Empire in Africa; Angola and Its Neighbors

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Empire in Africa; Angola and Its Neighbors. By David Birmingham. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006. Pp. v-ix, 190; 1 map. $22.00 paper.

This useful book consists of eleven chapters presenting David Birmingham's reflections on the European presence in central Africa (mostly Angolan) during the last two centuries. Through the lens of both the historian and contemporary observer, Birmingham presents the complex history of the region's incorporation into the European world. The mixture of serious historical scholarship and personal observations makes for both the strength and weakness of the volume.

The non-academic reader might find this book a good introduction to Angolan history and politics. Several of the chapters present the long and troubled history of Angola in a journalistic style that keeps the reader engaged. Chapter 9 on Carnival in Luanda, for example, reprints a 1988 piece that Birmingham wrote for the Journal of African History1 as a festschrifi honoring Roland Oliver and provides an excellent overview of some of the cultural and social factors that have shaped Angola's history, especially from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. But not many of the essays are as easy to follow as this one. Moreover, some readers might take exception to some of the superficial comments that appear in many of the scholarly essays. To characterize the civil war in Angola as a "depraved war between a government mesmerized by wealth and an opposition obsessed by power" (p. 154), as the author does, is to present quite a misleading assessment of the Angolan civil war. The number of such casual comments about contemporary Angola (and some of Angola's neighbors) are too numerous to list in a short review.

Specialists in the history of the region seeking penetrating analyses of the region might not find much in Birmingham's book. Birmingham attempts to bring some intellectual coherence to this eclectic collection of essays and commentaries by using an edited presidential address that he delivered to the African Studies Association of Britain (we are not told in which year the presentation was made) as a conceptual introduction. …