Stanford historian follows trail of mercenary European adventurers embarking on ‘Scramble for Africa’

Stanford historian follows trail of mercenary European adventurers embarking on ‘Scramble for Africa

Steven Press uncovers an overlooked method of empire-building in the late 1800s that saw Europe make an indelible mark on Africa. Press documents these historic events in his new book.

From as far back as we can remember, owning land has been a path to wealth and power. But what about owning a government and the right to control its territory? Is that, too, a path to wealth and power, and for whom?

Steven Press

Stanford historian Steven Press has published his first book about the con artists who gained control of much of Africa. (Image credit: Pui Shiau)

Steven Press, an assistant professor of history at Stanford, explores such questions in his first and forthcoming book, Rogue Empires: Contracts and Conmen in Europe’s Scramble for Africa. The book spotlights European adventurers who left the safety of their countries and endured treacherous conditions for a stake, not just in land ownership, but in sovereignty of territories overseas. The Office of International Affairs interviewed Press about his research.

From the title of your book, these adventurers are conmen. What was your first tip in realizing that the European landowners in Africa didn’t necessarily acquire their land by legal means?

I first came to know the story of Europe in Africa as a vile “scramble for loot,” to borrow from Joseph Conrad. Later, after developing an interest in legal history, I started to probe how and why this “scramble” involved private individuals and companies nominally winning sovereignty over territories in Africa in the 1880s. Greed did not explain why Europeans divided up Africa in this particular way at this particular time.

After digging through archives in Berlin, Brussels, London, Paris, Washington, D.C., and Windhoek, Namibia, I started to appreciate how much Africa’s takeover – starting roughly in 1881 – was triggered by a band of conmen operating in an unexpected place: the Southeast Asian island of Borneo. These were mostly fringe figures. Before they vanished from the scene, however, they promoted a simple idea to Europeans: that a single man or corporation did not need to bother with creating a business and building it into a metaphorical empire. Rather, they could literally buy their own empire on the far side of the world in order to amass what we would now regard as an unfathomable degree of political control. An empire, by this plan, could form the basis of a business, and anyone with the necessary funds could run it regardless of their background or authorization from the international community. Over the next several years, European adventurers put the theory to the test in Africa by signing treaties that “sold” them governing rights over swathes of indigenous territories.

Were there any mechanisms in place that might have allowed the original landowners to get their land returned?

Africa in 1912

Most of Africa in 1912 was claimed by European countries. (Image credit: Ourworldindata.org)

Yes and no. In the case of Africans who signed them, the treaties I examined carried promise and peril when it came to land. On the one hand, treaties allegedly signing over governing rights to Europeans often involved outright fraudulent claims about African leaders having sold sovereignty, as distinct from just land, which in many cases was not mentioned at all. On the other hand, many treaties transferring sovereignty carried provisions for land usage and taxation included at the behest of African leaders seeking to solidify their own standing. If honored, such provisions would have ensured the preservation, and even occasional aggrandizement, of certain land terms, mineral rights and indigenous customs vis-à-vis African rivals.

In a few instances, Africans later took European governments to court over violations of the treaty provisions in regard to land, taxation and the like. By insisting on sovereignty, however – a power that theoretically, in European law, overrode all other obligations and claims – Europeans generally prevailed. Europeans cited the power of sovereignty – which the treaties nominally sold to them – so as to allow for selective enforcement and cherry-picking of specific obligations and rights they had agreed upon in the rest of the document.

Did these types of land acquisitions have any effect on subsequent territorial issues?

Definitely. An enormous portion of the “Scramble” – 30.7 percent of all the land in Africa – fell under the political control of rogue companies and individuals at one time or another. That nuance played a part in creating highly artificial and highly arbitrary borders. In turn, those borders fostered conflict zones that might not otherwise have existed. Generations later, some African leaders would cite this circumstance as a principal cause for African civil wars and the climate of misfortune afflicting many areas of the continent. Not every expert agrees with the explanation, but it certainly was one that came up frequently and it continues to do so.

Are there any lessons learned from the “Scramble” that might be applicable to property acquisition today?

The big issue for me is that sovereignty, or state control of territory, has not been so different from private property in history. In many cases, it hasn’t been different at all. Rogue empires in Africa forced 19th-century Europeans to deal with this problem. Today we are having to do the same thing in different ways. Governments are considering privatization in all sorts of sectors normally considered “public”: schooling, policing, the military. Lines are also being blurred in conflict zones like Ukraine, where Russia has proposed “leasing” sovereignty over the Crimea.

How will you bring your research to the Stanford community?

My research will be the basis for two courses that I am excited to be teaching this spring, The European Scramble for Africa: Origins and Debates and How to Start Your Own Country: Sovereignty and State-Formation in Modern History.

Media Contacts

Steven Press, Department of History: (650) 723-2676, smpress@stanford.edu

Pui Shiau, Office of International Affairs: (650) 723-3174, pwshiau@stanford.edu

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