Imperialism and the Conquest and Colonization of Africa by Europeans

Imperialism, or the extension of one nation-state’s domination or control over territory outside its own boundaries, peaked in the 19th century as European powers extended their holdings around the world. The huge African continent (three times the size of the continental United States) was particularly vulnerable to European conquest. The partition of Africa was a fast moving event. In 1875 less than one-tenth of Africa was under European control; by 1895 only one-tenth was independent. Between 1871 and 1900 Britain added 4.25 million square miles and 66 million people to its empire. British holdings were so far-flung that many boasted that the “sun never set on the British Empire.” During the same time frame, France added over 3.5 million square miles of territory and 26 million people to its empire. Controlling the sparsely populated Sahara, the French did not rule over as many people as the British. By 1912 only Liberia and Ethiopia in Africa remained independent states, and Liberia was really a protectorate of U.S.-owned rubber companies, particularly the Firestone Company.

The Face of Africa Changed Forever

By the end of the 19th century, the map of Africa resembled a patchwork quilt of different colonial
empires. France controlled much of North Africa, West Africa, and French Equatorial Africa (unified in 1910). The British held large sections of West Africa, the Nile Valley, and much of East and southern Africa. The Spanish ruled small parts of Morocco and coastal areas along the Atlantic Ocean. The Portuguese held Angola and Mozambique, and Belgium ruled the vast territories of the Congo. The Italians had secured Libya and parts of Somalia in East Africa. Germany had taken South-West Africa (present-day Namibia), Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania), and Cameroon. Britain had the largest empire and the French the second largest, followed by Spain, Portugal, and Belgium. Germany and Italy, among the last European nations to unify, came late to the scramble for Africa and had to content themselves with less desirable and lucrative territories.

What motivated the Imperialism?

There were many different motivations for 19th century imperialism. Economics was a major motivating factor. Western industrial powers wanted new markets for their manufactured goods as well as cheap labor; they also needed raw materials. J. A. Hobson and Vladimir Lenin both attributed imperial expansion to new economic forces in industrial nations. Lenin went so far as to write that imperialism was an inevitable result of capitalism. As the vast mineral resources of Africa were exploited by European imperial powers, many Africans became laborers in mines or workers on agricultural plantations owned by Europeans. The harsh treatment or punishment of workers in the rubber plantations of the Belgian Congo resulted in millions of deaths. However, economics was not the only motivation for imperial takeovers. In some instances, for example the French takeover of landlocked Chad in northern Africa, imperial powers actually expended more to administer the territory than was gained from raw materials, labor, or markets. Nationalism fueled imperialism as nations competed for bragging rights over having the largest empire. Nations also wanted control over strategic waterways such as the Suez Canal, ports, and naval bases. Christian missionaries traveled to Africa in hopes of gaining converts. When they were opposed or even attacked by Africans who resented the cultural incursions and denial of traditional religions, Western missionaries often called on their governments to provide military and political protection. Hence it was said that “the flag followed the Bible.” The finding of the Scottish missionary David Livingstone by Henry Stanley, an American of English birth, was widely popularized in the Western press. Livingstone was not actually lost, but had merely lost contact with the Western world. Explorers, adventurers, and entrepreneurs such as Cecil Rhodes in Rhodesia and King Leopold II of Belgium, who owned all of the Congo as his personal estate, also supported imperial takeovers of territories. Richard Burton, Samuel and Florence Baker, and John Speke all became famous for their exploration of the Nile Valley in attempts to fi nd the source of that great river. Their books and public lectures about their exploits fueled Western imaginations and interest in Africa.


Cultural imperialism was another important aspect of 19th-century imperialism. Most Westerners believed they lived in the best possible world and that they had a monopoly on technological advances. In their imperial holdings, European powers often built ports, transportation, communication systems, and schools, as well as improving health care, thereby bringing the benefits of modern science to less developed areas. Social Darwinists argued that Western civilization was the strongest and best and that it was the duty of the West to bring the benefits of its civilization to “lesser” peoples and cultures. Western ethnocentrism contributed to the idea of the “white man’s burden,” a term popularized by the poet Rudyard Kipling. Racism also played a role in Western justifications for imperial conquests. European nations devised a number of different approaches to avoid armed conflict with one another in the scramble for African territory. Sometimes nations declared a protectorate over a given African territory and exercised full political and military control over it. At other times they negotiated through diplomatic channels or held international conferences. At the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, 14 nations decided on the borders of the Congo that was under Belgian rule, and Portugal got Angola. The term spheres of influence, whereby a nation declared a monopoly over a territory to deter rival imperial powers from taking it, was first used at the Berlin Conference. However, disputes sometimes led European nations to the brink of war. Britain and France both had plans to build a north-south railway and east-west railway across Africa; although neither railway was ever completed, the two nations almost went to war during the Fashoda crisis over control of the Sudan, where the railways would have intersected. Britain was also eager to control the headwaters of the Nile to protect its interests in Egypt, which was dependent on the Nile waters for its existence. Following diplomatic negotiations the dispute was resolved in favor of the British, and the Sudan became part of the British Empire. Africa, imperialism and the partition of 13 War did break out between the British and Boers over control of South Africa in 1899. By 1902 the British had emerged victorious, and South Africa was added to their empire. In West Africa, European powers carved out long narrow states running north to south in order that each would have access to maritime trade routes and a port city. Since most Europeans knew little or nothing about the local geography or demographics of the region, these new states often separated similar ethnic groups or put traditional enemies together under
one administration. The difficulties posed by these differences continue to plague present-day West African nations such as Nigeria.


The French and British adopted very different approaches to governance in their empires. The French believed in their “civilizing mission” and sought to assimilate the peoples of their empire by implanting French culture and language. The British adopted a policy of “indirect rule.” They made no attempt to assimilate the peoples of their empire and educated only a small number of Africans to become civil servants. A relatively small number of British soldiers and bureaucrats ruled Ghana and Nigeria in West Africa. In East Africa, the British brought in Indians to take jobs as government clerks and in commerce. Otherwise, the British tried to avoid interfering with local rulers or ways of life. Although the British and French policies were radically different, both were based on the belief in the superiority of Western civilization. European colonists also settled in areas where the climate was favorable and the land was suitable for agriculture. Substantial numbers of French colons settled in the coastal areas of North Africa, especially in Algeria and Tunisia, while Italians settled in Tunisia and Libya. British settlers moved into what they named Rhodesia and Kenya. In Kenya, British farmers and ranchers moved into the highlands, supplanting Kenyan farmers and taking much of the best land. The Boers, Dutch farmers, fought the Zulus for control of rich agricultural land in South Africa. The Boers took part in a mass migration, or Great Trek, into the interior of South Africa from 1835–41 and established two independent republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Dutch farmers clashed with the British for control of South Africa in the Boer War. In Mozambique and Angola, Portuguese settlers (prazeros) established large feudal estates (prazos). Throughout Africa, European colonists held privileged positions politically, culturally, and economically. They opposed extending rights to native African populations. A few groups, such as the Igbos in Nigeria and the Baganda in Uganda, allied with the British and received favored positions in the colonial administrations. However, most Africans resisted European takeovers. Muslim leaders, such as Abdul Kader in Algeria and the Mahdi in Sudan, mounted long and effective armed opposition to French and British domination. But both were ultimately defeated by superior Western military strength. The Ashante in Ghana and the Hereros in South- West Africa fought against European domination but were crushed in bloody confrontations. The Zulus led by Shaka Zulu used guerrilla warfare tactics to halt the expansion of the Boers into their territories, but after initial defeats the Boers triumphed. The Boers then used the hit-and-run tactics they had learned from the Zulus in their war against the British. The British defeated the Matabele and Mashona tribes in northern and southern Rhodesia. In the 20th century, a new generation of nationalist African leaders adopted a wide variety of political and economic means to oppose the occupation of their lands by European nations and settlers.

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