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British Wars in Africa - 19th Century

Until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Britain had no appetite for acquiring colonies in Africa. But this did not mean that she was uninterested in exploiting its resources. On the contrary, she did so while at the same time ensuring that she did not get entangled in local affairs. This was done by creating protégés wherever possible in what came to be called an ‘informal empire.’ Alternatively, she would send a gun boat or two to cow recalcitrant communities and hence, the concept of a ‘gun boat policy.

The Portuguese were first in the field, under the leadership of Prince Henry the Navigator; and so pleased was Pope Martin the Fifth with the ten black slaves caught and presented to him by Prince Henry in 1442, that he issued a bull conferring on Portugal rights of possession and sovereignty over the whole continent. The Portuguese monopoly was scarcely disputed until England—disputing and breaking down a like monopoly claimed by Spain over the continent and islands of America—became a competitor, and, before long, acquired a large part of the spoil. Sir John Hawkins, though not the earliest, was the most famous among the pioneers in this unholy traffic. In 1562 he visited the Sierra Leone coast, and there, according to the old chronicler, "partly by the sword, and partly by other means, got into his possession three hundred Negroes at the least, besides other merchandises which that country yieldeth." Queen Elizabeth allowed Hawkins, in acknowledgment of his great services, to bear on his knight's shield the picture of a Negro, "in his proper colour, bound and captive." Of the trade thus inaugurated, however, it is said that Queen Elizabeth declared "it would be detestable, and would call down the vengeance of heaven upon the undertakers." The vengeance of heaven was long delayed. The West African slave trade flourished for more than two centuries and a half, in the course of which the number of luckless natives stolen from their homes for the supply of American and West Indian markets amounted, it has been estimated, to ten millions or more. Near the close of last 18th century, when the trade was most vigorous, the average was about 100,000 a year. England's share in this trade, a third or more of the whole, was abandoned at the instigation of Clarkson, Wilberforce, and others, in 1808, and the few straggling settlements that had been established on the West African coast in order to carry it on were, in consequence, well-nigh ruined. It is difficult to realise the rapidity with which this recently quite unknown Continent has been explored, opened up, and partitioned. As recently as the middle of the 19th Century the interior was a complete blank from the Tropic of Cancer to beyond the Tropic of Capricorn. Europeans were ignorant of the source of the Nile; the Congo may be said to have hardly existed on the maps; and knew nothing of those great lakes and lofty mountains which form such characteristic features of the interior. Livingstone began that work, which, after long years, partly as a result of his own travels and partly owing to the inspiration of his example, completely transformed the map of Africa, and filled it with features and peoples of striking interest. But not until Stanley made his immortal journey "Through the Dark Continent," did the Powers of Europe give serious attention to Africa as a field for industrial, political, and commercial activity. The King of the Belgians was the first to realise the possibilities of Africa, and to initiate its partition in the modern sense. No doubt both France and England had been at work before, but in a hesitating and half-hearted way, especially so in the case of the latter, who "through craven fear of being great" missed many opportunities of annexing territories that fell into the hands of others. When Stanley in 1880 returned to the Congo as the agent of the King of the Belgians, the modern phase of partition may be said to have begun; though it was only after Germany entered the field in 1883 that the real Scramble began, and by 1886 it may be said that the respective spheres of the Great European Powers' interests in Africa—England, France, Germany, and Italy, along with Belgium—were blocked out. The final partition was only accomplished in 1899, by the last agreement between France and England, delimiting their respective spheres in the Sahara and Sudan and on the Niger. Until the mid-19th Century England owned in Africa only a few scattered forts on the West Coast, and, in the south, but a small part of the Cape Colony. Its possessions had considerably increased before the modern "scramble" received sanction and encouragement from the Conference of European Powers assembled at Berlin in 1884. But the subsequent increase was far more rapid. In the "partition of Africa," which the Berlin Conference brought about, nearly a third of the entire continent, and more than a third of its population, have fallen to England's share. But that was only the end of the preliminary stage; the pieces were all on the board, and the real game was only beginning. So far as square mileage goesl France fared best; her sphere covered nearly a third of the whole Continent. England's share, even if Egypt and the Sudan are excluded, exceeded two millions of square miles, while Germany and Belgium claimed about a million each.

The economical value of the different spheres was not easy to estimate. So far as suitability for European settlement went, the British sphere south of the Zambezi was the most promising; but apart from its gold, it is doubtful if its commercial value could be rated very high. On the other hand, Egypt, much of the Sudan, the Niger territories, the Congo, and considerable areas of British East Africa, seemed capable of great development. The limits of that depended upon the establishment of rapid and cheap means of communication, and upon the possibility of white men being able to adapt themselves to the climatic conditions. In Algeria and Tunis, under proper guidance, France had a valuable commercial sphere, and much could be done with Morocco if the Power or Powers into whose hands it may fall know how to deal with it.

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Page last modified: 16-03-2017 19:04:30 ZULU