Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa by Frank McLynn (2)

The collision between Europe and Africa came at a time when European self-confidence, based on the wonders of science, was at a peak, and African social conditions were at their worst. (p.175)

This book turns out to be longer and more complex than it initially seems. In the first section, which makes up around a third of the text, McLynn details all the important European expeditions and explorers of note from 1788 to the end of the explorer era around 1890 in a packed hundred pages. It feels quite rushed and hectic.

But as you proceed on into the text it emerges that the first part is by way of being a glorified timeline or chronology, merely a sketch of the main series of expeditions, because McLynn’s real interest is in writing a thematic history of the subject, which aims to consider wider the issues and problems and practicalities of African exploration.

Once the timeline and the key figures are roughly established in our minds, McLynn goes on to examine the issues surrounding exploration at some length, considering the problems, the obstacles, the solutions and the compromises common to the entire era of European exploration of Africa, roping in aspects of specific expeditions or explorers whose names we’ve already encountered in part 1, quoting from books and diaries and letters, as required. In the preface McLynn himself describes this book as:

A sociology of African exploration rather than a history [in which I stress] the common problems and experiences faced by the explorers rather than their unique exploits. (my italics)

So while part one (pages 1 to 128) is by way of being an introductory chronology, the subsequent three parts then re-approach the subject from various angles. In doing so we get to see other sides, aspects and interactions of the key explorers and this goes to build up a more rounded and thought-provoking portrait of the era.

The topics, each addressed in its own chapter, are:

Transport and porterage

In a continent without roads and without viable pack animals, where every animal the explorers tried to use as carriers (horses, mules, oxen, even elephants) died without fail, everything, on all these expeditions, had to be carried by humans. McLynn explores the long list of supplies included on every expedition, including: medicines, alcohol, clothes, helmets, tents, soap and toiletries, weapons and ammunition, food and lots of fresh water, trade goods such as cloth, beads and wire.

Many tribes were used as porters but the Nyemwezi emerged as the most effective and reliable, able to carry up to 70 pounds of equipment and goods. Portering for the white man became big business. By the 1890s it’s estimated that some 20,000 porters a month were leaving Bagamoyo for the interior (p.209).

The importance of hongo or tribute which had to be paid to a tribe to pass their territory.

‘Dark companions’

(‘Dark companions’ was the phrase Stanley used for the many African porters he knew, a phrase he used as the title of a collection of stories he claimed the porters told around campfires at night, ‘My Dark Companions and Their Strange Stories’, published in  1893.)

Without help from the Africans there would have been no exploration of Africa by Europeans. (p.170)

Looks in details at the profession of porter on these expeditions. Porters were known by the generic term wangwana.

In opening up the Dark Continent the wangwana played a key role. (p.170)

The most important fact to grasp was that portering work was, for most Africans, well paid. If they made it back to the expedition starting place (most often Zanzibar on the east coast) they could live as relatively rich men. But the conditions were challenging and many porters were laid low by disease (either dying outright or becoming unable to work) while many others simply absconded. Of the 708 wangwana who left Zanzibar with Stanley in November 1887 on the Emin Pasha expedition, only 210 returned in December 1877.

This chapter looks at how the porters were ordered, how they were managed, a typical day’s march, the problem of discipline – how to read the fine line between being too weak and being too brutal, in charge of a large number of malingering, mutinous and absconding natives He looks in detail at the careers of three wangwana who rose to become senior figures in the portering business, and senior managers on a succession of expeditions, namely Bombay, Baraka, Susi and Chuma. The latter two became the most famous porters of the age after the took the decision, by themselves, to carry Livingstone’s embalmed body from Ilala, where he died in May 1873, nearly a thousand miles down to the sea opposite Zanzibar.

An object lesson in obstacles

A consideration of the many obstacles which dogged all African expeditions demonstrated through a detailed description of just part of the 1874 to 1877 Stanley expedition, the three months spent crossing of modern Tanzania to Lake Victoria, which featured a harrowing list of experiences, including virulent disease, famine and starvation, mutiny of the porters, flash floods, sustained attack by warlike tribes, death of all the pet dogs and two of the five white men from disease, a catalogue of horrendous trials and misery.

The impact of disease

The impact of disease was catastrophic. The porters died, the horses died, the mules died, the dogs died and the Europeans died. McLynn lists virulent African diseases which, in the absence of effective traditional medicine or any real Western medicine, ran rampant through explorers and their porters, and included: smallpox, fever, ague, amoebic and bacillic dysentery, guinea worm, ulcers acquired when scratches (from thorn bushes or tall sharp grass) got infected and festered in the heat and humidity, bronchitis, pneumonia, rheumatism, sciatica, asthma, dropsy, emphysema, erysipelas, elephantiasis, sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis), bilharzia, filariasis, hookworm infestation (ankylostomiasis), river blindness (onchocerciasis), exanthematic typhus, yaws and leprosy, for each of which he proceeds to give a stomach-churning description of symptoms, explorers who caught it, and various attempts by Africans and Europeans at cures.

McLynn gives us excerpts from journals of explorers which describe the symptoms of fever in graphic and gruelling detail, the most notable parts of which were not the cold, the shivering, the fever, vomiting, difficulty breathing, inability to eat or drink, and so on, but the sometimes vivid hallucinations, dreams and nightmares fever gave rise to.

He also points out that fevers often led to feelings of paranoia, which might explain why some of the white explorers fell out so vitriolically and might also explain the sometimes unusual violence of white explorers towards local tribes or their own porters, the result of fever-inspired paranoia or aggression (p.237).

McLynn comes to the sweeping conclusion that, because almost all Africans were exposed to these devastating illnesses (as many are to this day), that all Africans ‘operated at very much less than full energy or efficiency.’ That the severity and widespreadness of these severe illnesses resulted in: smaller crop reduction, reduced calorie intake and hence widespread ‘malnutrition and apathy’ (p.252).

Armed clashes

The use of force was endemic to Africa; the most admired human beings were warriors ans conquerors. (p.253)

McLynn emphasises the traditional patriarchal values of African tribes. He describes how, in some tribes, heirs to a throne had to fight it out between themselves (as in medieval Europe), before going on to look at the violent behaviour of the Europeans, contrasting the fiercely anti-African Sir Samuel Baker with Henry Morton Stanley.

In the late Victorian period Stanley acquired the unenviable reputation of being a hard man, violent and sadistic, using beatings, stealing, intimidation and armed attacks to get his way, but McLynn suggests Stanley was more subtle and strategic than that, whereas Baker genuinely enjoyed nothing more than massacring Africans with rifle and machine gun.

A key text is when Baker admitted he had done much worse than Stanley but was wise enough to hush it up and never to write it up in print. Stanley, naively, included his violent engagements with Africans in his various books and, what is more, exaggerated them, and was therefore was his own worst PR enemy.

McLynn sketches a spectrum of anti-African violence with the saintly David Livingstone at one end, genuinely believing in his Christian mission and that kind words and deeds recruited natives to his side; with Baker, Chaille-Long, Frederick Lugard and Carl Peters at the explicitly racist, hyper-violent end; beside whom Stanley was a lot less violent, used his superior arms strategically (to fight his way down the Congo against a never-ending succession of aggressive tribes), was prepared to use peaceful negotiation when he had the time, and often spoke highly of the native Africans. But while the former are forgotten, Stanley’s name is the one which has gone down in the annals of infamy (p.273).

Animals dangerous to man

McLynn selects stories from explorers’ accounts of encounters with the most dangerous fauna in Africa, working thematically through lions (only attack if provoked), leopards (far more dangerous) hyenas, elephants, rhinoceros on land, terrifyingly aggressive crocodiles and easily enraged hippopotami in the water. He has a passage about snakes and various terrifying encounters with cobras and pythons. And lastly a section on the deepest enemy of man in Africa, insects, bees, wasps, locusts, white ants which ate anything and the fearsome soldier ants who devoured everything in the path of their huge armies. And, of course, the malaria-carrying mosquito and the ruinous tsetse fly.

The main story, though, is that in doing the discovering, drafting the maps and pioneering the routes into various parts of Africa, the Victorian explorers opened the way for big game hunters and tourists who, as early as the 1870s had driven some unique African species extinct (the textbook example is the quagga), by 1900 had emptied regions which only 50 years earlier had teemed with wildlife, and on into the twentieth century’s long, sorry record of extermination.

Explorers and imperialism

Obviously the explorers drafted the maps, joined up the rivers and lakes, established routes and provided a wide range of information about geography, flora, fauna, tribes and societies which was then used by those who argued for greater British involvement in Africa which, by the late 1880s/early 1890s was becoming known as the New Imperialism. McLynn points out that many Africa watchers expected British intervention in Africa to come in the shape of chartered companies on the analogy of the East Indian Company. The British government didn’t get directly involved until it annexed its first African territory, Uganda, in 1894.

Formal empire began with the annexation of Uganda in 1894. (p.316)

In fact the explorers were very different men with a wide range of attitudes towards Africa, Africans and the commercial opportunities there, some believing fortunes could be made, some believing (with Livingstone) that western commerce would help develop Africa into a thriving economy, others (like Baker) believing nothing could redeem the African from his savagery.

McLynn groups the views justifying imperial interventions of the very diverse Africanists into five overall arguments (p.314):

  1. There was no alternative. The explorers depicted a continent riven by tribal wars, mired in poverty and ignorance, and prey to the brutal activities of Arab slave traders. Could European Christians stand by and let this situation continue forever? Or intervene.
  2. Piecemeal measures were inadequate. Baker and Gordon tried to annex territory round the source of the Nile and abolish slavery there, but the distances were too great, the lack of communications infrastructure too weakening, the local rulers too corrupt, the Arab slavers too flexible. Only wholesale annexation and complete administrative control by well-funded European bureaucrats could shift the situation.
  3. Experience showed that formal agreements to end slavery, such as that between Sir Bartle Frere and the Sultan of Zanzibar, were ineffective unless backed by systematic state force.
  4. In the era of liberal free trade economics it was thought iniquitous that the African lived in poverty, squalor and famine in a land which, if it was only ‘developed’ properly by European masters, could provide ample food, material goods, education and progress towards European standards of living.
  5. Racial theorists, and the more anti-African explorers such as Burton and Baker, thought Africans were children in terms of intellect, emotion, ability to reason and so on, and therefore needed to be taken in hand and guided by wise parents. Westerners, of course.

Reputation and impact

McLynn examines the impact of the explorers on African tribes and societies. Their reputations, obviously, varied, from the very positive memories of Livingstone and Speke, to the negative folk memories of Burton and Baker, with Stanley a complex mix of both.

The most striking thing about this chapter is the profound ignorance of the Africans, who, across many tribes and regions, thought the white men were spirits returned from the dead or arriving from a different realm, who thought the cloth they bought was woven by spirits contained in their steamships, who didn’t understand how their weapons or any other technologies worked and so thought they were magicians, had supernatural powers, and so on.

As to impact, it was universally disastrous: the white men uprooted settled societies and beliefs, undermined local religions and practices, undermined traditional methods of transferring or holding power (by backing usurpers who supported European aims), undermined the currency, disrupted trading patterns, and again and again, opened up previously inaccessibly areas to the evil attentions of the Arab slave traders.

The psychology of the explorers

McLynn mixes up a number of ideas. He contrasts the mentality of the explorer and the mere traveller (the traveller seeks out the little known, the explorer the unknown). Obviously there was a Romantic thirst for grandeur and spectacular scenes. There is the highly driven ambition to be the ‘first to set eyes on’ or ‘the first man to establish’ some geographical fact, the most famous one being the intense quest to establish the source of the Nile.

Many explorers expressed the same deep feeling that only in Africa, far from the constraints and conventions of European civilisation, did they feel really free, did they feel truly themselves, a feeling vividly expressed by Burton and Stanley, who revelled in demanding physical endurance and the exercise of untrammeled power over large numbers of men. McLynn ropes in psychoanalysis and one of its founding mothers, Melanie Klein, but we don’t really need her theories to understand that Africa represented a vast canvas on which highly motivated individuals could act out all kinds of fantasies of power over other men, direct personal struggles against physical limitations and death, and psychological rewards, in terms of achieving goals, completing epic journeys, answering huge geographical speculations, which in turn brought fame, wealth and the love of women.

Livingstone was a subtler more complex man and described complex feelings, which included the ‘far from England’ liberation but also the warmth of feeling one was doing good work in a good cause. Livingstone enjoyed unerring confidence that God was guiding him, that Providence was on his side, that Stanley observed at close quarters, envied, but thought ultimately deceptive.

Something Livingstone and Stanley had in common was the extreme poverty of their backgrounds. Exploring offered an opportunity for freedom, power and, when the results were published back in Blighty, extraordinary fame. As the age of exploration drew to an end many of the explorers transitioned to holding official and extensive power under the new colonial dispensations, such as de Brazza and Lugard.

This chapter ends with extended psychoanalytical speculation of four leading figures, Livingstone, Speke, Stanley and Burton, all of whom had larger than life, obsessive and florid personalities which they were able to express freely in the wilderness and then embroider even further in their many published writings.

I found McLynn’s speculations a bit tiresome in the same way so many modern biographer’s psychological speculations about their subjects are. a) It is an old, worn-out creed, Freudianism. b) McLynn, like so many of his ilk, is not a trained psychologist or psychoanalyst, so all his speculating is that of an amateur.

Reading McLynn’s speculations that Livingstone was obsessed with sex, Speke was dominated by a death drive, and Stanley was a repressed homosexual don’t really add to the preceding accounts of their extraordinary achievements against so many odds. This kind of amateur psychosexual speculation degrades the biographer’s subjects and demeans the biographer himself. It sullies the reader. Yuk.

************

All these subjects are interesting in themselves but the chapters which really stood out for me were the one about guns and the one about slaves. These contain some really Big Ideas.

Guns

Jared Diamond’s 1997 book Guns, Germs and Steel sets out to give a materialist explanation for why some parts of the world, specifically the Eurasian land mass, supported cultures and civilisations which advanced in complexity and sophistication, while others remained primitive and backward. The two key ones are the presence of domesticatable animals and a wide variety of grasses which could be carefully bred and modified to improve food yields (wheat, barley, oats) are two important ones. This enabled agricultural surpluses which could support non-labouring classes, kings, warriors, priests, administrators and bureaucrats, the kinds of people who invented writing and art to tally up the king’s possessions and record the king’s mighty deed.

Writing meant later generations could read about the achievements of previous generations and try to better them. For thousands of years all aspects of the culture could be improved from agricultural techniques, breeding livestock, improvements in military and other technology. But the big lift-off came with the industrial revolution which gathered pace in Britain from the mid-18th century onwards and led to the development of the factory production of a huge range of goods.

All this explains why, when white men first appeared on the coasts of Africa and then slowly penetrated inland, they might as well have been aliens from another planet for all they had in common with the local inhabitants, who had no writing or history or technology, had no pack animals, survived on subsistence agriculture, had no cities or roads or canals, whose only water transport was canoes.

Everything the white arrivals wore and carried and bartered was produced in factories and economies driven by technologies and linked by international trading routes beyond the comprehension of most Africans.

But nowhere was this more important than in the realm of weaponry. All Africans used bows and arrows and spears and primitive knives. None of them had seen guns. It was like aliens invading with ray guns. ‘Bunduki sultani ya bara bara,’ – ‘the gun is the ruler of Africa’, as Stanley’s wangwani are alleged to have told him.

McLynn goes into great detail about the makes of gun and their technical spec and the munitions carried and preferred by the various explorers. But it is the central idea of the magic of killing from afar, killing from a distance, which makes you stop and reflect on the relationship between the gunned and the non-gunned or (once they start acquiring old flintlocks from some European traders) the outgunned.

The heyday of exploration, 1870 to 1890, happened to coincide with a quantum leap in western armaments, with the invention of the breech-loading rifle in the 1860s, the magazine rifle (first used in the Russo-Turkish war in 1877) and the Maxim machine gun in 1884. The early explorers overawed the Africans they met with their Snyder rifles. The last generation, in the 1890s, annihilated them with machine guns. These instruments of death burst upon an African scene which was already characterised by tribal rivalry:

The pre-existing structural instability of Bantu tribalism, with raiding, looting and tribal war a way of life, and a worldview that exalted power over all attributes and held human life cheap, were all part of an essential indiscipline likely to be made worse when the rifle arrived. (p.175)

Almost as devastating was the way the advent of Western firearms undermined traditional structures of power and authority. Previously, there were village elders and councils and traditional wisdom of sorts which bolstered traditional hierarchies of power. The advent of guns meant power was transferred to the ones with guns, to the most tooled-up. Traditional hierarchies were replaced by charismatic warlords who led roving bands of raiders, generically referred to as the ruga-ruga, a situation which still obtains in parts of Africa, and resurfaces wherever modern authority structures collapse in civil war (Somalia, Eritrea, Darfur, eastern Congo).

Did the explorers take many weapons? The very earliest ones, not so much. But fifty years later Stanley led expeditions huge in manpower (up to 800 porters) and massively armed. On the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, Stanley took 510 Remington rifles with 100,000 rounds, 50 Winchester repeaters with 50,000 cartridges, 2 tons of gunpowder, 350,000 percussion caps, 30,000 Gatling cartridges and 35,000 special Remington cartridges (p.176).

Makes me reflect that it is true to this day. America was able to overthrow the rulers of Iraq and Afghanistan because of the awesome power of their weapons, and the shattering way they were able to co-ordinate mass attacks, wave after wave of carefully targeted bombs. It was when the fighting came down to the ground level, with gangs of men with guns shooting at other gangs of men with guns, that the technical superiority faded away, and the occupying forces, American and British, found themselves in such difficulties in the narrow alleyways of Lashkar Gah or the Sunni Triangle.

As I read detailed accounts of how Europeans at first shot, then fought, and then massacred native Africans with steadily escalating weaponry (climaxing in the gatling gun which mowed down Sudanese warriors by the thousand at the notorious battle of Omdurman in 1898) I reflected that the situation in today’s world is unchanged.

World peace is maintained by America’s vast spending on its military. Much of it may be useless or corrupt and siphoned off into the accounts of America’s vast arms manufacturers and traders. But they can deploy overwhelming force to any part of the world in a way Russia certainly can’t and China doesn’t want or need to. Only the vast superiority of their weaponry gave the Americans the confidence to intervene in Somalia and Iraq and Afghanistan.

What I’m driving at is that everybody nowadays mocks the Victorian explorers-cum-imperialists for their hypocrisy, for the discrepancy between their high-minded rhetoric about civilisation and culture and freedom – and the reality of the brute force they actually deployed. But wherein are we different? All liberal rhetoric about human rights boils down to who has the better guns (the Americans) and whether they’re prepared to use them (not any more, or not for a while, anyway)

Slavery

This is a vast subject which is becoming ever more fashionable. An unending tide of books and movies and art works and activism and political movements and statue toppling is going to keep the issue of historical slavery in the headlines for the foreseeable future. It doesn’t dominate McLynn’s book but crops up throughout and he is wise to devote an entire chapter to it.

Firstly, he explains that there were two types of slavery, domestic i.e. internal African slavery, and external or export slavery (p.189). Domestic slavery had been a fact of African life since time immemorial and was widely accepted. Slaves were taken as prisoners of war after battle. Slaves could be traded on the open market for other goods. Family members, especially children, could be offered as requital for homicide.

Buying and selling human beings was a culture already widespread in the Dark Continent. (p.204)

Most slaves were women. Verney Cameron estimated 90% of slaves in Ujiji as women and children. Men were too risky, and so were generally slaughtered on the spot. Women slaves could potentially become wives of their owners and, if they bore children, well treated. Women slaves to Arab traders and on the coast were treated less well. Slaves could be put to work as servants, retainers, canoe paddlers, to work the fields. They could be bought to be made human sacrifices. German explorer E.J. Glave watched two slaves being bought, killed, cooked and eaten (p.191).

Like any system, slavery could be gotten around. All observers noted that the systems were varied from place to place and tribe to tribe, and included a bewildering number of rules and exceptions and traditions and customs. It wasn’t just One Thing.

The Atlantic slave trade

The British abolished the slave trade in 1807 and liberated all slaves across the empire in 1833. Other empires weren’t so willing. The Portuguese continued shipping slaves from Mozambique to Brazil for decades to come. Brazil didn’t abolish slavery till 1888.

In 1841 Britain organised the Quintuple Treaty whereby Britain, France, Austria, Prussia and Russia agreed to impound all ships fitted out for slave trading. The Portuguese were forced into signing a year later but ignored it and the American government vigorously protested the right of the British to stop and search it ships, in fact the issue became so heated there was some talk of a war.

The East African slave trade

The Muslim-Arab trade in African slaves had been going on since the 7th century, if not before. It received a boost when Omani Said, Sultan of Muscat, transferred his entire court to Zanzibar in 1833. By the time the British arrived it was estimated about two-thirds of the population of 200,000 were slaves. The trade moved inland, with trails commencing from the major port of Bagamoyo on the coast opposite Zanzibar, leading to the waystation of Tabora and on to Lake Tanganyika.

The British consul estimated that about 40,000 slaves were brought to Zanzibar each year of which half were exported north to the Arab world. In 1866 Livingstone observed the slave market where between 100 and 300 slaves were sold off every day. As many as half the original captives died on the long march to the coast, and significant numbers then died in the 24 hour crossing from the coast to Zanzibar, packed like sardines into filthy and boiling conditions below decks.

In 1873 Sir Bartle Frere arrived in Zanzibar as British consul and delivered an ultimatum to the sultan, which forced him to sign a treaty abolishing the slave trade. But the sultan himself didn’t control it and Arab slavers simply moved their routes and markets to other islands.

McLynn describes the process whereby Arab traders entered new territory, bribed their way into the favours of local rulers with trade goods, assisted in their wars in exchange for a cut of the slaves. Mostly these were women and children who were place in the sheba or forked pole which fit round the captive’s neck. Shackled together, they then began the long trek to the coast in blistering heat with inadequate food and water. Anyone who fell sick or protested was killed out of hand.

Cameron estimated that to achieve a haul of 52 female prisoners, the slavers had to destroy 10 villages, each with a population of 1,500 to 2,000, burned to death when the villages were torched, or shot down if they tried to escape, or dying of starvation in the jungle. Thomson thought about 2 in 3 died on the way to the coast. Livingstone observed it at close quarters and thought the figure was closer to 1 in ten. The tremendous loss of life explains why, once the Arabs entered an area, it was devastated.

In 1863, on reaching Gondokoro, [Baker] found a populous region teeming with vast herds of cattle. On his second journey in 1872, he found the area denuded of people; the slave trade had wiped the land of milk and honey off the face of the earth. (p.206)

This was the trade that all the explorers without exception, and the British government, were committed to ending but found hard to do so with so little power on the ground. If the British were serious about ending slavery, then they needed more than a few scattered explorers and single-handed consuls. They needed to take over full administrative and security responsibility for entire regions.

Towards the end of the book McLynn quotes historian Dorothy O. Helly making the startling point that, if the British were serious about completely stamping out slavery in Africa, then imperial rule was the only way to achieve it.

‘Played out to its logical end…the British antislavery impulse led to empire.’ (quoted on page 309)

On this view, the extension of the British Empire into Africa was nothing to do with the Hobson-Lenin thesis that the empire existed to soak up excess capital, to provide opportunities for profitable investment which had dried up at home.

On the contrary, it was a moral crusade which ended up being costly and impractical and involving the British in an ever-deepening mire of repressing rebellions and independence movements which eventually proved unstoppable.

The end of slavery?

Frederick Lugard’s attempts to eliminate slavery around Lake Nyasa in 1888 were a humiliating failure. It took the post-Berlin Congress takeover by the Germans to begin serious eradication. As the Germans advanced along the classic route from Bagamoyo to Tabora to Ujiji, they captured and punished slavers as they went. Only in 1900 had they wiped out all traces of slavery around Tanganyika. Domestic slavery, however, endured with the result that when war broke out in 1914 there were still some 50,000 domestic slaves in German East Africa. After the war the British took over the territory but it wasn’t until 1939 that slavery in the area was completely extirpated.

African rulers

Leading African rulers of the era included kings Mutesa, Lobengula, Mzilikazi, Mirambo and Kabbarega.

Insults

Glave reported that on the upper Congo the imprecation Owi na nlorli was a mortal insult. It means ‘May a crocodile eat you’ (p.290).


Credit

Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa by Frank McLynn was published in 1992 by Hutchinson. All references are to the 1993 Pimlico paperback edition.

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Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa by Frank McLynn (1992)

Frank McLynn

McLynn, 80 this year, has made a very successful career as an author, biographer, historian and journalist, having written some 30 books. He clearly aims to produce enjoyable, accessible and non-scholarly histories and biographies for a wide audience. This is suggested, among other things by his use of casual and rather boys’ own adventure story diction:

  • It was the Moors who had done for Major Houghton. (p.16)
  • His plight was grim. His horse was on its last legs. (p.16)
  • The Landers shook the dust of Badagry off their shoes with gusto and plunged into the wilderness… (p.27)
  • The master of the Thomas proved to be a blackguard. (p.30)
  • Speke would not have to fear the supercilious basilisk eye from a superior beetling brow, as with Burton, every time he wandered off to slaughter a few dozen of Africa’s wildlife.
  • Once again the expedition came within an ace of disaster… (p.104)
  • Meanwhile the Upper Nile was proving a hell on earth… (p.119)

I found McLynn’s book about the Mexican Revolution very useful, accessible and gripping, and was impressed by his talent for shaping the complicated facts into a compelling narrative. But that book had the advantage of telling the story of a huge social upheaval through the lives of just two legendary figures who are central to the entire drama, which itself only covered a period of about 20 years.

Here the challenge is the reverse: there were hundreds of European explorers to Africa, most of them undertook more than one expedition, many stayed for years carrying out complex sequences of explorations, and the total period of Western exploration lasted about a century (from 1788 to around 1890). In other words, there’s a lot more subject matter to cover and so it’s harder for this book not to feel more scattered and diffuse.

Brief history of exploration up to the European era

The ancient Greeks and Romans probed into Africa but never crossed the barrier of the Sahara or managed to penetrate far up the Nile. From the seventh century, Muslim Arab traders explored the east coast of Africa, set up numerous settlements and established a lucrative trade in black slaves. From the 1480s onwards the Portuguese created stopping off points on their circumnavigation of Africa to reach India. But McLynn tells us that the accepted date for the start of the ‘modern’ exploration of Africa is 1788. For it was in this year that the African Association was set up in London by a dozen London businessmen led by Sir Joseph Banks, the noted botanist who accompanied Captain Cook on his journeys to the South Seas.

The African Association (to give it its proper name, The Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa) sponsored a series of expeditions throughout the 1790s, then activity went into abeyance for the duration of the wars with France (1793 to 1815) before being revived once peace returned. As soon as you google this subject you discover it is extremely well covered online and there is a recognised and much repeated canon of early explorers, namely:

Pre-Napoleonic war explorers

  • John Ledyard, set off 1788, died in Cairo aged 37.
  • Simon Lucas, departed Tripoli 1788; forced to abandon expedition south by tribal wars.
  • Daniel Houghton, 1790, penetrated deep up the river Gambia in West Africa before being robbed and murdered aged 51.
  • Mungo Park, 1795, penetrated further into West Africa than any European to date, discovering that the Niger flowed east, but died in the attempt to travel the length of the Niger by canoe, murdered or drowned it’s not clear to this day, age 35.
  • Friedrich Hornemann, 1797, set off from Cairo to travel across the Sahara to Timbuktu and was never heard of again; if he died around 1800, he would have been 28.

Post-Napoleonic war explorers

  • Alexander Gordon Laing, Scottish, first European to reach Timbuktu in 1826, being murdered by Tuareg soon afterwards, aged 31.
  • René Caillié, son of a convict (!) first explorer to visit Timbuktu (in 1828) and return to tell the tale, before dying of ill health and tuberculosis aged 38.
  • Heinrich Barth, considered one of the greatest of the European explorers of Africa for his scholarliness and commitment to learning Arabic, spent five years living in Sudan, crossing the Sahara to West Africa, first person to visit remote Timbuktu since Caillié (in 1853).
  • Charles John Andersson, explored south-west Africa from his base in Cape Town, at one stage was a war lord to the Damara tribe, died of fever aged 40.
  • Karl Mauch, son of a Bavarian carpenter, taught himself and scraped the money to travel to South Africa, where he worked to earn the funds to pay for an expedition up into south-east Africa. He discovered the ruins of Great Zimbabwe in 1872, but was ignored when he returned to Germany and died in poverty aged 37.

General conclusions

McLynn draws a handful of conclusions from these early pioneers:

1. Exploring Africa was a young man’s game.

2. All the explorers fell ill, very seriously ill, multiple times, and a high percentage, even of the young and fit, died.

3. This didn’t stop the obsessive ambition of many of the most successful ones to be ‘the first man to see’ whatever feature they had been sent by the Association to discover: the fabled city of Timbuktu, the origins of the river Niger, various waterfalls and so on.

4. African exploration was connected to low birth. It presented an opportunity to people condemned to lifetimes of lowly obeisance in Britain’s class structure, to make a splash, to make a name for themselves, to achieve wealth and status. Simon Lucas was the son of a vintner. David Livingstone was one of seven children who grew up in a tenement in a grim Scottish mill town and was sent aged ten to a cotton mill where he and his brother John worked twelve-hour days as piecers, tying broken cotton threads on the spinning machines. Henry Morton Stanley was abandoned by his mother and spent ten years from the ages of 6 to 16 in a remote Welsh workhouse.

5. Many of the explorers were Celts, outsiders to the English establishment: Mungo Park and David Livingstone came from lowly backgrounds in Scotland, Stanley from a wretched workhouse in rural Wales. Hugh Clapperton from Annan, Dumfriesshire (died of dysentery in Sokoto, aged 38). Richard Lander, son of a Truro innkeeper (died on the Niger river, aged 29) and so on.

6. Expeditions do not bring people together. Many of these trips are notorious for the extreme hatred and bitterness they engendered between the protagonists. Most notorious is the tremendous falling out between the famous Arabist Richard Francis Burton and the big game hunter John Hanning Speke on their 1858 expedition from Zanzibar into East Africa, during which they mapped Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria, which lasted after they returned to England and pursued a feud against each other in the press right up till the day of Speke’s death (or suicide?) in 1860.

A blizzard of names and dates

McLynn plunges straight into accounts of these early expeditions, telling them in pared-down, summary style with the result that I felt bombarded by names – of European explorers and of the countless villages and towns they discovered/arrived at, and the plethora of Africa tribes with their kings and sheikhs who they encountered, traded with, fought against and so on. I soon realised I was never going to remember.

Much more interesting and enduring are the broader points he makes about Africa in general and the perils of European exploration in particular.

The African scene

Pitiful agriculture

Most African cultures lived right on the breadline, on the border of starvation (p.146). This was caused by poor soil, poor climate and erratic rains which, in the tropical regions, fell almost constantly all year round. Many Africans lived on a very basic diet of yams, manioc, corn, supplemented by berries and fruits, only rarely fish or meat protein. There was rarely the kind of guaranteed agricultural surplus which had allowed for the creation of complex civilisations in the Fertile Crescent and then across the Middle East and Europe for millennia.

Therefore, even a slight incursion by outsiders, let alone domineering white men leading a train of 300 porters, could upset delicate ecological balances and plunge villages and entire regions into famine. In fact the explorers regularly came across whole regions which were in famine conditions, where the locals were starving and where, therefore, no food could be bought for their huge trains for any amount of calico or beads (e.g. pp.217 to 219)..

And this explains many tribes’ fierce protectiveness of their territory and the often hostile response of African leaders to the arrival of the explorers and their huge hungry trains.

Tsetse flies

Tsetse flies were a menace to humans and livestock in Africa. They are to this day.

Tsetse flies, through the cyclical transmission of trypanosomiasis to both humans and their animals, greatly influence food production, natural-resource utilization and the pattern of human settlement throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. It is estimated that the annual direct production losses in cattle alone amount to between US$6bn and $12billion, while animal deaths may reach 3 million. (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization)

Lack of pack animals

There was a lack of pack animals or domesticable animals such as had underpinned the development of civilisation across Eurasia, which was home to oxen, cattle, donkeys but above all horses, which had performed a key economic function for millennia.

The evidence was overwhelming that all domesticated animals, whether oxen, camels, mules, horses or camels, succumbed very soon to the effects of climate and disease once taken north of 5°N. (p.132)

Later on he links the lack of pack animals to one central factor, the tsetse fly which transmitted the trypanasomes which caused ‘sleeping sickness’.

It was the tsetse that has barred passage to black Africa by killing off the Arabs’ horses and camels. The fly also kept the technology of black Africa primitive, since, deprived of animals, the African could hand plough only small plots of land, had no transport and lacked a source of first class protein. (p.240)

Lacking any kind of pack animals, most sub-Saharan cultures were primitive in the extreme. (The importance of domesticatable animals and of the wide range of edible grasses to the rise of Eurasian civilisations is explained in Jared Diamond’s 1997 classic Guns, Germs and Steel.)

Hundreds of porters

Therefore, an enduring feature of African exploration was simply that humans had to carry everything. (McLynn does describe a handful of explorations which experimented with horses, donkeys and even elephants, but in every case the animals wasted and died, leaving the human porters with even more to carry.) Hence native porters numbering in the hundreds. McLynn reports that of all the different tribes the Nyamwezi were head and shoulders the most reliable, foresightful and organised of porters. On the east Africa coast, at Zanzibar and the vital coastal town of Bagamoyo, huge numbers of porters were available and certain individual porters rose to prominence, were able to organise and manage their peers and so were hired by successive explorers and feature in accounts of successive expeditions.

Expeditions routinely included two to three hundred porters, and Stanley’s exceptionally well funded ones, up to 800! He had to be a master of organisation, man management and discipline, and McLynn gives examples of moments when European masters either a) managed to, or b) miserably failed to, maintain discipline and rank.

Lack of roads

Explorers discovered an almost complete lack of transport infrastructure. Most of the rivers were too large to be navigable or presented obstacles such as rapids and waterfalls. Roads through tropical jungle were impossible to maintain, so most people used narrow tracks.

‘The pathway seldom exceeded two feet in width, with tress and tall grasses growing up to its edges.’ (Alfred Swann, quoted on page 133)

There were few if any roads as understood in the developed world, nothing like canals and nothing remotely like Western railways. McLynn tells us Western-style tarmaced roads, and railways, didn’t really arrive in Africa till the 1930s.

The perils of European exploration

Sub-Saharan Africa remained unexplored for so long for a number of reasons.

No navigable rivers

Most African rivers debouch into sandbanks and have neither natural bays nor deep estuaries which characterise European and American rivers and allow ships to anchor and navigate upstream. If ships did anchor, water-borne explorers found it impossible to proceed far upriver because of rapids, cascades and waterfalls.

Violent humans

Anyway, chances are they would be attacked by any of the complicated patchwork of tribes and regional warlords who fiercely protected their territory. A simple motive for African violence and resentment was related to the dire poverty of most African communities but there were also continual low-level conflicts between neighbouring tribes; there are calculated to have been around 700 distinct tribes. But as MacLynn emphasises, Africans owed far more allegiance to their villages, village elders and traditions. There were hundreds of religions, mostly primitive ancestor or fetish worship.

What this amounts to in the book is a blizzard of names of the kings of umpteen different tribes and regions which the explorers pass through, most at war with all their neighbours, thus making negotiating with them for safe passage very dicey, plus all these rulers tended to want presents and dues. Hence the enormous trains of porters the explorers required to carry not only their food and weapons and tents etc, but also a sizeable treasury of Western goodies to be handed over to the series of rulers they had to mollify. The African word for it was hongo which translates as ‘tribute’ or ‘bribe’, depending on your worldview. As the (admittedly rabidly anti-African explorer) Samuel White Baker complained:

‘It is the rapacity of the chiefs of the various tribes that render African exploration so difficult.’ (quoted on page 75)

And plenty of explorers were just murdered outright by nomads, bandits, lawless tribals. McLynn gives a vivid account of the attack by the Eesa tribe on the expedition of Burton, Speke, Stroyan and Herne along with 42 porters encamped just outside the town of Berbera on the coast of Somaliland on the night of 19 April 1855. Lieutenant Stroyan was killed outright, Burton took a spear thrust through one cheek and out the other but managed to run to the beach and safety while Speke was captured, suffered spear thrusts in eleven places including right through one thigh, was tied up and threatened with castration until he was left in the care of one armed guard who he managed to knock out before also running to the sea where he was discovered by rescuers then following morning (p.255).

Violent animals

No continent has so many fierce animals as Africa. Lions routinely attacked and killed members of exhibitions. If travelling by water, crocodiles and the surprisingly aggressive hippopotamus were a peril. Aggressive birds attacked larger animals, for example camels, leaving wounds which festered and killed.

Heat

Explorers died of simple heatstroke or from the combo of heat and high humidity in forest regions.

Disease

But disease was the most obvious peril. All Europeans attempting travel into sub-Saharan Africa quickly became ill, often seriously ill. Malaria, typhoid, ophthalmia, and any number of causes of diarrhoea, afflicted almost all European explorers with devastating consequences. Half the explorers who set out were killed by disease; most of the survivors emerged severely weakened by prolonged illness with lingering debilitating effects. McLynn mentions smallpox, fever, ague, amoebic and bacillic dysentery, guinea worm, ulcers acquired when scratches (from thorn bushes or tall sharp grass) got infected and festered in the heat and humidity, bronchitis, pneumonia, rheumatism, sciatica, athsma, dropsy, emphysema, erysipelas, elephantiasis, sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis), bilharzia, filariasis, hookworm infestation (ankylostomiasis), river blindness (onchocerciasis), exanthematic typhus, yaws and leprosy.

Regularly you read that the explorers were laid up for months on end with fever and dysentery, or rendered so weak they literally couldn’t walk and had to be carried in hammocks. In fact McLynn devotes an entire chapter, chapter 11, to the subject (pages 227 to 252).

Attrition rates

Thus it was that all the expeditions suffered appalling death rates. For example, Stanley left Bagamoyo in mid-November 1874 with 4 white companions and 342 African porters. By the end of February 1875, 181 had been lost to famine, illness, desertion or attacks by tribesmen. On the Emin Pasha expedition, Stanley left Zanzibar in spring 1887 with 708 men. Two and a half years later only 210 returned (p.152). The situation was summed up by the German explorer Wilhelm Junker:

‘Famine and disease are the chief causes of the depopulation of Central Africa; in comparison with these the export of slaves is but a small item.’ (quoted on page 117)

No profit

And, despite all the rumours of treasure and secret cities and rare gems and valuable resources, it turned out to be impossible to make a profit from any of these expeditions. They were either sponsored by national geographic associations, by missionary organisations, or by wealthy backers (p.146). None of the explorers McLynn describes got involved in any businesses set up to trade with Africa, there were few if any businesses involved there. Stanley came the closest, in the sense that he was central to helping King Leopold of Belgium set up his evil and rapacious regime in the Congo, but that was more slave exploitation than a ‘business’. A number of explorers ended their days as colonial administrators, such as da Brazza, Frederick Lugard and Carl Peters. But most came home, wrote up their experiences and lived off their ublications and lectures.

The great British explorers

Having skated through the early pioneers McLynn slows down and pays more attention to the famous expeditions of David Livingstone, Richard Burton (the first European to see Lake Tanganyika, which he wrongly thought must be the source of the Nile) and John Hanning Speke whose joint expedition was sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society and lasted from 1856 to 1859.

Burton and Speke were involved in the great quest to find the source of the mighty river Nile. Speke won, showing that its main source is Lake Victoria, to the anger of the far more scholarly and conscientious Burton, who made the wrong call when he attributed the source to Lake Tanganyika. On their return to England in 1859 they embarked on a long and bitter war of words through the press and pamphlets.

And Samuel White Baker, who I’d never heard of but, apparently, was second only to Livingstone in popular fame, for his extensive 4-year-long explorations around the Great Lakes region of central east Africa (1861 to 1865).

Baker was the first European to see Lake Albert and a substantial waterfall on the Victoria Nile which he named Murchison Falls after the then-president of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Roderick Murchison. Back in Blighty he wrote a considerable number of books and published articles which bolstered his reputation as the grand old man of Africa exploration and an expert on the Nile, though he was almost as famous for his extravagant big game hunting on four continents, Asia, Africa, Europe and North America.

Suppressing the slave trade

Britain abolished the slave trade throughout the British Empire in 1807. The actual state of enslavement i.e. slavery as a whole, wasn’t abolished, and existing slaves freed, until 1833. By the 1850s suppression of the slave trade carried on by other nations had become a major moral crusade for the British. The Royal Navy had an Africa squadron specifically tasked with patrolling the west African coast and intercepting slave ships, forcing them to return their captives to Africa.

In east and central Africa where the great competition to find the source of the Nile played out, there was a long established slave trade run by Arabs, capturing and transporting black Africans up the coast to the Muslim world. High-minded missionaries like David Livingstone raised funds and publicity by their stated aim of combining geographical exploration with steps to suppress the slave trade. Baker was another Brit who boosted his reputation among high-minded Victorians by emphasising his anti-slavery credentials, without much justification, in McLynn’s view.

Yet McLynn brings out how ambiguous the relationship between British explorer and Arab slaver could be on the ground, in reality. This is epitomised in the career of Hamad bin Muhammad bin Juma bin Rajab el Murjebi, better known by his nickname, Tippu Tip, which is Swahili for ‘gatherer of wealth’. Born in 1832 in Zanzibar, Tippu rose to become one of the wealthiest men of his time, based on his twin trades in ivory and slaves. Eventually he became the leading slave trader in East Africa, supplying the Muslim world with hundreds of thousands of black slaves and himself owning plantations worked by an estimated 10,000 enslaved blacks.

The point is that if you were a white man who wanted to explore central Africa from the most reliable starting point of Zanzibar, you had to reach an accommodation with Tippu who had established and ran the key trading posts, watering holes, provision stores and so on on the main routes inland from the coast to the great lakes, from Bagamoyo on the coast via the trading entrepot of Tabora, which was equidistant from Lake Tanganyika in the west and Lake Victoria in the north. And so David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, to name the most famous, were forced to forge working relationships with Tippu.

It was one thing to make grand declarations in Britain about abolishing the east Africa slave trade; it was quite another to find yourself amid rich, powerful men who ran it, who had everything to lose by its abolition, and try to reach practical accommodations with them.

Tippu Tip was famous enough to feature on the front cover of the Illustrated London News, 7 December 1889 issue.

Later, non-British explorers

After the high profile, super-publicised expeditions of Livingstone, Stanley, Burton, Speke and Baker, the narrative goes on to describe scores of lesser figures. The Big Names are big because they sketched out the really central issue of African geography, they were the ones who traced the paths of the major rivers (the Niger, Congo, Zambezi and Nile) and discovered the complex of great lakes in east-central Africa. The created the frame and established the broad shapes, like completing the border round a jigsaw.

But there was still a huge amount of work to be done to join the dots, for example to work out the order of flow between the umpteen lakes in the African lake district which eventually led into the sources of the Nile, or to identify each of the scores of tributaries of the river Congo – and this was done by a host of lesser names, most of them not British and therefore not enshrined in our national history.

McLynn notes that two other nationalities became prominent: Belgian explorers, once King Leopold had established his ‘right’ to the vast Congo basin at the 1885 Congress of Berlin; and the same event crystallised the urgency among German politicians and scientists to secure their slice of the African pie, so there was a notable upswing in the number of German explorers, for example George Schweinfurth.

This left the French who, as usual, burned with envy and at the successes of their hated rivals, the British, and spurred them on, post 1880, to map and seize as much territory as possible. The national rivalry was made plain in the individual rivalry between Stanley, who was contracted to explore and establish waystations along the river Congo by Leopold of Belgium well into the 1890s, and the lead French explorer, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, who also explored the Congo basin in the 1870s and 80s, going on to become a French colonial administrator in the 1890s. The capital of the Republic of the Congo was named Brazzaville in his honour and retains the name to this day.

A body of work was done by ‘Gordon’s men’, a set of adventurers hired by General Gordon when he was governor of Equitoria province in the service of the Khedive of Egypt in the 1870s, who included Emin Pasha (despite his name, actually a German Jew born Isaak Eduard Schnitzer), Frederick Burnaby, Rudolph Slatkin, Romolo Gessi, Mason Bey, Gaetano Casati, Linant de Bellefonds, Carlo PIaggia and others. McLynn gives us brief pen portraits of these men and their exploratorial adventures.

Kenya, of all African countries the one with the climate most congenial to Europeans, was, surprisingly, one of the last to be explored, an achievement credited to the trio of Joseph Thomson, Harry Johnston and Samuel Yeleki.

The end of exploration

The era of exploration by dashing individuals drew to an end during the 1880s and may be considered over by 1890 (p.128). It was replaced by the era of colonialism i.e. the now-surveyed and mapped areas passed into the administration of the European nations which had drawn lines on maps and defined administrative areas at Berlin. Administrative regions were consolidated into ‘nations’. The map of Africa as we know it today crystallised during the 1890s and turn of the century. In most cases it was a continual process of ongoing accretion and centralisation.

To take Nigeria as an example. Britain annexed the coast region of Lagos as a crown colony in August 1861. At the Berlin Conference in 1885, Britain’s claims to a West African sphere of influence were recognised. The next year, in 1886, Britain set up the Royal Niger Company under the leadership of Sir George Taubman Goldie, which proceeded to subjugate the independent kingdoms along the Niger River, conquering Benin in 1897 and other regional leaders in the Anglo-Aro War (1901 to 1902). In 1900, the company’s territory came under the direct control of the British government which established the Southern Nigeria Protectorate. The British then moved north to subdue the Sokoto Caliphate, which was defeated at the Battle of Kano in 1903 and the British set up the Northern Nigeria Protectorate. By 1906 all resistance to British rule had ended. On 1 January 1914 the British formally united the Southern Nigeria Protectorate and the Northern Nigeria Protectorate into the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. 46 years later, Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom on 1 October 1960.

A thumbnail sketch of how exploration passed on to patchwork colonial administration, government takeover, integration of various territories into a nation, which then fought for and gained its independence.

Bad maps

The maps are terrible. You’d have thought the people producing a book entirely about exploration would realise the importance of maps showing just what was explored, when and by who.

1. The book does contain about 14 maps but, as my vagueness implies, there is no list or index of them at the front.

2. Far worse, though, is that none of the maps have titles or numbers. So a map suddenly appears in the text but you have no idea what it’s meant to be showing. Of course, you can see it depicts a bit of Africa, but there’s no indication why, you have to deduce this from the text.

3. When I read the accounts of the first few explorers described, Daniel Houghton, Mungo Park, Joseph Ritchie, Hugh Clapperton and others, the text mentioned the African villages and towns they travelled to but none of these appeared in the map. I spent ten minutes trying in vain to find any of the placenames mentioned in these expeditions on the bloody map. There were lots of places indicated on the map but none of these appeared in the text! What?

4. Worst of all hardly any of the maps show the single most important thing you want to know, which is the routes of the actual expeditions. The first couple of maps, which show the river Niger and the region around Lake Chad appear to be there to show the first few explorations of the region in the late 1700s but there is no indication of the routes taken by the explorers named in the text. Later maps, relating to Burton and Speke or LIvingstone and Stanley, do bother to have routes marked on the maps but no title indicating whose journeys they were. In every instance a quick google of the expedition in question produced umpteen maps on the internet showing quite clearly the route you need to be able to see in order to make sense of the narrative.

The poorness of the maps is a real limitation of this book.

African words

Obviously, hundreds of languages were and are spoken across this vast continent. McLynn’s text mentions certain key words in Swahili:

  • askaris – soldiers
  • chikote – strip of hide used as a whip
  • hongo – bribes or tribute to chiefs
  • kanda – long, narrow canvas carry bag
  • karaba – a brass measure for rations
  • kitanda – litter (to carry people in)
  • madala – weights hung at each end of a pole carried over the shoulders
  • masika  – season of heavy rain
  • mukongwa – slave fork in which the slave’s head was fastened
  • pagazi – porter
  • posho – daily rice ration
  • ruga-ruga – irregular troops or mercenaries
  • tembe – camp or base
  • wangwana – ‘sons of the free’

English words

McLynn enjoys writing and is a pleasure to read. Along with his occasional boys’-own-adventure register, he sprinkles the text with recherché terms which are a pleasure to look up in a dictionary and savour.

  • febrifuge – a medicine to reduce fever
  • feculent – of or containing dirt, sediment, or waste matter
  • fuliginous – sooty, dusty
  • lacustrine – relating to or associated with lakes
  • ophiolatry – worship of snakes
  • riverine – relating to or situated on a river or riverbank; riparian
  • rugose – wrinkled or corrugated
  • thaumaturge – a worker of wonders and performer of miracles, a magician
  • the veridical – the truth

Credit

Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa by Frank McLynn was published in 1992 by Hutchinson. All references are to the 1993 Pimlico paperback edition.

Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson (revised edition 2009) (1)

Because it comes with the bright orange and white spine of the new-style Penguin histories, and because it said ‘New Edition’ on the front cover, I hadn’t quite grasped that the main body of this hefty 700-page history of Latin America was completed by 1990. The new edition is ‘new’ because it tacks a 40-page chapter at the end, summarising events in Latin America between 1990 and 2008. Obviously quite a lot of water under the bridge since 2008, so probably need to supplement this with a modern modern history of LA.

The text is divided into three big parts:

  • The Age of Empire, pages 3 to 192 (189 pages)
  • The Challenge of the Modern World, pages 195 to 310 (115 pages)
  • The Twentieth Century, pages 313 to 566 (253 pages)

Note how the section on the 20th century, plus the forty pages of the ‘new’ chapter, is as long as the first two parts put together. Here, as everywhere, the more recent the history, the more of it there is, the more people there have been (the higher the population) and the more records have been kept, until we reach the present age where every phone call, every text and every photograph anyone in the world takes is being recorded and stored. Soon we will drown in data.

The conquest of the Aztecs and Incas

Williamson dives right in with the early, legendary history of the Aztecs, when they were a group of nomads traipsing round central Mexico, before they established the largest empire in pre-Colombian America around 1400. Their only rival was the Inca Empire, down in modern-day Peru.

There is, of course, a lot to say about both, but the thing that struck me was the way both of them were empires carved out by one particular tribe or ethnic group which subjugated all their neighbours, and demanded tribute in food, precious metals and slaves (some devoted to grisly human sacrifices).

Both generated complex religious ideologies accompanied by fascinating and complex theories of time – that it moved in cycles and was marked by moments of great significance – but the bottom line was that both the Aztec ruler and the Inca emperor believed they derived their authority from the gods, and were backed up in this conviction by the class of priests and the warrior castes which surrounded and defended them.

Of course the vast majority of the population was peasants, mostly living in abject serfhood, who slaved away for their entire short, unhealthy lives, producing the surpluses which paid for the elaborate costumes and rituals and treasures passed up to their rulers. And the entire populations of conquered tribes, for both the Aztecs and Incas lived by war, and by conquering, subjugating and exploiting neighbouring peoples.

The other striking thing was their backwardness. Both Aztecs and Incas, and all the hundreds of other tribes scattered across central and south America, were illiterate. The Aztecs and Incas had no written language, just a primitive system of markers, and so the important knowledge about the stars and the gods was handed down by word of mouth, and hence the semi-divine regard for the caste of priests who, alone, knew this vital celestial information.

They didn’t have the wheel, nor beasts of burden – no horses or donkeys or camels or bullocks. Therefore they had to carry everything by hand. It is staggering to realise that the awesome Inca city of Machu Picchu was built by massive stones, carried 2,430 metres above sea level, by human power alone.

All this was doomed to come crashing to an end when the Europeans arrived. Williamson describes in detail the four successive voyages of Christopher Columbus, his first landfall in 1492, the chaotic mismanagement of the first islands he and his men settled – Hispaniola – the slow, establishment of colonies and extension of Spanish rule onto neighbouring island, and then, 27 years later, Cortez’s expedition to the mainland against the Aztecs (1519-21).

The eeriest thing about Cortes’s conquest of the Aztec Empire, and then Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Peru in 1532, is the theory that the rulers of both empires were too puzzled and confused by the invaders to respond adequately. They couldn’t believe these little gangs of a few hundred men were serious about planning to overthrow their empires of tens of thousands of warriors – but they couldn’t figure out what it was they really wanted. Williamson attributes the conquistadors’ success partly to guns and horses but shows that in both cases, the conquerors really had very few – when Pizarro finally met with the Inca emperor Atahualpa, in nothern Peru, he had a force of just 110-foot soldiers, 67 cavalry, three arquebuses and two falconets.

More decisive was the Europeans’ superior grasp of strategy, in particular realising that the empires they were encountering were themselves highly stressed, riven by faction fights or stretched by the continual need to control their subject peoples. The Spanish made alliances with enemies and groups wishing to be liberated. They were good at building coalitions.

He doesn’t say it in so many words, but the idea emerges that the Europeans triumphed because they were just more intelligent about strategy and warcraft.

The role of European diseases

Then there’s our old friend disease. As explained at length in Jared Diamond’s classic 1997 study Guns, Germs and Steel, wherever European explorers went they took with them the infectious diseases which, over thousands of years, we had built up immunity to – but which ravaged native populations which had no immunity to them.

This view is reinforced by the revisionist history of America told by Alan Taylor in American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2001). In this Taylor explains how the entire native civilisation of the Mississippi valley was wiped out by diseases, most probably smallpox, brought by a few shipwrecked Spanish sailors to the mouth of the Mississippi delta but which then spread catastrophically so that when, a century later, the first Anglo-Saxon explorers entered the region, they discovered entire cities with complex layouts, large palaces and temples and canals… all abandoned and overgrown by forest.

Indeed, Pizzaro’s job of conquering the Incas was made easier because the Incas were themselves in the middle of a bloody civil war, which was complicated by the fact that not one but two rival claimants to the throne had died from smallpox. Over the decades after the Spanish arrived, there was a catastrophic collapse in native populations caused by the invaders’ diseases. Some experts estimate as much as 90% of the native population of Mexico was killed by European disease within fifty years.

Still, Williamson is always at hand to say that in this, as in everything else, the reality on the ground, and across such vast areas as all of Mexico, Central America and Peru, were far more complex and uneven that contemporaries and many historians realise. Many many other areas of the continent remained relatively untouched and life went on in the same old way, only now you had to pay a tribute of your produce to a new boss, who wore armour and rode a horse.

The geographic limits of Spanish settlement

The book is packed with thought-provoking ideas and insights. I was fascinated to understand more about the geographic limits to the spread of Spanish rule.

When the Anglo settlers arrived in North America in the 1600s they found it relatively easy to spread out into New England and all along the Atlantic coast. But the Spanish, having established their key centres of administration in Mexico City and Lima a century earlier, with waystations and ports in the Caribbean, found it difficult to expand beyond them. Why?

North of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital which the invaders had renamed Mexico City, lies a vast area of arid desert – the territory which centuries later would become Arizona and New Mexico – where the Spanish explorers discovered nothing but impoverished villages of Indians surviving on subsistence agriculture.

Over to the east there were repeated attempts to explore the peninsula they named ‘Florida’, but the Spanish found it consisted of endless everglades with few settlements and nothing to plunder.

Heading south, the Spanish took over the coastal strip west of the Andes, conquering the Inca empire, but found the Andes mountains themselves too high to settle. Only a handful of expeditions went over the Andes to explore east. Williamson describes these expeditions, which got lost in the vast Amazon rainforests, and encountered only the most primitive tribespeople, if, indeed, they lived to tell the tale.

So, in a nutshell, central and south America were more difficult for the Spanish to settle than North America would turn out to be for the Anglos. And this explains the quite startling fact that some parts of South America – Williamson singles much of the interior of what is now called Argentina – weren’t really settled at all until the 20th century.

The other factor which limited the area of settlement was the Spaniards’ motivation. The conquistadors were adventurers, often from the very lowest parts of society. No nobles or aristocrats ventured their lives in the New World. Poor youngest sons of noble families led gangs of criminals and proles. None of them were the type of people who wanted to stake a claim and build a farmhouse and work the land – as the Anglo settlers were to do up north a hundred years later.

Instead, the Spanish wanted to exploit and loot as much wealth as they could from the New World before returning home and buying land, a house and a title. They came to loot. And here’s the important thing – you can only loot people who are already rich. The Spanish took over the two big empires, the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in Peru, because an infrastructure was already in place whereby the native emperors and the upper class exploited large numbers of peasants in a well-organised system. The Spaniards simply took over the system, co-opting the best of the agricultural produce and all the treasure and artefacts for themselves.

It is this factor – the Spanish approach to colonisation – which explains the limited and very patchy nature of Spanish settlement. In the deserts of north Mexico, and in the south of the area they named California, were only desert dwellers, scraping a subsistence living from the soil by dint of elaborate water works. Nothing to steal. In Florida, endless swamps inhabited by scattered villagers. Nothing to steal, and no ‘society’ worth taking over. Ditto the Amazon rainforests. Nothing like an organised society whose power structures and tributes they could simply appropriate.

The Spanish only settled where there were established and relatively advanced societies which they could parasite onto.

How Spain applied the Reconquista to the New World

Williamson lays out with beautiful logic and clarity just how that imperialist approach to colonisation had arisen in Spain.

It is an enormous historical coincidence that the year that Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas, 1492, just happened to be the very same year that – after nearly 800 years of war and crusade – the Spanish finally kicked the very last Muslim Moorish presence out of the south of Spain. (Muslim forces had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to seize Spanish territory way back in 711 – the fightback is traditionally dated to their first defeat by Christian forces, in 718 – and it took nearly another 800 years, of slow painstaking battles and piecemeal conquest, for native Christians, sometimes fighting alongside Christian warriors from the rest of Europe attracted by the periodic ‘crusades’ against the Muslim –  to finally expel all the Muslim chiefs, emirs and so on from the final southern enclaves.

The point of this historical background is that expelling the Muslims from Spain wasn’t achieved by a modern-style mass army, and in a few years of continuous campaigning – but by ad hoc campaigns led by local Spanish warriors and adventuring knights, which liberated bits and pieces of territory, over a very long period of time.

As and when they seized territory from the Muslims, they applied to the king to rule it. (Spain itself was a very fractured entity, with a number of different kingdoms. It was only as the Reconquista reached its conclusion that the marriage of King Ferdinand of Aragon with Queen Isabella of Castile united most of Spain’s territory to form the basis of one unified Spanish monarchy.)

Sometimes large areas of land would be conquered and the new lords were granted what were known as latifundia, originally a Roman word describing a vast agricultural estate. The new owners co-opted the existing inhabitants as serfs to work the land, but often much of the original or Muslim population had fled and so the lords had difficulty filling them with workers and had to advertise for new workers to come in.

The point is that the Reconquista established a model for settling new lands, freshly conquered from the infidel, which was then applied wholesale to the new territory discovered by Columbus and his Viceroys across the ocean, and by the conquistadors and adventurers who followed them.

The Reconquista established the pattern of the monarch granting complete control over large swathes of territory, and all the people on it to, the conqueror or adelantado who had seized it. This resulted in a handful of rich swaggering lords riding among the large population of impoverished peasants working vast areas of land. In the New World it became known as the encomienda system and the grant holders encomenderos.

In fact it was a bit more complicated than that: the native Indians remained, nominally, free subjects of the Crown, which awarded encomenderos the right to enforce labour from the natives, but not complete power of life and death over them. That was the theory, anyway.

Williamson – once he has reported the main military and political events of the conquest – moves briskly on to discuss in considerable detail, this and all the other legal and administrative measures which the Spanish implemented in their new lands.

In fact, the ‘excitement’ of the narrative of Columbus’s voyages and the initial conquests of the Aztecs and the Incas which open the text, might give the reader quite a misleading impression of the book. Williamson is much more a historian of constitutional and administrative systems than he is a chronicler of exciting battles and against-the-odds expeditions. A lot of this book is quite dry. But he develops the constitutional and legal aspects of the conquest in such detail that, to my surprise, the conflicts between the settlers, and in particular between the Viceroys appointed to govern the new provinces and the monarchy back in Spain – and between both of them and Catholic church – at moments become quite gripping.

The Crown protects the Indians 

One counter-intuitive learning is that the Spanish crown, right from the start, was concerned about protecting the rights of the native Indians, indeed became their chief protector.

As Spanish adventurers opened up new territory and conquered more and more native peoples, the monarchs became concerned to make sure they were not simply enslaved. Queen Isabella personally forbade the enslavement of the natives, and a series of ‘Laws of the Indies’ tried to stem abuses wherever they were found. Encomenderos may have enjoyed almost complete power over the populations of their vast estates, but Spanish laws commanded them to also set up schools and hospitals, to educate the Indians, protect them from wars and raids, and to enact justice. This effort continued for the rest of the 16th century, for example with the ‘New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians’ of 1547, which explicitly forbade all forms of enslaving the native population. The New Laws prompted violent opposition among the oligarchies of Spanish settlers.

The Church takes the Indians’ side

It’s also surprising to read about the broadly sympathetic line taken by the Catholic Church. The Pope and the Catholic organisations which sent cohorts of missionaries out to the New World took the line that these were people made in God’s image, like us, with souls that needed saving. Certainly, some of the first cohort of priests accompanying the conquistadors helped in the wholesale destruction of priceless documents and artefacts which they considered pagan and devilish. But within a generation, a new wave of clerics began for all kinds of reasons to take the native Indians’ side, deploring their brutal exploitation by amoral Spanish lords.

On a pragmatic note, they also realised they couldn’t convert the natives by preaching at them in Latin or Spanish, and undertaking ‘mass baptisms’ where the Indians didn’t have a clue what was going on. So a whole project was undertaken to learn more about the natives’ languages, which quickly extended into documenting their histories and beliefs. Most of what we know about native Indian religion and history derives from these records taken down by Christian missionaries.

The classic figure of this type was Bartolomé de las Casas, initially a coloniser himself, who became a Dominican friar and spent the last 50 years of his life fighting slavery and the colonial abuse of indigenous peoples. He was appointed by the Spanish crown the first ‘Protector of the Indians’, an administrative office responsible for attending to the wellbeing of the native populations, a function he enthusiastically carried out and which included speaking on their behalf in law courts and even reporting back to the King of Spain in person.

In 1550, Bartolomé participated in the Valladolid debate, in which Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (the noted Spanish Renaissance “humanist”, philosopher, theologian, and… er… proponent of colonial slavery) argued that the Indians were less than human and required Spanish masters in order to become civilized. Las Casas maintained that the Indians were fully human and that forcefully subjugating them was morally, legally, and theologically, unjustifiable. Las Casas is a hero (not a perfect hero, but by the standards of his own time a d brave and determined protector of the people.)

Williamson gives a long and detailed account of the numerous legal initiatives launched by the Crown to try and protect the Indians from exploitation, but in the end they all failed. No amount of legal or theological argumentation could avoid the fact that the Spanish remained the ruling caste with one law for them, while the Indians remained a separate caste, subject to completely different laws. Williamson calls them the Republic of the Spaniards and the Republic of the Indians.

And nothing could alter the simple fact that, on the ground, most of the laws designed to protect the Indians were ignored by the settlers, who looked after each other’s interests.

Theories of conquest and bureaucratic structures

I could have done with more about where the silver was discovered in the New World, and the technology of how it is mined and purified. We are told that mercury was vital to the purification process, but not really how or why. I had to google it to find out. He does eventually have three pages on the silver mines (two on gold-mining), but in general Williamson is light on that kind of thing, on technology, and on the diverse resources of the region.

Instead, as the book settles into its stride, you realise that Williamson is going to devote most of his energy to the legal and theological justifications of Spanish rule along with detailed descriptions of the bureaucratic structures the Spanish set up.

Thus there is a long passage explaining how the theory of monarchy evolved in Spain from its late-medieval form to the theory which underpinned the role of Philip II as head of an empire which stretched from California to Sicily. He explains the role of the Catholic Church as a vital prop to royal authority, and gives long explanations of the laws and the administrative structures set up to run the colonies.

He explains the main theories by which the Spanish justified their conquests, both to themselves and to the rest of the world (especially to their critical opponents in the Protestant world). There were two main ones:

  1. The well-established Law of Conquest, by which one ruler conquers another and is allowed to seize his land and titles, which had been worked out over long centuries of theological and legal debate during the Middle Ages.
  2. The more modern notion that the Crown of Spain had a ‘right’ to rule the Indians because the Europeans would convert the natives to Christianity and so save their souls. This was accompanied by a kind of sub-argument, which many missionaries put forward: that the New World represented an opportunity for Christianity – which had, by the early 1500s become widely associated with corruption and worldly ambition – to start again. Here, in the Garden of Eden, were a new kind of Adam and Eve, a First People uncorrupted by the Old World, and one thread of early colonisation is the devout wishes of the early missionaries to create a Christian Paradise on earth. Of course it was not to turn out that way; the secular settlers – and the terrible European diseases – made sure of that.

How the silver was squandered

Williamson does, however, clarify something which has always puzzled me, which is – if the Spanish monarchy began receiving ever-increasing amounts of silver from the New World (as the result of great silver strikes in North Mexico and Peru in the 1540s), how come Spain steadily declined in power and influence in the century and a half after the conquest?

Indeed, Williamson points out that by the death of Philip II in 1598, Spain was technically bankrupt and had experienced state bankruptcies (i.e been unable to repay its debts) in 1557, 1560, 1569, 1575, and 1596!

Where did the Spanish silver go? The answer turns out to be simple: Paying for Spain’s wars.

Even though it never accounted for more than 20 per cent of imperial revenues, silver was the fuel that drove the Spanish war machine. (p.106)

Philip II’s father had been Holy Roman Emperor and when Philip came to the throne in 1556, he inherited responsibility for territory in every continent known to Europeans – from the extensive empire in Central and South America to the newly conquered territory of the Phillippines, from the kingdom of Naples and Sicily in Italy, to the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands which began a protracted war of independence against Spanish rule in 1568. Not only this, but Philip saw himself as the defender of all Christendom in its wars against the Ottoman Turks in the East. He it was who organised ‘the Holy League’, bringing together ships from Spain, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa, the Papal States, the Duchy of Savoy and the Knights of Malta, to inflict a decisive defeat on the Ottomans at the naval Battle of Lepanto in 1567.

Philip also saw himself as the defender of Catholic orthodoxy against the shocking new Protestant heresy. Thus Philip gave large financial support to the Catholic League fighting the Protestants in France, and then went directly to war with the French King Henry IV, an intervention which secured the future of France as a Catholic country.

Last but not least, as we Brits know, Philip II built, armed, provisioned and manned an enormous armada which was designed, with the blessing of the pope, to conquer England, overthrow the Tudor dynasty and the Church of England, and impose Philip as the Catholic ruler of a Catholic Britain.

So that’s where the silver, hacked out of dangerous and unhealthy mines in the New World by Indian slaves and serfs, ended up being spent. Funding the impossible ambitions of the over-extended Spanish monarchy.

Spain went into decline because of proliferating military commitments for which it could not pay. (p.116)


Related Latin American reviews (mainly about Mexico)

American Colonies by Alan Taylor (2001)

Alan Taylor’s American Colonies is the first volume in the multi-volume Penguin History of the United States, edited by Eric Foner. It is a big-format book, with 470 densely packed pages covering the colonisation of America from the arrival of the first humans 15,000 years ago up to AD 1800. It is an extraordinarily thorough, wide-ranging, thought-provoking and exhilirating read, but which deals with some extremely grim and depressing subject matter.

Broad canvas

Most of the histories of America I’ve read start with Sir Walter Raleigh and the early English settlements of the 1580s and 90s, and then briskly run through the Anglo-Saxon settlement of the Atlantic coast in the 1600s, in a hurry to get to the War of Independence (in the 1770s) when the ‘true’ story of America begins.

Taylor’s approach couldn’t be more different. His canvas is longer and broader and much, much bigger. Longer, in that he starts with the arrival of the first humans in America some 13,000 BC. Echoing the picture painted by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel, he describes how a probably small group of hunter-gatherers in Siberia moved across what we now think of as the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska and then, as the climate improved, a) the land bridge flooded, separating America and Asia and b) the early settlers were able to move south into the huge empty continent.

Domesticable mammals

As we know from Guns, Germs and Steel, their arrival coincided with the mass extinction of all the large mammals in America – presumably through human overhunting – leaving no mammals on the continent capable of being domesticated. According to Jared Diamond this is perhaps the decisive difference between the inhabitants of Eurasia – which domesticated pigs, goats, cows and sheep and, crucially, the horse – and the inhabitants of all the other continents, which had hardly any or simply no domesticable mammals.

Animal diseases

The domesticated animals of Eurasia were important not only for their use as food, in providing skins and hides, manure to fertilise crops and the pulling power of horses and oxen – large numbers of farm animals allowed the fomenting of terrible epidemic diseases, which jumped the species barrier into humans and then spread through our densely populated towns and cities. We are the descendants of the survivors of repeated epidemics of plague, smallpox, tuberculosis and so on which devastated Asia and Europe.

Thus when the first Europeans arrived in the New World (on Columbus’s First Voyage of 1492), it wasn’t the gunpowder or steel swords or even the warriors on horseback which did for the natives – it was the diseases we brought. Again and again and again, Taylor tells harrowing stories of how our diseases – especially smallpox- devastated the populations of the West Indies, of the Aztec and Inca empires, then of the Mississippian civilisation, and then all up and down the Atlantic seaboard.

It’s only recently that historians have taken the measure of this devastating biological warfare: for a long time it was thought that the Native American population was about 1 million when the English started colonising the Atlantic coast; but now it is thought the original population, before the Spanish arrived in 1492, may have been as high as 20 million. I.e. in about a century (1490-1590) 95% of the Indian population was wiped out by European diseases.

Thus, Taylor emphasises, until recently historians thought that the Indian tribes which the European settlers encountered had inhabited their territories from time immemorial. The new ‘disease-aware’ theories suggest the exact opposite: that Europeans encountered survivors who were still reeling from the devastation of their populations by disease, which in turn had led to internecine warfare and the seizing of territory, to regrouping and realliancing (p.74). Often this occurred before the main body of European explorers arrived – after all it only took a few sailors going ashore from a Spanish ship to fill water barrels on the south coast to infect an Indian, who then took the disease back to his tribe, which passed it up along the Mississippi and to decimate the entire population.

Thus Taylor shows again and again that the social and ecological and political arrangements of the Indians which Europeans encountered, and took to be timeless, had in fact only come about because of the disruptive activities of the Europeans themselves.

The Spanish

So – number one – Taylor’s vastly broader canvas starts thousands of years before the conventional histories, in order to place the Native Americans within the fullest possible context.

It then – number two – very sensibly takes the time to give a thorough account of the Spanish conquests starting with Columbus’s first voyage of 1492. In fact, Taylor goes back before Columbus to give us enough European history to place the entire ‘Navigation Revolution’ in its full global context. The biggest single element of this was the continuing success of imperial Islam. The Turkish or Ottoman Empire finally captured Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, in 1453, and spread up into the Balkans (thus creating the hodge-podge of ethnicities and religions which has caused instability and conflict right up to the present day).

These Ottoman conquests closed off overland trade routes from Europe to India and the Spice Islands far to the East. And it was this closure of the Eastern route which gave a big financial incentive to adventurers and explorers to try and find a route west, across the seas, to the Spice Islands. As countless commentators have pointed out, it is one of the greatest ironies in history that the discovery of America was a terrible disappointment to the explorers and their royal patrons back in the capitals of Spain and Portugal and France and England. (And Taylor’s book is brutal about the terrible consequences for the native peoples everywhere the Europeans went.)

Taylor explains the economic and technological background to the Spanish conquests of Central and South America not just for their own sake, but because the Spanish also expanded up into what was later to become the USA. The Spanish colonised Florida and sent expeditions deep into what would later become California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. In doing so they established a particular pattern of landholding – vast haciendas farmed by natives turned into serfs – which would remain influential in the south-west USA for centuries, as well as bringing disease and disruption to the native peoples.

The West Indies

Taylor devotes a lot of space to the settlement of the numerous islands of the West Indies, firstly by Spain in the early 1500s. He describes how French and English pirates took to preying on the regular Spanish shipments of silver and gold from central America back to Europe via the Indies. Then how France and England set about establishing colonies of their own in this scattered archipelago of islands.

Taylor describes tells in great detail the settlement of Barbados and then of Jamaica. Several points emerge.

  1. The original settlers dropped like flies. The climate was inimical to white men, who also didn’t know – for a long time – what to farm in these places. It took some time before the invaders worked out that sugar cane was the perfect crop for the climate. Unfortunately, working cane is – as Taylor explains in detail – extremely labour-intensive.
  2. So the Europeans then proceeded to enslave and work to death as many of the native population as they could capture, waging genocidal wars with the rest, all the while spreading their fatal germs.
  3. It was when they’d worked the natives to annihilation, that the settlers began buying African slaves. The trade had existed for over a hundred years, but the Spanish and Portuguese had mainly made do with enslaving the local Indians. It was the sugar economy of the West Indies which converted the Slave Trade into an industrial concern.

The British colonies

There then follow a sequence of chapters which describe the English settlement of the Chesapeake Bay area. I learned that originally, the entire coast from the Spanish colony of Florida up to the French territories in Canada, was all known as ‘Virginia’, after the supposedly virgin queen, Elizabeth I. A familiar pattern is established. The original settlers drop like flies (mostly from water-borne diseases caused by the low tidal movement of the bay – for decades they were drinking water polluted by their own faeces). So it takes a long time for settler deaths to be outweighed by new arrivals and the colony to really take hold. The ‘indenture system’ is widespread i.e. poor whites from England sell themselves into 4 or 5 years servitude, to pay for the transatlantic crossing. After 4 or 5 years they are released, having paid their debt, and given a basic amount of land and tools to make it themselves. Initially weak in numbers and understanding of the environment, the colonists rely on trade with the Indians to get by. But as soon as they are strong and numerous enough, they start expanding their settlements, inevitably coming into conflict with the Indians who, in any case, are regularly devastated by the diseases the colonists have brought, especially smallpox.

Eventually, in Virginia the settlers discovered that tobacco is the crop of choice, hugely profitable when shipped back to Europe. But Indians refused to work in the kind of prison-camp labour the crop requires, and the flow of indentured servants dried up in the 1650s as economic conditions in England – the bad economy, overcrowding and unsettled social conditions of the British Civil Wars (1637-60) – improved. Solution: African slaves.

Slaves to the sugar plantations of the West Indies, slaves to the tobacco plantations of Virginia. Taylor describes how large planters flourished, picking off smaller planters who tended to go under in bad periods of trade fluctuation. This set the pattern for what would later be seen as the ‘Old South’ of vast plantations worked by slaves and overseen by fine white lords and ladies living in grand style, in big mansions, with countless servants to organise their lavish feasts etc. The lifestyle of Gone With The Wind. Very hard for a modern white liberal not to despise.

Taylor then goes on to describe the settlement of New England, the northern colonies settled by English Puritans – religious exiles from the old country – arriving in the 1620s. A key distinction which sticks in my mind is that, whereas the Virginia settlers were mostly single men, the Puritans came in well-organised groups of families. Those Virginian men were aggressive competitors who broadcast their success once they’d ‘made it’. The Puritans, by contrast, set up tightly organised and disciplined townships, each with local administrators based on their numerous churches and congregations, and closely monitored each others every word and action to make sure they conformed with ‘godly’ practice. In time the New England Puritans were to get a reputation for republicanism and democracy, both dirty words in the 17th century.

I knew some of this already, but it is all given in more detail, more intelligently and with more insight than I’ve ever read before. Also I hadn’t appreciated just how thoroughly New England fed into the Atlantic Economy. Put simply, New England farmers produced the staple food crops which were traded down to the West Indies sugar plantations. Ships from the West Indies and Virginia brought sugar and tobacco to Boston, where it was transferred into ships to carry it across to Bristol and Liverpool. The empty ships carried back food to the sugar and tobacco colonies. The ships which sailed east across the Atlantic emptied their goods in England, then sailed down the coast of Africa to buy slaves, before catching the Trade Winds which carried them west across the Atlantic to the West Indies and up to Virginia where they sold the slaves, and loaded up with sugar and tobacco.

I knew about the Atlantic Economy and the Slave Trade but Taylor’s book is the first I’ve ever read which explains lucidly and thoroughly the background, the climatological, environmental, social and economic forces behind the growth of this immense money-making machine.

New York and Pennsylvania

Different again was the settlement of New York, which was originally carried out by the Dutch. I knew that the Dutch had created a surprisingly far-flung empire, given the smallness of their country and population (1.5 million to England’s 5 million). And I knew that the British fought three wars (1652-4, 1665-7 and 1672-4) with the Dutch, because they loom large in the history and literature of the British Civil Wars (1637-60).

Taylor explains the fundamental reason the British were able to seize the few Dutch territories on the Atlantic coast (famously New Amsterdam, which we renamed New York after the Duke of York, Charles II’s brother and future King James II). Because a) the Dutch lacked the manpower to defend it b) it wasn’t making much money, unlike their colonies in South America, at the Cape in South Africa, and especially in the Far East.

Taylor gives a characteristically thorough account of the creation of Pennsylvania, a huge tract of land simply given to the aristocrat William Penn by Charles II in 1681 to pay off a gambling debt, and which Penn then settled in a systematic and well-organised way with members of his own non-conformist sect, the Quakers, naming its first main town Philadelphia, the city of Brotherly Love.

New France

Meanwhile, up in what would become Canada, the French had been exploring and settling the St Lawrence Waterway, the long river which penetrates at an angle deep into North America, ultimately linking up with the Great Lakes. They founded settlements at its mouth, Louisbourg, and along its length at Quebec and Montreal. In the cold north, the French could barely grow wheat let alone the hot-climate crops of tobacco or sugar. Therefore they pioneered trading with the Native Americans for furs and pelts: because of the climate and this economic model ‘New France’ was always thinly populated, mainly by hunters who worked closely with their Indian allies and often went native, marrying Indian women and adopting their ways. All the chapters about the French echo with the lamentations of the French governor or military commander, that they barely have the men or resources to hold the territory.

This is all the more puzzling since France was the largest, most powerful nation in Europe, population 20 million, compared to England’s 5 million, and the Dutch 1 million. In chapter 16 Taylor gives some reasons:

  • In France the peasantry was more rooted to the land. In England the 17th century saw a movement of ‘enclosure’ acts in which the gentry seized common land and drove the rural poor off it, creating a pool of unemployed keen to travel to find work.
  • If French peasants did want work all they had to do was walk south into Spain where there were labour shortages.
  • The English encouraged their religious dissidents (the Puritans) to emigrate to the colonies, where they turned out to be hard working and disciplined pioneers. The French banned it. French protestants – known as Huguenots – were forbidden by law from going to new France. Instead some 130,000 artisans, craftsmen and merchants fled to Switzerland, Germany, Holland and England, especially after the fool King Louis XIV in 1685 revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had previously granted them religious freedom.
  • Word came back that New France was freezing cold, with poor agricultural prospects – all true enough.
  • Finally, the ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV was determined to make France the greatest power on the Continent and so built up a massive war machine, inheriting an army of 20,000 in 1661 and growing it to 300,000 by 1710. England’s surplus population created America; France’s created an army.

The furs and pelts never covered the cost of the colony. This is the single most important fact about New France: it always needed to be subsidised by the Crown, and was a constant drain on French finances. This was even more true of ‘Louisiana’, the vast area either side of the Mississippi which the French optimistically claimed for themselves in the 17th century. In reality this boiled down to a poverty-stricken settlement at New Orleans, which suffered from disease, lack of crops, periodic flooding, hurricanes and constant harassment by local Indians (pp. 384-385).

The sole reason the French crown continued to subsidise both wretched settlements was geopolitical – to hem in and contain England’s settlements along the Atlantic coastline. As I know from reading about The Seven Years War (1756-63) the simple geography of the situation made conflict between the two empires inevitable, indeed French and Indian raids were a menace to settlers in New York state and Pennsylvania from as early as the 1690s. The surprising thing is that it took until the 1760s for the British to defeat the French, but this is the benefit of hindsight. During the later 1600s and early 1700s both sides were too weak and geographically separated to engage in proper conflict.

Indian torture and European brutality

At several places Taylor goes into detail about Indian beliefs and religion (granting, of course, that different nations and tribes often had different practices). Broadly speaking:

  • men were warriors, seeking opportunities to display their prowess, which they proved through the number of scalps i.e. the skin and hair from the top of an enemy’s head
  • in wars among themselves, the Indians sought plunder and increased hunting territory
  • the loss of warriors prompted grief but also fear of the dead which was assuaged by loud mourning and ritual feasts
  • deaths in battle prompted further ‘mourning wars’, in which they raided enemy tribes and seized prisoners
  • these prisoners were then incorporated into the tribe, replenishing its numerical and spiritual power
  • most tribes were matrilinear i.e. power descended through the female line and so the older women of the tribe decided the fate of captives: women and children were invariably adopted into the tribe and given new names; young male captives were generally tortured to death
  • death was inflicted as slowly and painfully as possible: the Iroquois tied the captive to a stake and villagers of both sexes took turns to wield knives, torches and red hot pokers to torment and burn the captive to death
  • ‘the ceremony was a contest between the skills of the torturers and the stoic endurance of the victim, who manifested his own power, and that of his people, by insulting his captors and boasting of his accomplishments in war’ (p.103)
  • once dead, the victim was dismembered, his parts put in a cooking kettle and the resulting stew served to the entire tribe to bind them together in absorbing the captive’s power
  • torture and cannibalism bound the tribe together, gave them spiritual power, hardened adolescent boys for the cruelties of war and dramatised the tribe’s contempt for outsiders

It goes without saying that the Europeans had their own grisly punishments. Accounts of the conquistadores’ behaviour to captured Aztecs and Incas are stomach-turning, and the slave-owning British invented all kinds of brutal punishments for rebellious or insubordinate slaves. What surprised me was the brutality of the French in Louisiana to their own men. I’m disgusted but not really surprised to learn that the French turned over rebel or runaway slaves to their Indian allies to be tortured or burned to death as only the Indians knew how – to deliberately inspire terror of rebellion or flight in their slaves. But the French paid their own soldiers so badly that they lived in conditions little better than the slaves – a visitor reported them lacking shirts or boots and on starvation rations – leading to repeated desertion and runaways. And if these runaway soldiers were caught, ‘the lucky died on the gallows; others died as their backs were broken on the wheel or severed by saws’ (p.387). Severed by saws!

This is why I described the book as depressing at the top. Maybe grim and hateful would be better words. The breadth of Taylor’s view, the grasp of detail, the clarity of the narrative and the incisiveness of his insights all make this a brilliant read. But the subject matter is appalling: the catalogue of suffering and violence and epidemic disease and starvation and torture and more violence call for a very strong stomach.

Summary

All of this is covered in just the first half of this long and fascinating account.

You can see how Taylor’s account restores to ‘the colonisation of America’ its full historical scope (stretching back to the very first human arrivals) and fullest geographical scope (making it abundantly clear that any telling of the story must include the economic and social colonisation by the Spanish and explain the colonisation of the West Indies a) because the Caribbean economy established the pattern of slave-worked ‘plantations’ which was to be copied on the mainland, and b) because the West Indies sugar colonies formed the lynchpin of the entire Atlantic Economy which allowed the North American colonies to flourish).

His account explains the surprising variety of types of European settlement made in American – in terms of their economies and cultures, their crops and religions – and how this variety left a legacy of diverse and conflicting social ideals to later Americans.

It explains in great detail the tragic encounter between Europeans and native peoples, with scores of examples of how initial co-operation turned sour as both sides failed to understand each other’s notions of law and rights and property, leading to violence and counter-violence, to wars large and small – and how the Indians always ended up on the losing side, partly because the whites controlled their access to guns and ammunition, but mostly because the Indians everywhere fell victim to the terrible diseases the whites didn’t even realise they’d brought with them from the Old World.

And it explains in thorough and appalling detail the scale and brutality of the transatlantic Slave Trade, explaining why it became ‘necessary’ to the one-crop economies of sugar in the West Indies and tobacco in Virginia, why the nature of these crops demanded exhausting and back-breaking labour which couldn’t be supplied by either local Indians or indentured labourers from England, but why – as a result – the white owners lived in constant fear of rebellion by blacks who came to outnumber them by as much as 9 to one and so were forced, by a bitter logic of fear, into more and more brutal discipline and punishments of slaves who ran away or organised any kind of rebellion.

His book paints an enormous canvas, full of startling and terrible revelations, which for the first time fits together every element in the story into what must become a definitive account for our times of the very troubled origins of the ‘United States’ of America.

The landing of William Penn in 1682 by J.L.G. Ferris

The landing of William Penn in 1682 by J.L.G. Ferris (1932)


Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

Other posts about American history

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (1997)

We can rephrase the question about the world’s inequalities as follows: why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents? (p.16)

The 1990s saw an explosion of popular science books and Guns, Germs and Steel was one of the classics. It won the Pulitzer Prize, sold over a million copies, was universally praised for its skilful interweaving of a wide range of specialisms – biogeography, archaeology, anthropology, molecular genetics, linguistics and more – to answer an apparently ‘simple’ question.

In his introduction Diamond calls it ‘Yali’s Question’, after a New Guinea native he knows (Diamond has spent a lifetime studying the birds of New Guinea) and who once asked him: ‘Why did you white people develop so much “cargo” and bring it to New Guinea and we black people have so little “cargo” of our own?’ where ‘cargo’ stands for the full panoply of marvellous inventions the white man brought with him.

The jokey sub-title of the book is ‘A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years’ and that summarises Diamond’s approach – which is to find the answer to Yali’s question way back before the beginning of cities, writing or agriculture were dreamed of. Not in the rise of Europe or mercantilism or sailing ships or science or gunpowder, not in writing or the birth of agriculture does Diamond seek the answer, but goes right back before all this to the end of the last Ice Age (13,000 years ago).

For this is when the human populations, scattered around the continents of the earth, all started in roughly the same state of development – as hunter-gatherer societies. Starting from this point Diamond brings together everything we know from the full range of historical and archaeological disciplines to try and clarify why some of these groups did invent all those things – agriculture, cities, writing, metal tools – while others only got as far as non-literate farming, and others remained stone-age hunter-gatherers. With the result that everyone knows, which is that from around 1500 AD the winners, the advanced nations, spread right around the world and conquered or even exterminated the latter, the losers, the undeveloped – resulting in the ongoing global inequalities we are all familiar with today. Why?

Answers

It’s a long, fact-packed and detailed book but the answers are easy to summarise, in fact Diamond does so in the introduction:

History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among people’s environments, not because of differences among peoples themselves. (p.25)

And on page 87 there is a diagram showing the full implications of this simple proposition.

Schematic overview of the chains of causation leading up to proximate factors (guns, horses, disease) enabling some peoples to conquer other peoples.

Schematic overview of the chains of causation leading to the proximate factors (guns, horses, disease) which enabled some peoples to conquer other peoples.

1. The East-West axis of Eurasia.

This vast stretch of continuous territory enjoys broadly the same climate and the same length of days. This meant that when farming (the domestication of plants and animals) was developed in one place ( Mesopotamia) it was able to spread over vast distances east and west with no significant barriers to its diffusion. Unlike in the Americas or Africa, which have a broadly north-south axis, and are littered with barriers (the Mexico desert, the Congo rainforest) which made it harder for innovations and even people to spread. And Australia completely cut off from all these developments. Thus pottery and iron smelting reached Sub-Saharan Africa’s Sahel region about 4,000 years ago but pottery only reached Africa’s southern tip about AD 1, and metallurgy hadn’t reached it at all by the time the European invaders came in 1500.

2. Plants and animals

Eurasia also happened to have a wider range of both plants and animals than the other continents. Diamond has a long chapter about the benefits of the Old World crops – wheat, oats, barley and so on – and their bigger yields, their higher protein content, compared to New World corn or African yams as staple crops.

Eurasia also has a larger number of domesticable animals. He lists the 14 ‘big’ (over 100 lbs in weight) mammals which were domesticated before the 20th century, divided into the Big Five (sheep, goats, cow, pig, horse) and the Minor Nine (Arabian camel, Bactrian camel, llama, donkey, reindeer, water buffalo, yak, Bali cattle, mithan). Of the total 14, no fewer than 13 had ancestors in Eurasia i.e. were domesticated here, while only one was available in south America (the ancestor of the llama and alpaca) and none existed in North America, Australia or sub-Saharan Africa.

3. Stratified society 

Once you’ve grasped these two fundamental advantages of Eurasia, the rest begins to cascade like an avalanche. Domesticating plants and animals leads, for the first time in human history, to food surpluses, and of types of food which can be stored over the winter or during hard times (grain, salted meat). For the first time human beings can be supported by this surplus who don’t themselves directly hunt or gather food. Hence the creation of a class of rulers who control the surplus of the community, along with other non-food-producers: a soldier class which fights wars, a priestly class which blesses those wars, and a bureaucracy which enacts the ruler’s wishes and manages everyone else.

4. Technology

Once you have people specialising in particular activities – groups and guilds and unions of people all doing the same kind of thing – you will get increasing competition between them, leading to all sorts of technical inventions and improvements, and to the eventual creation of ‘science’ – the technique of speculating, testing, experimenting and speculating again, all creating a virtuous circle of technological progress.

Diamond explains the notion of autocatalysis, a process which speeds up at a rate which increases with time because the process catalyses or facilitates itself. Thus Western invaders were not one or two or three developments ahead of the native peoples they encountered, but ahead in thousands and thousands of ways which the invaded couldn’t even comprehend. The Western arrivals were beneficiaries of an exponential curve of discovery, invention and technology.

Diamond uses the incident of Pizarro’s massacre of the Incas and capture of their emperor, Atahualpa, at Cajamarca on 16 November 1532 to enumerate the advantages the Spanish conquistadors had over the native Amerindians:

  • Horses Non-existent in Central and South America, horses were the central military technology of Eurasia from about 4,000 BC to the First World War, and had the same impact on the Mesoamericans as tanks against infantry.
  • Ocean-going ships Unheard of among the Mesoamericans, the West had developed ships over thousands of years because of…
  • Writing Diamond highlights the way the Incas didn’t know what to expect. Their scouts had said the tiny force of Spaniards (about 160 men) were disorganised and badly armed. Atahualpa expected to overawe them with his army of 80,000. He had no knowledge of travellers from across the sea, no knowledge of horses or armour or guns or steel swords, no knowledge that the Spaniards had come to conquer and plunder. Whereas the Spanish were the heirs of 3,000 years of writing, of records of history, of the rise and fall of empires, countless treatises on the art of war, maps of the sea and knowledge of winds written by previous sailors which helped them get to Inca territory, and written records of Cortes’s conquest of the Aztecs to model themselves on. The contest was not only one-sided in terms of technology and weapons, but in terms of knowledge.
  • Guns, steel, swords The Spanish had them to fight against the Aztec and Inca stone-headed clubs and woven armour with devastating results.
  • Epidemic diseases And lurking behind all these factors, was the Big One, the thing which killed more native peoples than all white men’s guns and swords and cannon put together: the Old World diseases they brought with them and which devastated native peoples completely unprepared for them in what Alfred Crosby named ‘virgin soil epidemics’. Eurasians had lived for millennia among the livestock who are vectors for diseases – chickens, pigs and rats – and been decimated by wave after wave of smallpox, plague and the rest until the survivors had built up sturdy resistance. Non-Eurasians had no defences and no medicines, and so died in their hundreds of thousands. In the centuries to come far more native peoples died of the scourge of smallpox than any other cause. And – an important point – the diseases spread faster than the conquerors. All it took was one contact on a beach and a native to return to his tribe which itself sent out foraging parties or raiders or traders and the Old World diseases could travel like wildfire inland. With the result that the conquerors often encountered cultures and societies which were already fatally weakened by disease before they even arrived. Thus, apart from the horses and steel swords, the Spanish had the simple advantage that smallpox had already ravaged the Inca empire, killing the emperor Huayna Capac and his son, and sparking a civil war between the successor Huáscar and his half-brother Atahualpa.
  • Domesticated animals and disease One is the spawning ground for the other: ‘The major killers of humanity throughout our recent history – smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles, and cholera – are infectious diseases that evolved from diseases of animals.’ (p.197) I didn’t realise that measles, tuberculosis and smallpox are all derived from illnesses of cattle.

There is a sub-explanation related to Eurasian success in domesticating animals and (unintentionally) creating epidemic diseases from them, namely:

The overkill theory

Cro-Magnon man arrived in Australia about 40,000 years ago. At more or less the same time Australia’s megafauna of giant animals (a giant flightless bird, giant lizard, giant kangaroos, a marsupial leopard, etc) went extinct. Coincidence? Not according to the overkill theory which speculates that the early human settlers hunted these large animals to extinction. And the theory can be extended to other regions where the first arrival of humans seems to have coincided with the mass extinction of the largest (tastiest) animals. For example, Siberia, settled roughly 20,000 years ago at about which time the native woolly mammoth and woolly rhino went extinct. Or the arrival of humans in North America around 12,000 years ago which coincided with the mass extinction of the large native fauna, elephants, horses, camels, giant ground sloths. The overkill theory is important because it helps explain why the native peoples of these places were at such a disadvantage compared to the Eurasians.

Thus the native peoples of these lands themselves wiped out the native larger animals which a) they might have been able to domesticate b) had they done so, close proximity to them would have given rise to infectious diseases which, over time, would have toughened their immune systems, maybe better preparing them for the arrival of Eurasian diseases, diseases which might, in turn, have devastated the Eurasian invaders. But no domesticable large animals = no diseases = defeat.

All this has been laid out in principle in the first 100 pages or so: Diamond then turns to examine each of these factors in greater detail, devoting the lion’s share to the development of agriculture (100 pages) which emerges overwhelmingly as The Main Reason for the West’s ascendency, before moving on to germs (20), writing (24), technology (26) and stratified society (28).

The final section of the book (‘Around the World in Five Chapters’) looks in closer detail at how the West’s advantages impacted – when we invaded them – on Australia and New Guinea, China, Polynesia, the Americas, and Africa.

Summary

Guns, Germs and Steel is an incredibly comprehensive, all-encompassing vision of global history which, from both its sheer scope and its novel biological perspective, not only sheds striking new light on all Western history, but achieves Diamond’s aim of placing the histories of all the other peoples of the world on the same footing, as equal inhabitants of the earth.

Countering prejudices

For Diamond is impeccably politically correct, not from ideology but from wide experience. He has worked in the Tropics and made many friends there, especially in his specialist area, New Guinea. He knows for a fact that many of the ‘natives’ are smarter than the white colonials. His entire approach sets out to undermine the possibility of racism by proving that the eventual ‘triumph’ of European societies was nothing to do with innate or genetic superiority: it was entirely driven by these external accidents of geography and biology.

Fascinating facts

The appeal of these kind of popular science blockbusters is the countless peripheral facts and stories and insights they contain. This book is packed with them. Ones which caught my eye included:

  • If we say the line of human evolution parted from the apes about 5 million years ago, then the last 3,000 years since the invention of writing i.e when we have written records of (a very small number) of our activities, represents just 0.01% of human history. We are fond of poring over this record and writing countless analyses of fragments of it – Diamond’s point is that all the really important stuff, all the events which determined the broad pattern of human history, happened well before writing was conceived.
  • Writing arose in only three centres – the Fertile Crescent, Mexico and China. All other writing derives from one of these sources. (p.236)
  • The notion of the alphabet – individual signs (letters) standing for distinct sounds (phonemes) arose only once in human history, among speakers of Semitic languages in the area from Syria to the Sinai (p.226).
  • Most biomass (living biological matter) on land is in the form of wood and leaves, most of which we cannot digest. (p.88)
  • New Guinea has by far the biggest concentration of languages in the world, with 1,000 of the total 6,000, divided into dozens of language families. Nearly half of them are spoken by groups of 500 people or less. (p.306)
  • ‘Australia is by far the driest, smallest, flattest, most infertile, climatically most unpredictable, and biologically most impoverished continent.’ (p.296)

Terrible epidemics

  • The Indian population of Hispaniola when Columbus arrived in 1492 was around 8 million; by 1535, mostly due to European disease, it was 0.
  • Measles reached Fiji via a Fijian chief returning from Australia in 1875 and killed a quarter of the population. Syphilis, gonorrhea, tuberculosis and influenza arrived at Hawaii with Captain Cook in 1779, followed by a typhoid epidemic in 1804 and numerous minor outbreaks, reducing Hawaii’s original population from around half a million to 84,000 in 1853, the year smallpox arrived and killed 10,000 of the survivors. (p.214)
  • Smallpox arrived in Mexico via one infected slave from Cuba in 1520. The resulting epidemic killed almost half of the Aztecs, including the Emperor Cuitláhuac. By 1618 Mexico’s initial population of about 20 million had fallen to 1.6 million.
  • North American Indians are now thought to have numbered about 20 million when Columbus landed. Two centuries later (c.1692) they numbered about 1 million.

TV series

The book was made into a TV series by Public Service Broadcasting in the USA.

Credit

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond was published by Jonathan Cape in 1997. All quotes and references are to the 1998 Vintage paperback edition.


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