A History of Sub-Saharan Africa
Robert O. Collins and James N. Burns
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 418p.

Reviewed by Derek Charles Catsam, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin

Teaching and writing African history is a Sisyphean task. Africa, well more than four times the size of the continental United States, consists of 53 nation states, hundreds of millions of people, thousands of languages and dialects, and the longest human history of any region on the planet. And yet the specialist on South Africa is expected to be conversant in the history of Ghana, the Nigerian expert able to discuss Kenya, the expert on the slave trade is expected to be able to say something intelligent about the crisis in Darfur. It is no wonder, then, that good textbooks of African history that are readable and accessible are rare. Professors desperately want to be able to use textbooks alongside supplementary books, and yet most who teach about Africa realize that the main text they use oftentimes represents a miasma of alien worlds, a chronological mishmash, and attempt to cover all bases at the expense of being clear on none. The fact that our students come to us with virtually no background in African history merely exacerbates the difficult task of making Africa seem engaging and comprehensible while debunking myths both romantic and ugly.

Bravely entering this daunting fray are respected Africanists Robert Collins and James Burns. Recognizing the difficulties inherent in trying to write a comprehensive textbook, their A History of Sub-Saharan Africa instead takes a thematic approach to the continent that nonetheless also pushes forward chronologically. The book will still provide a challenge to most undergraduates, but its rewards are substantial, and their book should stand as one of the finer efforts to convey the impossibly complex idea and reality of Africa for people whose only background is likely to be their professors’ lectures and supplementary readings.

Collins and Burns break A History of Sub-Saharan Africa into four sections. The first is the longest, covering the broadest chronological time span, and consists of eleven chapters (each of the other sections has five chapters). Collins and Burns argue that to understand African history one must understand multiple subjects including environment, demography, geography and archaeology. Perhaps more than any other continent, Africa requires an embrace of disciplines other than history to understand its past. But as they make clear, that past is understandable, however incomplete the extant record, and thus the understanding must be based in the work of multiple disciplines. This first part, aptly titled “Foundations,” provides readers with a tour through various African regions and shows both similarities and disjunctions in regional developments.

The authors move into the second section, “Africa in World History,” which explores the early encounters between Africans and what we clumsily but persistently call “the west” (and to a lesser degree “the east”). Many of these encounters were far from pleasant, were based on asymmetrical relationships, and provide hints at some of the dynamics to come. In these chapters Collins and Burns show how Europeans could give (by introducing new crops and farming techniques) and take away (in the form of diseases to which Africans were not adapted). And then they could take away some more. The authors devote three chapters to the slave trade, with an especially welcome chapter on the human trade between Africa and Asia, an element that will be especially unfamiliar to all but the most well read students.

“Imperial Africa” comprises the third section of the book. For reasons difficult to grasp Collins and Burns give virtually no coverage to the epochal Berlin Conference that helped enable the European powers to divide up Africa with minimal loss of any but African blood. This oversight aside, they provide a brisk but effective overview not only of imperialism itself, but also of the conditions that fueled the European takeover of the continent and the conditions that prevailed for a brief but scarring era in African history.

The final section, “Independent Africa,” reveals the ways in which colonialism’s legacy lingered even as successive generations of Big Men and their ilk exacerbated the paltry hand those leaders were dealt. The damage they wrought was exaggerated by the further constricting conditions posed by global phenomena such as the Cold War. The book’s final chapter reveals a sense of cautious hope too often absent in overviews of modern Africa. Collins and Burns do not shy away from Africa’s problems, but nor do they succumb to all-too-easy (and too fashionable) Afro-pessimism.

Collins and Burns pepper their survey with figures and maps (readers may desire more of these) and they end each chapter with a brief, and sometimes cursory, bibliography. Like many textbooks, they also intersperse the narrative with blocks in which they address various important arguments and issues in the African past.

Unexpectedly, Collins and Burns seem to have succeeded in rolling Sisyphus’ boulder up a daunting hill. There can be no perfect survey text of African history. But A History of Sub-Saharan Africa provides a fine effort and its authors deserve praise for tackling such an ambitious and thankless topic with grace and verve.