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Book Review February 24, 2006
 
Whitewash on the Dark Continent
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
 

"The State of Africa A History of Fifty Years of Independence"-by Martin Meredith London 2005

You Russians will instantly recognize the thesis of Martin Meredith's book. It's simple: turns out Africa's problems are the fault of:the Africans. Just like all Russia's problems in the late 1990s turned out to be all your own fault, after you had the effrontery not to transform yourselves into Republicans as quickly as Yeltsin's imported con men and thieves, exemplified by that erudite thief and con man Anders Aslund, had exhorted you to do.

Now Meredith performs the same service for Westerners who might feel a wee little twinge of conscience about their role in the mess that is Africa. That's not surprising. What does surprise me is how crudely it is done, and how successful sheer crude whitewashes seem to be these days.

Meredith's most powerful trick is so obvious I can't believe no mainstream reviewer has noticed it. He rigs the game by starting the story of each African country's fall into chaos at the moment of "independence"--that is, the day when the colonial occupier decided to dump a particular swath of African land it had been exploiting over several generations.

This is like starting the biography of a woman who's been gangraped and shot as she lies in Intensive Care, her vital signs fading. Clearly, she just didn't have the will to live. Nobody's fault but hers.

Of course, Meredith realizes he can't entirely airbrush the fact of colonialism. Too many people have at least a vague idea that some not-quite-cricket deeds were done by Victoria's darlings, those brave, sunburnt pederasts in pith helmets who "explored" Africa via enslavement, expropriation and massacre.

So Meredith does what any smart propagandist would do: he compresses that long nightmare story of multiple genocides, mass rape, slave raids and degradation into a 14-page "Introduction." Like all Introductions, this one doesn't actually have "Don't Read This Bit" stamped on it, but may as well have. By consigning Europe's 500-year-long Sadean idyll in Africa to this glorified footnote, Meredith has done enough to satisfy gullible provincials eager to be told that their smug wealth has nothing to do with African misery. It doesn't take much to convince a Tory audience that they have nothing to apologize for.

That's been all too clear lately. Meredith's book is only the latest in a stunning series of simplistic Tory gloats. Meredith is a squeamish moderate compared to outright neo-Imperialists like David Gilmour, whose bestseller The Ruling Caste aims to show us that the Brit functionaries who whipped India into shape back in the day were actually a swell bunch of guys. I can only quote this summary of Gilmour's booklength commercial for the Raj, as perceived by the permanently clueless reviewers at Publishers Weekly:

"Gilmour's deftly organized, encyclopedic account of the day-to-day existence of the members of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) upends the view of the British rulers as tyrannical, racist philistines, an image born out of such works as E.M. Forster's A Passage to India and advanced strenuously since postcolonial studies emerged in the 1970s. Gilmour, author of highly regarded biographies of Rudyard Kipling and Lord Curzon, assembles a wealth of light, amusing anecdotes on an astounding range of topics concerning the members of the ICS, including their college days, bad habits, job duties, gripes about the weather and courtship practices. Though lacking in analysis, the sympathetic general portrait gives a good insider's view of how these men fared in an unfamiliar and sometimes dangerous region. A firm understanding of the British mindset and playful characterizations of its idiosyncrasies provide entertainment and insight, but, lacking a central thread or thesis, the book often feels inessential."

With reviewers as hopelessly dense and gullible as the idiot who wrote this, it's no wonder the Tories are getting bolder with every new publishing cycle. It doesn't occur to the reviewer that a man whose previous works were biographies of Kipling and Lord Curzon might have a bit of an ideological bias in favor of colonialism. And even though this anonymous cretin manages to grasp that Gilmour is putting together "sympathetic" anecdotes, showing these bipedal tapeworms at work and play, he or she or it can't even imagine there might be an agenda here.

So s/he concludes by accusing Gilmour of the one crime of which this sort of author is never guilty: lacking a thesis. Yeah, that was the problem with Triumph of the Will: no thesis.

If Publishers Weekly represents the mean intelligence of Western non-fiction readers, I'm surprised that propagandists like Meredith even bother with these G-string "Introductions." You're overestimating your audience, Meredith! Just start the book, "Africa emerged from the ocean, fully formed, in 1961, as a crowd of European well-wishers looked on, flinging wreaths inscribed "Best Wishes!" onto the waves."

When Meredith does concede that the European colonizers might have done a few icky things here and there, he is careful to focus on nasty Continentals like the French or Belgians, carefully protecting England from the least hint of blame. His one exception is, not surprisingly, the Boer War, one of the few British atrocities to get a fair bit of publicity thanks to the fact that the victims were white Europeans. He spits up an entire paragraph to the Empire's use of concentration camps to reduce the population of troublesome Boers--but carefully omits any discussion of the sleazy origins of the war in the discovery of gold and diamonds on the formerly worthless land to which the Brits had been willing to allow the Boers to flee.

Every stat, every adjective in the book is stacked not only against the Africans but against Britain's rival colonial powers. In a very quick, forced account of European land grabs, he mentions that "French claims [in Africa] extended over about 3.75 million square miles, those of Britain about 2 million square miles."

True enough:but he neglects to add that the overwhelming majority of French territory in Africa consisted of the Sahara. Britain allowed the French to claim huge chunks of desert because it was worthless. The Union Jack flew over every part of Africa that a nineteenth-century Great Power would have considered worth having, from Suez to Cape Town.

Thus, as Meredith moves from country to country, one sees a very clear pattern: when he bothers with a longer view of history, one that actually touches on the wrongs of colonialism, it's always when he's dealing with a former colony of France, Portugal, or Belgium, those nasty Papist countries. So Leopold comes in for vilification--as he damn well should-in Meredith's account of what went wrong with Congo, but when it comes to British territories like Nigeria, the long view disappears and this shameless apologist for the Raj tells the story of Nigeria's slide to corruption and dictatorship as if it started at the moment of independence.

That's why his account of the Biafra War is strikingly lacking in any sympathy for the Igbo: because Britain backed the murderous, cowardly and corrupt Nigerian leadership against the rebels. It really is that simple, and that vile.

I get tired of saying this, and I'm sure many readers are far more tired of hearing me say it. But somebody has to, and at the moment the publishing world seems to consist solely of credulous American reviewers and Tory liars working day and night to convince them that the Empire was the best thing that every happened to Wog-dom, and the whole 20th-century "independence" guff nothing but flim-flam.

You don't need to learn world history from scratch to discover what a sickening list of atrocities this Big Lie is meant to cover. Just pick a country, any country, and study its history through the 19th century. So vast and cruel was the Raj in that century that no matter what country you choose, you'll learn enough to be unable to read books like Meredith's without retching. If you want a tip, I'd say you could start with the Opium Wars. Or the British conquest of Burma. But you'd do just as well throwing a dart at a world map, because although they like to pretend they were just Eric-Idle types, harmless twits, the truth is that the Imperial Brits were by far the most effectual predators in the history of the planet.

One reason they did so well is that they had a talent for storytelling. And now, having had to make a tactical withdrawal from the hot countries, they're taking care of business by moving from the Eric-Idle cover story to a more assertive one: the Empire wasn't just harmless, it was wonderful. Why, just look at how those African countries collapsed when we left!

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the entire content of this 750-page book. Africa was just dandy at the moment the Colonialists departed, and now look at it! Fifty years of independence and the place is a mess!

Of course, that last clause is true enough; Africa is a fearful mess, no doubt. But it's disingenuous at best to pretend that its problems began when the rapists shot their loads and left, sniggering. In fact, "disingenuous" my ass. It's a filthy, calculated lie designed to exonerate the Empires who perpetrated the most protracted and cruel exploitation of conquered peoples in history.

What makes me dizzy and sick is the fact that Meredith seems to be a sane, intelligent man. Like many Tory pop historians, he knows how to tell a good story and has a cooler, more droll eye for grotesque detail than his sanctimonious American counterparts. That tang of honesty makes the book a quick, entertaining read. But this amounts to assembling many small truths in the service of a huge, contemptible lie. How can you DO this, Mister Meredith? How can you sleep after writing filth like this book? Don't you have any decency at all?

Note: This book is being marketed under two rhyming titles, The State of Africa and The Fate of Africa. I read the hardcover version, titled The State of Africa:; the paperback version has been re-titled The Fate of Africa:, probably because "State" isn't melodramatic enough to suit Oprah's fans. As far as I can tell (having compared the "Table of Contents" of the two titles), the books are identical.

John Dolan is the author of Pleasant Hell published by Capricorn Publishing. Buy it on amazon.com or risk being called "the healty and successful type."

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