Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Africa: a Biography of the Continent
© 1997  John Reader
816 pages

And we are scatterlings of Africa, both you and I 
We’re on the road to Phelemanga, beneath a copper sky;
And we are scatterlings of Africa, on a journey to the stars
Far below we leave forever
Dreams of what we where.

For whatever reason, Africa has long maintained a hold over my imagination as a vast land abundant in natural spectacles, and as humanity’s first home with ancient secrets yet to be revealed. I have read a little about it, although not in the course of doing this blog, and intend to read still more. John Reader’s Africa appeared to be an appropriate jumping-off point for further studies,

One of my history professors always devoted the first week of classes to establishing extensive background for that particular class’s topic, and he liked to joke that we were going back “to the cooling of the mantle”. Reader does this literally, beginning the story of Africa with the formation of the great plates that make up the Earth’s crust. From there he covers the evolution of life, of the primates, and finally of humanity, making the transition from natural history to human history a quarter of the way in.

Reader focuses on sub-Saharan Africa, ignoring Africa's Mediterranean coast after the fall of ancient Egypt and Arabian expansion. Given the scope of his book, Africa takes a general approach. Reader examines the rise of African city-states and civilizations based on economic considerations: in "Cities without Citadels",  those polities that thrived on their ironmongery are the stars, later replaced by the cattle-based cultures and still later by those that thrived on the European slave trade. Reader portrays sub-Saharan Africa as a harsh land with unreliable weather and only marginally-useful soil: that humanity  has survived there at all is a tribute not to natural bounty, but to human resilience.

Reader gives significant coverage to Europe's influence on Africa, which is generally negative:  initially European demand for gold shapes the slave trader, and still later European wars become African wars once colonial expansion takes off. The modern era gets short shrift, although a few independence movements (South Africa, particularly) receive special attention.

Reader's work is certainly expansive and does justice to his overall aim, which is to clear away myths surrounding the continent and its people. It's left me particularly intrigued by the various effects of European exploration and colonization on the various polities below the Sahara.

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