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Third World Problems: Africa has never been a poor place. For ages it has been the source of fabulous wealth for others, yet seldom for its own peoples.

December 3, 2014

Copyright Wall Street Journal

Around the year 150 B.C., a Roman politician named Marcus Porcius Cato displayed a fresh fig before his Senate colleagues, which he said had been picked in Carthage just three days before. The point was to demonstrate that there was great agricultural wealth just across the narrow Mediterranean, and that the subjugation of their longtime rival would at last clear the way for Rome’s appropriation of it. Within 200 years, through conquest and colonization, North Africa, including Egypt, was supplying as much as 300,000 tons of corn per year to feed the Roman Empire. Figs were thrown in as a bonus.

Fast forward roughly 16 centuries and one finds another budding empire, that of late-15th century Portugal, trading slaves taken from West Africa’s Benin coast and selling them in exchange for gold at a place called El Mina (the Mine) in present-day Ghana. Within little more than two decades, the gold production there accounted for a very substantial portion of the world supply and helped finance Portugal’s subsequent conquests in Asia.

A little more than a century later, by which time European sea captains were making frequent trips around the southern tip of Africa on their way to the East, Table Bay, near the Cape of Good Hope, became a favored port of call, especially for English and Dutch ships. A small community of European settlers began to form there, and as their numbers grew, tensions rose with the native population of Khoikhoi. It culminated in a battle in 1659, in which the local inhabitants drove the settlers from five farms. In the negotiations that ensued, a Dutch participant recorded the Khoikhois’ grievance: “They spoke for a long time about our taking every day for our own use more of the land which had belonged to them from all ages, and on which they were accustomed to pasture their cattle. They also asked whether, if they were to come to Holland, they would be permitted to act in a similar manner?” No answer was recorded, although what followed serves up a rejoinder of sorts.

A little more than 100 years later, the Cape Colony had gone from a settlement that measured 6 miles by 2 miles to cover an area of 110,000 square miles. The newcomers had reached clear across to the east of the country that is now South Africa.

Stories like these, drawn from Martin Meredith ’s new book, “The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor” are all used to drive home a powerful point. The history of this continent can be summed up in one word: plunder. As one learns from the author’s abundant examples, plunder can take many forms: slavery, expropriation of land and resources, various kinds of financial exploitation, and enlistment as fodder in other people’s imperial wars. Mr. Meredith points out that in World War I, some 150,000 Africans served on the Western Front, where 30,000 were killed in action. In World War II, nearly 400,000 Africans served in the British Army alone.

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