaps as long as four million years ago, and the first of our genus, Homo erectus, appeared some 2.5 million years later. It was then, 1.5 million years ago, that Homo seems to have begun to migrate out of Africa, so it is from this point that the non-African races began to diverge.
What is perhaps most striking about prehistory is its leisurely pace. Stone-age artifacts were unchanged for periods of hundreds of thousands of years. There are caves in Africa that show continuous human habitation for as many as 70,000 years. Homo erectus probably took half a million years to spread just from East Africa to West Africa. For most of man’s existence, to have moved forward — or backward — 1,000 years in time would have brought scarcely any change.
It was not until about 10,000 years ago that Africans began to live in groups of more than one hundred. These were roving riverine communities that gathered wild cereals, fished, and hunted. Pottery revolutionized their diet by making it possible to boil food.
Real African history begins north of the Sahara in Egypt, where a Semitic strain of man had evolved and where, as Prof. Oliver explains, geography was particularly favorable. The annual flood of the Nile left the land ready for virtually effortless cultivation, while any point above the flood-line was so dry that food could be stored indefinitely. In other parts of the continent, village populations did not get much over a few hundred before the more adventurous struck out for virgin land. In Egypt, the surrounding desert kept men close to the river, and large settlements gave rise to specialization and the need for government. Moreover, the thickly settled banks of the Nile could easily be policed because all Egyptians lived within a mile or two of a great waterway that carried not just traders but soldiers and tax collectors.
It was the genius of the Egyptians — who were certainly not black — to have administered a kingdom of several million people who enjoyed a brilliant Copper Age, had a large literate class, and built some of the most impressive monuments in all of antiquity. During the nearly 3,000 years of Pharaonic rule, from 3100 B.C. to 332 B.C., the Nile valley probably accounted for half the population of the entire continent, and gave rise to unmatched splendor.
South of the Sahara
The jungles south of the Sahara had no such geographic advantages and for the last 10,000 years have been the largely passive recipients of outside innovation. Prof. Oliver notes that the jungle has almost no native food crops; the manioc, yams, and bananas that Africans now eat all came from overseas. Unlike the Nile, sub-Saharan rivers tend to run East-West rather than North-South and therefore do not cross the different climatic regions that give rise to different economies and thus stimulate trade.
Finally, the tsetse fly invariably killed the beasts of burden that northerners tried to introduce. Since Africans had failed to domesticate any of the large, native mammals that were immune to the tsetse, a huge swath of the continent depended on human porters up until the time when Europeans built roads and brought trucks. It took ten head-porters to carry the load a single camel could bear.
Nor were sub-Saharan Africans enterprising mariners. Madagascar, which lies 250 miles off the southeast coast, was never discovered by blacks. It was first settled by Indonesians, who reached it after voyages of thousands of miles.
Copper and bronze did not come to this vast, primitive southland until 2,500 years after they were widely used in Egypt. In fact, in much of the continent there was no Bronze Age at all. Ironworking, which probably came from Asia, drew most of Africa directly out of the Stone Age during its 1,000-year journey (seventh century BC to fourth century AD) from North to South. The Stone-Age hunters and gatherers were not always exterminated or absorbed by the people who could work iron; the Congo Pygmies, for example, retain their identity to this day.
As Prof. Oliver points out, the Iron Age set the cultural tone for Africa, not only up to colonization, but in some areas up to the present. Many rural villages are today little different in size, appearance, or sophistication from their Iron-Age predecessors.
Leftists write as though slavery and colonization account for all of Africa’s ills, but Prof. Oliver keeps both subjects in perspective. He points out that slavery had been practiced throughout Africa long before the white man arrived. Among the Tuareg of the southern Sahara, during the 19th century 70-90 percent of the population were probably slaves. In the Sahel and the savanna, half the population might be slaves, while in the forests, the figure could be as low as 10 to 20 percent.
Prof. Oliver notes that in most of Africa slavery could not exist without professional slave traders. This was because African political units were so small. Slaves caught in skirmishes with neighboring tribes could easily escape back to their own people if released to work in the fields. Captives had to be marched so far from home they would not think of escaping. Thus, the coffle of tramping slaves, bound neck to neck, was one of the most frequent commodities of pre-colonial intra-African trade.
Prof. Oliver argues that the European and American demand for slaves may not have increased the supply. White slave traders almost never ventured into the interior and were dependent on a varying supply over which they had no control. They followed the flow of captives rather than create it, shifting their bases up and down the coast according to where tribal wars were producing the most slaves.
From the 15th to the 18th century, some 11 to 12 million slaves were taken out of sub-Saharan Africa. Although many were captured by Arabs, the vast majority were taken across the Atlantic. This did not, however, result in significant depopulation. Prof. Oliver explains that the usual African practice was to kill grown men and enslave only women and children. This could lead to slave-owning societies that were disproportionately female — by as much as 3.5 to one. When Africans learned that Europeans were mainly interested in male slaves they put their newly-valuable captives into commerce rather than slaughter them. Female slaves remained in Africa and were impregnated by polygamous masters, so the export of grown men probably did not have a serious effect on population.
Africa clung to slavery long after it was abolished elsewhere. In 1926, a high-ranking Tswana tribesman (of what is now Botswana) spoke thus about the neighboring people: “The Masarwa are slaves. They can be killed. It is no crime. . . They are never paid. If . . . I want any to work for me, I go out and take any I want.” Between the world wars, Liberia, founded by freed American slaves, was censured by the League of Nations for practicing slavery.
In many parts of the continent even today, women are still little better than chattel. Prof. Oliver writes of the traditions of “Pastoralists in particular [who] admired the wearing by women of twenty or thirty pounds of copper on the legs and ankles, since it forced them to move with the slow dignity of cattle.”
Prof. Oliver neither glorifies nor demonizes the other great bugbear of African history: colonialism. He makes it clear that the approximately 70 years of European rule brought industry, medicine, infrastructure, administration, and visions of national cohesion. Colonization, generally carried out peacefully by an astonishingly small number of Europeans, was Iron-Age Africa’s first faltering steps towards modernity.
Colonization was not, as so often described, pure plunder. Europeans partitioned the continent mainly for fear that rival powers would capture exclusive African markets. It was therefore commercial zeal rather than larceny that drove colonization. In any event, infrastructure investments meant that colonies ran losses for decades at a time.
Many whites came to Africa with no hope of gain at all. Missionaries, supported by the generosity of common churchgoers in Europe and America, built schools where there had been none, and trained the men who would struggle for independence. They also kept a watchful eye on the excesses of colonial government some of which were, indeed, horrible. The Germans put down the 1905 Maji Maji uprising in East Africa by laying waste the countryside. Two hundred thousand people may have died in the ensuing famine.
Prof. Oliver explains that colonization came to an end, just as it had begun, because of European rivalry. When Germany was stripped of its colonies after the First World War, they were given in trusteeship to the newly established League of Nations. Trusteeship implied an eventual coming of age, or independence.
In 1935-36 the Italian conquest of Ethiopia cast a harsh light on all African colonies. Ethiopia was an independent, Christian nation and had been a member of the League of Nations since 1923. The unblushing theft of black lands by a white power seemed little different from colonization.
By the time of the Second World War, the metropolitan powers were talking of eventual independence, but they saw it as perhaps a century in the future. The war drastically shortened the process. In Asia, Japan granted fleeting independence to a half-dozen European colonies before it was defeated. In Africa, the newly-assertive United States pressed strongly for independence, and even arranged a United Nations trusteeship for Somalia that was to bring independence in 1958. The floodgates were open and by the early 1960s, only Spain and Portugal still held outposts in Africa.
Corruption and Tyranny
Though European rule drew the modern map of Africa and pushed what were clusters of tribes towards nationhood, independent Africa has not been a success. The courts and parliaments set up by Europeans were soon brushed aside by dictators. Prof. Oliver gently recounts the corruption, tyranny, economic folly, and choking urbanization that have sent Africa’s per capita income down since independence rather than up. Famine, which Europeans had eliminated by the 1920s, reappeared in the 1970s and seems only to worsen.
The African Experience is imbued throughout with a clear-eyed, level-headed affection for Africa and its people. No one knows better than Prof. Oliver the failure of black Africans to invent a written language, discover the wheel, devise a calendar, or domesticate an animal. Yet he is never patronizing, never sentimental, never dismissive. It is this combination of erudition and composure that makes this book perhaps the most authoritative, accessible, and well-written antidote now available to the nonsense that is so often said about Africa.