Lannan Center Director Aminatta Forna Writes Lead Review for Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Latest Novel “Afterlives”

Picture of Abdulrazak Gurnah
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Read “Prelude to Empire” by Aminatta Forna.

Near the start of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s most recent novel, Afterlives, two men in a coastal town in German East Africa in the early 1900s muse on the possibility of a European war landing upon their shores:

They were preoccupied at the time with rumors of the coming conflict with the British, which people were saying was going to be a big war, not like the small ones before against the Arabs and the Waswahili and the Wahehe and the Wanyamwezi and the Wameru and all the others. Those were terrible enough but this is going to be a big war! They have gunships the size of a hill and ships that can travel underwater and guns that can bombard a town miles away. There is even talk of a machine that can fly although no one has seen one.

The German occupation of East Africa began in 1884, led by the commercial agent Carl Peters, founder of the German East Africa Company, who—in keeping with the methods of the time—acquired trading rights through controversial deals with local rulers as far as the Rufiji River, about a hundred miles south of Dar es Salaam in present-day Tanzania, and stretching north to Witu, on the coast near Lamu, in present-day Kenya. These sham treaties were recognized at the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, where the major powers of Europe partitioned Africa in order to avoid conflict over how its spoils should be divided, with no regard for the wishes of the African populations.

The Zanzibar Archipelago, where Gurnah grew up, lies in the Indian Ocean off the East African coast. It was for centuries a flourishing trading center dealing principally in spices and slaves; trading caravans traveled from the islands into the continent’s interior. Zanzibar formed part of the empire of the sultan of Oman, but in 1862 Britain turned it into a client state by backing the sultan of Zanzibar’s independence from Muscat. Following the Berlin Conference, and by agreement between Germany and Britain, Zanzibar’s control of mainland trade was limited to a ten-mile strip along the coast, part of which Germany leased from the sultan for commercial exploitation. Though Afterlives does not name its coastal town, it is clear that it is in this area.

Soon after the Berlin Conference, various factions of the coastal and interior peoples, including even the usually conservative Swahili merchants, rejected German attempts at governance through a series of uprisings that were brutally suppressed by the German Imperial Army with the assistance of the British Navy, which blockaded the coast to impede the import of supplies and arms. In 1890 Zanzibar became a British protectorate, while Germany attempted to maintain control of its colony on the mainland. But in 1905 the Maji Maji Rebellion began—a two-year protest against forced cotton production and scandalous German abuses, including flogging, summary executions, the murder of women and children, and even castration—the suppression of which required reinforcements sent from Germany. The rebellion remains the largest uprising in German colonial history, claiming around 100,000 lives.

The so-called Scramble for Africa has been well documented. Thomas Pakenham’s seven-hundred-page The Scramble for Africa (1991) focused on the stories of those often mythologized European men, such as Peters, who laid claim to the continent’s riches, and those whose political ambitions shaped its future: King Leopold II of Belgium and German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who convened the Berlin Conference, along with their British and French contemporaries up to and including Winston Churchill. Through them Pakenham traced the iterations of the European encounter with Africa from the fringes of the continent, trading slaves out of forts on the West Coast, to the expeditions into the interior, to the wholesale colonial endeavor—as well as the arrival of missionaries, among them David Livingstone, who coined the term the “three C’s” to describe the colonial enterprise: Christianity, Commerce, Civilization.

Continue reading this review in The New York Review.