Why Rhino-Mounted Bantu Never Sacked Rome

Armand Marie Leroi

  • Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
    Cape, 480 pp, £18.99, April 1997, ISBN 0 224 03809 5
  • Why is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality by Jared Diamond
    Weidenfeld, 176 pp, £11.99, July 1997, ISBN 0 297 81775 2

The Martiniquan poet and ideologue of négritude, Aimé Césaire, celebrated the sons and daughters of Africa as

Ceux qui n’ont inventé ni la poudre ni la boussole
ceux qui n’ont jamais su dompter la vapeur ni l’électricité
ceux qui n’ont exploré ni les mers ni le ciel

Césaire was too modest. Not only did Africans south of the Sahara fail to invent gunpowder, the compass, gas and electricity: they failed to invent, or even acquire in precolonial times, writing, the yoke, the plough and the wheel. Césaire thought this was all to the good, but others have felt anguish over it. ‘How the Negro has lived through so many ages without advancing seems marvellous, when all the countries surrounding Africa are so forward in comparison,’ John Speke, discoverer of the source of the White Nile, observed. Very much a man of his time, Speke was necessarily less aware than we are today of the diversity of African societies, their extraordinary artistic wealth, and the antiquity of their trade with the world beyond. Yet there is no doubt that Césaire and Speke, each in his own way, got this much right: away from the coastal fringes, life in a traditional sub-Saharan African village was low-tech, and would hardly appear less so were the comparison with Europe in the age of Hadrian rather than that of Victoria.

Speke had no truck with the idea that African backwardness was due to a want of innate ability among Africans; rather, he saw them as being cut off from the main stream of civilisation; what they needed, he believed, was a bit of the Raj. Which, speaking generally, is what they got, as did most of the world before them. It is now hardly possible for a citizen of one of the former colonial powers to consider the past five hundred years of global history without a raking sense of shame for all that was destroyed in the era of European expansion. Leafing through the atlases of a previous generation, we may draw comfort from the thought that all the pink bits (and other hues of Empire) once displayed with such pride were to vanish rather quickly. Yet their very presence, symbolic of the innumerable battles in which a handful of small European nations engaged and conquered the world, leaves us with a profound historical puzzle: why did Europeans always win?

There is, of course, an easy answer: Pizzarro had the cannon that Atahualpa did not; Lugard had the Maxim-Nordfeldts that brought Mwanga to the table. Nor was it just a matter of guns, but of horses, compasses, ocean-faring ships, indeed, the entire social, economic, ideological and technological package that brought Europe to global supremacy. But it is by no means obvious, except in retrospect, that such a package should have been assembled by Europeans rather than, say, the Waganda whom Speke befriended. To put the matter in these terms is to reveal a void at the heart of historical explanation, a rarely asked and hence largely unanswered question: over the past 10,000 years, why did some societies develop in size, complexity and, most of all, power, while others did not?

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