Africa, A Biography of the Continent

The themes of this exceptionally ambitious book are very big. John Reader has written a history of Africa, our second largest continent, close to a quarter of the Earth's entire land surface. Straddling the Equator, Africa's northern limits are the Mediterranean's southern shores; and there is nothing but sea between its southern-most extremity and the Antarctic.

Africa is not just huge; in terms of the history of our species, it is also very old. Most geneticists now agree that the roots of all humankind lie on that continent; it follows that its human history is spectacularly longer than that of Eurasia or the Americas. As it is a continent of immensely varied ecological regions, it also boasts innumerable, contrasting histories of cultures, economies and polities. So a review of its history from the cooling of the planet to the election of Nelson Mandela as the President of the new South Africa is a major undertaking.

The author is at his best in the first 200 pages. He has previously written on the origins of man and his laying out of the physical history of Africa, the domain of all of our ancestors, is exciting, most engagingly and accessibly written. This is, after all, the history of millennia and his judgement in reserving the best part of a quarter of the book to what used to be called 'pre-history' is entirely justified and original. The book is, however, less satisfactory when history rather than pre-history comes to dominate the narrative.

The reasons for this are relatively simple. Firstly the scale of the task he has set himself is overwhelming. Although his 44 page bibliography is impressive and intimidating, the author is obviously much more at home with the literature he knows best such as the material on early man and the history of southern Africa. On other themes, his endnotes sometimes suggest reliance on dated authorities and general works rather than recent research; sometimes, as with the clumsy analysis of ethnicity and the multiple meanings of 'tradition', the endnotes signal confusion.

Secondly, the immensity of the subject demands that the author provides his reader with some finger-posts such as acute, consistent periodisation and regionalisation; these are not apparent. The author argues that he seeks to explain 'process' and thus 'frees the narrative from the tyranny of time and place'. (p.xxiii) However tyrannical it might seem, historical change is notoriously hard to understand without the evolving context of time and place. Because of this, the resulting narrative tends to be choppy and anecdotal rather than providing exponential enlightenment. His approach, in turn, over-emphasises some elements in this continental biography, such as the longer-term significance of South Africa or Rwanda, and under-plays matters of importance like intellectual or art history and, even more importantly, African understandings of the past.

This is, however, a passionate book, written from the heart by someone who clearly regards most accounts of the African past as condescending at best and dismissive at worst. His sympathetic regard for Africa is apparent throughout; but the need to redress negative accounts of the African past has informed virtually every general history of Africa written since the early 1960s. The paperback edition of John Iliffe's The Africans; the History of a Continent (Cambridge University Press, 1995) is a much more reliable, internally consistent, shorter and cheaper general history even if it lacks John Reader's exceptionally good black and white photographs.

About the Author

Richard Rathbone is the author of Ghana: British Documents on the End of Empire(Longman, 1993).

Africa, A Biography of the Continent

Hamish Hamilton,
xxiv + 840 pp. £30. ISBN: 0 241 13047 6

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