Edward Berenson


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

Cover Interview of December 12, 2010

The wide angle

There are two main contexts for this book, the first of which has to do with Barack Obama and charisma.

I began work on this book when the then junior senator burst onto the political scene.  This inexperienced politician, a young man just two years into an uneventful Senate career, seemed to pack a political punch unrelated to any institutional power or recognized accomplishments. His political oomph appeared to come from out of nowhere, though many associated it with his apparently dazzling personality.

Obama immediately caught the media’s attention, and on TV in particular, he appeared to posses that indefinable something, that “it,” identified by the great German sociologist Max Weber as “charisma.”

Charisma, Weber wrote, was a kind of gift, an inexplicable force that makes those who possess it different from other people, magical in a way, and all the more powerful for the impossibility of putting one’s finger on its source.

Obama rode to the presidency partly on the strength of his charismatic aura, and a great many of his followers attributed near magical abilities to him.  Once in the White House, he would quickly turn the country around—or so some of Obama’s supporters thought.

Even without the economic crisis, the new president would inevitably have disappointed his most ardent followers—and the journalists and media figures once smitten as well.  When the reality hit hard, media and public alike abandoned Obama as suddenly as they had embraced him two years earlier.  His charisma drained away, just as Weber would have predicted.  The sociologist wrote that charismatic authority is fragile; to persist, it needs constant validation from supporters.

The President’s seesaw of adulation and condemnation helps explain the so-called “enthusiasm gap” between disillusioned Democrats and highly charged Republicans.  The latter have been stirred by a charismatic Tea Party movement and leaders like Sarah Palin, who suddenly enjoy considerable influence and power.  Palin’s authority resides in the media-enhanced aura that surrounds her, rather than political achievement and experience.

As I began to write about European explorers and conquerors of Africa, it occurred to me that they too possessed charismatic power, the ability to attract legions of followers and wield enormous political influence—without necessarily accomplishing anything of note.

Henry Morton Stanley didn’t actually “find” Livingstone—who was never really lost.  And Stanley’s final African journey, the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, proved an abject failure.  Emin, like Livingstone before him, refused to be “rescued.”  In both cases Stanley’s expeditions needlessly cost hundreds of African and European lives.

rorotoko.com An image from the Illustrated London News, 3 May 1890.

But none of that mattered at the time. Stanley returned from the Emin Pasha expedition the most famous man in England.  The public acclaim surrounding him was such that even the British prime minister had to take seriously what Stanley said.  Queen Victoria, meanwhile, decided to make Stanley a knight.

The other context for Heroes of Empire is historiographical.

Historians of empire have traditionally argued that the majority of people in Britain and France took little interest in the details of overseas expansion—the geographical boundaries in question, the supposed economic advantages, the putative political gains, the strategic objectives involved.

This view is surely correct.  But it doesn’t follow, as historians once thought—although less so nowadays—that the lion’s share of British and French men and women remained indifferent to empire.

The broad public in both countries may have been disinterested in the politics and economics of imperialism, even scorning them at times.  That disinterest did not extend to those who braved the scarcely imaginable dangers of unknown places and “savage” people, who revealed traits of character and personality widely admired in each society.

The political leaders and administrators, who constituted what the historians Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher called the “official mind” of imperialism, may have focused on policy.  But ordinary citizens concentrated on heroes.