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Originally published Saturday, January 10, 2015 at 5:05 AM

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‘The Fortunes of Africa’: 5,000 years of African history

Martin Meredith’s “The Fortunes of Africa” attempts to cover 5,000 years of the history of the African continent.


The Washington Post

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‘The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavour’

by Martin Meredith

Public Affairs, 745 pp., $35

The adjective “panoramic” barely does justice to a 700-page survey of Africa that starts with the pharaohs and ends with U.N.-Habitat population projections for 2050. Taking exploitation of the continent’s natural riches as its theme, the narrative gamely encompasses Hannibal’s elephant safari, the arrival of Christianity, the migration of the Bantu, the scramble for Africa, apartheid’s rise and fall, genocide in Rwanda, the Big Man era, the blight of AIDS and the recent arrival of the Chinese.

As he struggles to squeeze 5,000 years of history between two covers, Martin Meredith opts for a geographically literal definition of Africa, as opposed to that favored by analysts who view Egypt and the Maghreb as more naturally part of the Middle East and who thus aim their gaze below the Sahara. He is a master of deft, lucid summary, but the sheer quantity of information leaves little space for sustained analysis, and his delivery can be dry.

Although unlikely to be read cover-to-cover, “The Fortunes of Africa” will certainly serve as a meticulous reference work and memory-jogger for those taking the long view of the continent. Others will find that a random dip produces unexpected nuggets. Many readers will be familiar with the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade and Middle Passage, for example, but who knew that a million white slaves, originally from the Balkans, were captured between 1530 and 1780 along the Barbary Coast by corsairs, who used them to fight in their armies and build their ports? Who has heard of the Garamantes, a Saharan people whose network of underground tunnels and complex irrigation system allowed them to survive the desert rigors in the 5th century BCE? The quantity of research commands respect, and Meredith’s bibliography alone will serve as an invaluable guide for those who may balk at the vista and prefer to focus on the detail.

Michela Wrong is the author of three nonfiction books on Africa.



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