Edward Berenson


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

Cover Interview of December 12, 2010


I don’t think history needs to be “relevant” to our contemporary concerns, but if it is, so much the better.

Heroes of Empire shows how the mass media personalizes major events and phenomena and often makes one individual stand in for large and complex social, political, and/or cultural forces.

Doing so oversimplifies the forces in question and exaggerates the power and import of the individual or individuals in question.

In the late 19th century, the French penny press often made the explorer and “pacific conqueror” Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza the embodiment of its so-called “civilizing mission,” its putative effort to improve the lives of colonized peoples.  Nowadays, media outlets often make Sarah Palin or Sharon Angle synonymous with the Tea Party—thus erasing much of its complexity, diversity, and political independence.  In the wake of 9/11, journalists all too commonly distilled the world’s disparate radical Islamic movements into the person of Osama Bin Laden.

In the epilogue to my book, I turn to the important issue of historical memory, to the question of why we remember certain individuals and events and not others.  Naturally, I use as examples the five charismatic figures around whom I organized the book. 

Very few people nowadays remember Chinese Gordon, Jean-Baptiste Marchand and Hubert Lyautey.  Gordon belongs to a Victorian era for which little more than a pinch of nostalgia remains.  Marchand might have remained famous had Britain and France gone to war over Fashoda, as they nearly did.  But when the two countries became allies in 1914 and again in 1944, the old colonial animosities of the nineteenth century largely withered away.  As for Lyautey, who conquered and ruled Morocco between 1904 and 1925, his memory vanished in France’s bloody Algerian War of 1954-62.  The horrors of that conflict diverted attention away from France’s other North African territories, Morocco and Tunisia.

While Gordon, Marchand and Lyautey have largely disappeared from view, both Stanley and Brazza have retained our attention.

Almost everyone knows Stanley’s absurdly laconic greeting, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”  Popular writers and biographers continue to focus attention on him.  Adam Hochschild made Stanley the number 2 villain of his excellent and widely read book about the evils of Belgian colonialism, King Leopold’s Ghost (1998).  Jim Jeal’s revisionist biography of the explorer (2007) has evoked a great deal of comment and controversy over the past couple of years.  So have the photographer Guy Tillim’s celebrated pictures of a toppled Stanley statue lying facedown in an abandoned Kinshasa lot.

As for Brazza, his memory returned to the news in 2006 when the Republic of Congo (aka Congo-Brazzaville) erected a $10 million memorial to the French explorer and founder of France’s colony there.

It isn’t every day that an independent African state pays homage to the European who had once subjected its people to colonial rule.  But Congo’s rulers are so unpopular and Brazza’s reputation as a humane leader so durable that the Congolese government wanted to bask in the aura that still surrounds the explorer’s name.

© 2010 Edward Berenson