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review 2017-11-10 07:59
In my Top Ten list of History books
Africa: A Biography of the Continent - John Reader

This is a wonderful and highly readable book, but do not misunderstand what it is about. The subtitle is completely honest: this is not a book (entirely) about human history in Africa; this is a book about the African continent.  As such, it is divided into three approximately equal sections:

 

1) Natural History: 

This describes the formation of the African continent during the cooling phase of the Earth's crust. Africa is unusual among continents for being composed of just three giant cratons. A large portion is dedicated to the formation of the Bushveld Igneous Complex- the single largest and richest concentration of mineral wealth on the planet, and almost the sole accessible source of some strategic materials like chromium. 

 

This part progresses to the emergence of life, and the considerable evidence that humans find their origin in Africa, with our present form emerging somewhere between 2 and 4 million years ago, depending on what criteria you apply, and how you interpret the available evidence.

 

2) Anthropology:

Development of human civilization in Africa, and importantly- the co-evolution of other organisms with the human species in their land of origin.  This is a big deal, because all the evidence suggests that humans only left their mother continent about 120,000 years ago. We are an invading foreign species everywhere else on the globe, and like most introduced species, we had fewer natural predators and parasites outside of Africa. Malaria is the best example of an organism which co-developed in evolution, in Africa, alongside humans. Humans even adapted with rearrangements of hemoglobin, which can be beneficial in the hybrid SC form, but deadly in the SS homozygous form (i.e. Sickle Cell Anemia).  This, and other similar examples account for the comparatively slower growth rate of human communities within Africa, compared to without, and some of these issues continue to plague Africa today. 

 

"Expatriot" groups returning to Africa about 15,000 years ago transformed human development on the continent by introducing foreign species which had been domesticated in Asia. Most important of these were cattle. Skeletal remains have shown two different pathways that Africans took with this new resource:

a) cattle raising for meat (in which skeletal remains show an equal number of males and females in the herd). and

b) cattle raising for milk: (in which skeletal remains show most males in the herd were slaughtered) 

 

The two patterns have different land-use and social development implications, which were fascinating to read.

 

There is an entire section dedicated to exploring how conditions, particularly around present-day Nigeria, led to the development of acephalous social structures... some of the largest and most sophisticated examples of completely decentralized human communities with essentially no leaders. It was a development which fit the local environment well, at the time it developed, but made Africa in general extremely vulnerable to foreign attackers with heirarchical social systems concentrating,  commanding, and directing resources against them. This began in earnest with contact with Arab slavers on the East coast of the continent, beginning about 800 years ago, and really picked up pace with European contact in the 1500's.

 

...Which brings us to the subject of slavery. It is an indigenous African practice, which evolved from traditions of adoption and extended family (mutual) obligations. Going back to what I said about malaria and Africa's slow population growth... this created a demand for labor which was sometimes answered with warfare and enslavement of the vanquished, or with peaceful indentured servitude agreements (some coerced, some not; some for a lifetime, some for more limited terms).  The upshot of all this is that a well-established social acceptance of slavery, and a well-developed economic system of slave acquisition and trade was in place by the time Arab slavers arrived in the 1200's or so.  Later, beginning with the Portuguese, Europeans fed this system, and in a sense "addicted" the economies in present-day Congo and Angola to the slave trade. Outright slavery continued in Africa into the 20th century, and many of the proto-slavery practices (i.e. adoption of orphaned relatives, in exchange for limited periods of enforced servitude) continue today.  One interesting observation:  plantations in North America tried on several well-documented occasions to force Native Americans into slavery, but the enslaved never cooperated. They simply refused to work, even on pain of death. The reason is that slavery was a foreign concept to them. Slavery is not a useful institution to hunter-gatherer societies, which don't cultivate or hoard large amounts of food (or any other possessions). It is only in pastoral or agricultural civilizations that large amounts of manpower are needed to work the land.  Africans brought to North America as slaves were mainly from agricultural areas of Western Africa which unfortunately understood well the concept of slavery, and culturally accepted it sufficiently to participate in it, in a way that Native Americans did not.

 

3) Human History:

This is the names and dates History that I had expected the entire book to be. There is little well-documented history before Arab contact.. the Great Zimbabwe, the Egyptian pharaoh dynasties, and the Biblical-era Ethiopians being the standout exceptions. Once Arabs entered the continent, with their written systems of recording, History as we think of it really takes off.  The book is necessarily superficial, covering an entire continent for about 800 years. As expected, there is a lot about colonialism, particularly the Dutch and British in South Africa, the Germans in Tanzania, and the British in Kenya and Egypt. The book follows through to the many independence movements in the 1950's and 60's, and ends ominously with the Rwandan genocide and the probable CIA assassination of Patrice Lumumba- first elected Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

 

Overall this is a definite Five Star book, and on my personal Top Ten History Books list.

 

Highly recommended!

 

 

 

 

 

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review 2017-07-09 05:38
A well-told account of a little-known war, by Winston Churchill
The River War: An Account of the Reconqu... The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan - Winston Churchill

My respect for Winston Churchill as a writer continues to grow. This is a well-told account of how British and Egyptian forces reconquered Sudan from a semi-theocratic (semi- because it was nominally Muslim, but an odd branch of it, and really more of a personality cult surrounding the leader) uprising calling itself the "Dervish Empire".

 

The Setup:  The book covers 1893-1899. Britain owns the Suez Canal, which it protects jealously as its main conduit to British India. Egypt supposedly exists as its own country, but is really part of the British "sphere of influence".  The Sudan is regarded as an undeveloped wasteland whose only value is the Nile River running through it. For decades, Sudan is neglected. Stretching back into history, and continuing until 1899, Arab slavers, mostly from present-day Yemen, have raided the area, selling captured Sudanese into slavery throughout the Arab world.

 

The Trigger: In the late 1880's, a Sudanese Muslim cleric becomes politically active, mainly as a result of his failure to advance in the clerical system, making a popular cause out of breaking away from British Egypt, which has offered no protection to locals from the aforementioned slave raids.

 

The Battlespace: Sudan is roughly 1200 x 1600 miles, yet >90% of the population lives within a few miles of the Nile River. Thus, the entire evolution of the war is a continuous push southward by British forces along the banks of the river.  Each battle progresses just a few miles down the river (south) from the last, climaxing with the fall of Karthoom, and concluding with "sweepup" operations south of there.

 

The seasonal quirks of the river completely define the course of the war. Typically the river level drops in winter, as the Kenyan mountains which feed into Lake Victoria freeze up. In the spring, meltwater from those peeks flow again, and the river floods. Low "tide" allows for passage across the river in areas, and prevents passage of all but the shallowest-draft boats, which must either wait for the river to rise again, or which can be deconstructed and portaged upstream to a point which is again deep enough to accommodate them. 

 

Technology: Three relatively new technologies played a large role in British success:

 

1) Gunboats

One would hardly expect gunboats to play a large role in the conquest of such an expansive territory which comprises mostly desert, but this is exactly the case. New heavy artillery gunboats were specifically designed with sufficiently shallow draft for use in the Nile. Perfecting field gun technology from the Crimean and American Civil Wars, the new boats can accurately lay down heavy artillery fire from over 1700 yards, devastating even the most fortified (by mud brick) Sudanese strongholds. The "Dervish" forces have absolutely nothing comparable to answer with. It is one of the decisive factors in British victory. Even in the middle of a desert, British force projection relies on its navy!

 

2) Railway

Churchill lovingly details the construction of a railway from Cairo, running the length of the river, providing a much-needed secure supply chain to the battlefront. It is a heavy investment which pays off handsomely, and the promise of use of the line for commerce, after the war, persuades the Egyptian government to contribute financing. It is on the occasion of the "River War" that the British army creates a Railway Battalion of specially-trained men who can keep the engines running, and make repairs to rail or engine, as needed, on the spot. A small, limited-capacity manufacturing shop in one of the rail cars, reducing dependence on distant factories for parts, etc. 

 

3) Telegraph

Construction of a telegraph parallel to the river, which keeps forces in touch with commanders back in Cairo, and more importantly: allows the frontlines to place orders in realtime for needed material, munitions, and men. (Even though the goods would still take weeks to arrive)

 

The Battle: It gets a little bit monotonous here, with troop movements here and there, etc. I found myself skimming through some parts.

 

The Resolution: Britain wins. The Nile between British Egypt and British Kenya is secure and cleared of radical anti-British forces. 

 

Outside forces: The Italian presence in Abysinnia is mentioned here, and plays a minor role in some early battles, where Italian troops are freed up to assist the British cause. 

 

The "Fashoda Incident" is mentioned, in which France advances an expedition to claim a portion of the Nile in Sudan. It is a purely cynical move to get negotiating power against Britain, as France would have no reasonable chance to actually defend their claim by force. The "incident' ends with a treaty protecting British sovereignty throughout the entire drainage area of the Nile, in exchange for giving France a free hand to develop colonies unmolested in Northern Africa.

 

Overall, this was a decent read. Monotonous in parts, but the best account I could find of this conflict.

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review 2017-04-05 18:37
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day - Winifred Watson

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is the perfect book when you are feeling down and you just need something light, fun and charming to read. Even though this book hasn´t the most intricate plot, it kept me entertained for at least a few hours.

I have to admit, I could have done without the few racist comments and the message that a woman needs a man in her life to survive in the world. But since this book is written in the late 1930s and the book has a dated feel about it, I haven´t been too annoyed by it.

 

 

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text 2017-04-03 18:50
Reading progress update: I've read 66 out of 234 pages.
Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day - Winifred Watson

Life hasn´t been too good in the last couple of weeks, so I´m in desperate need of a light and fun read.

 

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day definitely fits this bill. Miss Pettigrew is simply endearing and Dylesia Lafosse´s naivety is charming. And I cannot wait to meet Michael. Miss Pettigrews first judgement of his character is a devastating one and she doesn´t even know him yet.

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review 2017-03-10 10:13
Biblical fan fiction
Barabbas - Alan Blair,Pär Lagerkvist

Short (150 pgs) story following the life of the criminal Barabbas pardoned by Pontius Pilate and the crowd in Jesus's stead, for about 30 years following the crucifixion. Non-canonical, obviously. I think the point is to be a springboard for discussion about the nature of being an adherent to an institutionalized faith vs. following a personal philosophy not sanctioned and validated by ritual and mass worship. 

 

I guess Dino de Laurentiis made this into a film in the late 50's/early 60's, which I can't even begin to imagine, as the only work of his I am familiar with is Barbarella, in which Jane Fonda is nearly pecked to death by parakeets. 

 

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