In the late nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, nothing reshaped the world more than European imperialism. It redrew the map, enriched Europe, and left millions of Africans and Asians dead. For example, in 1870, some 80 percent of Africa south of the Sahara was under the control of indigenous kings, chiefs, or other such rulers. Within 35 years, virtually the entire continent, only a few patches excepted, was made up of European colonies or protectorates. France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom had all seized pieces of “this magnificent African cake,” in the words of King Leopold II of Belgium—who took an enormous slice for himself.
In Asia in these same years, the British tightened their grip on the Indian subcontinent, the French on Indochina, and the Dutch on what today is Indonesia. Japan, Russia, and half a dozen European countries, even the tottering Austro-Hungarian Empire, won enclaves or concessions in China. Meanwhile, the United States fought a ruthless war in the Philippines, killing several hundred thousand Filipinos to establish an American colony.
It is startling, however, how seldom such events appear in the work of the era’s European writers. It would be as if almost no major nineteenth-century American novelist dealt with slavery or no major twentieth-century German one wrote about the Holocaust. It’s not that Europeans were unaware. Hundreds of thousands of them had lived or worked in the colonies, and the fruits of empire were everywhere on display: in palatial mansions and grand monuments built with colonial fortunes, in street names such as Rue de Madagascar in Bordeaux and Khartoum Road in London, in shops full of foreign trinkets and spices. In 1897, more than one million visitors came to see a world’s fair on the outskirts of Brussels that featured 267 Congolese men, women, and children, living in huts and paddling canoes around a pond. There were similar human exhibits at fairs in the United States.
Writers, however, were
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