My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl (1979)

‘Is this exactly what happened?’ Sir Charles asked me.
‘Every word of it, sir, is the gospel truth,’ I lied. (p.45)

Apart from his well-known children’s novels, Dahl also wrote movie screenplays, TV scripts, and some fifty-four short stories for adults which appeared in various magazines throughout his career, the first in 1942, the last in 1988. It was these which formed the basis of the Tales of the Unexpected TV series I watched as a teenager in the 1970s.

My Uncle Oswald is his only full-length novel for adults, sort of. The fictional character of Oswald Hendryks Cornelius is described as:

‘the connoisseur, the bon vivant, the collector of spiders, scorpions and walking sticks, the lover of opera, the expert on Chinese porcelain, the seducer of women, and without much doubt, the greatest fornicator of all time.’

He first appeared in two short stories, The Visitor and Bitch, first published in Playboy magazine and published in book form in the 1974 collection Switch Bitch, which I’ve reviewed.

It’s no surprise that Uncle Oswald eventually had a novel devoted to him, indeed it’s a surprise it took so long, he is such a garish, larger-than-life and transgressively monstrous creation.

As ‘the greatest fornicator of all time’, by the age of seventeen he’s already ‘had’ some fifty English lovelies, and goes to stay in Paris, where he swives nubile French daughters (Madamoiselle Nicole), the wife of the British ambassador (Lady Makepiece) and an energetic Turkish gentlelady.

After you adjust to the bantering tone about sexual conquests and the deliberately obscene subject matter, you begin to realise that arguably the real appeal of the book is the deliberately dated and nostalgic setting. The nameless narrator claims to be quoting verbatim from scandalous Uncle Oswald’s multi-volume diaries, specifically Volume XX, written in the 1938 when Oswald was 43 years old and much of the texture of the book is filled with young Oswald’s appreciation for fine wine, gourmet meals, and very early motor cars.

Thus the opening sequence is set as long ago as 1912, during the pre-Great War imperial heyday, when a chap could still travel the world flourishing his big British passport.

1. The Sudanese Blister Beetle aphrodisiac (1912)

The first story tells how Uncle Oswald made his fortune by learning, from a disreputable relation of his, about the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world made from the ground shells of the Sudanese Blister Beetle. Inspired, he sets off himself to the Sudan where he does a deal with the head porter at his hotel to get a few bags full of the precious powder, and brings it back to Paris.

Here he is staying with friends of his posh father (William Cornelius, member of the Diplomatic Service) and sets up a little chemistry lab in the rooms he’s been allotted, and proceeds to produce home-made aphrodisiac pills which, with an eye for marketing, he describes as products of a certain Professor Yousoupoff’s secret formula (foreign names impress the gullible).

Put in summary form like this, you can see that – although the theme is supposedly pornographic, as Oswald couples with women tall and short, foreign and British – in fact the basic ideas and the childish way they’re described (‘the greatest fornicator in the world’, ‘the most powerful aphrodisiac known to man’) are closely related to his children’s books (Danny the Champion of the World, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and so is the often funny and deliberately ludicrous way he describes his umpteen couplings:

‘Were you ever a gym teacher?’ I asked her.
‘Shut up and concentrate,’ she said, rolling me around like a lump of puff pastry. (p.34)

Also played for laughs is the conceit that Oswald is subject to vivid hallucinations while he is on the job – thus the second time he swives the nubile 19-year-old daughter of his hosts in Paris, we are treated to an extended and deliberately comic comparison of the whole thing to a medieval tournament, in which he appears as a knight in armour with an unusually long, firm lance and goes about his business to the enthusiastic cheers of the crowd – ‘Thrust away, Sir Oswald! Thrust away!’ (p.27)

There is also a good deal of humour at the expense of national stereotypes, especially in the dinner he gets invited to at the British Ambassador’s residence in Paris, attended by ambassadors from Germany, Russia, Japan, Peru, Bulgaria and so on, each a lively cartoon version of their national stereotype from the short, ultra-polite Japanese to the gruff German with his thick accent. It is to this assembly of bemedalled men that Oswald first explains the nature of the powerful aphrodisiac he has discovered.

The little Mexican clapped his hands together hard and cried out, ‘That is exactly how I wish to go when I die! From too much women!’
‘From too much goats and donkeys iss more likely in Mexico,’ the German ambassador snorted. (p.43)

When we are told (a bit later on) that a sexy young woman student he embroils in his schemes is named Yasmin Howcomely (p.90) we remember that Dahl worked on two movie adaptation of Ian Fleming novels – You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the female lead of which is named Truly Scrumptious). And these connections made me see the gruff and candid German ambassador in this scene being played by the fabulous Gert Fröbe, who plays Goldfinger in the film of the same name, and the cartoon dictator, Baron Bomburst, in Chitty Chitty

Anyway, Oswald manages to enchant these rich VIPs with visions of the staying power afforded by his aphrodisiac pills and (very cannily) gives them each a free sample presented on a puff of cotton wool in a stylish little jewellery box. Soon they are coming back for more and he sells them for an outrageous amount (1,000 Francs) to the national ambassadors and, by word of mouth, to their fellow countrymen who come flocking.

So that’s how wicked Uncle Oswald made his first fortune.

2. The freezing sperm scam (1919)

The Great War comes, Oswald serves his country and ends the war as a captain with a Military Cross. He goes up to Cambridge and studies Chemistry with a brilliant if rather shabby tutor, A.R. Woresley, whose moustache is coloured yellow by his pipe.

One evening, over a fine bottle of port (Oswald who is, as you might expect, a confident connoisseur of wines and spirits) Woresley tells him a cock and bull story about how he has carried out extensive experiments and perfected a method for freezing sperm, specifically bull sperm.

This is the pretext for a grotesque story about the tutor and his brother stealing the sperm of the prize bull of his brothers neighbouring farm, by taking along an in-heat cow one night, smuggling it into the field with the bull and, as the bull gets and erection and goes to cover the cow, instead manhandling his pizzle into a fake rubber cow vagina, which then captures the bull’s ejaculate, with the tutor then getting onto his pushbike to wobble off along country lanes carrying a bag with a fake cow vagina full of bull semen back to the lab they’ve rigged up at his brother’s farm complete with liquid nitrogen to freeze the semen.

(In case it wasn’t obvious before, this story makes you realise the book is not intended as pornography, even soft pornography, but is instead a Rabelaisian satire on the whole preposterous subject of sex and its indignities and absurdities.)

Student Oswald goes home and lies in bed at night pondering the implications of his tutor’s experiment and realising… there is a fortune to be made selling the frozen semen of Great Men and Geniuses to women who want to be the mothers of the children of Great Men.

He recruits a lively young filly from Girton – the half-Persian Yasmin Howcomely mentioned above – who is sex incarnate.

The plan is for her to seduce the great and the good, writers and discoverers and scientists, with a sideline in the kings of Europe – slipping them each a dose of beetle powder, then clapping a sturdy rubber johnny over their manhoods as they attain rutting speed, in which the precious spermatazoa can be collected, before she makes her excuses and dashes back to Uncle Oswald who’ll be somewhere with the liquid nitrogen ready to pack and store the precious fluid.

What could possibly go wrong with such a hare-brained scheme?

The tutor thinks it can’t possibly work, at which point Oswald – who loves a challenge – makes Woresley his first conquest, sending Yasmin to him, getting him to sign a form for her (supposed) autograph book, and then to eat a chocolate with the fateful beetle powder in it. From his concealed position Oswald watches while stuffy, staid old Woresely is transformed into a virile stud and ravishes young Yasmin, who manages to collect a rubber johnny full of his sperm. Next day Oswald brandishes a container of the sperm and his signature in the tutor’s face. QED. Theory proved.

So they form a team and draw up a hit list of the Great Men of the age (an interesting list in itself). When it comes to the royals, Oswald reveals that he has faked introductory letters from King George V to all the crowned heads of Europe introducing Yasmin as an aristocratic lady in need of a private audience about a sensitive matter.

Imagine a particularly bawdy, not to say crude pantomime, and you have the spirit of the thing. The whole world of the arts and sciences is reviewed not in terms of achievement, but their potential spunk donations. The only snag is that the list of Great Men to be despunked includes some rather elderly ones that they worry might have a heart attack during the process.

‘Now see here, Cornelius,’ A.R. Woresley said. ‘I won’t be a party to the murder of Mr Renoir or Mr Manet. I don’t want blood on my hands.’
‘You’ll have a lot of valuable sperm on your hands and that’s all,’ I said. ‘Leave it to us.’ (p.115)

Woresley will remain Cambridge, doing his day job but also setting up the permanent sperm bank, while Oswald and Howcomely tour Europe collecting the sperm of Great Men!

So they set off on a grand tour of Europe and the first king to be milked is King Alfonso of Spain who, we discover (in this scandalous fiction at any rate), has a clockwork sofa which moves up and down and so does all the hard work for him while he remains more or less motionless ‘as befits a king’. Yasmin bounces out of the palace a few hours later with a johnny full of royal sperm and Oswald motors her back to the hotel where he’s set up a small lab to mix it with preservative, and then freeze it in liquid nitrogen.

And that sets the pattern for the following fifty or so pages. Next up is 76-year-old Renoir who is confined to a wheelchair, but still manages to deliver the goods and who leaves Yasmin in raptures about his greatness.

Followed by: Monet, Stravinsky, Picasso, Matisse, Proust (for whom Yasmin dresses like and pretends to be a boy, the seduction treated like a Whitehall farce), Nijinsky, Joyce, and then Puccini in his Italian villa – in the moonlight by the lake where Oswald prepares Yasmin by teaching her one of the maestro’s favourite arias. Thus when she starts singing it outside his window, Puccini is smitten, and swiftly has his way with her, but is charming and amusing and courteous.

Compare and contrast with Sigmund Freud, who admits this troubled young lady to his consulting rooms who promptly gives him a chocolate (laced with the aphrodisiac), the whole encounter a broad satire on Freud (who Dahl obviously despises).

And so on. It might have seemed a funny idea at the time but this litany of encounters with famous men soon pales, not least because the pattern is the same time – Yasmin introduces herself, offers them a chocolate spiked with beetle dust and precisely 9 minutes later they are stricken with untamable lust, she pops a rubber johnny over their member, then lets herself be ravished, then finds some way to extricate herself (sometimes being forced to use a hatpin to jolt the man off her) before rushing outside to hand the johnny full of Great Man sperm over to Oswald, who motors them both back to his hotel room where he mixes it with a preservative, secretes it into tooth-pick thin straws (a convenient way of dividing up the sperm), then pops these into the cabinet of liquid nitrogen.

In Berlin they harvest Albert Einstein – the only one of the victims to smell a rat – and then worthy-but-dull Thomas Mann, before returning to Cambridge to deposit the straws of frozen semen at the master vat kept by Dr Woresley. And then an English tour taking in Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle and an extended passage satirising pompous, opinionated, dray-as-dust vegetarian George Bernard Shaw.

I suppose a lot of the pleasure of the book is meant to come from a) the outrageousness of the central premise, compounded by b) satirical portraits of various great men, plus c) the comic vulgarity of the actual sexual descriptions, which often sound like a grown-up children’s story. Of the encounter with George Bernard Shaw:

‘There’s only one way when they get violent,’ Yasmin said. ‘I grabbed hold of his snozzberry and hung on to it like grim death and gave it a twist or two to make him hold still.’
‘Ow.’
‘Very effective.’
‘I’ll bet it is.’
‘You can lead them around anywhere you want like that.’
‘I’m sure.’
‘It’s like putting a twitch on a horse.’ (p.182)

In the book’s closing passages Oswald and Yasmin embark on another European tour, milking the kings of Belgium, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Denmark, Sweden but are finally brought up short with the king of Norway (the country of Dahl’s parents). For here Yasmin makes her first mistake and is merrily badmouthing the King of England and even pointing out the queen’s lovers, all on the basis that the beetle powder will kick in and transform the king when… the beetle powder kicks in on her. She has taken the wrong chocolate! She tries to jump on king Haakon and ravish him but he has his guard throw her out, where she reports all to Oswald and they decide to make a quick getaway to Sweden and so back to Cambridge.

And here the partnership falls apart. Yasmin has had enough, and who can blame her. Oswald wants to press on to America – Henry Ford, Edison, Alexander Graham Bell – but Yasmin insists on a month long break and says she’s going to stay with an uncle in Scotland.

They agree to reconvene in a month’s time and Oswald buys tickets on the Mauretania to sail to the States. Then he goes on a massive bender in London, bedding a different member of the aristocracy every night. Until a terrible day. He is dallying in the bath with a duchess who decides she’s had enough and wants to go home. Oswald is unwisely rude to her and she – having got out the bath, dried and got dressed – contrives to lean over the bath and play with his parts while secretly removing the bath plug. Result: there is a sudden tremendous suction of water and Oswald’s goolies are sucked down the hole. His screams of agony can be heard all across Mayfair! Which leads him to warn us against aristocratic women or, as he puts it in a long-cherished motto:

Ladies with titles
Will go for your vitals

It takes weeks to recover and he is still hobbling with swollen privates when he arrives back in Cambridge at old Woresley’s house to discover a note pinned to the door. They’ve scarpered! Yasmin has married Worsely! And they’ve done a bunk with all the Great Men sperm. All except Proust that is, who Yasmin didn’t take to at all.

Oswald goes mad and trashes Woresley’s house, demolishing every single piece of furniture. Then conceives his final plan. On the last page of the book he tells us how he finally made his fortune. He goes back out to Sudan and buys up the entire area where the rare Blister beetle breeds, sets up plantations with native labour and builds a refining factory in Khartoum. He establishes secret sales operations in the world’s leading cities (New York, London, Paris etc)

There is some last-minute throwaway satire on generals, for Oswald discovers that retired generals are his best sales agents. Why? Because there are retired generals in every country; they are efficient; they are unscrupulous; they are brave; they have little regard for human life; and they are not intelligent enough to cheat him.

If you add this to the page or so satirising aristocratic ladies a few pages earlier, it confirms your sense that, although the theme of the book is sex, its real purpose is to be a scattergun, blunderbus satire against all respectable values, people and institutions.

Kings, queens, aristocrats, inventors, Oxbridge dons, men and women all come in for Uncle Oswald’s robust, take-no-prisoners attitude. It is a bracing and hilarious read and like many an older satire, if the narrative structure, if the ‘plot’, feels patched together and made up as he goes along, that, too, is part of the satirical intent.

If the reader was expecting anything remotely serious or dignified or carefully planned, then the joke is on us, too.

Credit

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl was published by Michael Joseph Ltd in 1979. All references are to the 1980 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

Related review

Journeys Drawn: Illustration from the Refugee Crisis @ the House of Illustration

The ‘refugee crisis’ started to make headlines in 2015 as thousands of people fled wars in Syria, Iraq, and conflict and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

News footage of overcrowded boats coming ashore in Greece and Italy made the evening news, along with images of those who didn’t survive the trip, who drowned at sea, and then images of life in the squalid, overcrowded refugee camps which sprang up on the Mediterranean shore, as well as the so-called Jungle refugee camp in Calais.

Journeys Drawn is the first ever UK exhibition to explore the refugee crisis through illustration. It includes 40 multi-media works by 12 contemporary artists, several of whom are themselves refugees.

Illustrators have the advantage over ‘fine artists’, in that they are already used to working with stories and narratives, and most refugees’ stories are, by definition, stories about moving, about travelling, journeying – fleeing x and arriving in y.

Also, the genre of ‘illustration’ is flexible enough for illustrators to feel to treat subjects in all kinds of ways, from childlike picture-books, through stark political cartoons, to images packed with all kinds of information and detail – a kaleidoscope of approaches which ‘purer’, fine art tends to disavow.

A good example is the information-rich pictures of Olivier Kugler, who didn’t just depict the refugees he met on the Greek island of Kos (on a project funded by Médecins Sans Frontières) but created a format which can accommodate their stories through the extensive inclusion of text, especially the refugees’ own words, as well as inset images of their key objects and belongings.

As he says: ‘If you take time to view the drawing, it is like spending time with a person and their family in their tent.’

Rezan and Roca by Olivier Kugler (2015)

Rezan and Roca by Olivier Kugler (2015)

At the other extreme are the stark black-and-white images of David Foldvari. Foldvari usually does editorial work for The New York Times, Guardian and FT. He was commissioned by Save the Children to illustrate the stories of unaccompanied children at Civico Zero in Rome, a centre for refugee children. In his own words:

My main concern was to treat the subject matter in a way that was not patronising or clichéd, and to create some kind of emotional connection with the viewer without resorting to shock.

Typical of his style is this stark but deeply shaded, black-and-white image of one boy, Awet (not, in fact, his real name),which becomes even more powerful when you learn his story.

After fleeing his home in Eritrea at just 15 years old, Awet trekked to Sudan. He was smuggled with 30 others on a packed pick-up truck to Libya, but here they were kidnapped and imprisoned in a disused factory, where they were starved and tortured until their families could pay a ransom. Awet later managed to get onto a boat bound for Italy, only for it to fill with water. Rescued by the Sicilian coastguard, he found shelter at Civico Zero, two years after leaving Ethiopia. Which is where Foldvari met him.

Awet © David Foldvari

Awet © David Foldvari

I like realistic drawings, I am endlessly stimulated and excited by an artist’s magical ability to draw the world, to set down what we the rest of us only see around us, in solid lines and colours on paper – so I was immediately attracted to the documentary illustrations in pen, ink and watercolour which George Butler has made from what he’s seen in Greece, Belgrade and Syria.

As he puts it: ‘Reportage should tell a story, communicate an idea, or help someone relate to a situation.’

Of this picture, made in war-torn Syria, he says: ‘This was the first scene we saw as we came into Azaz – children playing on a burnt-out government tank. The fighting had finished here ten days earlier and would soon start again, but in the meantime the few residents left were trying to fathom what had ripped through their homes.’

Climbing frame tank by George Butler

Climbing frame tank by George Butler

There are a number of animations in the exhibition. This is Iranian artist Majid Adin’s award-winning animation set to Elton John’s song, Rocket Man.

Adin was imprisoned for his political works in Iran, before being expelled. He made his way by boat to Greece then trekked across Serbia before reaching the Jungle camp at Calais. He was smuggled to London inside a refrigerator in a lorry. In 2017 he won a global competition to create the first ever music video for Elton John’s hit Rocket Man and since then has been working as an animator in London.

Another video, by Karrie Fransman, uses a format called ‘zoom comic’ in which the picture is continually zooming in on the central image to open up the next scene. It was inspired by the testimonies of four Eritrean refugees who fled their homes to make the dangerous journey across Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya to Europe. The animation is narrated by Lula Mebrahtu, an Eritrean refugee who has found fame as a singer, songwriter and sound designer.

Kate Evans created a graphic novel, Threads from the Refugee Crisis, describing her experience of volunteering in the Calais Jungle. She published drawings from the camp within days of returning, and then went on to expand them into the book, ‘a poignant and emotive depiction of conditions in the camp, punctuated with political narrative, insightful commentary and angry responses from the public to her original blog post.’

Earlier this year Threads became the first ever graphic novel to be nominated for the Orwell Prize for Books.

Camp Sunset from threads by Kate Evans

Camp Sunset from Threads by Kate Evans

By now you should have got the idea of what the show looks and feels like.

In a way the subject matter is a bit repetitive – war, escape, camp. But visually, the artists and their works are extremely varied. I was surprised to see one set of pictures entirely in the style of Japanese manga, created by Asia Alfasi.

Alfasi grew up in Libya and moved to Glasgow at the age of seven. She now lives in Birmingham and has been working in the manga style since 2003. She aims to represent the voice of the Muslim Arab and her illustrated short stories have won several national and international manga awards.

In this wordless comic a young refugee returns to her destroyed childhood home. She is haunted by memories, but finds hope when she sees children playing among the rubble.

Childhood is hope by Asia Alfasi (2016)

Childhood is hope by Asia Alfasi (2016)

All of the illustrations in this exhibition are good, some very good. All the stories are moving, some very moving. It is, all in all, quite a shocking and upsetting exhibition.

According to Wikipedia, ongoing conflicts and refugee crises in several Asian and African countries have increased the total number of forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2014 to almost 60 million, the highest level since World War II.

Where are they all going to go?


Related links

The illustrators’ websites

Also currently on at the House of Illustration

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

The Scramble For Africa by Thomas Pakenham (1991)

In his short introduction to this long (700 pages) book, Pakenham says the Scramble for Africa bewildered contemporaries as much as it puzzles historians. Well, anyone reading Pakenham’s wonderfully readable and comprehensive chronicle of the shambolic and squalid land grab will be considerably less puzzled as a result.

This is a vast, authoritative, accessible and thrilling book. The story, or multiple interlinking stories, are told in a series of shortish chapters each of which focuses on a particular episode for a key year or so. These pieces interweave to form a mosaic which slowly covers all of Africa, all the key figures and incidents, throughout the period of the Scramble which Pakenham dates 1880-1912. Each chapter tends to start with a vivid scene or tableau depicting a key figure and then set them in their context and their challenge.

Because above all the scramble presented itself as a set of challenges and problems for statesmen, explorers and businessmen alike.

Egypt was a millstone round the British government’s neck from the moment the Suez Canal was opened in 1869. It immediately became the cheapest communication route with India and the East. Therefore any threat to the canal was a threat to the Empire. Therefore Britain must control the Egyptian government, at the risk of alienating her partner in the so-called Dual Power arrangement, France.

The Urabi revolt (1879-82) was a nationalist revolt against European rule and Turkish corruption. After the leader or Khedive, Isma’il Pasha, ran up vast debts, the French and British governments stepped in to protect the bondholders – the banks who had lent lavishly and unwisely – installed Isma’il’s son Tewfik Pasha as puppet leader, and ruled jointly. Quite apart from trying to manage Egyptian nationalist feeling, this made the British permanently worried about French actions in Egypt, a weakness Bismarck was quick to exploit.

In June 1882 unrest flared into anti-European rioting in Alexandria. The British fleet bombarded the city (destroying much of its historic seafront), Parliament voted to intervene and sent an army to the canal zone which was defeated in the battle of Kafr-el-Dawwar. On September 13, 1882 the British forces defeated ‘Urabi’s army at the Battle of Tel el-Kebir. This victory marked the de facto establishment of Egypt as a British colony (although Turkish sensibilities had to be respected) and guaranteed the enmity of the French who spent the next twenty years feeling they’d been cheated and trying to get their own back anywhere in Africa that they could.

Gladstone and the Liberals spent the next twenty years trying to extract us from Egypt while successive Conservative administrations tended to involve us deeper. This ambivalence helps explain why General Gordon, sent to relieve Khartoum and withdraw in the face of the Mahdi’s Islamic uprising, was so poorly supported that he was surrounded, starved and killed before the extremely slapdash expeditionary force could come to his aid.

South Africa was similarly a source of endless of trouble. As with Egypt it was felt the Cape colony was a vital part of the supply line to India and the East. Therefore we had to keep the Boers (the Dutch farmers who farmed the land before the British seized the colony from the Dutch in 1807) under control and this led to two disastrous wars, the small and stupid First Boer War (1880) and the big disastrous Second Boer War (1899-1902) during which we discovered just how badly organised and badly led the British Army was.

  • 1879 First Zulu War started with catastrophic defeat at Isandlwana before the British rallied and took the Zulu capital Ulundi and captured and exiled king Cetshwayo.
  • 1880-1 First Boer War With the defeat of the Zulus the Boers felt emboldened to rebel against the British annexation of the Transvaal which had been imposed in 1877. They rose from nowhere and besieged five small Brit forts. Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley gathered a force to relieve the sieges but was defeated at a number of small engagements and then crushed and killed at Majuba Hill 27 February 1881, a national humiliation. Gladstone insisted a peace treaty be agreed to end the war before it escalated. It lasted ten weeks with only three military engagements and only a few thousand participants.

How did we manage an Empire with such a shambles of an army, staggering from one national humiliation to the next?

Themes

It is a vast subject which Pakenham covers with wonderful confidence and authority, leading us by the hand from complex diplomatic negotiations in Berlin to explorers undertaking mind-boggling treks through the darkest Congo rainforest. Multiple themes run throughout the history, for example:

  • the mounting competition between the European powers
  • the sudden late entry into the Scramble by Germany
  • the variety and power of various kingdoms and empires within Africa, from the Zulus in the south-east, to the Ethiopian empire in the north across to the realms of Samori and Sultan Ahmadu on the upper Niger
  • and running beneath everything is France’s sulky inferiority complex to the British; forever seeking to restore the mythical gloire they fondly associated with Napoleon, and failing time after time, most glaringly at the Fashoda Crisis of 1898 when they rattled sabres and then were forced to ignominiously back down. Surrender monkeys indeed.

But if there is one big takehome it emerges in the last hundred pages which drastically change tone. For the first 500 pages or so we are sharing the adventures of the explorers who are penetrating unknown territory all over the continent, the first to name these mountains, this lake, discover this river. We share their boyish enthusiasm, at the same time as we watch the convoluted and often half-baked strategies of the politicians back in Europe. In a sense, this is all innocent enough, as all parties are getting to grips with new situations and challenges and the book is thrilling and entertaining in turn.

The disgusting reality of colonialism

But in the last hundred pages or so the tone darkens considerably as Pakenham shows how the now-discovered, mapped and settled colonies came to be exploited by their European masters. Almost without exception it is a story of the rankest greed enforced by disgusting levels of violence against the native Africans.

I knew about the notorious Belgian Congo where upwards of 8 million Africans were exterminated in vast and systematic forced labour to deliver the area’s rubber back to a greedy Europe.

I didn’t realise the French carried out pretty much the same forced labour-virulent punishment-murder, rape, mass killing and burning and shooting policy in French Congo, a policy exposed by the heart-broken French explorer Brazza (who gives his name to Brazzaville) who had opened up the area for his nation in the heroic 1880s and told the Africans they could trust to the civilisation and justice of the French. How his legacy was defiled.

I’d forgotten about the deliberate policies of extermination carried out by the German Reich in south west and east Africa. As many as 300,000 Africans died in the famine engineered by the Germans to bring them to heel in the east. In the south-west about three quarters of the original 80,000 inhabitants were killed.

And of course, despite what do appear to be generally higher standards and more humane intentions, we British went and ruined our reputation by creating concentration camps during the ruinous Second Boer War, the one in which some 28,000 Boer women and children died from preventable diseases, due entirely to our incompetence and the indifference of the military leadership, namely Kitchener.

Delusory El Dorados

For another theme which runs like a delusory thread of precious metal through the book is the way that, in the early years of exploration (1870s and 80s) explorer after explorer gouged money out of their nations’ exchequers or from commercial companies with visions of great El Dorados in the interior, lands larded with undreamt-of riches in diamonds, gold, copper, or natural resources of rubber and teak, or the richest farmland in the world.

The sorry reality was all too often barren drought-plagued veld, or impenetrable jungle home only to catastrophic diseases – or to natural resources so thinly spread (like the rubber in the Congo) that only systematic forced labour ie production with almost no overheads, could turn a profit. Most of the countries involved made a loss on their colonies. Only enforced slave labour stood a chance of ‘making money’ for a tiny white elite of colonists and their parent companies.

Given that their economic survival depended on keeping the natives in virtual slavery, and their cultural survival depended on enforcing the strongest possible punishments/reprisals against native populations which vastly outnumbered the white settlers, it is no surprise that in colony after colony, all the brave talk about white man’s civilisation and justice and religion turned out to hypocritical garbage.

Greater or lesser Kurtzes emerged everywhere, quick to take advantage of the all the forces which made it possible and even necessary to treat the natives like animals. It is a miracle the European colonies staggered on for the 50 or so years after the Scramble was more or less complete in 1912.

Some of the chaps involved in the Scramble for Africa

1 National leaders

Otto von Bismarck Prussian Chancellor, during the first part of his career he focused on uniting the Germanic states into the new nation of Germany (achieved in 1871) and despised colonial adventures. In 1884 he suddenly reversed his position partly due to changes in public opinion, pressure from merchants, and to undercut anti-colonial liberals allied with the the heir to the throne. Eventually Germany owned Togoland (now Togo and part of Ghana), German Kamerun (now Cameroon and part of Nigeria), German East Africa (now Rwanda, Burundi, and the mainland part of Tanzania), German South-West Africa (now Namibia).

Bismarck convened the Berlin Conference (1885) which established rules for the acquisition of African colonies, in particular, protecting free trade in certain parts of the Congo basin. He was suddenly dismissed in 1890 by the young Kaiser Wilhelm II who went on to rule the German Reich with increasingly unpredictably, but who gave fulsome support to his genocidal administrators.

Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg (1815 – 1898)

Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg (1815 – 1898)

William Ewart Gladstone, prime minister 1880-85, 1886, 1892-4, high-minded leader of the Liberal party, a fierce opponent of colonialism and empire who nonetheless kept finding himself dragged into imperial adventures or calamities and thus despised as a highminded hypocrite by his enemies. He ordered the First Boer War to be concluded with a peace treaty conceding the Boers the self-government they wanted, was blamed for failing to rescue Gordon in 1885, oversaw Britain’s exploration of East Africa inland of Zanzibar and West Africa up the Niger river.

Gladstone

Jules Ferry (1832-93) premiere of France 1880-1 and 1883-85. After France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Ferry conceived the idea of acquiring a great colonial empire for economic exploitation. In a speech before the Chamber of Deputies on 28 July 1885, he declared that ‘it is a right for the superior races, because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilize the inferior races.’ Ferry supervised the conquest of Tunis in 1881 – a shameful fiasco whereby the native ruler was tricked into acquiescing in his own overthrow – he prepared the treaty of 17 December 1885 for the occupation of Madagascar; directed the exploration of the Congo and of the Niger region; and organized the conquest of Annam and Tonkin in what became Indochina. Algeria. Vietnam. Just two countries whose names testify to France’s excellent colonial skills.

Jules Ferry, Prime Minister of France

Jules Ferry, Prime Minister of France

Lord Salisbury Conservative Prime Minister during the defining era of high imperialism – 1885-6, 1886-92, 1895-1902. Prime Minister and his own Foreign Secretary, the relatively unknown Salisbury comes over as a cautious, sane and sensible guider of Britain’s destiny during a time of increasing international rivalry and tension who managed to defuse the Fashoda Crisis (1898) but was outflanked by Milner and the South African gold bugs who bear the responsibility for starting the ruinous Second Boer War (1899-1902).

Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury

Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury

King Leopold of Belgium king from 1865 to 1909, his name is forever associated with what is now referred to as the genocide in the Belgian Congo where anything between 6 million and 10 million native Africans died in his system of merciless forced labour designed to extract as much rubber ( along with some ivory, teak etc) from a rainforest the size of Europe. All masquerading under a sham pretext of selfless philanthropy and civilisation. Possibly the greatest hypocrite in the entire history of European imperialism.

Leopold II of Belgium

Leopold II of Belgium

2 Soldiers and explorers

David Livingstone (1813-73) the Scottish missionary, despite his poor leadership and ultimate failure to estalish Christianity anywhere, through his writings and example of ceaseless exploration of the unknown centre of the continent, Livingstone created a swell of popular opinion against the slave trade in central Africa, and established the premise that slavery could only be abolished by a combination of the three Cs – Christian missionising and Commerce which would lead to Civilisation. He died a generation before it became clear, in the early 1900s, that it led to exactly the opposite.

David Livingstone (1813-73)

David Livingstone (1813-73)

Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) an illegitimate child abandoned by his mother who spent most of his youth in workhouses where he was probably abused before making  his way to America where he was adopted by a wealthy trader named Stanley whose name he took, before getting embroiled in the American Civil War and taking to record keeping on a Union Navy ship which led to journalism. He undertook trips to Persia and India, on the basis of which he was retained by the New York Herald whose owner he persuaded to let him undertake an expedition to find the missionary Livingstone who hadn’t been heard of for some years and who he found in Ujiji near Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania in 1871. ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume.’ 

The unlikely pair explored together before Stanley returned to publish articles then a book. On the back of this he was commissioned by the New York Herald in 1874 to solve one of the great geographic mysteries of the age, the route of the river Congo. It took 999 days to follow it from source to sea and he lost 240 bearers and natives along the way. He was employed from 1876 by Leopold of Belgium in building the road and railway and making treaties with natives along the Congo, before a series of further adventures climaxed in the epic and ultimately absurd expedition to rescue the last of Gordon’s emissaries in the Sudan, Emin Pasha. There’s been a recent, comprehensive biography by Tim Jeal: Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer

Henry Morton Stanley

Henry Morton Stanley

Major-General Charles George Gordon of Khartoum (1833-85) after service in the Crimean War, Gordon commanded a force of Chinese soldiers which helped to put down the Taipeng rebellion, earning the thanks of the Chinese emperor and the nickname ‘Chinese Gordon’. He entered the service of the Egyptian Khedive in 1873 and later became the Governor-General of the Sudan, where he did much to suppress revolts and the slave trade. Exhausted, he resigned and returned to Europe in 1880.

When the Mahdi’s Islamic revolt broke out in the Sudan Gordon was despatched to evacuate the 2,500 Europeans from Khartoum and return. He did the first part but stayed on in Khartoum with local troops, holding out against a sporadic siege for a year, earning fame back in Blighty. Reluctantly the Liberal government sent reinforcements which proceeded with criminal slowness up the Nile and arrived two days after Khartoum had fallen and Gordon been murdered. It was 13 years before a large British army returned under Herbert Kitchener, recaptured Khartoum and laid Gordon’s ghost.

Gordon of Khartoum

Gordon of Khartoum

Sir John Kirk (1832-1922) served as consul to the Sultan of Zanzibar for decades and managed to persuade him to ban slavery in his domains, a major achievement for which he is given much credit in a recent book about him: The Last Slave Market: Dr John Kirk and the Struggle to End the East African Slave Trade. While the Belgians and French employed enforced labour on a vast scale in the Congo, and the Germans actively sought ethnic extermination in Namibia and Tanzania, it really does seem that at least some elements of the British regime sought and achieved the liberation of the Africans under their rule.

Africans

King Cetshwayo (1826 – 1884) is remembered as the last king of an independent Zulu nation. In 1878, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, British Commissioner for South Africa, began to demand reparations for border infractions by traditionally independent Zululand into neighbouring colonial Natal. Cetshwayo kept his calm until Frere demanded the king effectively disband his army. His refusal led to the Zulu War in 1879. After initial victories, including the famous massacre at Isandlwana, the British recovered to defeat the Zulu armies before capturing and burning the Zulu capital of Ulundi 4 July 1879. Cetshwayo was deposed and exiled, first to Cape Town, then to London.

Cetshwayo kaMpande (1826 – 1884) King of the Zulus

Cetshwayo kaMpande (1826 – 1884) King of the Zulus

Emperor Menelik II (1844 – 1913) emperor of Ethiopia from 1889 to his death. The history of the Ethiopian empire is complex, involving power struggles with neighbouring tribes and rival kings, as well as the Mahdist forces in the Sudan and the encroaching European powers. In summary – Menelik gathered the forces which annihilated an Italian army at the Battle of Adowa (1 March 1896) and as a result the borders of Abyssinia/Ethiopia were guaranteed and the country continued as an independent state until the Italian invasion under Mussolini in the 1930s.

Emperor Menelik II

Emperor Menelik II

 Related links

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