Book Review: African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa


by Michael Gomez

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. Pp. x, 505. Maps, notes, biblio., index. $45.00. ISBN: 0691177422

Dual Review: Empires in Africa

These two books, each by authors with a fairly lengthy record of historical scholarship, cover the same subject but their geographic and temporal focus is different. One is regional while the other is continental. Gomez's book leads up to the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade, specifically tenth to sixteenth centuries, when Africa was still largely the master of its own destiny, while that of James is from the nineteenth to twentieth century, when Europe colonized Africa. This review, therefore, begins with Gomez.

The central aim of Gomez is to provide an in-depth explication of the formation and eventual demise of the now relatively well-known but poorly described Niger River valley empires of Mali and Songhay in West Africa, on the basis of, in part, hitherto unmined primary sources. Beginning, in Part One, with Mali's precursors, Gao and the Kingdom of Ghana, Gomez establishes their historical origins in an urban-based civilization that thrived in the Middle Niger region in Pre-Antiquity. He divides his fourteen-chapter book into four parts: Early Sahel and Savannah; Imperial Mali; Imperial Songhay; and what he labels as Le Dernier de l'Empire (meaning, the last of the empire—Songhay). In his epilogue, by pointing to the depressing and ongoing religion-colored conflagration in Northern Mali, Gomez reminds us that history is an illusion given that on the river of time on which we are all travelers, there are no boundaries between the past, the present, and the future.

The main themes that Gomez attempts to explore in this work, albeit unevenly, are the symbiosis between the arrival of Islam in West Africa as a mercantile-based intrusion and the emergence of the empires. This includes the importance of long distance trade with the central Islamic lands of the Middle East, the role of domestic slavery (as well as the transregional Saharan slave trade) that long predated the Atlantic slave trade, concubinage and the politics of gender, race and the fallacy of the concept of bilad as-sudan (meaning "land of the blacks"), and the extra-territorial religio-political connections of the West African empires with the Middle East, of which the legendary pilgrimage of Mansa Musa is emblematic.

In exploring these themes, Gomez, sadly, severely handicaps his work analytically by employing a cultural studies framework which prioritizes the ideological over the material to the calamitous detriment of relevant substantive socio-economic analyses. For example, while long distance trade is mentioned in several places in the book, there is no effort to delve into the socio-economic specifics of this trade à la Fernand Braudel, although one is able to glean that the exports were primary commodities (e.g., ivory, gold, salt, as well as enslaved persons) and the main imports were manufactures, an unhealthy state of affairs that echoes, sadly, the present-day predicament of African economies. Consideration of this matter is important because any empire that rested on such a shallow economic base was always vulnerable to any external shock that deflected this trade. It also meant that there was an inherent economic disability in incorporating new, externally derived, technologies and economic practices that would engender meaningful economic development, which in turn could underwrite longevity. Was the demise of these Western African empires entirely rooted in dynastic politics gone awry, as Gomez suggests, or were other, perhaps even more significant, socio-economic factors also at work, such as Europe's chance encounter with the Americas? Compare the experiences of the Monomotapa Empire in southern Africa and the Zanj Empire in East Africa. Clearly, empires are more than just emperors and dynasties.

Who then, is the effective target audience of this work? It has to be primarily historians of world history with a specialist interest in West African history, not only because it is descriptively dense in its heavy orientation toward dynastic politics (Arabic names frequently tumble onto the page that would bewilder any non-specialist), but also because the format of the book is not user-friendly. Therefore, assigning it to any undergraduate level class is out of the question. Even at the graduate level it will present unnecessary challenges. Consider: while this is an undoubtedly well-researched labor of love that effectively brings together oral and primary written sources, and the secondary literature, the usefulness of the nearly 100 pages of endnotes could have been greatly enhanced had the book employed the "in-text" citation method. The reader is condemned to such tortures as having to plough back through scores of pages of small print in order to locate the full bibliographic citation of a source. Some may also find the use of a dual dating system throughout the book (Islamic juxtaposed against the Gregorian, as in "ninth/fifteenth-century," or "631/1234"), highly irritating. Desirable book features that could also have been very helpful include a bibliographic essay; additional maps; appendices on race and slavery; a timeline; relevant ancestral family trees; and a glossary of Arabic terms. Ultimately, the format of a book is a publisher's prerogative, but it is negotiable; especially if it enhances its marketability.

Among the many tragic ironies of world history is Africa's permanent loss of autonomy at precisely the moment that the chain of the international slave trade that had most grievously bound it to the Americas was broken in the mid-nineteenth century, only to be replaced by the much heavier chain of European imperialism. This topic is the subject of James's book, where his geographic focus is the entire African continent, with all the imperial villains present as each marched to the dictates of its own skullduggery: Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands.

A master of narrative history, James begins his survey in 1830 with the invasion of Algeria by France and ends it in 1990 with the collapse of apartheid in South Africa. This twenty-seven chapter book is divided into four chronological parts: 1830–1881 (covers the civilizing mission, the Middle Eastern slave trade, missionaries, Algeria, and South Africa); 1882–1918 (covers the invasion of Egypt and the Sudan, the scramble for Africa, southern Africa; the modern arsenal in the decisive suppression of resistance, racism and atrocities, Christian missionaries versus Islam, Africa in the popular imagination, the racialization of sex, and World War I); 1919–1945 (covers African nationalism, the Spanish and Italian colonial projects, the media and colonial propaganda, and World War II); 1945–1990 (chapters cover the road to African political independence, Egypt, the Algerian liberation struggle, the Cold War's African playground, the decolonization imbroglios in the Congo and Rhodesia, and the end of apartheid). The reader is also treated to sixteen pages of some 40 or so well-researched refreshingly pertinent photographic images.

To write a comprehensible history that surveys the entirety of a geographically huge continent across a nearly two hundred-year period in a relatively slim volume of about 300 pages is no small feat. The almost stream-of-consciousness-like cascade of historical events onto the book's pages remains admirably coherent at the command of James's pen. Moreover, he holds the reader's attention by frequently exploring hidden corners of the European imperial enterprise. The fact that this is narrative history adds to its charm, for the strength and appeal of any narrative history lies in its accessibility. From a scholarly perspective, however, there is an unacceptable cost: narrative history is not explanatory history.1 Supposed motivations of individual actors, for example, do not tell us everything about major historical transformations.

Africa's modern entanglement with Europe did not begin in 1830, but in 1415 with the Portuguese capture of Ceuta (now ruled by Spain) in Morocco. In other words, the perspective of the long durée that is among the hallmarks of world history is entirely absent here. We never really learn why Africa became the target of the imperialist take-over by a small population of people living in the Western corner of the Eurasian landmass on the heels of the Great European West-to-East Maritime Project, of which Christopher Columbus and Bartholomew Diaz were chief luminaries. James would vociferously protest this point by insisting that the uniqueness of his work lies precisely in the fact that he explores in detail what really motivated Europe's African colonial enterprises by concentrating on what was actually transpiring on the ground in Africa among the different actors. This, however, is like suggesting that the causes of a war can be determined by studying outcomes of decisions of generals on the battlefield.

There is another disquieting problem with this work. While omissions and commissions are to be expected in almost any work of such broad temporal and spatial sweep, here they appear to be deliberate because of James's Eurocentrist ideological viewpoint. This is best captured by an editorial he wrote in defense of the U.S. political scientist Bruce Gilley (of the bring-colonialism-back fame) for The Times (of London) on December 5, 2017 in which he states that "the British and French boasted a moral reciprocity by which submission was rewarded with civil peace and the chance to share the benefits of the European enlightenment," hence "empires have done good and we must feel free to say so" (p. 26). The many tens of thousands of Africans who died courageously resisting European imperialism, were, in other words, mere fools who did not know what was good for them. And never mind the many terrifyingly debilitating aspects of the imperial legacy that continue to plague Africa to this day.

James's book is based on primary and secondary sources, but the topic is hardly original. It is a rehash of the work by Thomas Pakenham which regrettably suffered from the same weaknesses, noted above.2 Nevertheless, in pedagogic terms this is an accessible book that would be at home in an undergraduate course (or even in an introductory graduate course), but with one important caveat: only by means of a judicious assignment of select chapters after considering the work of other relevant scholars.3 The European imperial enterprise could not have been carried out without the cooperation of the European masses, some of whom were sent out to do the actual dirty work of killing the darkies. James's book provides an excellent exposé of the ideological justifications behind it that helped to gain this cooperation. (The problem, however, is that James confuses justifications with causality.)

On the heels of the Neolithic Revolution, with its unprecedented potential for generating economic surplus, came a logical outcome: territorial conglomerations of ethnically-based polities typically held together by the hegemonic duress of a dominant but ethnically different central polity in order to exploit the subordinate polities. We call them empires. The value that these two books bring to the table, then, is that they ask us to grapple with this fact: the ubiquity of empires in human history does not ipso facto prove their desirability or even necessity. Even more to the point, despite both authors' romantic enchantment with them (albeit for entirely different reasons), we have to recognize that empires were nearly always projects of massive coercion in which plunder, brutality, and violence were inherent; a fact that is amply supported by both books.


1. See, for example, Alex Rosenberg's excellent book, How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2018).

2. James could have considerably strengthened his book had he also consulted the works of such other historians as Basil Davidson and Anthony G. Hopkins. Tellingly, none of these scholars (even Pakenham) is mentioned in the bibliography.

3. Specifically, here, one has in mind works by scholars such as Janet Abu-Lughod, Joseph E. Inikori, and Kenneth Pomeranz.


Originally published in World History Connected, Volume 16, No. 2 (June 2019), © 2020 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, this dual review is used with permission of the editors and Prof. Lulat


Our Reviewer: Prof. Lulat, teaches in the Department of Transnational Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and is the author of several works in African history, politics, and society.




Note: African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa is also available in paper back and e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Y. G-M. Lulat    

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