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"The name of Africa is associated with all that is shocking and revolting to the feelings of humanity, as well as disgraceful to the boasted dignity of our nature. Its history is written in characters of blood, and unfolds a tale of oppression, cruelty, and wrong, such as all the annals of human crime can scarcely equal."
Western Africa by David J. East, 1844

Africa - The Colonial Interlude

Walter Rodney argued in his ground-breaking text "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa" that capitalism was the main contributor to the stagnation of Africas economic development (see Chapter 4 Europe and the Roots of Africas Underdevelopment To 1885). "the peasants and workers of Europe (and eventually the inhabitants of the whole world) paid a huge price so that the capitalists could make their profits from the human labour that always lies behind the machine. That contradicts other facets of development, especially viewed from the standpoint of those who suffered and still suffer to make capitalist achievements possible. This latter group are the majority of [humanity]. To advance, they must overthrow capitalism; and that is why at the moment capitalism stands in the path of further human development. To put it another way, the social (class) relations of capitalism are now outmoded, just as slave and feudal relations became outmoded in their time."

Whatever foot-holds foreigners had established in Africa by the mid-19th Century were in fact scattered and most precarious. The French, in 1877, controlled little more than the region of the Senegal. Britain held a small number of forts, trading posts and settlements in Gambia, Sierra Leone and around Lagos. Portuguese influence - but not control - was strong in Guinea; its presence in Angola and Mozambique was limited only to a few, isolated, coastal settlements. Arab sultans controlled Zanzibar and a number of cities and outposts along the eastern coastline. Only at the southernmost tip of the continent were foreigners firmly entrenched--the British in control of a growing Cape Colony and the Boer trekkers (descendents of Dutch farmers who had settled at the Cape in the seventeenth century) moving ever northward from the Cape establishing farms and towns as they went.

Within a generation, however, all thischanged. By the outbreak in 1914 of the Great War, the African continent had been carved up. After Stanley labeled much of the last terra incognita on the map of Africa in the 1870s, the continent became totally vulnerable to the imperial aspirations of European countries. In 1881 France alarmed Italy by seizing Tunisia. The next year Britain occupied Egypt, infuriating France which had built and now co-owned the Suez Canal. To reduce the possibility of a general European conflict over these and numerous other disputes involving Africa, Germany organized the Berlin Conference in 1884. At the time of the conference, only the coastal areas of Africa were colonized by the European powers. At the Berlin Conference the European colonial powers scrambled to gain control over the Interior of the Continent. The conference lasted until February 26, 1885. Under Article XXXV. "The Signatory Powers of the present Act recognize the obligation to insure the establishment of authority in the regions occupied by them on the coasts of the African Continent sufficient to protect existing rights..."

Although Africa had been partitioned into colonies by 1914, these were not effectively occupied for another decade. Indeed, it was not until 1927 that the inhabitants of French territories in central Africa ever saw a Frenchman. Africa south of the Sahara was really ruled by Europe for only about thirty years.

Each European power followed different policies in rulingits colonies. Yet, one attitude remained common to them all - the attitude that Africans were somehow inferior to Europeans. The British policy has usually been described as one of indirect rule. This was a policy of giving token authority to the local chiefs while real power was exercised by the colonial governor and his staff often through the local chiefs. As a result, British policy in the Gold Coast, Nigeria and most other large colonies tried to use already established local chiefs as much as possible.

The French policy was one of assimilation - the Civilizing Mission [Mission civilisatrice]. It was based on the assumption that Africans could become French citizens equal to the best European Frenchmen. To stimulate this assimilation the French governed their colonies by a strict legal code drawn up in Paris and administered by French military authorities. In their colonial schools, the elementary reading book began: "Nous Peres les Gaulois...." (Our fathers, the Gauls...) and the transmission of French culture was one of its major objectives. In time black Africans won election to France's national assembly and some even served in the cabinets of its premiers. Thus, while the British policies supposedly aimed to train the inhabitants of their colonies for eventual self-rule, the French sought to incorporate their subjects into one great French community. The Portuguese policy was described as a policy of assimilation, one dedicated to making the African a member of the Portuguese nation.

The policies followed by these and other European colonial powers in Africa had a great impact on the peoples of Africa. Colonial boundaries often had little relationship to their own territories or the areas in which their languages were spoken. In many instances peoples of diverse cultures and often hostile to each other were combined within the same colony; in other instances a single people found their territory divided by the boundaries of two, three and sometimes even four separate colonies, each administered by a different European power.

Africans lived under European domination for less than half a century. Little changed in Africa as an immediate result of the Berlin conference or the drawing of new boundaries that resulted. For, in spite of their claims European nations had neither the money, military power, governmental personnel nor means of communication to make their influence felt right away. In the years between 1885 and 1914 Africans had little concern about the European movement to take over their lands; indeed, many of them openly invited or participated in this partition. Except for the Congo and a few other areas, life proceeded as it traditionally had for many years.

It was only in the twenties that Africans en mass began to feel the realimpact of European partition and imperial control. Only with the enforcementof European laws, the introduction of new ways of doing things and new organi-zations, machines, standards of conduct and customs were their lives significantly affected. European imperialism introduced to Africans the technologyof the Western world as well as its political movements; having done this, it aroused in them, and especially in their young leaders, a desire to share what they believed were the most beneficial features of this way of life. European imperialism also altered and otherwise affected African life at every level. Independence came to those living in Africa south of the Sahara in just one brief decade. But it was neither sudden nor spontaneous. It was instead the climax of forces that had been slowly building for years. In fact, it grew directly out ofthe very system that European imperial powers had imposed upon it in the first place.

The colonial system in Africa carried the seeds of its own destruction.It created conditions whichenabled Africans to become aware of the outside world and of the ideas of individual liberty, freedom and opportunity and ofnational self-government.It helped Africans become conscious of their own cultural identity. And through this system Africans became involved in world events that eventually paved the way for their independence and freedom. Little did anyone realize in 1885 that as the partitioners of Africa signed the Treaty of Berlin they were also setting in motion forces that would completely shatter that treaty barely two generations later.

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Page last modified: 10-05-2018 15:24:17 ZULU