The topic of African history is quite debatable and complex since it includes such dramatic issues as slavery in the past. Moreover, Africa stands aside from the entire world in terms of its unique culture and geographic position. This paper aims to critically review the book “African History: A Very Short Introduction” by John Parker and Richard Rathbone. The aim of this essay is to clarify how the authors of the mentioned book approach the idea of Africa. It is also expected to discuss African diversity and the role of European colonialism in Africa.
African History: Cradle of Mankind
Understanding the “Idea” of Africa
In their book, Parker and Rathbone begin with discussing their approach to the past and present of the African continent. They call Africa “cradle of mankind”, where people evolved and gave their descendants strong roots (Parker and Rathbone 2007, 1). It is stated that this topic is controversial and complicated since there are two main approaches to treating it. On the one hand, Europeans and Americans considered the history of Africa unimportant, which was probably made to justify slavery. On the other hand, the history of this continent is quite rich, and there is integrity between its parts. The authors of the book provide strong arguments to support their idea. For example, they point to the undeniable fact that Africa includes about 50 nations and 54 countries (Parker and Rathbone 2007). The authors ask questions and answer them to translate their ideas.
Until the era of colonial empires, it was considered that Africa was primitive and had no history. People living on this continent were thought of as illiterate and aboriginal, which left no place for treating the African race properly. To withstand this approach, the authors of the book refer to the ancient Mediterranean civilization. They state that the word “Afri” can be found in Ancient Greek and Roman cultures, which proves that Africans existed and actively functioned even Before Christ (BC). Furthermore, the authors mention Arab conquerors that discovered the North African coast and evidenced African ethnicities. Sub-Saharan Africa is often mentioned in books and articles, but North Africa seems to be disregarded. The readers can understand that the authors want to discuss all the parts of Africa.
The comparison of different sources and their unique vision of Africa is a distinguishing feature of the “African History: A Very Short Introduction” by John Parker and Richard Rathbone. Paying attention to the African history in terms of the environment, the authors state that the past sources focus on political and economic history, which was “inspired by the African history of liberation struggles against colonial rule and by the building of independent nations” (Parker and Rathbone, 2007, 10). In turn, the authors approach the given topic from social, cultural, and intellectual perspectives. For example, it is noted that the African landscape changed because of the human impact, namely, the introduction of new crops and agriculture led to drying and the formation of the Saharan desert. The use of examples allows the authors to effectively support their messages with evidence.
Approaching African Diversity and Unity
African diversity and unity is another important topic discussed in the given book. The authors cite statistical information: about 1500 various languages and dialects can be found in the African continent (Parker and Rathbone, 2007). According to archaeological findings, the history of Africa is older than that of any other world region. In this regard, the authors try to envision an image of an African person, including his or her language, appearance, and culture in general. The African identity is defined as a multifaceted notion that cannot be oversimplified since there are several dimensions of diversity. For example, only in Nigeria, there are more than 300 languages and dialects. Another example is associated with the variety of religions followed by Africans, such as Islam, Christianity, polytheism, and so on. The exports of North African spirituality can be detected outside the continent, as an example, orishas and voodoo in Cuban Santeria.
In an attempt to approach African diversity, the authors insist on perceiving the past as it is instead of imposing modern factors and viewing the past through them. Parker and Rathbone (2007) state that being the descendants of indigenous Berber and Egyptian peoples, modern North Americans also have some genes of Arab invaders and Greek and Roman settlers. The involvement in world trade and enslavement were the main factors for the migration of people. Such a rich heritage is supplemented by the internal movement of individuals as a result of borrowing, trade, marriage, and other forms of stimulation. In this connection, one may conclude that adaptation served as a strong force of Africans that allowed them to survive, and the authors perfectly demonstrate this idea in their book.
The excessive using an image of the so-called middle Niger can be identified as one of the weaknesses of the given book. It is clear that they aim to use it as a vivid example, but little attention is paid to other states within Africa, such as Ethiopia or Ghana. Probably, the reason for this shortcoming is a lack of evidence-based information, but they should have mentioned it. Another limitation refers to the insufficient discussion of unity in Africa. The authors just write that despite the great diversity of Africans in language, geography, and appearance, Africans remained integrated. Nevertheless, they provide the concept of negritude and mention it regarding the French literary movement during the 1930s (Parker and Rathbone, 2007). Among other noteworthy examples, one can note that the authors cite Edward Blyden’s view about the past of Nigeria, calling Egypt a Negro civilization. It would be better if the authors tried to approach African unity from different points, as they did with the African diversity concept.
Identifying the Role of European Colonialism in Africa
The discussion of the impact of European colonialism in Africa focuses not only on how the actions of conquerors impacted Africa, but also how Africans reacted. The European colonialism began in Africa in the late 19th century and lasted until the 1960s (Parker and Rathbone, 2007). It is stated that some researchers believe that the current problems of African societies were planted by European colonialists, who divided Africa into several territorial entities at the end of the 19th century, transforming them into states in the 1960s (Parker and Rathbone, 2007). However, it should be stressed that one cannot fully agree with this statement. The methods used by the European colonialists to form future independent states had a negative impact on the current situation on the continent. Nevertheless, when delimiting the borders, they did not consider neither the features of the historical settlement of African ethnic groups, nor the political, ethnic, economic, or cultural features that determine the diversity of local cultures.
Parker and Rathbone apply a single approach across their work, using plenty of examples and references to different sources, which is the main strength of the book. For example, compared to the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africans managed to survive and even preserve or adapt their cultural traditions. The readers may note another strength of the book, namely, its ability to broaden the horizons. While the majority of sources pay attention to the horrors of colonialism, little consideration is given to the entire African history, in which the colonial period is quite limited. The approach of the European colonists was based on creating colonial states and eliminate uncooperative African rules. It was enough to undermine the foundations of African society, institutions and values, but not sufficient to replace them with new ways and conditions of life or create new systems. At the same time, they tried to save the existing ethnical rules, understanding that it will be useful for governing African states.
To conclude, the book “African History: A Very Short Introduction” by John Parker and Richard Rathbone portrays African history as of great interest to experts and readers. The authors apply a multifaceted approach to discovering the past of the continent from ancient times to European colonialism. The key strengths of the book include plenty of examples, references to trustworthy sources, comparisons, and the author’s unique vision. The weaknesses can be defined as insufficient attention to a variety of countries within Africa and excessive focus on Nigeria as an example for the discussion. The main idea is to link the internal cultural, economic, and social processes in African countries with the external factors of intervention and assistance from other countries to African states.
Parker, John, and Richard Rathbone. 2007. African History: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.