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The Fortunes of Africa pdf download

Book Title The Fortunes Of Africa
Book AuthorMartin Meredith
Total Pages700
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The Fortunes of Africa A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor by Martin Meredith

Preface ever since the era of the pharaohs, Africa has been coveted for its riches.

The pyramids of the Nile Valley dazzled the rest of the world not just because of the ingenuity of their architects and builders but as symbols of the wealth of Egypt’s rulers who commissioned them as stepping stones to the afterlife.


 Legends about Africa’s riches endured for millennia, drawing in explorers and conquerors from afar.

Stories in the Bible about the fabulous gifts of gold and precious stones that the Queen of Sheba brought King Solomon during her visit to Jerusalem in the tenth century BCE grew into folklore about the land of Ophir that inspired European adventurers in their quest for gold to launch a war of conquest in southern Africa 3,000 years later.

Land was another prize. The Romans relied on their colonies in north Africa for vital grain shipments to feed the burgeoning population of Rome; they named one of their coastal provinces Africa after a Berber tribe known as the Afri who lived in the region of modern Tunisia.

Arab invaders followed in the wake of the Romans, the first wave arriving in the seventh century, eventually supplanting indigenous chiefdoms across most of north Africa; they used the Arabic name ‘Ifriqiya’ to cover the same coastal region.

When European mariners began their exploration of the Atlantic coastline of Africa in the fifteenth century, they applied the name to encompass the whole continent.

 Their aim initially was to find a sea route to the goldfields of west Africa which they had learned was the location from where camel caravans carrying gold set out to cross the Sahara desert to reach commercial ports on Africa’s Mediterranean coast.

Their interest in the west African goldfields had been stimulated as the result of a visit that the ruler of the Mali empire, Mansa Musa, paid to Cairo in 1324 while making a pilgrimage to Mecca.

He was so generous in distributing gold that he ruined the money markets there for more than ten years. European cartographers duly took note. A picture of Mansa Musa decorates the Catalan Atlas of 1375, one of the first sets of European maps to provide valid information about Africa.

 A caption on the map reads: ‘So abundant is the gold that is found in his country that he is the richest and most noble king in all the land.’

Modern estimates suggest that Mansa Musa was the richest man the world has ever seen, richer even than today’s billionaires. Another commodity in high demand from Africa was slaves. Slavery was a common feature in many African societies.

Slaves were often war-captives, acquired by African leaders as they sought to build fiefdoms and empires and used as labourers and soldiers. But the long-distance trade in slaves, lasting for more than a thousand years, added a fearful new dimension.

From the ninth century onwards, slaves from black Africa were regularly marched across the Sahara desert, shipped over the Red Sea and taken from the east coast region and sold into markets in the Levant, Mesopotamia, the Arabian peninsula and the Persian Gulf.

In the sixteenth century, European merchants initiated the trans- Atlantic trade to the Americas. Most of the inland trade in slaves for sale abroad was handled by African traders and warlords.

 Fortunes were made at both ends of the trade. By the end of the nineteenth century, the traffic in African slaves amounted in all to about 24 million men, women and children.

 Africa was also valued as the world’s main supplier of ivory. For centuries, the principal demand for Africa’s ivory came from Asia, from markets in India and China. But in the nineteenth century, as the industrial revolution in Europe and North America gathered momentum, the use of ivory for piano keys, billiard balls, scientific instruments and a vast range of household items made it one of the most profitable commodities on earth.

A greedy and devious European monarch, Leopold II of Belgium, set out to amass a personal fortune from ivory, declaring himself ‘King-Sovereign’ of a million square miles of the Congo Basin.

When profits from the ivory trade began to dwindle, Leopold turned to another commodity – wild rubber – to make his money.

 Several million Africans died as a result of the rubber regime that Leopold enforced, but Leopold himself succeeded in becoming one of the richest men in the world. In turn, Leopold’s ambition to acquire what he called ‘a slice of this magnifique gâteau africain’ was largely responsible for igniting the ‘scramble’ for African territory among European powers at the end of the nineteenth century. Hitherto, European activity in Africa had been confined mainly to small, isolated enclaves on the coast used for trading purposes.

Only along the Mediterranean coast of Algeria and at the foot of southern Africa had European settlement taken root. But now Africa became the target of fierce European competition.

 In the space of twenty years, mainly in the hope of gaining economic benefit and for reasons of national prestige, European powers claimed possession of virtually the entire continent.

Europe’s occupation precipitated wars of resistance in almost every part of the continent. Scores of African rulers who opposed colonial rule died in battle or were executed or sent into exile after defeat.

In the concluding act of partition, Britain, at the height of its imperial power, provoked a war with two Boer republics in southern Africa, determined to get its hands on the richest goldfield ever discovered, leaving a legacy of bitterness and hatred among Afrikaners that lasted for generations.

By the end of the scramble, European powers had merged some 10,000 African polities into just forty colonies.

The new territories were almost all artificial entities, with boundaries that paid scant attention to the myriad of monarchies, chiefdoms and other societies on the ground. Most encompassed scores of diverse groups that shared no common history, culture, language or religion.

Some were formed across the great divide between the desert regions of the Sahara and the belt of tropical forests to the south, throwing together Muslim and non-Muslim peoples in latent hostility. But all endured to form the basis of the modern states of Africa.

Colonial rule brought a myriad of change. Colonial governments built roads and railways in an attempt to stimulate economic growth and make their territories self-supporting. New patterns of economic activity were established.

African colonies became significant exporters of agricultural commodities such as cotton, cocoa and coffee. In the highlands of eastern and southern Africa, European settlers acquired huge landholdings, laying the foundations for largescale commercial agriculture.

But what attracted most attention was Africa’s mineral wealth. The mineral riches of Katanga, when first discovered, were described as ‘a veritable geological scandal’.

Africa was found to possess not only a profusion of gold, diamonds and copper but a host of other valuable minerals including oil. Colonial rule was expected to last for hundreds of years, but turned out to be only an interlude in Africa’s history, lasting for little more than seventy years. Facing a rising tide of anti-colonial protest and insurrection, European governments handed over their African territories to independence movements. The colonial legacy included a framework of schools, medical services and transport infrastructure.

Western education and literacy transformed African societies in tropical Africa. But only a few islands of modern economic development emerged, most of them confined to coastal areas or to mining enterprises in areas such as Katanga and the Zambian copper belt.

Much of the interior remained undeveloped, remote, cut off from contact with the modern world. Moreover, while European governments departed, European companies retained their hold over business empires built up over half a century.

Almost all modern manufacturing, banking, import-export trade, shipping, mining, plantations and timber enterprises remained largely in the hands of foreign corporations.

As the end of colonial rule approached, Europeans followed the old adage: ‘Give them parliament and keep the banks.’ The independence era, beginning in the 1950s, prompted much jubilation and enjoyed the world’s applause.

Africa seemed to hold so much promise. African leaders stepped forward with energy and enthusiasm to tackle the tasks of development. The honeymoon, however, was brief.

The new states of Africa were not ‘nations’. They possessed no ethnic, class or ideological cement to hold them together. Once the momentum to oust colonial rule had subsided, older loyalties and ambitions came thrusting to the fore, often exploited by politicians for their own ends.

African leaders became preoccupied with gaining a monopoly of power, preferring to rule through systems of patronage to enforce their control. Ruling elites seized every opportunity for self-enrichment, looting state assets at will.

 Decades were lost in internal conflicts, mismanagement and corruption. Despite the high level of risk and hassle, the lure of Africa’s riches remains as strong in the twenty-first century as in the past. As well as the activities of Western corporations, new players have entered the field.

The rising economic might of China and other Asian countries has stimulated a boom in demand for Africa’s oil and mineral resources. Land too has become a prized commodity once more.

To secure food supplies, foreign corporations have acquired huge landholdings in Africa, just as the Romans did. But much of the wealth generated by foreign activity flows out of Africa to destinations abroad. Africa’s ruling elites further drain their countries of funds, stashing huge sums in bank accounts and property overseas.

The World Bank estimates that 40 per cent of Africa’s private wealth is held offshore. Africa thus remains a continent of huge potential, but limited prospects.

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