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Reviews of Africa: A Short History

Africa: A Short History by Robert O. Collins (University of California) is an informative and interesting collection of stories and historical happenings of Africa since the ‘year of African independence’ in 1960. As a very well-documented description and detailed history of Africa and a lot of the hardships it has experienced in the recent centuries, Africa: A Short History exposes the reader to many unknown or disavowed pieces of the [continent’s] past. Africa: A Short History is very strongly recommended to all non-specialist general readers with an interest in intercultural studies, as well as students of historical Africa and colonial rule.”

Midwest Book Review

“Robert O. Collins, already well known for his Problems in African History (Markus Wiener, 1992) and Documents from the African Past (Markus Wiener, 2001), has presented us with an elegantly written narrative that takes us from prehistoric times to contemporary Africa in fewer than 250 pages. Needless to say, the text is concise, and it is precisely for its brevity that it is important for the readers to understand what Collins has achieved in this work … Given its characteristics, this book will be a valuable tool for teachers and graduate students. Certain chapters can also be useful for course reading in introductory courses. Finally, historians of Africa will also benefit from reading this text. Like any good work of synthesis it will encourage reconceptualization and reassessment and thus will contribute to the exploration of old and new questions.”

African Studies Review

“A lament that repeatedly comes across in contemporary policy studies on higher education is that top professors in almost all disciplines spend too much time doing research on increasingly narrow, specialized topics, denying to the undergraduate student and the general reader the benefit of their erudition regarding the broader themes of their disciplines. Such is not the case of Robert Collins, Professor Emeritus of African History at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a distinguished expert on the history of the Southern Sudan. Collins’ wide variety of publications, including this Short History, stands as proof of his capacity to write insightfully — over a career spanning more than forty-five years — on general as well as highly specialized topics.

“Professor Collins established his reputation with The Southern Sudan 1883-1898: A Struggle for Control (1962), his revised Yale PhD dissertation, and reaffirmed it with Shadows in the Grass: Britain in the Southern Sudan, 1918-1956 (1983). Alone or with collaborators, Collins has also written or compiled a number of volumes intended for undergraduate survey courses in African history, particularly his Problems in African History: The Precolonial Centuries, now in its third edition.

“Professor Collins must have had his Problems book in mind when structuring the present volume. He presents the history of Africa coherently — from the dawn of humankind to the present — in only 232 pages, alternating between detailed descriptions of key issues, followed by broad generalizations that lead to more rounds of detailed descriptions, and then more generalizations. This recurring pattern begins with a short introduction and runs through six chapters covering (i) ‘Prehistoric Africa’; (ii) ‘Ancient and Medieval Africa’; (iii) ‘Islam, Trade, and States’; (iv)’Europeans, Slavery, and the Slave Trade’; (v) ‘European Conquest and Colonization of Sub-Saharan Africa’; and (vi) ‘Independent Africa.’

“The introduction and Chapter 1 argue strongly for the legitimacy of historical writing about non-literate peoples. Deftly employed techniques of oral tradition gathering and interpretation, Collins argues, along with use of the written record, when available, and the inputs of anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics will reveal the rich cultural heritage of Africans and its evolution over time. Africa, adds Collins, is the mother both of continents and of humanity. He familiarizes the reader with the geography, the climate, and the main physical features of the continent and concludes the chapter with a brief description of the origins of animal husbandry, agriculture, and iron smelting in Africa. Regarding the latter, Collins cites the probable Anatolian origins of iron smelting while specifying that ‘there is evidence from East and West Africa of independent development of iron working’ (17).

“Chapter 2 is particularly detailed with regard to the histories of ancient Egypt and Kush, referring to the latter as the ‘corridor to Africa’ (25). Collins is careful to point out the separateness of Egypt and Kush/Nubia, particularly from a linguistic point of view, but also their history of inter-penetration. At the same time, he underlines the African-ness of Egypt.

“In Chapter 3, the longest chapter, Collins outlines the rise and fall of representative and mostly first-generation African state-systems. He begins with the western Sudanic states of Ghana, Mali, Songhai, and Kanem-Bornu and then shifts over to the Swahili city-states of the East African coast, stressing the formative roles of agriculture, long-distance trade, and Islam. Surprisingly, he makes no mention of the Hausa states in this context. He compares the Niger Delta trading states with the Swahili city-states. Next, in rapid succession, Collins describes the origins of Cwezi, Hima, and Bito state-building activities in the interior of East Africa and state-formation in the West African forest zone, underlining the origins of Oyo, Benin, and Ashanti. Then, shifting back to South Central Africa, he introduces the Luba, the Lunda, and the Lozi state formations, as well as Kongo, Ndongo, Mapungubwe, Zimbabwe, and Mutapa.

“Chapter 4 concentrates on the Portuguese, the first (modern) Europeans to involve themselves in Sub-Saharan Africa. Collins evokes the importance of the early Portuguese exploration expeditions and the Portuguese importation into Africa of such American food crops as cassava and Indian corn, the adoption of which initiated Africa’s first ‘green revolution.’ Because the Portuguese also inaugurated the Atlantic slave trade, Collins devotes the rest of this chapter to a comprehensive examination both of slavery in Africa and of the slave trade from Africa to Europe, the Americas, Asia, the Indian Ocean islands, and within Africa itself.

“In Chapter 5, Collins explains the sudden late nineteenth-century European partition of Africa and imposition of colonial rule throughout the continent as the result of the decisive convergence of a set of disparate trends and events. These included the eighteenth-century Evangelical movement in Great Britain, the gathering British-led European crusade against slavery, the contradictions of European-stimulated ‘legitimate commerce’ in nineteenth-century Africa, European technological and medical advances, the colonial greediness of King Leopold II of Belgium, and late nineteenth-century European power politics. Collins explains the equally sudden collapse of colonial rule with reference to the devastating effects in Europe of the two twentieth-century world wars, the educational and material advances resulting from colonialism in parts of Africa, and the opposition of the Africans themselves to colonial rule — often expressed in the rhetoric of European nationalism. Collins views South African apartheid as a form of internal colonialism that did not end until after 1990.

“Although the final chapter on post-colonial Africa must, per force, evoke the problems of poverty, economic stagnation, mismanagement, military coups d’état, civil wars, ethnic cleansing, environmental degradation, and neo-colonialism, Collins ends on a note of optimism evoking ‘more than twenty’ African countries that ‘have quietly and purposefully improved the lives of their citizens’ (231).

Professor Collins has written an extremely perceptive introduction to the principal themes of African history. Africa: A Short History will serve as an excellent basic textbook for use in the sorts of one-semester surveys of African history and civilization that are frequently offered in American community colleges and in the lower division general education components of many four-year colleges. It should, however, be supplemented with a volume of collateral readings of the kind that Collins and his collaborators have themselves produced, plus a few Internet links. Students wishing to read further will find many of the standard works on African history listed in the ‘Selected Readings’ section that concludes the volume.”

World History Bulletin