Edward Berenson

 

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

Cover Interview of December 13, 2010

A close-up

My hope is that the book’s opening paragraph will do what a lead paragraph is supposed to do: make browsers want to read on.

I open with the young French army captain, Marchand, tugging a dismantled steamboat across the forbidding, malarial landscape of Central Africa.  He is en route to Fashoda, a “wretched” no-man’s-land on the Upper Nile.

For reasons nearly unfathomable today, Fashoda loomed large in the 1890s as a strategic imperial key to the entire African continent. Marchand never stood a chance of preventing the powerful, mechanized Anglo-Egyptian army from taking Fashoda.  But the Frenchman’s stubborn effort to claim the broken-down fort made him his country’s most celebrated fin-de-siécle hero.

Marchand was said to embody the best of what it meant to be French.  How and why the captain’s hopeless cause and subsequent “glorious defeat” made him so popular is what my book is all about.