Review of The African Revolution by James Cameron….
Regular visitors will know that I am a fully paid up member of the unofficial James Cameron Journalist fan club. I am sure one existed a few decades ago and rightly so for a man who was at the forefront of foreign correspondence for so many years. These days, some thirty years after his death, I find myself attempting the almost impossible task of showing the World Wide Web that he wasn’t the director of an animated movie about blue coloured aliens. I am, I fear, fighting a losing battle.
But in true, persistent Cameron spirit I fight on, unperturbed by aliens and as the proud owner of all of his works I shall finish his bibliography. Anyone who is familiar with his body of work would surely agree that it is indeed a worthwhile project.
The African Revolution was printed by Thames and Hudson in 1961 as part of The Great Revolutions series, the second to be published which also included volumes on China, France, Russia and Spain as well as the first book The Arab Revival by Francesco Gabrieli. The book, like the series was an impressive undertaking and Cameron covered every major African country from north to south, east to west including Algeria, Uganda, Liberia, Tunisia, Morocco, The Congo, Ghana, Tanganyika, Nigeria, Egypt and The Sudan.
The geopolitical map of Africa was and is as vast as its geographical size. A continent in parts barely touched yet in others forever scarred by colonial rule, religion, famine and segregation. Its vastness Cameron underlines in his opening paragraph on West Africa: “In Africa the words ‘East’ and ‘West’ are less geographical expressions than completely overruling philosophical symbols; peremptory indications of Africa’s huge divisions, for between the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean exists every kind of difference-intellectual, physical, administrative, historical, anthropological, and above all political. Between the Negro Africa of the western rain-forest and the Bantu Africa of the eastern savannahs stretches a gulf of both time and personality; they lie within one continent in their own two worlds-with the third world of South Africa cut away by an abyss of emotion that by now seems almost unbridgeable”
Given its size it is difficult to comprehend how France and Britain could have colonised such huge parts of the continent but colonise they did and with quite clearly opposing mandates. Whilst Britain sluggishly worked towards a system of self-government the French were intent on creating a colony not of self-sufficient Africans but of French-Africans, technically but profoundly importantly, French citizens with attributable rights. By the late 1950s the term ‘Colony’ was replaced by ‘Overseas France’ and remarkably, as Cameron points out, there was no word in the French language for ‘self-government’. What France imposed on ‘Overseas France’ was a token form of French citizenship, a half-way house with the arrogant assumption that for a negro African to be able to call himself a Frenchman of sorts was better than that of the Colonial African.
What ensued of course was years of attempts by African leaders to secure terms akin to those living within the British Commonwealth until De Gaulle, faced with the increasing desire by his colonial subjects for greater, far-reaching rights, offered them all a simple choice; absolute independence or domestic autonomy within the boundaries of French rule. All but Guinea voted for the later and such was De Gaulle’s astonishment of their ‘affront’ that he made a swift and sweeping financial example of Guinea and cut all aid within a year of the vote. Such arrogance, such self-importance could only be trumped in their attitude to Algeria and as with Vietnam they would be given a brutal wake-up call: “For the next four years the situation festered away in frustration and impotence; both in France and Algeria it expressed itself in a long demoralizing series of intrigues and conspiracies, repressions and vengeances, arrests, assassinations and tortures; in the dismally familiar pattern atrocity begat attrocity, violence bred violence, on both sides men of good will watched the creeping degeneration with despair”
Whilst not the absolute catalyst, it would prove symptomatic for many of the sociological problems France would and continues to face both in the motherland and overseas. Its often callous attitude by successive governments left its ‘citizens’ with a deep distrust of their colonial masters. They were promised much but given little and by the time of Cameron’s visits in the 1950s this sense of back-tracking and segregation by France was deeply ingrained with repercussions as evident in 2016 as they were in the 1930s.
In every chapter Cameron demonstrates how unique each country within the African continent was at the time of writing. In typical Cameron fashion he pulls no punches, a Socialist by heart he shows the actions of governments and rulers for what they were. He demonstrates the effect of British and French colonial rule, the result of independence whilst looking forward to the future and the revolutions of sorts to come in the 1960s and beyond. If you wish to know how we got to where we are you must know from where we came. Cameron is as good a starting block as you can hope to find.
James Cameron The African Revolution
Thames and Hudson 1961
For a bibliography of James Cameron the journalist including reviews please click here
Categories: James Cameron, Reportage, The Reading Room
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