After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 – 2000 by John Darwin (2007)

Empires exist to accumulate power on an extensive scale…
(After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 – 2000 page 483)

Why did the nations of Western Europe rise through the 18th and 19th centuries to create empires which stretched around the world, how did they manage to subjugate ancient nations like China and Japan, to turn vast India into a colonial possession, to carve up Africa between them?

How did white European cultures come to dominate not only the territories and peoples who they colonised, but to create the modern mindset – a vast mental framework which encompasses capitalist economics, science and technology and engineering, which dominates the world right down to the present day?

Why did the maritime states of Europe (Britain, France, the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese) end up either settling from scratch the relatively empty places of the world (America, Australia), or bringing all the other cultures of the world (the Ottoman Empire, Hindu India, Confucian China and Shinto Japan) under their domination?

For at least two hundred years politicians, historians, economists and all kinds of academics and theoreticians have been writing books trying to explain ‘the rise of the West’.

Some attribute it to the superiority of the Protestant religion (some explicitly said it was God’s plan). Some that it was something to do with the highly fragmented nature of Europe, full of squabbling nations vying to outdo each other, and that this rivalry spilled out into unceasing competition for trade, at first across the Atlantic, then along new routes to India and the Far East, eventually encompassing the entire globe.

Some credit the Scientific Revolution, with its proliferation of new technologies from compasses to cannons, an unprecedented explosion of discoveries and inventions. Some credit the slave trade and the enormous profits made from working to death millions and millions of African slaves which fuelled the industrial revolution and paid for the armies which subjugated India.

Lenin thought it was the unique way European capitalism had first perfected techniques to exploit the proletariat in the home countries and then applied the same techniques to subjugate less advanced nations, and that the process would inevitably lead to a global capitalist war once the whole world was colonised.

So John Darwin’s book, which sets out to answer all these questions and many more, is hardly a pioneering work; it is following an extremely well-trodden path. BUT it does so in a way which feels wonderfully new, refreshing and exciting. This is a brilliant book. If you were only going to read one book about imperialism, this is probably The One.

For at least three reasons:

1. Darwin appears to have mastered the enormous revisionist literature generated over the past thirty years or more, which rubbishes any idea of innate European superiority, which looks for far more subtle and persuasive reasons – so that reading this book means you can feel yourself reaping the benefits of hundreds of other more detailed & specific studies. He is not himself oppressively politically correct, but he is on the right side of all the modern trends in historical thought (i.e. is aware of feminist, BAME and post-colonial studies).

2. Darwin pays a lot more attention than is usual to all the other cultures which co-existed alongside Europe for so long (Islam, the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire, the Safavid Empire, the Chinese Empire, Japan, all are treated in fascinating detail and given almost as much space as Europe, more, in the earlier chapters) so that reading this book you learn an immense amount about the history of these other cultures over the same period.

3. Above all, Darwin paints a far more believable and plausible picture than the traditional legend of one smooth, consistent and inevitable ‘Rise of the West’. On the contrary, in Darwin’s version:

the passage from Tamerlane’s times to our own has been far more contested, confused and chance-ridden than the legend suggests – an obvious enough point. But [this book places] Europe (and the West) in a much larger context: amid the empire-, state- and culture-building projects of other parts of Eurasia. Only thus, it is argued, can the course, nature, scale and limits of Europe’s expansion be properly grasped, and the jumbled origins of our contemporary world become a little clearer.

‘Jumbled origins’, my God yes. And what a jumble!

Why start with Tamerlane?

Tamerlane the Eurasian conqueror died in 1405. Darwin takes his death as marking the end of an epoch, an era inaugurated by the vast wave of conquest led across central Asia by Genghis Khan starting around 1200, an era in which one ruler could, potentially, aspire to rule the entire Eurasian landmass.

When Tamerlane was born the ‘known world’ still stretched from China in the East, across central Asia, through the Middle East, along the north African shore and including Europe. Domination of all of China, central Asia, northern India, the Middle East and Europe was, at least in theory, possible, had been achieved by Genghis Khan and his successors, and was the dream which had inspired Tamerlane.

Map of the Mongol Empire created by Genghis Khan

But by the death of Tamerlane the political situation across Eurasia had changed. The growth in organisation, power and sophistication of the Ottoman Empire, the Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria, the Muslim sultanate in north India and above all the resilience of the new Ming dynasty in China, meant this kind of ‘global’ domination was no longer possible. For centuries nomadic tribes had ravaged through Eurasia (before the Mongols it had been the Turks who emerged out of Asia to seize the Middle East and found the Ottoman Dynasty). Now that era was ending.

It was no longer possible to rule the sown from the steppe (p.5)

Moreover, within a few decades of Tamerlane’s demise, Portuguese mariners had begun to explore westwards, first on a small scale colonising the Azores and Canary Islands, but with the long-term result that the Eurasian landmass would never again constitute the ‘entire world’.

What was different about European empires?

Empires are the oldest and most widespread form of government. They are by far the commonest way that human societies have organised themselves: the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, the Greek and Roman Empires, the Aztec Empire, the Inca Empire, the Mali Empire, Great Zimbabwe, the Chinese empire, the Nguyễn empire in Vietnam, the Japanese Empire, the Ottoman empire, the Mughal empire, the Russian empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, to name just a few.

Given this elementary fact about history, why do the west European empires come in for such fierce criticism these days?

Because, Darwin explains, they were qualitatively different.

  1. Because they affected far more parts of the world across far more widespread areas than ever before, and so ‘the constituency of the aggrieved’ is simply larger – much larger – than ever before.
  2. Because they were much more systematic in their rapaciousness. The worst example was surely the Belgian Empire in the Congo, European imperialism stripped of all pretence and exposed as naked greed backed up by appalling brutality. But arguably all the European empires mulcted their colonies of raw materials, treasures and of people more efficiently (brutally) than any others in history.

The result is that it is going to take some time, maybe a lot of time, for the trauma of the impact of the European empires to die down and become what Darwin calls ‘the past’ i.e. the realm of shadowy past events which we don’t think of as affecting us any more.

The imperial legacy is going to affect lots of people, in lots of post-colonial nations, for a long time to come, and they are not going to let us in the old European colonial countries forget it.

Structure

After Tamerlane is divided up into nine chapters:

  1. Orientations
  2. Eurasia and the Age of Discovery
  3. The Early Modern Equilibrium (1750s – 1800)
  4. The Eurasian Revolution (1800 – 1830)
  5. The Race Against Time (1830 – 1880)
  6. The Limits of Empire (1880 – 1914)
  7. Towards The Crisis of The World (1914 – 42)
  8. Empire Denied (1945 – 2000)
  9. Tamerlane’s Shadow

A flood of insights

It sounds like reviewer hyperbole but there really is a burst of insights on every page of this book.

It’s awe-inspiring, dazzling, how Darwin can take the elements of tremendously well-known stories (Columbus and the discovery of America, or the Portuguese finding a sea route to India, the first trading stations on the coasts of India or the unequal treaties imposed on China, or the real consequences of the American Revolution) and present them from an entirely new perspective. Again and again on every page he unveils insight after insight. For example:

American Take the fact – which I knew but had never seen stated so baldly – that the American War of Independence wasn’t about ‘liberty’, it was about land. In the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756 – 63) the British government had banned the colonists from migrating across the Appalachians into the Mississippi valley (so as to protect the Native Americans and because policing this huge area would be ruinously expensive). The colonists simply wanted to overthrow these restrictions and, as soon as the War of Independence was over (i.e. after the British gave up struggling to retain the rebel colonies in 1783), the rebels set about opening the floodgates to colonising westward.

India Victorian apologists claimed the British were able to colonise huge India relatively easily because of the superiority of British organisation and energy compared with Oriental sloth and backwardness. In actual fact, Darwin explains it was in part the opposite: it was because the Indians had a relatively advanced agrarian economy, with good routes of communication, business hubs and merchants – an open and well-organised economy, which the British just barged their way into (p.264).

(This reminds me of the case made in The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson that Cortés was able to conquer the Aztec and Pissarro the Incas, not because the Indians were backward but precisely because they were the most advanced, centralised and well organised states in Central and South America. The Spanish just installed themselves at the top of a well-ordered and effective administrative system. Against genuinely backward people, like the tribes who lived in the arid Arizona desert or the swamps of Florida or hid in the impenetrable Amazon jungle, the Spanish were helpless, because there was no one emperor to take hostage, or huge administrative bureaucracy to take over – which explains why those areas remained uncolonised for centuries.)

Cultural conservatism Until about 1830 there was still a theoretical possibility that a resurgent Ottoman or Persian empire, China or Japan, might have reorganised and repelled European colonisers. But a decisive factor which in the end prevented them was the intrinsic conservatism of these cultures. For example, both Chinese and Muslim culture venerated wisdom set down by a wise man (Mohammed, Confucius) at least a millennium earlier, and teachers, professors, civil servants were promoted insofar as they endorsed and parroted these conservative values. At key moments, when they could have adopted more forward-looking ideologies of change, all the other Eurasian cultures plumped for conservatism and sticking to the Old.

Thus, even as it dawned on both China and Japan that they needed to react to the encroachments of the Europeans in the mid-nineteenth century, both countries did so by undertaking not innovations but what they called restorations – the T’ung-chih (‘Union for Order’) restoration in China and the Meiji (‘Enlightened rule’) restoration in Japan (p.270). (Darwin’s description of the background and enactment of both these restorations is riveting.)

The Western concept of Time Darwin has a fascinating passage about how the Europeans developed a completely new theory of Time (p.208). It was the exploration of America which did this (p.209) because here Europeans encountered, traded and warred with Stone Age people who used bows and arrows and (to start with) had no horses or wheeled vehicles and had never developed anything like a technology. This led European intellectuals to reflect that maybe these people came from an earlier phase of historical development, to develop the new notion that maybe societies evolve and develop and change.

European thinkers quickly invented numerous ‘systems’ suggesting the various ‘stages of development’ which societies progressed through, from the X Age to the Y Age and then on to the Z Age – but they all agreed that the native Americans (and even more so, the Australian aborigines when they were discovered in the 1760s) represented the very earliest stages of society, and that, by contrast, Western society had evolved through all the intervening stages to reach its present state of highly evolved ‘perfection’.

Once you have created mental models like this, it is easy to categorise all the other cultures you encounter (Ottomans, Hindus, China, Japan, Siam, Annamite etc) as somewhere lower or backward on these paths or stages of development.

And being at the top of the tree, why, naturally that gave white Europeans the right to intervene, invade, conquer and administer all the other people of the world in order to ‘raise’ them to the same wonderful level of civilisation as themselves.

18th and 19th I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the way that, if you read accounts of the European empires, there is this huge difference between the rather amateurish 18th century and the fiercely efficient 19th century. Darwin explains why: in the eighteenth century there were still multiple European players in the imperial game: France was the strongest power on the continent, but she was balanced out by Prussia, Austria and also Spain and Portugal and the Dutch. France’s position as top dog in Europe was admittedly damaged by the Seven Years War but it wasn’t this, it was the Napoleonic Wars which in the end abolished the 18th century balance of power in Europe. Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as the new top dog, with a navy which could beat all-comers, which had hammered the French at the Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar, and which now ruled the waves.

The nineteenth century feels different because Britain’s world-encompassing dominance was different in kind from any empire which ever preceded it.

Africa If I have one quibble it’s that I’d like to have learned more about Africa. I take the point that his book is focused on Eurasia and the Eurasian empires (and I did learn a huge amount about Persia, the Moghul empire, China and Japan) and that all sub-Saharan Africa was cut off from Eurasia by the Sahara, but still… it feels like an omission.

And a woke reader might well object to the relative rareness of Darwin’s references to the African slave trade. He refers to it a few times, but his interest is not there; it’s in identifying exactly where Europe was like or unlike the rival empires of Eurasia, in culture and science and social organisation and economics. That’s his focus.

Russia If Africa is disappointingly absent, an unexpected emphasis is placed in each chapter on the imperial growth of Russia. I knew next to nothing about this. A quick surf on Amazon suggests that almost all the books you can get about the Russian ’empire’ are about the fall of the Romanovs and the Bolshevik Revolution and then Lenin or Stalin’s creation of a Bolshevik empire which expanded into Eastern Europe after the war. That’s to say it’s almost all about twentieth century Russia (with the exception of a crop of ad hoc biographies of Peter the Great or Catherine the Great).

So it was thrilling to read Darwin give what amounts to a sustained account and explanation of the growth of the Kingdom of Muscovy from the 1400s onwards, describing how it expanded west (against Poland, the Baltic states, Sweden), south towards the Black Sea, south-west into the Balkans – but most of all how Russian power was steadily expanded East across the vast inhospitable tundra of Siberia until Russian power reached the Pacific.

It is odd, isn’t it, bizarre, uncanny, that a nation that likes to think of itself as ‘European’ has a huge coastline on the Pacific Ocean and to this day squabbles about the ownership of small islands with Japan!

The process of Russian expansion involved just as much conquering of the ‘primitive’ tribal peoples who hunted and trapped in the huge landmass of Siberia as the conquest of, say, Canada or America, but you never read about it, do you? Can you name any of the many native tribes the Russians fought and conquered? No. Are there any books about the Settling of the East as there are thousands and thousands about the conquest of the American West? Nope. It is a historical black hole.

But Darwin’s account of the growth of the Russian Empire is not only interesting as filling in what – for me at any rate – is a big hole in my knowledge. It is also fascinating because of the role Russian expansion played again and again in the game of Eurasian Risk which his book describes. At key moments Russian pressure from the North distracted the attention of the Ottoman Empire from making more offensive thrusts into Europe (the Ottomans famously encroached right up to the walls of Vienna in 1526 and then again in 1683).

When the Russians finally achieved one of their territorial goals and seized the Crimea in 1783, as a result of the Russo-Turkish War, it had the effect, Darwin explains, of cracking the Ottoman Empire open ‘like an oyster’. For centuries the Black Sea had been an Ottoman lake and a cheaply defensible frontier. Now, at a stroke, it became a massive vulnerability which needed costly defence (p.175).

And suddenly, seeing it all from the Russian perspective, this sheds new light on the timeworn story of the decline of the Ottoman Empire which I only know about from the later 19th century and from the British perspective. For Darwin the role of Russian expansionism was vital not only in itself, but for the hemming in and attritional impact it had on the other Eurasian empires – undermining the Ottomans, making the Chinese paranoid because Russian expansion around its northern borders added to China’s sense of being encircled and endangered, a sense that contributed even more to its risk-averse policy of doubling down on its traditional cultural and political and economic traditions, and refusing to see anything of merit in the Westerners’ technology or crude diplomacy. A policy which eventually led to the Chinese empire’s complete collapse in 1911.

And of course the Russians actually went to war with imperial Japan in 1905.

Numbered lists

Darwin likes making numbered lists. There’s one on almost every page. They rarely go higher than three. Here are some examples to give a flavour of his careful, forensic and yet thrillingly insightful way of explaining things.

The 18th century geopolitical equilibrium The geopolitical revolution which ended the long equilibrium of the 18th century had three major effects:

  1. The North American interior and the new lands in the Pacific would soon become huge extensions of European territory, the ‘new Europes’.
  2. As a result of the Napoleonic war, the mercantile ‘zoning’ system which had reflected the delicate balance of power among European powers was swept away and replaced with almost complete control of the world’s oceans by the British Navy.
  3. Darwin gives a detailed description of why Mughal control of North India was disrupted by invasions by conquerors from the north, first Iran then Afghanistan, who weakened central Indian power at just the moment the British started expanding from their base in Bengal. Complex geopolitical interactions.

The so-called stagnation of the other Eurasian powers can be characterised by:

  1. In both China and the Islamic world classical, literary cultures dominated the intellectual and administrative elites – the test of intellectual acumen was fitting all new observations into the existing mindset, prizes went to those who could do so with the least disruption possible.
  2. Cultural and intellectual authority was vested in scribal elites backed up by political power, both valuing stasis.
  3. Both China and the Islamic world were profoundly indifferent and incurious about the outside world.

The knowledge revolution Compare and contrast the East’s incuriosity with the ‘West’, which underwent a cognitive and scientific revolution in which merit went to the most disruptive inventors of new theories and technologies, and where Darwin describes an almost obsessive fascination with maps. This was supercharged by Captain Cook’s three huge expeditions around the Pacific, resulting in books and maps which were widely bought and discussed, and which formed the basis of the trade routes which followed in his wake, and then the transportation of large numbers of convicts to populate Australia’s big empty spaces (about 164,000 convicts were transported to the Australian colonies between 1788 and 1868).

Traumatic impact of the Napoleonic Wars I hadn’t quite realised that the Napoleonic Wars had such a traumatising effect on the governments of the main European powers who emerged in its aftermath: Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia. Very broadly speaking there was peace between the European powers between the 1830s and 1880s. Of course there was the Crimean War (Britain, France and Turkey containing Russia’s imperial expansion), war between Austria and Prussia (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War. But all these were contained by the system, were mostly of short duration and never threatened to unravel into the kind of general conflict which ravaged Europe under Napoleon.

Thus, from the imperial point of view, the long peace had four results:

  1. The Royal Navy’s policing of all trade routes across the Atlantic and between Europe and Asia kept trade routes open throughout the era and kept costs down for everyone.
  2. The balance of power which the European powers maintained among themselves discouraged intervention in either North or South America and allowed America to develop economically as if it had no enemies – a rare occurrence for any nation in history.
  3. The post-Napoleonic balance of power in Europe encouraged everyone to tread carefully in their imperial rivalries.
  4. Geo-political stability in Europe allowed the growth across the continent of something like a European ideology. This was ‘liberalism’ – a nexus of beliefs involving the need for old-style autocratic power to be tempered by the advice of representatives of the new middle class, and the importance of that middle class in the new technologies and economics unleashed by the industrial revolution and in founding and administering the growing colonies abroad.

Emigration Emigration from Europe to the New World was a trickle in the 1830s but had become a flood by the 1850s. Between 1850 and 1880 over eight million people left Europe, mostly for America.

  1. This mass emigration relieved the Old World of its rural overcrowding and transferred people to an environment where they could be much more productive.
  2. Many of the emigrants were in fact skilled artisans. Moving to an exceptionally benign environment, a vast empty continent rich in resources, turbo-charged the American economy with the result that by the 1880s it was the largest in the world.

Fast His chapter The Race Against Time brings out a whole area, an entire concept, I’ve never come across before, which is that part of the reason European colonisation was successful was it was so fast. Not just that Western advances in military technology – the lightning advances in ships and artillery and guns – ran far ahead of anything the other empires could come up with – but that the entire package of international finance, trade routes, complex webs sending raw materials back home and re-exporting manufactured goods, the sudden flinging of railways all across the world’s landmasses, the erection of telegraphs to flash knowledge of markets, prices of goods, or political turmoil back from colonies to the European centre – all of this happened too quickly for the rival empires (Ottoman, Japan, China etc) to stand any chance of catching up.

Gold rushes This sense of leaping, hurtling speed was turbo-charged by literal gold rushes, whether in the American West in the 1840s or in South Africa where it was first gold then diamonds. Suddenly tens of thousands of white men turned up, quickly followed by townships full of traders and artisans, then the railway, the telegraph, the sheriffs with their guns – all far faster than any native American or South African cultures could hope to match or even understand.

Shallow And this leads onto another massive idea which reverberates through the rest of the book and which really changed my understanding. This is that, as the spread of empire became faster and faster, reaching a kind of hysterical speed in the so-called Scramble For Africa in the 1880s (the phrase was, apparently, coined by the London Times in 1884) it meant that there was something increasingly shallow about its rule, especially in Africa.

The Scramble for Africa

Darwin says that most radical woke historians take the quick division of Africa in the 1880s and 1890s as a kind of epitome of European imperialism, but that it was in fact the opposite, and extremely unrepresentative of the development of the European imperialisms.

The Scramble happened very quickly whereas – markedly

unlike the piecemeal conquest of Central, Southern of North America, or India, which took centuries.

The Scramble took place with almost no conflict between the European powers – in fact they agreed to partitions and drew up lines in a very equable way at the Congress of Berlin in 1885. Other colonies (from the Incas to India) were colonised because there were organised civilisations which could be co-opted, whereas a distinctive feature about Africa (‘historians broadly agree about one vital fact’ p.314) was that people were in short supply. Africa was undermanned or underpeopled. There were few organised states or kingdoms because there simply wasn’t the density of population which lends itself to trading routes, settled farmers and merchants – all the groups who can be taxed to create a king and aristocracy.

Africans hadn’t progressed to centralised states as humans had in Eurasia or central America because there weren’t enough of them. Hence the poverty and the lack of resistance which most of the conquerors encountered in most of Africa.

In fact the result of all this was that most of the European governments weren’t that keen on colonising Africa. It was going to cost a lot of money and there weren’t the obvious revenue streams that they had found in a well-established economy like India.

What drove the Scramble for Africa more than anything else was adventurers on the ground – dreamers and fantasists and ambitious army officers and business men and empire builders who kept on taking unilateral action which then pitched the home government into a quandary – deny their adventurers and pass up the opportunity to win territory to a rival, or reluctantly support them and get enmeshed in all kinds of messy responsibilities.

For example, in the mid-1880s a huge swathe of West Africa between the desert and the forest was seized by a buccaneering group of French marine officers under Commandant Louis Archinard, and their black rank and file. In a few years these adventurers brought some two million square miles into France’s empire. The government back in Paris felt compelled to back them up which meant sending out more troops, police and so on, which would cost money.

Meanwhile, modern communications had been invented, the era of mass media had arrived, and the adventuring soldiers and privateers had friends and boosters in the popular press who could be counted on to write leading articles about ‘the white man’s burden’ and the torch of civilisation and ask: ‘Isn’t the government going to defend our brave boys?’, until reluctant democratic governments were forced to cough up support. Modern-day liberals often forget that imperialism was wildly popular. It often wasn’t imperialist or rapacious governments or the ruling class which prompted conquest, but popular sentiment, jingoism, which couldn’t be ignored in modern democracies.

Darwin on every page, describes and explains the deep economic, trade and financial structures which the West put in place during the nineteenth century and which eventually underpinned an unstoppable steamroller of annexation, protectorates, short colonial wars and long-term occupation.

The Congress of Berlin

The Congress of Berlin helped to formalise the carving up of Africa, and so it has come to be thought of as evil and iniquitous, particularly by BAME and woke historians. But once again Darwin makes you stop and think when he compares the success of the congress at reaching peaceful agreements between the squabbling European powers – and what happened in 1914 over a flare-up in the Balkans.

If only Bismarck had been around in 1914 to suggest that instead of rapidly mobilising to confront each other, the powers of Europe had once again been invited for tea and cake at the Reichstag to discuss their differences like gentlemen and come to an equable agreement.

Seen from this perspective, the Berlin Congress is not so much an evil colonialist conspiracy, but an extremely successful event which avoided any wars between the European powers for nearly thirty years. Africa was going to be colonised anyway because human events have a logic of their own: the success was in doing so without sparking a European conflagration.

The Scramble for China The Scramble for China is not as well known as its African counterpart,  the competition to gain ‘treaty ports’ on the Chinese coast, impose unfair trading terms on the Chinese and so on.

As usual, though, Darwin comes at it from a much wider angle and makes one massive point I hadn’t registered before – which is that Russia very much wanted to seize the northern part of China to add to its far eastern domains; Russia really wanted to carve China up, but Britain didn’t. And if Britain, the greatest trading, economic and naval power in the world, wasn’t onside, then it wouldn’t happen. There wasn’t a genuine Scramble for China because Britain didn’t want one.

Why not? Darwin quotes a Foreign Office official simply saying, ‘We don’t want another India.’ One enormous third world country to try and administer with its hundreds of ethnic groups and parties growing more restive by the year, was quite enough.

Also, by the turn of the century, the Brits had become paranoid about Russia’s intentions to conquer Afghanistan and march into North India. If they partitioned China with Russia, that would mean policing an even longer frontier even further way against an aggressive imperialist power ready to pounce the moment our guard was down.

Summary

This is an absolutely brilliant book. I don’t think I’ve ever come across so many dazzling insights and revelations and entirely new ways of thinking about a time-worn subject in one volume.

This is the book to give anyone who’s interested not just in ‘the rise of the West’ but how the whole concept of ‘the West’ emerged, for a fascinating description not just of the European empires but of all the empires across Eurasia – Ottoman, Persian, Moghul, Chinese and Japanese – and how history – at this level – consists of the endless juggling for power of these enduring power blocs, the endless and endlessly

complex history of empire-, state- and culture-building. (p.490)

And of course it all leads up to where we are today: a resurgent Russia flexing its muscles in Ukraine and Crimea; China wielding its vast economic power and brutally oppressing its colonial subjects in Tibet and Xinkiang, while buying land, resources and influence in Africa. And both Russia and China using social media and the internet in ways we don’t yet fully understand in order to undermine the West.

And Turkey, keen as its rulers of all colours have been since the Ottoman days, to keep the Kurds down. And Iran, as its rulers have done for a thousand years, continually seeking new ways to extend its influence around the Gulf, across Syria and to the Mediterranean, in eternal rivalry with the Arab world which, in our time, means Saudi Arabia, against whom Iran is fighting a proxy war in the Yemen.

Darwin’s books really drives home the way the faces and the ideologies may change, but the fundamental geopolitical realities endure, and with them the crudeness and brutality of the tools each empire employs.

If you let ‘morality’, especially modern woke morality, interfere with your analysis of this level of geopolitics, you will understand nothing. At this level it always has and always will be about power and influence, dominating trade and ensuring raw resources, and behind it all the never-ending quest for ‘security’.

At this level, it isn’t about following narrow, English notions of morality. Getting hung up on that only gets in the way of grasping the utterly amoral forces at play everywhere in the world today, just as they’ve always been.

Darwin stands up for intelligence and insight, for careful analysis and, above all, for a realistic grasp of human nature and human society – deeply, profoundly flawed and sometimes pitiful and wretched though both routinely are. He takes an adult view. It is absolutely thrilling and a privilege to be at his side as he explains and analysis this enormous history, with such confidence, and with so many brilliant ideas and insights.


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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

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