- Empire in Africa: Angola and Its Neighbors
In Empire in Africa: Angola and its Neighbors, David Birmingham offers a compendium of eleven chapters (versions of seven have been previously published) arranged chronologically and from the late nineteenth century to 2003. Birmingham convincingly connects disparate themes within the overarching idea of empire, referring not only to Portugal's empire in Angola, but also to Belgian and Dutch colonial empires in central and southern Africa. His themes include the impact of Christianity, trade, creolization, military power, and the effects of the oil revolution of 1973, which he describes as "the most potent legacy of empire" (p. ix).
This book has several strengths, and in particular Birmingham does a fantastic job situating Angola within its region. Angola is often marginalized in general histories of Africa published in English; in contrast, Birmingham's analysis illuminates not only Angolan history, but also African history. Another strength of the book is the writing, which perspicaciously captures nuances of class and power in Angolan society.
As the book is essentially a compendium of articles, I shall outline the major arguments in each chapter. A short preface and introductory first chapter explain "the idea of empire" and provide a background to the temporal focus of the book. Birmingham discusses the creation of creole societies in Angola's Atlantic ports, which serves as a foundation for later analyses of race and class in modern Angola. He closes chapter 1 with an overview of decolonization as part of what he terms "the Central African revolution" (pp. 10–11), and ends with the beginnings of rebellion in Angola in 1961, less than a year after the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa. The violence of Portugal's reaction to rebellion partially explains how "violence became the lasting legacy of empire" (p. 12).
The title of chapter 2, "Wine, Women, and War," summarizes the chapter's main themes: alcohol and miscegenation during the wars of conquest, and the creation of creole societies in the Dutch Cape and Portuguese Angola. Birmingham composed the chapter as an "entertainment" for historians at a workshop in 1999, and it maintains the feeling of a lecture. Its strength stems from its comparative assessment of Dutch and Portuguese policy during the formative years of the two colonies. Birmingham argues that unequal power relationships between whites and blacks, and men and women, created conditions for predatory actions against African women in the Cape and Angola (p. 25).
Chapters 3 and 4 may be considered together, as both focus on merchants and missionaries. Birmingham argues that Christianity is one of [End Page 118] empire's enduring legacies in Angola, and he refutes the "simplistic and inaccurate common thesis of Catholic support for the imperial cause and Protestant antagonism towards it" (p. 29). One of the most interesting components of the chapter discusses the importance of the link between trade and missions, and the role of Newton Carnegie and Co., a British trading firm active in late nineteenth-century Angola. As Birmingham says, "everyone in Luanda was more or less dependent on Newton Carnegie and Co." (p. 32).Chapter 4 focuses on Lincoln, Héli Chatelain's Swiss-American Christian mission at Kalukembe, on the edge of Angola's southern highlands, from its founding in 1897 until Chatelain's departure, in 1908. Birmingham credits the insights contained in Chatelain's personal papers with the inspiration for putting together this collection of essays (p. 184). His interest is evident in the detailed descriptions of Chatelain's work and struggles with the complexities of financing an independent mission, while opposing a thriving slave trade. Chatelain's entrepreneurial endeavors to sustain his community offer interesting details of daily life and the region's political economy. This chapter, previously published in a Portuguese compendium, would make a valuable assignment in an African history course because of its detail about mission life and the importance of commerce and colonialism in missionaries' endeavors.
An earlier version of chapter 5, "The Case of Belgium and Portugal," first appeared in French. The chapter's strength lies in its comparative...