THE RACE TO FASHODA European Colonialism And African Resistance In the Scramble for Africa By David Levering Lewis Weidenfeld & Nicholson. 304 pp. $24.95

IT SOUNDS like opera-bouffe or the child's game of Capture the Flag. "Who are you?" asks the tall, red-faced English general, waving a Union Jack high above the bullrushes of Fashoda, 400 miles south of Khartoum. "I'm Captain Jean-Baptiste Marchand," comes the reply from a man waving a French Tricolor, "with 7 French officers, 100 Senegalese tirailleurs, 4 field-guns and a steam-launch. Who are you?" "I am General Herbert Kitchener with 25,000 English, Egyptian and Sudanese troops, 40 field-guns and four gun-boats."

Embarrassed handshakes, followed by champagne all around. But to whom does Fashoda belong? A shoot-out would hardly be a sporting way to decide, with the French outnumbered 250 to 1. More champagne. Then the two commanders refer the matter to Europe.

"Opera-bouffe" was actually the word used by Kitchener in his official report of this ludicrous affair. The confrontation occurred on Sept. 19, 1898. Marchand claimed that Fashoda and the whole Bahr-al-Ghazal province of the Southern Sudan had been abandoned by Egypt and become a political no-man's-land, res nullius. Two months earlier he had formally taken possession in the name of the French Republic. His capital was a mud-brick fort 35 meters square, surrounded by hundreds of miles of desolate swamp. Kitchener claimed the whole of the Sudan in the joint names of Queen Victoria and the Khedive of Egypt, under whose joint flags he had smashed 60,000 Dervishes at the Battle of Omdurman a month before.

Fashoda would have been a mere footnote in the history of European imperialism in Africa had it not been for one extraordinary feature of the affair. When the news of the confrontation was telegraphed to Europe, the French Government refused to give Marchand the order to withdraw. On their part the British Government of Lord Salisbury insisted that Marchand must withdraw unconditionally. Otherwise Britain would have to go to war with France.

Salisbury wasn't bluffing. That was what the French were shocked to discover as the crisis deepened. The British public, Liberals and Tories alike, were not to be robbed of the fruits of Omdurman. They treated the French as claim-jumpers. By contrast the French public were divided on Fashoda, as they were divided about everything that autumn. The Dreyfus Affair had just reached a second agonizing climax. And the French government recognized that if withdrawal was humiliating then fighting would be a good deal worse. Their navy was unprepared. The Russian navy, even if anxious to help (actually it wasn't), was blocked by Baltic ice. So the French government very sensibly swallowed its pride and sent an order to Marchand by way of Kitchener's telegraph: Withdraw from the swamp. WHY THE British intransigence? It was a strategic axiom in Whitehall in 1898 that to protect the Suez Canal meant keeping Egypt, and this in turn meant controlling the headwaters of the White Nile. Five years earlier, a French hydrologist called Victor Prompt had forecast that if the French took Fashoda they could dam the White Nile there and hold Egypt to ransom by threatening floods or droughts at will. The French Government were delighted by the prospect. Ever since 1882, when Gladstone had absent-mindedly grabbed Egypt, the French had been trying to ease the British out. Marchand's mission to Fashoda was therefore a new move in the great game for Egypt. An idiotic one, too, as Professor David Lewis is the first to concede. It was "doomed by the realities of African travel and politics, the incompetence and lack of resolve at Paris, and the resolution and military superiority of Britain."

Lewis writes with gusto about the intricacies and absurdities of the colonial scramble for Africa. He is Martin Luther King Professor of History at Rutgers. He is a specialist in modern French history not afraid to chance his arm in new territory. This is a vivid narrative of the penultimate phase of the scramble. Unlike that of most of his predecessors, his main interest in writing on Fashoda is Afrocentric, not Eurocentric. Fashoda, he says, is a "superb paradigm" of the interaction between Africans and Europeans during the partition. And he shows how the role of Africans was traditionally ignored or underestimated. He compares two kinds of Africans: the collaborators, who played the part of the "legs" in the scramble, and the resisters, who did their best to frustrate it. No prize for guessing which kind of African receives more sympathy from Lewis.

It is obvious that Europeans would have achieved nothing in Africa without African help. Their numbers were always tiny -- outside the regions of white settlement at North and South. To a chosen few Africans they could offer wealth and security and a foot in the door of the white world. But most Africans worked for them without much choice, just as they worked for African employers. Lewis well documents the brutal reality of Marchand's epic journey from the Atlantic to the Nile. It took two years and an unrecorded number of African lives. Three thousand cases of stores, champagne and foie gras -- and all had to be paddled and dragged up to the end of the affluents of the Congo. Then they had to be dragged and rolled (including the steel sections and boilers of the steam launch) a hundred miles across the watershed to the affluents of the Nile. It is a wonder the African porters, commandeered by the local sultans, survived as well as they did. Even Marchand, who grumbled incessantly about everything, seems to have been astonished by their stoicism.

The resisters, fortunately for Marchand, were the African Force Publique, the local troops serving Marchand's rival, King Leopold of the Belgians. Leopold had been determined to push the frontiers of his Congo State up to Fashoda or beyond. But the Force Publique mutinied, killed many of the Belgian officers, and returned to harry the Congo, leaving Fashoda to Marchand.

Lewis cites numerous other examples of African resistance and claims it was "broader, deeper, and more effective" than it is usually given credit for. But these uprisings -- including the Swahili War of 1892-94, to which he gives much space -- were not directly relevant to the race for Fashoda. The oddity of the Scramble for Africa seems to be that it provoked so little African resistance. Apart from the Mahdi's theocratic Islamic state, created in reaction to Egyptian imperialism, and Menelik's Christian empire, which defied the Italian advance beyond Eritrea, there was little to stop Europeans' helping themselves, and the carve-up of the continent only took 20 years.

There is one absurd footnote to Fashoda which needs adding. There never was any reason for the British to feel threatened by the French occupation. Victor Prompt, the French Nile expert, had never been to that wilderness of mud and reeds. He had got his sums wrong and miscalculated the levels. Given millions to spend, a dam is totally impractical at Fashoda. Apart from the levels, there is no building material of any kind, just mud. One phrase described Fashoda perfectly: res nullius, a non-place. ::

Thomas Pakenham, the author of "The Boer War," is at work on a history of colonialism in Africa.