Many scholars argue that European imperialism shaped today's tropical Africa, for better or worse. Some imperial historians see the British empire as a fertile capitalist pioneer, kindling class‐conscious, national, politics overseas. Economists of differing persuasions can see it, to the contrary, as the engineer of an underdevelopment that strangles popular sovereignty. Together with most Africanist historians, this article doubts that Europe had such creative or destructive power; British rule, among others, had to respond as much to African history as to metropolitan will. Anti‐colonial nationalisms, in turn, were neither class not ideological vanguards but regional coalitions. Nation‐building thereafter was an elusive aim, steered by minority visions imperfectly seen and widely disputed, from capitalism to socialism. All these complexities rest, it is widely argued, on the historic difficulty of exercising power in what was until recently an underpopulated continent with openly available resources.