The Bottom Line
Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830-1914 by Bruce Vandervort is a highly readable, well presented, slim, academic text. It is, at 274 pages (including 50 for notes, bibliography and index), a sweeping look at colonial conflict in Africa, but it would make an ideal classroom text on the military side of the Scramble for Africa. Vandervort's book is part of the 'new military history' discipline, looking at both the military side of things (analyzing strategy, individual battles, and the forces involved) as well as the social context within which the conflict took place.
Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830-1914 by Bruce Vandervort
Routledge, © 1998, ISBN-13: 978-1857284874
Indiana University Press, © 1999, ISBN-13: 978-0253211781
Well balanced look at social/cultural background to the conflicts as well as a military analysis.
Introduces a few important conclusions about why European conquest was successful
Emphasizes the importance of those 'on-the-spot'
Considerers the lesser European countries involved in the scramble -- Belgium, Portugal, Italy and Germany -- as well as Britain and France
Short on maps
Misses out on some significant conflicts: French in Dahomey; British in Nigeria, Kenya, and Zimbabwe, the Cape Frontier and Boer wars, and Egyptian campaign of 1882
Over reliance on secondary source material
Lacks details of African levies which served with European armies.
The first two chapters (Lords of the land: Africa on the eve of conquest and Masters of the water: the European invaders) give biographic information on European and African leaders as well as describing their strategies and tactics. Surprisingly, given the common viewpoint of colonial conquest, Africans, especially in the earlier years, were almost as well armed as their European foes. There is also a brief description of the structure of African armed forces. The chapter on European invaders stresses the importance of the predominance of African levies amongst European armies.
The next three chapters break up the era of colonial conquest into three distinct periods, prior to the scramble, the scramble itself and post scramble. There are details of some of the set battles of the time.
Chapter 3 (A shifting balance, 1830-80) includes the French in Algeria and Senegal, the British against the Ashanti in Ghana and against the Zulu in South Africa. The experience of the French in Algeria at the beginning of this era was significant in setting the tone of approach by European powers during the Scramble.
Chapter 4 (Flood tide, 1880-98) covers the French in Western Sudan, the Anglo-Egyptian campaign in the Sudan, the Belgians in the Congo, The Portuguese in Mozambique, and Italy in Ethiopia. This chapter alone accounts for one third of the book.
Chapter 5 (Ominous portents, 1898-1914) describes the increasing brutality used by both sides of colonial conflict. The chapter discusses German responses to the Herero in Namibia and Maji Maji in Tanzania, and concludes with the Italians in Libya.
The final chapter (Legacies) considers the social, political and military legacies of colonial conflict on both African and Europe. Legacies misses an opportunity to consider the effects of building European militarism and a growing awareness of African nationalism through the three periods covered. How did the competition between European countries for African real-estate feed into the pan-European conflict of the First and Second World Wars? And how did African resistance to colonial conquest feed into the nationalism of African colonies in the early twentieth century?
The book concentrates on colonial conflict and ignores those situations where African leaders relied on diplomacy, but it acknowledges that African leaders would shift their strategy from fighting to talking when it suited them. The thesis of the book is that conquest happened by military intervention rather than the actions of missionaries.
The four general conclusion of the book would be good discussion points for a class:
First is that technology was nowhere near as important, particularly in the early years, as past historians have emphasized. The 'technology gap' has proved to be one of the most steadfast myths of colonial conquest in Africa, and feeds into the suggestion that African groups submitted without too much resistance -- this became a cornerstone of Imperial histories. Vandervort does, however, acknowledge that the use of other technology, such as steamboats for river access and delivery of materiel, played a big part in European victory.
Secondly, that African levies played a much more significant part in the conflicts. This is a welcome addition to the 'them and us' viewpoint that often accompanies discussions on colonial conquest. Africans acted on both sides of the conflict, which bought tensions to colonial and post-colonial environments.
Thirdly, is the failure of African groups to unite against a common enemy. Though whether this is due to African intransigence or the 'divide and rule' strategy on the European's part is not investigated sufficiently in the book and should lead to further investigation.
The final theme is that the European 'on-the-spot' was the most important 'weapon' in the Colonial armory -- their inside knowledge of terrain, African communities and their potential response, and an influence over allegiances through trade was essential to European success. The tendency for military leaders in Africa to lean automatically towards armed conflict when dealing with the 'native issue' compared to ameliorating attitudes back in Europe is also highlighted.
Overall Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830-1914 by Bruce Vandervort is perceptive and convincing in its arguments, and offers some new insights in to the history of colonial African conflict.