History Books

The best books on Colonial Africa

recommended by Sam Kiley

Desperate Glory: At War in Helmand with Britain's 16 Air Assault Brigade by Sam Kiley

Desperate Glory: At War in Helmand with Britain's 16 Air Assault Brigade
by Sam Kiley


'Wherever you go today in the Congo, you will find monstrous warlords. But you will find far more volunteer nurses and Red Cross workers and teachers who haven’t been paid for 20 years but are still doing their job, not allowing things to fall apart.'

Desperate Glory: At War in Helmand with Britain's 16 Air Assault Brigade by Sam Kiley

Desperate Glory: At War in Helmand with Britain's 16 Air Assault Brigade
by Sam Kiley

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So, your first book is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It’s probably the best-known African novel – it’s even on the GCSE English syllabus here. 

I think what’s so fantastic about it is that it’s sort of portentous, if that’s the right word, in that it captures that moment between the end of colonisation and independence, and the inevitable crushing of Africa’s dreams. I can’t remember exactly when it was written, but it was very early on in the process. It sounds really pessimistic – I mean, it’s a beautifully written book, but it’s the way in which the fate takes over. There was an endemic inevitability about things falling apart, almost through nobody’s fault. And there are people nobly fighting against that. It sounds like a terribly pessimistic, self-flagellating book about how Africa’s independence came too soon. In some ways it is, but it’s also about the nobility of individuals trying to stop things falling apart. I read it when I was quite young and I didn’t know what a parlous state Africa was really in, and this gave me a historical context for it all.

Even more historical context is given by your second book, Travels into the Interior of Africa by Mungo Park. Now this was two journeys in 1795 and 1805.

I loved this book. Park comes from a pre-racist Europe, and he’s travelling along the 16th parallel – the sort of watershed between ‘Animus’ Africa and Islamic Africa. And a lot of the cultures he moves through, in terms of literature and mathematics and astrology, are equal to or more advanced than what he’s used to at home. It was a very interesting period.

It’s not even part of the language of the age – assumed white European superiority. He’s a gloriously open traveller, and also there’s a sort of whimsical incompetence about him. I mean, he dies there in the end. He ends up in his Y-fronts at the end of his first journey and has to hitch a ride on a merchant ship. Then he goes back to Stirlingshire, where he was a surgeon, and doesn’t do anything for ages until he sets off again.

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The other thing is that it’s the search for the mouth of the Niger river, rather than the source. A sort of backwards journey. In the final episode he disappears in rapids under a hail of arrow bolts. In one version there’s an epilogue by whoever edited the book – he got from local sources a description of how Park and his companion are ambushed on the river in a hail of arrows, and they stood up, embraced and jumped overboard together in each other’s arms. Isn’t that the most beautiful image? Which is why the attackers thought to record it – they thought it was a rather good way to go. Whoever wrote the edition I read had found the accounts of his death in the archives in Timbuktu.

Mungo Park has always been my principal explorer hero because of his openness and his lack of racism. It was not an exploration with any kind of conquest or any kind of mercantile interest. He was there on a whim, really.

Moving on 100 years, we’ve got The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham. He’s writing about the turn of the 19th century, is that right?

Yes, the Treaty of Berlin and the scramble that that set off. It is the set text on that most vital and defining period in terms of the West’s engagement with Africa. He writes beautifully and it’s massively encyclopedic in its breadth of scholarship. You can’t understand anything about contemporary Africa without reading that book.

There are shocking are the tales in it, aren’t there, of how the colonialists behaved?

It’s really devastating. He’s the first guy that I’m aware of who really put the hatchet into King Leopold of Belgium, for whom the Democratic Republic of Congo, as it is now, was a private estate until the Belgian government took it off him in 1909.

Private estate? But it’s the size of Western Europe!

It was literally his private property. And the estimates vary, but he murdered the most gigantic numbers of people in forcing them to grow rubber. Thomas’s book covers the despotic evil of people like Leopold, and the sort of contemptuous arrogance of Rhodes – who conquered Rhodesia partly by introducing smallpox-infected blankets as gifts to the Matabele [now Ndebele]. The book brilliantly deconstructs the personalities of these people, and it is, of course, meticulously researched. It’s also a compelling read, like an absolutely gripping novel.

Your fourth book is Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. This deals with oppression of Africans by Africans.

It was written relatively soon after the Mau Mau uprising. Petals of Blood is his best book. African literature is too often put into a corner of the bookshop like some kind of booby prize. But it’s a world-class novel by any standards – it happens to deal with those themes, but it’s a cleverly constructed and accurate account… It’s sort of prescient. Like any great novel it opens the heart of the issue. It’s basically about the Mau Mau, and about various infighting and how the Mau Mau became, from his perspective, a gang war in some ways.

Even recently we’ve had tribal violence in Kenya. Is that the sort of thing that he was predicting?

In a sense. But it’s not a morality tale – it’s a jolly good story. I haven’t chosen it because it says something in particular about Africa, although funnily enough it does. It’s less political in a sense than Things Fall Apart, although the setting is more explicit, if that makes sense.

Let’s look at your final choice, The Will to Die by Can Themba, a collection of short stories.

Again, I highly recommend this. Can Themba was a writer on Drum magazine, which was the great magazine with a largely black readership in the early days of apartheid. Can was a friend of my dad’s. It sounds weird, but there’s almost a nostalgia for apartheid, reading it, because all the stories are set in the townships – Soweto, principally. So the backdrop is apartheid, but again they’re not political stories.

There’s a wonderful story called ‘The Suit’. It’s about a guy who works very hard, and has a long walk to work. One day he forgets something so he goes back to find his wife in bed, and the back window’s open, and there’s a beautiful suit lying on a chair with the window swinging open. He doesn’t say anything except: ‘We have a guest. And that guest will take a meal, and you will lay the table for our guest and put food on his plate.’ And he goes on and on and on, and one day he comes home and his wife is dead in the bed, wrapped up in the suit. And that’s the end of the story. It’s just a story about jealousy. In fact, a friend of mine adapted it to make a short film set in London.

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There are just brilliant little character studies against a backdrop of apartheid. The Will to Die is a great misnomer – a lot of it is very funny and slightly surreal. I just found the stories very inspiring and uplifting. They’re all about people struggling against what feels like a crushing inevitability in the air around them, and that is sort of the African condition.

Wherever you go today in the Congo, you will find monstrous warlords. But you will find far more volunteer nurses and Red Cross workers and teachers who haven’t been paid for 20 years but are still doing their job, not allowing things to fall apart. And that’s the takeaway theme from all of this.

November 18, 2009

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Sam Kiley

Sam Kiley

War correspondent Sam Kiley is the author of Desperate Glory: At War in Helmand with Britain’s 16 Air Assault Brigade. Kenyan-born, he was educated in England and he has now covered 30 conflicts in more than 20 countries. Married with two children, he lives in rural Suffolk.