Sir Harry Johnston & the Scramble for Africa

By Roland Oliver | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

this book has been written, and published, in the full knowledge that the circle of people is small to whom Sir Harry Johnston is even a name. One of the best-known London publishing houses indeed rejected the completed manuscript for this reason alone. Lugard, Milner, Rhodes and Chamberlain, Cromer even, and Kirk, all these enjoyed a fame which has long outlasted their generation. Johnston, despite his forty published works, died in 1927 almost in obscurity. No representative of the government he had served came to stand by his grave in the little Sussex churchyard of Poling when he was buried. Even to near contemporaries who ploughed adjacent furrows he seemed by the middle of the present century but a shadow from the past. `Sir Harry Johnston', the late Mr L. S. Amery remarked to me in December 1954, `Oh yes. He was such a failure.'

And yet it would be strictly true to say that in the course of ten years spent mainly in the study of Africa and its history no one personality has more constantly crossed my path. The best attempt at a history of all Africa so far published is Johnston's. It is supplemented by his encyclopaedic works on Central Africa and the Congo, Uganda and Liberia. I have encountered his name almost daily upon the lips of those of my colleagues who are students of African languages. It has always evoked a ready response from ethnographers and botanists, zoologists and museum curators. By the extent and variety of his contributions to learning alone Johnston, it would seem, should qualify as the completest `Africanist'.

Nevertheless, this book is only in some small part the story of a scholar and a writer. It is as a man of action that Johnston has chiefly aroused my historian's interest. It has been my happy privilege during the last five years to watch and encourage, and above all myself to share in, the work of a group of research students in the University of London, the majority of whom have chosen their special fields of study from the supremely important and richly documented period covering the partition of the continent among the European powers. From the succession of regional situations thus uncovered Johnston emerges, if not as a titan, at least as a ubiquitous and always significant personality. In the course

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