- Rogue Empires: Contracts and Conmen in Europe's Scramble for Africa by Steven Press
For specialists in African history, imperialism, and European diplomatic history, the establishment of Leopold II of Belgium's Congo Free State and the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 are familiar topics for teaching as well as research. One might wonder, as I did when I was assigned this review, what new findings could be made treading on such well-mapped terrain. To some extent, Steven Press should be commended for uncovering some interesting connections between imperialism in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The historiographies on late nineteenth century colonialism in Southeast Asia and Africa rarely intersect with each other, though undoubtedly there is much that could be learned by more comparative approaches. [End Page 445]
This is emphatically not a work of social history about the conquest of much of Africa in the late nineteenth century. Besides some references to how some Namibian political leaders negotiated with Adolf Lüderitz's dubious attempts to claim control of Namibia's Atlantic coast, various African efforts to shape and reject colonial expansion are outside of the frame of the book. Instead, Press focuses on the evolution of the ambiguous ideal of a quasi-colonial fiefdom that could be considered paradoxically as a legally recognized state that somehow would not be officially under the control of a European government. To claim territory without being financially or legally responsible for governing it was a very attractive proposition for European states in the 1880s.
The roots of this peculiar—and ultimately ephemeral—legal institution emerged in Southeast Asia in the 1830s. James Brooke, a British officer serving the sultan of Brunei on Borneo Island, established his own Sarawak state backed by the British government in 1846. Brooke's kingdom never could have emerged without the intervention of the British navy, but Brooke managed to persuade European governments that Sarawak was indeed a sovereign state. Though the British East India Company attempted to claim Sarawak in the 1850s, Brooke considered offering his kingdom to another colonial power. As Brooke grew old and his immediate family struggled to retain control over the kingdom, adventurers such as the US consul to Brunei Charles Lee Moses tried to copy the Sarawak by establishing other fiefdoms in Borneo nominally under Brunei's authority. Press's entertaining discussions of Moses and other promoters of dubious quasi-states in Borneo in the 1860s and 1870s shows the importance of individual speculators in establishing enclaves that then were recognized by European governments as legitimate states.
European leaders gradually began to find the legal fiction of private concessions in Borneo attractive for their own ambitions. Leopold II of Belgium first considered establishing his own personal concession in Borneo before turning his attention to Africa. Much of Press's analysis of Leopold II's scheme for establishing his own state in Central Africa will sound quite familiar to specialists. What is new here is how Leopold II's plans became useful for Otto von Bismarck. The German leader is usually presented as a very reluctant imperialist unconvinced of Africa's value for his strategies of increasing German power in Europe. Press suggests that Bismarck, seeking to bring in German liberals attractive to colonialism without paying to support these territories, wanted to legitimate the private concession model. Adolf Lüderitz, following the model of individual fiefdoms in Borneo, set up his own state on the Namibian coast in the early 1880s. This German eccentric [End Page 446] had no financial means to actually govern his new principality, but became a popular figure in Germany. Bismarck claimed Lüderitz's concession deserved the support of the German state, even though he initially promised not to make Namibia into a colony. By agreeing to allow Leopold II to set up his own concession in Central Africa along the lines of the Borneo experiments, Bismarck could do the same elsewhere in Africa or even in the Congo itself.
This study is an interesting analysis of...