Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa (review)
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Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa, by Edward Berenson; pp. xii + 360. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2011, $55.00, $29.95 paper, £37.95, £16.95 paper.

Despite its cover and title, this is not another biography of the men of empire as I had feared. Instead, it is an engaging study of the ways in which an emerging popular press could turn African adventurers into national heroes. The book firmly emphasises this popular aspect of empire by focusing on five men, two British and three French, who were involved in the exploration and conquest of Africa roughly between 1870 and 1914, and who secured prominent public profiles. The men included are the British-American Henry Morton Stanley, famous for his many African travel books and the “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” quotation (qtd. in Berenson 22); Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, a French soldier and explorer who allegedly secured French Equatorial Africa without any bloodshed, earning the epithet “conquête pacifique” (52); Charles “Chinese” Gordon, who famously helped suppress the Taiping Rebellion in China and who reached martyr-like status after being beheaded by Muslim nationalists in Khartoum in 1884; Jean-Baptiste Marchand, the “Hero of Fashoda,” who tried to secure the Sudan for the French, only to be forced by his government to abandon his position to prevent war with Britain, attaining a martyr-like status at home (qtd. in Berenson 167); and Hubert Lyautey, a latter-day “conquête pacifique” who popularized the idea of indirect rule within the French Empire and yet spent over a decade at war in Morocco.

All of these names are well known and Berenson provides little new biographical information. That, however, is not the main point of this book. Instead, Berenson focuses on the rise of the popular press in France and Britain and the ways in which the press turned these men into heroes of empire who could unify their respective countries around their heroism and charisma. One of the most interesting aspects of Berenson’s study is the focus on exactly “why a relationship, an emotional connection, develops between the extraordinary person and those who see him as such” (16). Berenson argues that these men were able to become charismatic heroes not just because they had grand adventures, though the chapters are filled with details of their daring, sometimes terrible, deeds. Instead, the virtues these men supposedly embodied contradicted fears about national decline. Their heroism, refracted through press [End Page 567] stories, images, and various consumer collectables, came to embody particular ideals of manliness, civilisation, nationhood, and empire at a time when France and Britain had a fin-de-siècle crisis of masculinity. While Berenson does highlight instances where this public interest was partially manufactured, he also stresses the genuine connection many members of the public came to feel for these men.

While Berenson never explicitly states this, he seems to be arguing that these men represented the birth of celebrity culture in the British and French press, which focused as much on their personal characteristics as on their exploits. New journalistic techniques like the interview and the photograph encouraged a focus on individual personalities and “the production, amplification, and dissemination of celebrity and charisma” (19). While two of the figures covered, Stanley and Lyautey, published widely themselves, moreover, Berenson argues that none of the figures would have achieved their high profile if not for the power of this new journalism to spread their story to tens of millions of people. Perhaps most importantly, all “five heroes possessed friends and allies who straddled the worlds of journalism, geography, and politics” and who could focus public attention on them (20).

The two chapters on Stanley in particular illuminate the rise of this new cult of celebrity. While traditionally journalists waited for stories to come to them, Stanley famously went to find his story by actively searching for David Livingstone and made himself the hero. The flip side to this fame is amusingly explained in the chapter on Stanley’s unsuccessful but much-celebrated expedition to rescue the Emin Pasha, the German-born governor of Sudan...