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  • Heroic Imperialists in Africa: The Promotion of British and French Colonial Heroes, 1870–1939 by Berny Sèbe
  • Venita Datta
Heroic Imperialists in Africa: The Promotion of British and French Colonial Heroes, 1870–1939. By Berny Sèbe. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013. 329 pp., ill.

Berny Sèbe here examines the construction of imperial heroes in France and Britain during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The first part of the book studies the emergence of a new type of hero in France and Britain, not only in newspapers, books, caricatures, advertisements, and ephemera, but also in the audio-visual world, examining the image of the hero in films and songs. Part Two explores the use of imperial heroes in domestic and international politics, while Part Three is devoted to case studies: the creation of the legends surrounding Jean-Baptiste Marchand and Horatio Herbert Kitchener. While there is new material in the book, some of it covers ground well explored by Edward Berenson in his excellent study Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011). Like Berenson, Sèbe examines the construction of heroes in popular culture in order to illustrate that imperial fervour cut across class as well as political lines. Sèbe examines some of the same figures as Berenson, notably Henry Morton Stanley, Charles Gordon, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, and especially Marchand, to whom Sèbe devotes a full chapter, focusing on the Marchand legend within the context of the Dreyfus Affair (as does Berenson). Given such overlap, it is surprising to note the lack of engagement with a distinguished historian’s book other than two cursory footnotes, the first in the Introduction and the second in the Conclusion. The author could have made a much stronger claim to originality by actively engaging with Berenson’s work rather than relegating it to a footnote. Sèbe also underestimates the importance of the construction of heroes and their role as symbols of national identity in the French context, stating that the French were afraid of men on horseback. While this is true, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were also a golden age of hero-making. The chapter on audio-visual materials is especially good, and covers new ground, as does the last chapter, on the creation of the Kitchener legend by war correspondent George W. Steevens. In the end, however, Sèbe’s work fails adequately to address previous scholarship on imperial heroes and is much stronger on Britain than it is on France.

Venita Datta
Wellesley College


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