In This Review

Rogue Empires: Contracts and Conmen in Europe's Scramble for Africa
Rogue Empires: Contracts and Conmen in Europe's Scramble for Africa
By Steven Press
Harvard University Press, 2017, 384 pp
Decolonization: A Short History
Decolonization: A Short History
By Jan C. Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel
Princeton University Press, 2017, 272 pp

These two first-rate books respectively examine the beginning and the end of the colonial enterprise in Africa. Press’ book details the events leading up to the Berlin conference of 1884–85, at which the European powers carved up the African continent and divided it among themselves. The book expertly steers through fairly familiar stories of interstate competition and of adventurers such as Henry Morton Stanley, whose peregrinations in the Congo River basin provided the basis for King Leopold II of Belgium’s personal claim to the vast territory. (Press also relates the less familiar tale of how Leopold first sought to establish a fiefdom in Borneo before turning to central Africa.) Press’ originality lies in adding a thorough analysis of the private companies, typically chartered or at least encouraged by European governments, that paved the way for colonization. In many instances, agents working on behalf of private firms made deals with local traditional chiefs and kings in the African interior, which later formed the basis for the legal claims to territory that European states made during the Berlin conference. 

Jansen and Osterhammel have written a concise history of the end of the colonial enterprise, analyzing the political and economic dynamics of decolonization and its implications for Africa and the Caribbean. Jansen and Osterhammel usefully distinguish between the nationalist and the anticolonial ideologies that started to emerge prior to World War II. African and Caribbean intellectuals and elites who protested against colonial rule often initially sought only limited reforms, well short of independence; an array of grievances typically competed with nationalist motivations. The emergence of a cohesive nationalist anticolonialism came only late in the struggle and remained partial in many colonies of the region. Jansen and Osterhammel nicely contrast the clear break with colonialism represented by political independence with the fuzzier continuity that has characterized economic relations between ex-colonies and their former rulers. Finally, the book shows that, although important intellectual and political movements in the colonies had long advocated a loosening of ties for a combination of ideological and pragmatic reasons, it was the Cold War competition between the West and the Soviet bloc that really made decolonization inevitable, thanks to communist opposition to colonialism and to Western fears that nationalist groups in the colonies would turn to the Soviet Union for support.