Friday, May 27, 2016

The Alphabet of Alternate History: A

Guest post by Dale Cozort.

I did a panel at Capricon with a theme of alternate history outside of World War II a few years ago. I decided to do a brainstorming session where I came up with as many alternate history mini-scenarios for a given letters of the alphabet as I could, emphasizing non-western venues as much as possible. When I finished with one letter I planned go on to the next. I ran out of time before I got done with the ‘B’ but there are still some good scenarios seeds and a few saplings in here. I'll try to get at least as far as C before we're done.

 And we’re off, starting with the “A’s”

Argentina without Evita. Eva Peron never reaches national prominence or dies before she is able to gain significant power. What changes in Argentina? A more competent fascist-influenced regime in Argentina? Argentina remains a wealthy first world country? Who takes power in Argentina, and what do they do with it?

Angola captured by the Dutch or Spanish or Brits in the 1600s. Holland munched most of the Portuguese overseas empire and made an attempt to add Angola to its list of trophies, starting in 1641. The Dutch held parts of Angola until 1648, when a large Portuguese fleet from Brazil drove them out. What would have happened if the Dutch had succeeded in holding part or all of Angola? Would Britain have eventually taken the Dutch areas like they did South Africa? Would we have seen Dutch settlers moving inland from Angola like they did in South Africa? Or maybe we would have seen Portuguese settlers playing the role of the Boers, moving inland to escape Dutch domination and setting up an independent state or states. If the Dutch maintained control of part or all of Angola, that would probably cause enough ripples to abort the rise of Napoleon and both of the World Wars, at least in their our-timeline form, so there isn’t much point in speculating on how a Dutch-held Angola would influence World War II.

Angola caught up in the scramble for Africa. In the 1880s, the European powers engaged in a scramble to grab as much of Africa as they could. Boundaries were established as lines on maps in conference rooms in Europe, with little reference to the geography, ethnicity and power on the ground. Those lines got modified somewhat by power on the ground, but generally power or influence in Europe was more important than historical ties or power on the ground in Africa. There were some exceptions to that. By the 1880s Portugal was no longer a great power in Europe, but the Portuguese had held colonies in Africa since the 1500s and had a considerable population there. They ended up with slices of Africa out of proportion to their remaining power in Europe. That didn’t have to be the case. The Portuguese expanded their control in Angola and Mozambique considerably as the scramble for Africa ramped up. The Great Powers tolerated that, but they could have forced Portugal to limit their control to the areas they already settled, or even taken parts of historical Portuguese control away from Portugal and given the land to colony-hungry Europeans. An Italian colony in part of what is now Angola? Not out of the question.

Ashanti grab their coast. The Ashanti were a powerful West African empire centered in what is now Ghana. They were a minor group until the 1700s, when they became early adopters and effective users of firearms. They conquered a wide area and at some points had a centralized army bigger than that of the better know Zulus. What they didn't have, though they tried very hard to get it, was control of the coast of their empire. The British allied with various coastal groups to keep the Ashanti from gaining control of a strip of coast, over which the British established a protectorate.

The Brits and Ashantis fought a number of wars, with the earlier ones pretty much stalemates, but repeating rifles and machine guns tipped the balance in favor of the British and they beat the Ashanti decisively in 1873-74 and again in 1895, when they exiled most of the Ashanti royal family and annexed the territory. The Ashanti revolted in 1900, but unsuccessfully.

So if the Ashanti were able to extend their control to the coast before Britain could project power there, does that change much? Probably not. The neighboring kingdom of Dahomey held their coast, but France had little trouble taking them over. The key factor here was that the Europeans had a near monopoly on repeating rifles and machine guns for the crucial period when they took over most of Africa. Muskets and spears versus repeating rifles and machine guns wasn't a winnable fight. If the Ashanti had been able to control their coast AND find someone to supply them with modern rifles, that would have been another story, but with few exceptions the Europeans had a common interest in not supplying Africans with modern rifles--most European countries had designs on pieces of Africa, so there was generally common interest in not doing a trade that might bring retaliation in areas that they coveted.

There were exceptions to this, and one exception to the general refusal of Europeans to supply weapons to African powers is significant: The Russians supplied both arms and advisors to Ethiopia, where they played some role in allowing the Ethiopians to defeat the Italians in their first attempt to conquer Ethiopia in the late 1890s. In the key battle of that war, the Ethiopians armed 70,000 men with modern rifles from various sources.

Mussolini belatedly avenged that defeat in 1935-36, which set the Italians on a course toward becoming an Axis junior partner.

So, back to the Ashanti: If they controlled their coast, they would also need to find some source of modern weapons. They did have gold to pay for those weapons, but historically could only trade directly through British-controlled territory. The neighboring kingdom of Dahomey, which did control its coast, was able to buy four to six thousand reasonably modern carbines from German merchants, along with some machine guns and even some Krupp cannon, neither of which the Dahomey kingdom was able to use effectively when the French invaded and took over the Dahomey kingdom in 1894.

So it wouldn't have been impossible for the Ashanti to buy modern rifles and even machine guns and cannons. Keeping them supplied with ammunition in the event of a war wouldn't have been easy though, and evolving modern tactics can't be assumed. The Ashanti were pretty good at using their muskets and had reasonably good tactics, but were vulnerable to British bayonet charges historically. Even a few modern rifles would have made bayonet charges a very bad idea.

So let's say the Brits try to take over the Ashanti empire as part of the scramble for Africa, but the Ashantis have used their gold to buy a stockpile of modern rifles, etc, with some ammunition. They prove that the Ashanti empire can't be conquered on the cheap, like most of the African conquests were. Does Britain go to the expense of fighting a real war over the area? Probably not, though they could, in an era of battleships, probably take the Ashanti coast, cutting the Ashanti off from resupply and eventually making their investment in modern weapons useless unless the Ashanti could make their own ammunition. All of this would take a while though and could easily run into other conflicts that would distract Britain, like the Boer Wars, the last of which historically was fought at about the same time as the British annexation of the Ashanti.

 So maybe Britain tries an on-the-cheap war in the 1890s, discovers that the Ashanti will take more force to beat than they want to invest for the time being. They grab areas of the coast under cover of their navy and wait. Then, before they can do the coup de grace, World War I comes along and makes the Ashanti a very low priority. By the end of World War I, Britain no longer has much imperialist steam left, so by default the Ashanti remain independent, at least for a while. What impact, if any, does that have on the inter-war years and on World War II?

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Dale Cozort is a novelist, editor of Point of Divergence, the alternate history APA, and a long-term Chicago area fan and writer. Check out his website, blog, Facebook and Twitter profiles.


  1. The Scramble for Africa was one of those overdetermined things, with the outcome inevitable except for the details, unless you postulate asteroid impacts or something of that nature. There were African leaders like Samori who did their best at "self-strengthening" by buying modern weapons and copying European tactics (in Samori's case, he hired soldiers who'd fought in the French forces) and it didn't work. For that matter, when the British invaded Egypt in 1882, the Egyptian army had pretty much exactly the same weapons as they did -- Remington rolling-block rifles vs. Martini-Henrys, Krupp guns vs. Armstrongs -- and the British walloped the living snot out of them without even working up a sweat. The Europeans could lose the odd battle, like Isandlwana, mostly because of gross carelessness or some freak accident, but they were going to win the wars because the power differential was simply too great. There was Ethiopia, of course, but they were fighting the Italians -- and the Italians were willing to accept defeat after losing one battle, which neither the French nor the Germans nor the British nor (even) the Portuguese would. The powers with serious colonial empires -couldn't- accept a defeat; too much was riding on the prestige factor, which was what let them control vast territories on the cheap. They and the locals both knew they'd always win in the end, a clammy certainty which depressed the spirits of potential rebels.

    1. your assessment of Italians is ingenerous, Ayssinia was different from other entities and Italy was in her prime

  2. Tel-el-Kebir in 1882 is a pretty good example of why the conquest of Africa was inevitable. The circumstances were uniquely favorable to the Egyptians; they had 15,000 men to the British 13,000, both sides had the same infantry weapons (single-shot black-powder breechloaders) and both had 60 reasonably modern guns. The Egyptian army had been 'modernized' for a long time -- since the early 19th century when Muhammad Ali Pasha hired French instructors and sent his cadets to French military schools, and later by more European advisors (and Confederate mercenaries). It used pretty much the same tactics as European armies of the period. The Egyptians were in strong modern field fortifications, and the British had to attack them frontally, without attempts at flanking or maneuver. Result: Egyptian army shattered, Egyptian losses about 1,400 dead, British losses about 60 dead, country conquered without further ado. That was a far more equal encounter than most during the Scramble, and required a much bigger commitment of white soldiers. Most of the fighting in sub-Saharan Africa was done by tiny scratch forces of African mercenaries under a few European officers, armed with second-rate castoffs.

  3. Dale Cozort responding: I agree that against the full force of a major European power, most African states of the period 1850 to post-World War I were going to fold eventually. The technology and economic gap was simply too big. If the Ashanti were going to survive it would have to be by being enough bother that the Brits decided on a long-term strategy to bring them into the empire rather than a short term one. If they fought well enough, the Brits might even decide that they were a martial race along the lines of some groups in India and try to recruit rather than conquer them. France recruited a lot of West Africans into their forces, where they fought pretty well in World War I and World War II--though they faced tragic consequences if they were captured by the Nazis.

    At the same time, the lopsided British victory against Egyptian army rebels at Tel-el-Kebir wasn't a universal thing for European armies against African ones--and it came mainly via a dawn bayonet charge, which would have been interesting if the Egyptians had a few machine guns and resolute crews. In the Rif war, the Spanish and initially the French got very roughly handled by Moroccan Rif tribes and parts of French Morocco remained outside French control as late as 1934. The French committed 160,000 troops against the Rif tribes, while the Spanish sent 90,000. Warplanes, poison gas, amphibious landings--this was a major effort and the French thought that the Rif tribes were in the same category as Afghanistan's Pathans in terms of martial ability.

    Meanwhile the Somali Dervish movement gave the British fits for ten years and a Libyan rebellion against the Italians lasted through much of the 1920s.

    Africa was and is a huge place with a huge range of genetic, social/political and military diversity that makes valid generalizations about it tough.