Typical Technological Trickery

Notes from "Africa: a biography of the continent" by John Reader

02 May 2020

I read this book over the last few months hoping to get some more insight into African history. It’s a great book and very readable, although some parts drag on a bit or repeat things (I skimmed over a few pages).

While reading I realised I was learning so many interesting things that I decided to keep notes so that I wouldn’t forget them all. I wasn’t originally intending to share them anywhere so they aren’t necessarily very well written.

Everything here is according to the book, obviously I don’t know much about African history (otherwise I wouldn’t need to read a book about it) so there might be things which are misleading or even plain wrong and I wouldn’t have been able to spot them.

Early chapters

  • Africa is the oldest continent to have its current form, others had more recent geological events create/affect them.
  • Humanity began in Africa
  • Life itself began in Africa!
  • Languages in Africa have a lot more diversity: non African languages are all somewhat related to each other because they branched off the tree later.
  • The sahara was fertile until the last ice age when changes in ocean currents reduced rainfall!
  • Humans standing upright was probably a way to regulate body temperature, and happened before brain size increase or tool use! Standing up means less body exposed to the sun (so less radiative heating and more bare skin which can sweat better b/c you don’t need fur to protect from uv on skin which isn’t exposed to the sun) and more breezy. Humans are better than other mammals in high temp as long as we get enough water!
  • Law of the minimum: the resource that is the least readily available is the one that limits growth.
  • Various pre-homo sapian humans explored outside Africa but died out.
  • There is a family of languages called Bantu which is spoken all over Africa.

African civilizations

  • There was a major civilization in Ethiopia at Aksum around the same time as Rome and of comparable influence!
  • It was on a plataeu which lowered the temperature and increased rainfall, making it more hospitable than most of the rest of Africa.
  • The plateau was a natural fortress: mountainous on 3 sides and desert on the other.
  • One of the main causes of its downfall was deforestation (b/c rain leached the soil and reduced food production).
  • They built massive monuments called stele, gigantic chunks of carved solid rock, which still exist.
  • Ethiopians believe that Aksum rulers interacted with ancient biblical figures, but the timelines are all wrong.
  • There was a civilization on the inland Niger delta which didn’t have any rulers/upper classes/etc. They were mostly subsistence farmers but it was so hard that they all had to rely on each other a lot. Being “nice” was basically mandatory for survival so it got embedded deeply into their culture. Also interesting: they lived in ~30 mini-towns all near to each other to walk between but firmly separated by less solid ground in between.
  • Elephants used to seriously compete with humans for resources. They would raid farms and eat all the food! Governments paid people to hunt them but they still couldn’t keep the numbers down until more recently when all the elephant habits were destroyed.
  • Using animals for farming in sub-saharan Africa was basically useless because they needed to eat more calories than they could help to grow. Different to Europe because of the kinds of crops possible, more rapidly growing weeds, and hard to plough soil.
  • Many societies in SSA used to have a gerontocratic power system (old people ruling). This made for stable, peaceful, but very conservative societies.
  • Lake victoria is a gigantic lake between kenya, uganda, and tanzania. It’s the source of the nile.
  • Bananas are so easy to grow that when they were introduced to certain regions of Africa they caused massive population growth due to more food being available.
  • Stupid white explorers assumed that any elite groups in Africa had to be descended from europeans and came up with convoluted explanations for this to happen.

Foreign influences

  • The initial exploration/exploitation of Africa by Europeans was by the Portugese. They sailed all the way around it eventually, looking to bypass other countries and get to the indies.
  • A lot of the initial slave trade was Africans selling other Africans to Europeans (for lack of anything else to sell to buy European goods).
  • The Portugese empire eventually collapsed due to lack of manpower.
  • Cowerie shells were used as currency for a long time. They were tough, light, and hard enough to get hold of on the African mainland that this made sense!
  • The maldives were possible to live on because they were a great source of cowerie shells, so people living there could buy food etc with them.
  • Even after the atlantic slave trade was abolished, it continued within Africa. People used slaves to grow crops etc and sold the crops to Europeans instead.
  • Droughts increased slavery because desparate people would give themselves into slavery to be fed.

The scramble

  • A couple of different european explorers made expeditions across Africa, but at a big cost in the lives of their African and European helpers.
  • The Congo began as a supposedly philanthropic endeavour to ‘civilise’ central Africa.
  • The Belgian king decided he wanted his own personal colony, lots of political machinations and throwing money around and he got it.
  • At first the Congo ‘free’ state was a massive money sink, but then tires were invented, demand for rubber soared, and it started making huge profits from exported rubber.
  • But: the methods used were horrific. They dictated that the natives (who didn’t have any choice in becoming part of this ‘country’) work for them gathering rubber as ‘taxes’. High quotas were enforced with violence.
  • Unsurprisingly this didn’t go well longer term:within 5 years or so there was massive depopulation (presumably both deaths and migration) and environmental destruction.
  • The profits all went into development of Europe, obviously…
  • All of the national borders in Africa divide ethnic groups and resources in stupid ways because they were drawn up by Europeans.
  • Border areas are relatively badly served by most infrastructure: the core infrastructure of the country they are in is far away and they aren’t allowed to use the neighbouring country’s.
  • Most colonies weren’t actually productive at all (Rhoesia never made any money, the German colonies only lasted for 30 years and had major economic problems).
  • Germany had colonies! I didn’t know that. They were actually treated comparatively well too. The book doesn’t mention it but the German military committed genocide in what is now Namibia.

Post world war 2

  • After WW1/2 people started to want to free the colonies (anit-facism, increase in American power and America being an ex-colony, Africans helped a lot during the war).
  • The initial idea was to slowly transfer power over decades, but various nationalist movements started rioting etc and so power transfers happened very quickly.
  • This is probably why there have been so many political problems in Africa recently (uneducated population with no experience in democracy suddenly ask to elect leaders from among themselves).