Martin Meredith on Africa’s tumultous history and staggering wealth

I meet Martin Meredith on the terrace at the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. The historian is in town to promote his book, The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour – a sweeping, magisterial and eloquently detailed account of the continent’s history.

Martin Meredith
Martin Meredith at the Mount Nelson Hotel, photographed by Lar Rattray.

This is Meredith’s 13th book; each of them has tackled some aspect of Africa, a continent which, he says, “becomes part of your soul”. “It’s been my lifetime’s occupation – because it’s big enough and it’s got enough interesting aspects it has led me from one book to another.”  As a boy he had dreamt of exploring the Nile.

After what he describes as “a standard English schooling”, at 21, he borrowed money from his grandmother and went off to explore the river from the Mediterranean, making his way down to Lake Victoria. The bug had bit him: he became a foreign correspondent “at a time when Africa really mattered to the rest of the world and there was a great deal going on. I had a front-row seat in all kinds of dramatic events, which was fun as well as sad in many ways.” 

After 15 years, “I’m rather tired of jumping on planes and going off to the latest revolution. They’re a bit repetitive after a while,” he adds with a wry smile. Did he get used to the dangers that  came with the job? Yes, he says – but you have to have the stamina required to “face up to nasty events”. “You need to have a good working knowledge of how to avoid danger; if you are not alert to the risks you’ll probably not last for very long.” In the 1960s and 70s, white foreign correspondents had “an immunity” in African conflicts if it was clear they weren’t mercenaries.

But the days of “derring-do” reporters are over: today, “it’s a much more dangerous profession”. Risks include abduction and being held for ransom. Not that his own time covering conflicts was serene: he recalls being thrown into jail by then Ugandan president Idi Amin, which sparked an international furore. 

He was released after several days, after attempts to frame him for espionage (and  being charged with stealing a telephone  directory from his hotel). His first book, about Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence, he wrote while stationed there for London’s Sunday Times. He had found that despite being close to the action, as a foreign correspondent “you have a very narrow perspective on what goes on… you don’t understand all the motives of people, what the crisis has emerged from”. 

“Writing books I found much more rewarding,” he says. “I became more interested in the background to events, rather than just the events themselves … You have to dig down all the time.” He became a research fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, in the 1980s, and this allowed him “to dig deeper  into the background of events which I, myself, had witnessed” when covering the early post-independence years of  new African states. 

With a string of titles published, Meredith’s widely lauded State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence was published in 2006. This was his first attempt to explore the continent as a whole. In many ways, Fortunes is a continuation, aiming “to build the canvas even bigger and see what it looks like over 5000 years”. “It’s one of those titles that you can take in two ways – one is the misfortunes or the fortunes… and then the other one is quite literally for the wealth that there is.”

Meredith spent about a year trying to figure out if it was feasible to write “a standard, one-volume history of Africa”. With more than 10 times the amount of material required, he was initially uncertain as to whether he could “shrink” the content, concerned it might all end “a terrible mess”, and that the narrative’s inclusion of the “deep past” might make things too complicated. But he found a way.

“The trick was to write almost a series of snapshots of events or personalities” – such as the trade in slaves and ivory, and the emergence of religions such as Islam – that had influenced the continent’s various regions. As he researched, he marvelled at “the extraordinary parallels between what happened two or three thousand years ago and what goes on now” – the way in which Africa has constantly been coveted for its riches. “Outside interests have always dictated the course of African history.

Africa has always been prized for its commodities – whether it was gold, ivory or slaves. And in the modern era it is oil and diamonds and manganese …” Two thousand years ago it was providing food supplies to Rome; today the Chinese are omnipresent. However, “there’s no sinister motive behind the Chinese expansion in Africa,” he says.

 In exchange for raw materials, football stadiums are built, or backhanders on contracts are given. “It’s the same as it always has been. It’s not military conquest anymore – it’s a different means of getting hold of Africa’s wealth.” Despite the vastness of the book’s scope, Meredith says he has tried to include “the nuances and contradictions” of Africa’s story.

An example of this is the disconcerting truth that many rulers and kings in West Africa were actively involved in capturing and selling their own people (or those of defeated neighbouring kingdoms) to European slavers – a collusion that many people would prefer to ignore. “Nothing is ever written in black and white. People want their own myths to be confirmed. They don’t want people to start undermining them.”

I ask him what the future holds for the continent. “There isn’t really an aggregate picture; there are always winners and losers and some states rise and then fall – and that’s the way it always has been.”

He doubts that Libya and Somalia will ever become functioning, cohesive states again.

“They are reverting back to a position they held for centuries and centuries,” he says. As Fortunes shows, these nations have always been artificial constructs, with hugely disparate peoples living in them.

And South Africa? Despite pervasive corruption, he believes the prospects of Africa’s only modern, industrialised economy “are much brighter than anywhere else in the continent”.

The Fortunes of Africa is published by Simon & Schuster and Jonathan Ball.

This article first appeared in Wanted‘s February 2015 edition.

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