The Fortunes of Africa (or, Why Reading Majority World History is Good for Pastors) image

The Fortunes of Africa (or, Why Reading Majority World History is Good for Pastors)

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One of the best books I've read this year has been Martin Meredith's sweeping The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000 Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour. It might sound foolhardy, or plain foolish, to try and write the history of an entire continent in one book, and clearly both writer and reader are aware of the chutzpah involved. But the clarity of Meredith's narrative, the brevity of his chapters and the scope of his analysis—which focus mainly, as you might expect, on the last two centuries—make it a compelling read nonetheless. Here are five reasons I would recommend putting it on your Christmas list.

1. Culturally, for many (most?) in the West, our history of the world is effectively a history of Europe. Some of this is natural, even commendable: it is appropriate that we learn our history (in my case, the history of the UK), and for most people reading this, whichever side of the Atlantic we call home, that history will feature Europe in a starring role. Some of it is morally neutral: far more things were written down in Europe between 1000 and 1800 than in most parts of the world, so there is plenty of available material to study. But some of can be more insidious. When your history of the world centres on people broadly like you in the past—people whose culture and religion shaped yours, whose leading thinkers wrote your literature, whose money still sits in your national bank account, whose cities and buildings can still be seen dotted across your countryside—it can be very difficult not to conclude that world centres on you in the present. You do not have to be a fashionable, post-post-colonialist, white-guilt-ridden liberal to see that Eurocentrism lives, and that it probably has something to do with the way we understand our history. So it can be helpful, to say nothing of fascinating, to read the history of the world as if it centres on somewhere else. This is particularly true when that somewhere else is Africa: a continent that dwarfs Europe in scale, antiquity, natural resources, geographical range and socio-religious diversity.

2. Apologetically, there are huge benefits to understanding the history of Africa. It helps us think critically about a number of massive apologetic questions: the history of slavery and the Middle Passage, the spread of Christianity (and the related question of how white / imperialist / colonial the gospel is), global theology, the history of Christian missions, the relationship between Christianity and white supremacy (as expressed in New World slavery, apartheid, empire, etc), and so on. Rare is the community in which none of these challenges to the Christian faith ever come up, and that means it is worth getting some context for understanding them. In some cases, the reality may not be as bad as you think. In several—I am thinking particularly of the Belgian Congo and German South-West Africa, for instance—it is probably a good deal worse.

3. Ecclesially, knowing the history of Africa, and African Christianity in particular, helps root us in a vital and often neglected part of the story of God’s people. Israel became a nation in Africa. Jesus fled to Africa for safety as a baby. Africa was home to the theological capital of the world (Alexandria), the first great patristic Bible commentator (Origen), arguably the greatest Eastern theologian (Athanasius), and certainly the greatest Western theologian (Augustine). Orthodox Christianity was taken down the Nile a cataract at at time, through Egypt, Nubia, Kush and Abyssinia, a thousand years before Europeans appeared with Roman Catholicism or Protestantism. (Interestingly, the one kingdom in the area that remained Christian after the rise of Islam is also the one kingdom that remained independent during the age of empire, namely Abyssinia. Its political independence and Christian antiquity came together in Ras Tafari, who governed under his baptismal name of Haile Selassie, or “Power of the Trinity.”) I never knew the remarkable story of how Christianity began in the kingdom of Aksum:

On a journey along the Red Sea coast in about 316, a Christian youth from the Levant named Frumentius was captured, along with his brother Edesius, and taken up a steep escarpment to the kingdom of Aksum on a high plateau a hundred miles inland. Held as slaves, the two brothers managed to gain the trust of the king and his family and, shortly before his death, the king set them free. The widowed queen, however, persuaded them to stay at Aksum and help educate her young son, Ezana, until he succeeded to the throne. On becoming king in about 330, Ezana urged the two brothers to remain in Aksum but they decided to leave and set off for Alexandria. While Edesius travelled on to their home city of Tyre, Frumentius approached Bishop Athanasius in Alexandria, appealing to him to send a Christian mission to Aksum. Athanasius duly chose Frumentius as a suitable candidate to lead the mission and consecrated him as bishop. Returning to Aksum, Frumentius established an episcopal see there and converted Ezana and his court to Christianity. He was the first of 111 Egyptian monks to take up the post. For the next sixteen hundred years, until the 1950s,
patriarchs of the Coptic Church in Alexandria continued to provide bishops to the highland region of Abyssinia, or, as it later became known, Ethiopia.

Nor did I know that the Kebra Negast, the “Book of the Glory of Kings” that connected the Abyssinian monarchy back to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, emerged as late as 1300 (which was, coincidentally, around the same time that European kings started to believe that the kingdom of Prester John, the fabled Christian monarch withstanding Islam, was in Africa rather than Asia). Nor had I ever heard of Nzinga a Mbemba, the late medieval king of Congo who converted to Christianity and tried (unsuccessfully) to stop the Portuguese from trafficking in Congolese slaves:

Each day the traders are kidnapping our people ... Many of our subjects eagerly covet Portuguese merchandise, which your subjects have brought into our domain. To satisfy this inordinate appetite, they seize many of our black free subjects ... And as soon as they are taken by the white men they are immediately ironed and branded with fire, and when they are carried to be embarked, if they are caught by our guards’ men, the whites allege that they have bought them but they cannot say from whom.

4. Historically, Martin Meredith does a superb job of joining a multiplicity of different narratives into a coherent whole. Without ever being so crude as to divide Africa into North, South, East and West, he nevertheless recognises that there are substantial commonalities between the parts of Africa whose geographical connections are defined by the Nile (Eastern Africa as far south as Uganda), the Mediterranean coast and the desert caravan routes (now largely populated by Arab peoples), the Atlantic coast and river systems (the western Niger-Congo language family), and the area from the Zambezi southwards (which was largely inhabited by San hunter-gatherers until the Bantu migrations). This broad division, for all its simplicity, makes the overall story much easier to follow. It even helps with telling the story of Christianity in Africa, since the former two (North and East) encounter Christianity over a thousand years before the latter two (South and West).

Perhaps the most powerful contribution of The Fortunes of Africa, reflected in its title, is the argument that Africa’s challenges stem from its riches more than its poverty. Growing up, I had assumed that much of Africa was poor because it was hot, and dry, and you couldn’t grow anything there (shaped no doubt by seeing Live Aid footage at an impressionable age), a trope so widespread that it even appears in The West Wing. Meredith’s thesis is the precise opposite. Africa is so rich with crops, animals, fuel, metals, precious stones, oil and minerals that it has continually been conquered, looted and exploited by anyone with enough firepower, from Mansa Musa to Colonel Kurtz: slave traders, ivory poachers, gold diggers, oil magnates, rubber raiders, diamond miners. (Niall Ferguson, whose Empire I also read this year, makes a very similar point when comparing the development trajectories of North and South America: the South’s natural material wealth was stripped so quickly that it never developed in the slower, but ultimately more prosperous way that the North did.)

5. Pastorally, given the number of people of African origin in pretty much every town, city and church I have been to, it can be helpful to understand African history. Our genealogies and histories matter to us, whoever we are, and my experience is that for my African brothers and sisters, genealogies and histories matter even more. So it is beneficial to have a surface-level grasp of the continent’s story. If you already have one, wonderful: you can ignore everything I have just said. But if you have never heard of Mansa Musa or the Bantu migrations, and wouldn’t recognise the Limpopo or the Highveld if they bit you on the nose, then becoming a bit more familiar with African history might turn out to be a good move. And if you want one, then I cannot think of a more useful one-volume guide than The Fortunes of Africa.

You can get it here.

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