Africa as Cake

by zunguzungu

The reason I was struck by the Empire cake that doesn’t contain (many) African ingredients, by the way, is this very common historical figure, from Thomas Pakenham’s Scramble for Africa:

Ever since Roman times, Europe had been nibbling at the mysterious continent to the south. By the mid-1870’s, much was still mysterious.  It was known that Africa straddled the equator with uncanny precision. But no explorer had penetrated far along the dangerous latitude of zero towards the interior. No one knew which was Africa’s greatest river or where it led. Europeans pictured most of the continent as ‘vacant’: legally res nullius, a no-man’s land. If there were states and rulers, they were African. If there were treasures they were buried in African soil. But beyond the trading posts on the costal fringe, and strategically important colonies in Algeria and South Africa, Europe saw no reason to intervene.

Suddenly, in half a generation, the Scramble gave Europe virtually the whole continent: including thirty new colonies and protectorates, 10 million square miles of new territory and 110 million dazed new subjects, acquired by one method or another. Africa was sliced up like a cake, the pieces swallowed by five rival nations — Germany, Italy, Portugal, France and Britain (with Spain taking some scraps) — and Britain and France were at each other’s throats. At the centre, exploiting the rivalry, stood one enigmatic individual and self-styled philanthropist, controlling the heart of the continent: Leopold II, King of the Belgians.

I think I first heard it in Basil Davidson’s Africa: A Voyage of Discovery, but I had forgotten until now where it came from; apparently King Leopold of Belgium wrote to the Belgian ambassador in London something to the effect of “I am determined to get my share of this magnificent African Cake.”  (I just spent twenty minutes confusing myself using google, by the way; there are a great many different variations on the phrase attributed to him, which made me suspect its veracity until I realized that of course he wouldn’t have written in English. Doh!).

I wonder how much the phrase was in general currency; I found

this usage, for example, from the Review of Reviews in 1899:

The continent of Africa is shared out at last—at least on paper. Future generations will smile at the glee with which serious statesmen risked war and the wreck of civilisation in order to increase the area of the African map over which their country’s influence is recognised as supreme. For the partition is a mapmaker’s partition, about as practical as the famous partition by which a pope, on a map still visible in the museum of the Propaganda at Rome, divided the whole of the New World between Portugal and Spain. That was only four hundred years ago, and to-day neither Portugal nor Spain exercises sovereignty over a single acre of the New World. So it will be with Africa. The geographers who on Afric’s downs put elephants instead of towns, were hardly more unprofitably employed than those political geographers who are carefully painting great stretches of African sand or African forest French, British, or German, as the case may be. The agreement happily arrived at between M. Cambon and Lord Salisbury as to the limits of our respective spheres of influence in Northern Africa finally divides up the whole map. Tripoli and Morocco alone remain to be scrambled for. They are the only fragments of the African plum cake yet unappropriated—on the map.