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  • Africa's "Agitators": Militant Anti-Colonialism in Africa and the West, 1918–1939
  • Emil Nagengast
Africa's "Agitators": Militant Anti-Colonialism in Africa and the West, 1918–1939. by Jonathan Derrick. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. 320 pp. $45.00 (cloth).

In Africa's "Agitators" Jonathan Derrick provides a sweeping "tour d' horizon" (p. 3) of the relations between European anti-imperialists and African protestors in the interwar period. This era marked the peak of colonialism, when the whole continent was under white rule and peaceful, but it was also the time when African liberation movements were born. As Derrick demonstrates in this impressive survey, it is impossible to understand Africa's anticolonial movements unless one examines the relationship between activities within and outside Africa. Derrick takes the reader on a tour of events across Europe, North America, and almost every corner of Africa and weaves these episodes into an interesting history of attitudes toward colonialism. This book fills a gap in the literature by providing a comprehensive review of early anticolonialism concerning Africa.

The most common view of colonialism among Africans and Europeans after World War I was that the colonial project was justified, but that it needed to be conducted properly. Derrick describes how paternalism dominated the European view of Africa, even among British liberals, French socialists, and other "anticolonialists." In 1925 Leon Blum, the leader of the French socialists, proclaimed: "We love our country too much to repudiate the expansion of French thought and civilisation" (p. 249). The African elite denounced the hyprocrisy of the contrast between European ideals of liberty and equality, on the one hand, and the Europeans' racist and oppressive policies in Africa, on the other hand. In this period these African elite remained loyal to the colonial rulers and to the civilizing mission, but European paternalism and the resulting humiliation of being treated as second class citizens led many of these Africans to create a culture of dissent that laid the foundation for later radicals.

Derrick does an excellent job of describing the contrasts between the level of agitation among Africans inside versus outside Africa. The African diaspora was more active in fighting colonialism largely because they had far more freedom to organize and write than did people in Africa. France and Great Britain showed more racism in their colonies than they did at home.

Mussolini's invasion of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia in 1935 provoked a hypocritical reaction in Europe. The French and British denounced Mussolini's military aggression and his violation of Africans' sovereignty. Similarly, the French and British saw no hypocrisy in [End Page 542] condemning the racism of the Nazi regime in Germany. Despite these contradictions, Mussolini's actions marked an important moment in African colonialism. According to an African anticolonial newsletter in 1935, "This is the first time that a dispute among Europeans has the aim of respecting one of our freedoms" (p. 341).

The most interesting part of this book is the review of the confusion and conflicts that the communist movement faced in Africa. Derrick reviews the debates in the Comintern over how to deal with the bourgeois nationalist movements. He also describes the obsession of the French and British with fighting communism (and Mahdism) in Africa, even though there is no evidence of communists organizing or starting any rebellion in Africa in the interwar period.

There are three frustrating aspects of this study. First, Derrick does not provide any sense of how the African elite became nationalists. While the Wilsonian message of national self-determination was taking hold elsewhere, Derrick writes, European and American officials (and even W. E. B. DuBois) did not consider national self-determination to be applicable to Africans. Derrick explains that he intentionally leaves aside the question of what nationalism meant to Africans because "this is a study of opposition" (p. 66). Second, Derrick does not help us to understand the degree of harmony between the opinions of the Western-educated African agitators and the rest of the Africans. He concludes that the colonial rulers deluded themselves into viewing the educated African elite as disconnected from the rest of the population. This simplistic view of the "detribalised" elite...


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pp. 542-544
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