Edward Berenson


On his book Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa

Cover Interview of December 12, 2010

In a nutshell

Heroes of Empire tells the story of five colonial figures, two British and three French, who made imperial conquest exciting, even exhilarating, for millions of ordinary citizens.

Most British and French people never set foot in their country’s imperial possessions, nor did they have any economic interests there.  But between 1870 and 1914, imperialism became a hugely popular phenomenon.  The press gave it top billing, advertisers embraced its “exotic” imagery, and above all, people looked up to the charismatic heroes whose adventures seemed to turn overseas expansion as a series of extraordinary, personal quests.

The heroes in question include Henry Morton Stanley, famous for uttering, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” and infamous for his ruthless Congolese exploits; Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, the “pacific conqueror” who has admirers in Africa to this day; Charles (Chinese) Gordon, one of four “Eminent Victorians” that the Bloomsbury writer Lytton Strachey saw as archetypes of the age; Hubert Lyautey, the dashing soldier-scholar who conquered Morocco for France; and Jean-Baptiste Marchand, the French “hero of Fashoda” whose band of 150 men briefly stood up to an Anglo-Egyptian army 25,000 strong.