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Book Review


Edward Berenson, Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010. Pp. xii + 360. $29.95 (cloth)


     Few today would describe the exploits of imperial adventurers as heroic. Even the most well-intentioned among them served as the agents of a system that benefited a very few while causing misery for many, many more. Yet the title of Edward Berenson's excellent study does not take an ironic stab at the pretensions of nineteenth-century European culture. Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa refers to the icons produced out of a dynamic process that excited popular enthusiasm in France and Great Britain for empire-building, reifications of a "heroic moment" that stretched from the 1870s to the brink of the Great War. Berenson explains the convergence of developments that resulted in the molding of these charismatic figures – Henry Morton Stanley, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, Charles Gordon, Jean-Baptiste Marchand, and Hubert Lyautey – who personified the imperialist enterprise for legions who had little material stake in such undertakings. The result of Berenson's deft scholarship is a fresh critical view of European imperialism that loses little of the compelling nature of the tales that gripped Europeans of that era even as it breaks down the process of imperial legend-building.

     Each chapter features a different one of the five imperial idols noted above, with Stanley and Brazza each meriting two chapters to themselves. These chapters recount the events that earned each his "hero" status and explain their respective elevations to heroic status. Berenson connects the process of hero-making to the rise of mass media and a new style of journalism, political and cultural responses to the situation in Europe, and an updated version of Max Weber's theory of charisma. An introductory chapter orients the reader through debates covering such issues as popular opinion toward imperialism and the late nineteenth-century "crisis of masculinity," establishing the relevance of the work with regard to several historiographical discussions. Berenson displays his scholarly acuity in the subsequent chapters through his use of a rich variety of primary sources, the most compelling being the letters from admirers received by several of the "heroes" that reveals just how they were appreciated in the public's imagination. Published and unpublished poems as well as visual representations produced for mass consumption in periodicals or for display in museums also receive skillful deconstructions. All of this evidence produces new impressions of how the French and British publics acquired an imperial state of mind.

     The personal biographies of these five men had as much to do with contributing to their legends as the external forces that lay mostly out of their control. Whatever the consequences of their actions, however much they may have been exaggerated or distorted to be made more palatable for public consumption, they all possessed exceptional degrees of physical courage, personal resolve, and authentic charisma that served as the kernel for the heroic legends that sprouted around them. Stanley took the most active part among the five in promoting his own heroic persona; yet, even the least sensationalized versions of his deeds in Africa remain pulse-racing. His real life story turns out to be more fascinating than the one he concocted for his readers. Individual demeanors ranged from Stanley's brash exuberance to Marchand's disciplined ambition to Brazza's saintly asceticism, showing how personal charisma may come in a variety of guises.

     As much authentic charisma as each had, none would have achieved hero status without the popular press shaping their images into commodities that met public demand. By the late nineteenth century, burgeoning masses of consumers of popular print responded to heroes who fulfilled their collective psychological needs. French admirers from across the divided political spectrum united in their shared patriotic enthusiasm for Brazza, the peaceful conqueror of west Africa whose later mission to investigate claims of abuses in the Congo exemplified the humanity that guided the French culture-mission; for Marchand, whose retreat from Fashoda was spun into a moral victory that inspired new confidence in the French military's integrity and spirit, even as the country remained haunted by the débacle of 1870-71 and traumatized by the Dreyfus Affair; and for Lyautey, whose martial and diplomatic acumen secured Morocco for France and whose scholarly achievements earned him a seat in the Académie Française, embodying two of French culture's traditional claims to grandeur. Stanley and Gordon, so different from each other in so many ways, played similar roles for British audiences eager for reassurance that peace and prosperity had not made the country soft and decadent. Berenson adeptly reveals how these various strands – charismatic personalities, national moods, shifts in culture – produced the cult of the imperial hero.

     By virtue of its readability and admirable scholarship, Berenson's book has already begun to appear on the syllabi of graduate and upper-level undergraduate courses on European imperialism – and is likely to stay there for some years. Most of the chapters can stand on their own and hence be served out among students in piecemeal fashion. One essential point to note is that Berenson focuses on European social and cultural developments and the reverberations of imperialism in Europe – and in two European countries, at that; consequently, those looking to explore the themes most dear to world historians may find it of limited value: Africans generally only appear as extras downstage from the Europeans, and the interactions depicted between Europeans and Africans offer few if any revelations. The significant exception, however, is the epilogue, where Berenson extends the view into the post-colonial period and considers how the political leaders of the newly-independent African countries used the legacies of Stanley and Brazza to their own ends.

Michael Clinton is an associate professor of history at Gwynedd-Mercy College in Gwynedd Valley, PA. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame and teaches courses in world and European history. He can be reached at


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