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Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 150-152

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Book Review

Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830-1914

Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830-1914. By Bruce Vandervort. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. Pp. xvii + 274. $39.95 (cloth); $16.95 (paper).

Bruce Vandervort's recent work, Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830-1914, attempts a seemingly impossible task: the descriptive analysis of wars fought over eighty-four years, across an entire continent, involving no fewer than six European nations--Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, and Italy--and countless African peoples. The author writes "from the perspectives both of European invaders and African resisters." He seeks "to demonstrate the impact, both immediate and long-term, of these wars upon the societies, political structures, and military (praxis) of both victors and vanquished." Clearly these ambitions carry the book beyond its already broad 1830-1914 period. Yet Vandervort is not done. He has written "with the student and general reader in mind." It is this last ambition that he comes closest to realizing.

Keeping his work to fewer than 220 text pages, the author is to be congratulated for acquitting himself of charges commonly laid against works of scholarly synthesis. His work is without the extraneous, esoteric minutia that sustains an upward academic career in a narrow specialization, but fails totally to reach even colleagues from other disciplines, let alone lay readers. Vandervort's reading too has been voluminous. There is much here that is well told in clear, detailed prose. Still, despite the publisher's puff, little is new, except more extensive treatments than usual of Italian campaigns in Ethiopia and Libya, and Portuguese campaigns in Mozambique (but curiously not in Angola). The bibliography is an excellent introduction to the riches upon which Vandervort draws.

Vandervort's text does not meet all its challenges, though. Despite his obvious sympathy for Africans, he writes more persuasively from the European than the African camp. Moreover, his very descriptive successes highlight his text's analytical weaknesses, especially its use of current Africanist literature. There is no distinction here between "primary" and "secondary" resistance, nor any mention of African "secondary empire." Secondary empire, the African application of alien military technology against fellow Africans, is a notable omission, since he argues the importance of African troops for European conquest. Although Vandervort covers a lot of ground, his conceptual framework fails to account for anomalies that he himself describes. Consequently his central thesis is unpersuasive.

Vandervort argues that European military technology alone did not ensure imperial success in African wars of conquest (pp. 27, 29). [End Page 150] As an explanatory paradigm he seeks to replace European technological prowess with African divisiveness. This thesis attacks a straw dummy. No scholars seriously argue that European military technology alone guaranteed military victory. Indeed, Vandervort himself shows that those unsuccessful commanders and politicians, like Italy's prime minister Crespi at Adowa, were precisely the ones who came closest to believing in "an exaggerated sense of European superiority" (p. 159). Vandervort tells us that against Ethiopian troops under Ras Makonnen the Italians took 50% casualties at Adowa in 1896, but this was because those Ethiopians were at least as well armed as their Italian adversaries.

Vandervort is persuasive when examining European-led African troops, and their significance. As further evidence of African divisiveness he cites "martial races," French Tirraleurs, Tigrayan and Amharan acaris, German Askaris, Leopold II's Force Publique, or British Hausa troops. Still he is in danger of having the tail wag the dog. The African divisiveness that Vandervort prefers to European technological prowess was the common currency of nineteenth-century African politics. Finding African troops in colonial pay, Vandervort excuses their allegiance with suppositions about nineteenth-century African turmoil: "The availability of these African soldiers, it should be pointed out, was largely the result of the extraordinary flux which beset internal African politics in the nineteenth century, as empires expanded and retracted and smaller states rose and fell" (p. 30). But of that turmoil, we are told no more. Since African ethnic diversity adequately...