Saturday, 13 April 2019

She’s Coming In, Twelve Thirty Flight

You have thirty seconds to name the song and the band from which the title of the post is taken.

…. Tick, tick.

Did you manage it? Of course you did; I’m sure my readers are as good at obscure cultural references as the next reader. If, on the off chance you have no idea, try this:

It should give you a reasonable idea as to the subject matter of this post: The Dark Continent.

Of course, Africa is only the Dark Continent if you do not live there and you are a certain sort of Victorian Imperialist. Laband, in the book I am going to partially talk about here, notes that really, the Scramble for Africa only got going in the 1880s when the Berlin Conference demanded that European countries made good their claims to large chunks of the continent by actually having a presence on the ground. The locals were not consulted. Some of them objected to a change in what had been, for some, a reasonable trading arrangement with maybe a few unpleasantries along the way.

The objections, of course, perished in the face of machine guns, quick-firing artillery and modern rifles. Western Civilization had arrived along with Empire and the importation of European disputes. After all, Bismarck once famously remarked (something along the lines of) ‘my map of Africa lies in Europe’. The division of Africa was, more or less, an extension of European politics to a globalising world.

I remarked a while ago that we tend to read history along the lines of what happened fairly recently. Toby Green, in a recent History Today article, notes that Africa and its influence before the slave trade, and more specifically before the rise of the abolitionist movement in the 1780s has largely been erased from history. This is because, in his view at least, both sides of the European debate found the idea of the Dark Continent useful. For abolitionists, Africa’s instability and warfare was a direct result of the slave trade, and therefore an argument for its cessation. For the pro-slavery side, slavery could ‘save’ the African from the ‘savagery’ of their home. The result is, of course, a view of Africa as needing salvation in the form of Europeans:

Green, T., 'At the Centre of It All', History Today 69, no. 2 (2018), 28-39, quoting from page 39.

Green’s point is that some African political entities were players on the international scene at least from the seventeenth century. West African diplomacy included embassies to Portugal and to Dutch colonists in Brazil, which was held (1630 – 1654) by the Dutch as part of the war with Spain. Of course, the Thirty Years War finished in 1648, but that did not mean that the Dutch were going to relinquish Brazil easily. An Embassy from the Kingdom of Kongo arrived in Brazil in 1643, the Kongolese and Dutch allies having seized Luanda in 1641 (we note that the Portuguese had just rebelled from Spain at this point). I suspect that some of these issues are explored in:

Thornton, J. K., 'The Kingdom of Kongo and the Thirty Years’ War', Journal of World History 27, no. 2 (2016), 189 - 213.

However, I have not read this piece yet.

Pulling back the focus a bit enables me to ponder Africa more broadly. I have been reading John Laband’s book on the Portuguese in Africa:

Laband, J., Bringers of War (London: Frontline, 2013).

This is subtitled ‘The Portuguese in Africa during the Age of Gunpowder and Sail from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century’. And a very interesting book it is too. Laband remarks early on that Africa is too big really to deal with as a narrative, and so he has tackled Portuguese activity thematically by geographical area. This is a little confusing, perhaps, as some of them overlapped or influenced each other, but then a narrative construct would probably have been even more puzzling. He tackles Morocco, West Africa, the Swahili Coast and Ethiopia, and then returns to Kongo and the Portuguese slave trade to Brazil.

The Portuguese were, of course, after slaves, spices (from the East Indies) and gold, and they found them in some quantities. They also brought firearms which, in many circumstances (although not in Kongo where dispersed fighting meant the matchlock’s inaccuracies limited its effectiveness) gave them a major initial advantage. This tended to be counteracted by Africans responding to the musket by acquiring their own, either from trade with the Portuguese or, on the east coast, direct or indirect contact with the Ottomans.

Numbers were small. Taking service in Africa or further east was regarded, so far as I can tell, as a one-way ticket for most people. The rates of death were terrible as Europeans had no immunity to African diseases. This is in marked contrast to South America where it was the natives who succumbed to European disease. The Portuguese naval empire was never as profitable as the Spanish one.

The Portuguese were also much more heavily challenged by both local and European forces than the Spanish beyond the line. Initially, superior naval technology and gunpowder weapons enabled them to dominate the Indian sea trade. However, the Dutch, followed by the English started the challenge this in the seventeenth century, followed by the Omanis, who had gained Western technology. The Portuguese were squeezed out of a large portion of the trade.

Laband’s book has an awful lot about the fighting, of course. The Portuguese (and English and Dutch) saw themselves as crusaders, outflanking Islam for the sake of the Gospel. The most interesting and unexpected, perhaps, is the Portuguese expedition to Ethiopia, which, on some readings, saved that country as a Christian one, as it was being swamped by Muslim sultanates supported by Ottoman troops. As a tale of a small group of Europeans with large numbers of African supporters and wily opponents H Rider Haggard could do little better. The only difference is that the Ethiopians were in control and the remaining Portuguese settled merged with the population.

The only problem I have now is that I do not think anyone makes suitable figures, at least no in 6 mm. Anyone know better for Kongolese or Ethiopians, or Zimba for that matter, although Zulu figures might work for them.

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