Basil Davidson’s The Magnificent African Cake: 30 years on and still as magnificent as ever

In this post, Dr. Joanna Warson explores Basil Davidson’s classic documentary, The Magnificent African Cake, and considers some of the reasons why, more than 30 years after it was first aired on Channel 4, this film remains such an excellent resource for teaching the partition of Africa.

Over the past few weeks, in our second year unit, ‘Guns, glory hunters and greed: European colonisation in Africa’, we have been exploring the partition of the African continent by the European colonial powers. Taking as our starting point the Portuguese exploration of Africa’s coastline in the 15th century, we have traced the development of relations between Africa and Europe, from these early, primarily trade-focused encounters to the violent, territorial conquest that took place in the final three decades of the 19th century, seeking to present the “Scramble for Africa” as a long term process, whilst also exploring in detail the particular late 19th century context that enabled formal partition to take place.

We dedicated one of the first sessions dealing with this topic to watching The Magnificent African Cake, episode six of Basil Davidson’s award-winning series, “AFRICA: A voyage of discovery”. Despite being more than 30 years old, for a number of different reasons, this documentary remains a first class resource for teaching the partition of Africa, both to students with little prior knowledge of the theme and to those who have studied the “Scramble for Africa” before.

A long-term perspective

This documentary carefully situates the “Scramble for Africa” in its long-term context. Davidson begins by referring to the pre-history of partition, emphasising the existence of long-standing trading relations between Europe and Africa, before explaining succinctly the reasons behind the shift towards a greater European territorial presence on the continent. The documentary also successfully moves beyond key turning points in this transition from commerce to conquest, notably the Berlin Conference, to show how the European colonisation of Africa did not take place overnight. Davidson aptly distinguishes between conquest and colonial rule, highlighting the challenges Europeans faced in imposing and maintaining power over their claimed African possessions.

 An African perspective

It is perhaps unsurprising in a series entitled “AFRICA”, written and presented by one of the greatest Africanists of our time, that a strong African voice is present throughout this documentary. In contrast to the European ignorance of Africa’s native population during the colonial period and the failure to ask permission before partitioning the continent, something highlighted on numerous occasions throughout the film, Davidson pays particular attention to African agency. Davidson weaves into his analysis accounts of Africans as both resisters and collaborators, discussing, for example, the respective positions of Amadu Bamba and Samory Touré towards French colonial rule, as well as details of nascent nationalist movements in Africa in the early twentieth century. Alongside this discussion of the African role in the process of partition and its aftermath, there is a thoughtful and balanced assessment of the impact of the European conquest in Africa in both the short and the long term, which goes beyond a Western-centric explanation. In addition, the documentary contains various interviews with Africans who actually experienced colonial rule. These first hand accounts provide an invaluable and irreplaceable insight into how Africans experienced colonial rule, not least because, as the European colonial period becomes more remote from the present day, the number of people who lived through and remember European colonial rule grows ever smaller.

 An international perspective

One of the best things about The Magnificent African Cake, and a factor at the heart of the continued utility of this documentary as a resource for teaching the “Scramble for Africa”, is its international approach. Davidson acknowledges at the outset of the documentary that Britain and France were the leading powers in the “Scramble for Africa”. Yet, considerable attention is also given throughout the film to the role played by other European powers, including Germany, Belgium and Portugal. There is, for example, a strong discussion of the violence that characterised King Leopold’s rule in the Congo Free State, as well as analysis of the use of forced labour by the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique, the latter of which, in particular, might less well known to an English-language audience. Moreover, and related to this latter point, Davidson’s perspective of the “Scramble” is most definitely a pan-African one, revealing the full diversity of the causes and consequences of the different European colonial powers’ activities in Africa across the continent as a whole. Davidson succeeds, therefore, in presenting the partition of Africa, and its aftermath, as an international and interconnected process. This, in turn, enables The Magnificent African Cake to remain a highly applicable teaching tool in the current historiographical context, notably the growing popularity of global, connected histories of empire.

***

Inevitably, in 55 minute television documentary aimed at a mass audience, The Magnificent African Cake does not cover everything there is to know about the partition of Africa. Davidson’s broad temporal and spatial perspective, alongside the attention given to African agency, although key strengths of the film, also mean that many elements require further elaboration and explanation. Yet, for the reasons discussed above – and many others – this remains an excellent and relevant teaching tool, not only as a way of introducing the “Scramble for Africa”, but also as means of synthesising the numerous themes and debates surrounding the European conquest and colonisation of the African continent. 30 years on, therefore, Basil Davidson’s The Magnificent African Cake is certainly still as magnificent as ever.

 

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