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

Who am I?

I’ve spent most of my career teaching and writing about French history. In the 1990s, it became belatedly clear to me and other French historians that France shouldn’t be understood purely as a European nation-state. It was an empire whose imperial ambitions encompassed North America, the Caribbean, Africa, Indochina, and India. By the twentieth century, and especially after 1945, large numbers of people from those colonial places had emigrated to mainland France, claiming to belong to that country and asserting the right to live there. Their presence produced a great deal of political strife, which I wanted to study by looking at France’s colonial past.

I wrote...

Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa

By Edward Berenson,

Book cover of Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa

What is my book about?

In the late 19th century, Britain and France raced against each other for the conquest of Africa. What attracted their citizens to those conquests were stories by and about the charismatic individuals who gave imperialism a recognizable, human face. Heroes of Empire narrates the dramatic, often violent, exploits of five of these men, all lauded in the popular press and hero-worshipped at home.

Today we are justly skeptical of the heroism of such men, but in the late nineteenth century, most Europeans played down, denied, or ignored the violence that colonialism wrought. Instead, they glorified my five exemplars of empire for braving the scarcely imaginable dangers of unknown places and “savage” people and embodying traits of character and personality widely admired at the time.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By J.P. Daughton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In the Forest of No Joy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Congo-Ocean railroad stretches across the Republic of Congo from Brazzaville to the Atlantic port of Pointe-Noir. It was completed in 1934, when Equatorial Africa was a French colony, and it stands as one of the deadliest construction projects in history. Colonial workers were subjects of an ostensibly democratic nation whose motto read "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," but liberal ideals were savaged by a cruelly indifferent administrative state.

African workers were forcibly conscripted and separated from their families, and subjected to hellish conditions as they hacked their way through dense tropical foliage-a "forest of no joy"; excavated by hand thousands of…

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

Why did I love 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.”

By Adam Hochschild,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked King Leopold's Ghost as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Duff Cooper Prize, King Leopold's Ghost is the true and haunting account of Leopold's brutal regime and its lasting effect on a ruined nation. With an introduction by award-winning novelist Barbara Kingsolver.

In the late nineteenth century, when the great powers in Europe were tearing Africa apart and seizing ownership of land for themselves, King Leopold of Belgium took hold of the vast and mostly unexplored territory surrounding the Congo River. In his devastatingly barbarous colonization of this area, Leopold stole its rubber and ivory, pummelled its people and set up a ruthless regime that would reduce…

Heart of Darkness

By Joseph Conrad,

Book cover of Heart of Darkness

Why did I love 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.

By Joseph Conrad,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Heart of Darkness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Although Polish by birth, Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) is regarded as one of the greatest writers in English, and Heart of Darkness, first published in 1902, is considered by many his "most famous, finest, and most enigmatic story." — Encyclopaedia Britannica. The tale concerns the journey of the narrator (Marlow) up the Congo River on behalf of a Belgian trading company. Far upriver, he encounters the mysterious Kurtz, an ivory trader who exercises an almost godlike sway over the inhabitants of the region. Both repelled and fascinated by the man, Marlow is brought face to face with the corruption and despair…

Travels in the Congo

By Andre Gide,

Book cover of Travels in the Congo

Why did I love 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.

By Andre Gide,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Travels in the Congo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Text: English (translation)
Original Language: French

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

Why did I love 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.

By Frederick Cooper,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Citizenship Between Empire and Nation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As the French public debates its present diversity and its colonial past, few remember that between 1946 and 1960 the inhabitants of French colonies possessed the rights of French citizens. Moreover, they did not have to conform to the French civil code that regulated marriage and inheritance. One could, in principle, be a citizen and different too. Citizenship between Empire and Nation examines momentous changes in notions of citizenship, sovereignty, nation, state, and empire in a time of acute uncertainty about the future of a world that had earlier been divided into colonial empires. Frederick Cooper explains how African political…

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