The best books for understanding the impact of European colonialism on Africa and Africans

Edward Berenson Author Of Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa
By Edward Berenson

The Books I Picked & Why

In the Forest of No Joy: The Congo-Océan Railroad and the Tragedy of French Colonialism

By J. P. Daughton

In the Forest of No Joy: The Congo-Océan Railroad and the Tragedy of French Colonialism

Why this book?

JP Daughton tells the horrifying story of the Congo-Océan railroad, a massive, ill-conceived construction project (1921-34) whose French overseers doomed some 20,000 African workers to die. This story, revealing as it does France’s imperial hubris and callous disregard of human suffering, should have been told a long time ago. But it has been buried by bureaucrats, overlooked by historians, and made invisible to those who chose not to see. We owe Daughton a great debt for bringing it to light and for masterfully adding a new chapter to the tragic history of Central Africa under European colonial rule.


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King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

By Adam Hochschild

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

Why this book?

In the late nineteenth century, Europe’s Great Powers tried to regulate their competitive land grab in Africa by allowing King Leopold II of Belgium, a tiny, neutral player on the world stage, to take personal control over a massive territory in central Africa, the so-called Congo Free State. To exploit the region’s huge supply of rubber, Leopold’s agents terrorized the Congolese population, taking women and children hostage to force men to work under slave-like conditions in the grueling equatorial heat. Cruel overseers sliced off the hands of workers deemed rebellious or insufficiently productive and chased potential laborers into the bush as entire villages emptied out. Like Daughton’s new book, Hochschild’s isn’t exactly bedtime reading, but both vividly portray “The horror, the horror.”


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Heart of Darkness

By Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness

Why this book?

“The horror, the horror,” are the words famously uttered by Conrad’s anti-hero Kurtz (and by Marlon Brando’s character in Apocalypse Now) near the end of the Polish-born author’s riveting short novel. Conrad’s central character Marlowe narrates a slow voyage up the Congo River to a land ruled by Kurtz, a Belgian who has lost his sanity and, in the end, his life. This magically written book explores the meaning of “civilization” and “savagery” and suggests that it’s Europeans rather than Africans who are the real savages. Although Marlowe tells most of the story, there is another, unnamed, narrator who frames Marlowe’s tale by placing him in England along the Thames River as he relates his adventures after the fact. This narration-within-a-narration connects the Thames and the Congo Rivers and by analogy the ancient Roman conquest of Britain with the European conquest of Africa. For the Romans, the British were a savage people living in the heart of darkness.


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Travels in the Congo

By Andre Gide

Travels in the Congo

Why this book?

This travel diary by the Nobel Prize winning French writer was published in 1927 and expertly translated by his lifelong friend Dorothy Bussy. Gide dedicated his book and its sequel, Return from Chad, to Joseph Conrad, whose Congolese itinerary Gide retraced in part. In 1926 and 1927, the Frenchman spent ten months in Equatorial Africa with his lover Marc Alégret, making no secret of his sexual preference for young men and boys. In these travelogues, Gide fiercely criticized French colonialism and especially France’s “concessionary companies,” the large monopolistic firms that cruelly exploited Congolese laborers forced under inhuman conditions to harvest raw rubber. France’s Congo colony reproduced the excesses of its Belgian counterpart, despite the efforts of Gide and other prominent French figures to reform it.


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Citizenship Between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945-1960

By Frederick Cooper

Citizenship Between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945-1960

Why this book?

In this superb, prize-winning book, Cooper shows that despite France’s often gruesome treatment of its African colonies, its postwar leaders tried to make amends. After taking power in 1958, Charles de Gaulle gave each of France’s African territories three choices: 1) full departmental status within the French Republic (à la Martinique and Guadeloupe); 2) internal autonomy and democratic self-government in a newly dubbed French Community modeled on the British Commonwealth; 3) complete independence with a cutoff of all financial assistance. Every territory voted for option 2, except Guinea, which chose independence. Although the Community option ultimately fell apart, Cooper shows nonetheless that there was nothing inevitable about the devolution of France’s African empire into a series of independent nation-states.


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