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The Scramble for Africa - 1880-1899

During the Middle Ages Europe knew little of its southern neighbor, though Spain and Sicily were partly under the domination of the Mohammedans, and the Crusaders once invaded Egypt. In the fifteenth century Portuguese explorers sailed south along the Atlantic coast, and in 1488 the great navigator, Bartholomew Diaz, rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Neither these voyages nor that of Vasco da Gama, who reached India by this route ten years later, excited attention in other countries, but the Portuguese quietly founded several of the colonies which they held for centuries thereafter.

The colonization of Africa by European powers proceeded in two distinct movements, and for two distinct sets of causes. The first movement was aligned with the Age of Discovery (1450-1700), when seafaring European nations sought to create new arteries of trade with distant parts of the world. In this mode of colonization, the parent country sought only to establish sufficient foothold in the colony to secure one end of a trade route, and its formal presence in the colony only as purchaser and shipping agent.

Malyn Newitt wrote that "In Africa the concepts which define war in Europe cannot be taken for granted. European notions of what constitutes war and peace are largely meaningless because the objectives that different groups seek are so different and the means used to achieve them are appropriate to Africa rather than Europe.... Formal conquest using European-style armies was ineffective and petered out in failure...

"Why was the military supremacy of Europeans in America not repeated at this stage in Africa ? Why could military might not carve out new states and new societies in Africa as it had in America? ... First was the hostile environment of Africa. In America Spaniards brought their European diseases from which the Indians died in large numbers; in Africa it was Europeans who contracted fever and died. In America the Spaniards benefited from the productive agriculture of the Indians, the roads and bridges, the organised storehouses and the system of carriers and communications. In Africa the Portuguese were defeated by the lack of roads, and the absence of population and provisions. ... Moreover in Africa there existed nothing comparable to the centralised states of the Indians. African society was segmented and decentralised. Capturing and burning an African kraal had no effect on the country or the population. There were no centres of population to be captured, no central nervous sytem of the state to be paralysed by swift and decisive action.... The campaigns failed primarilly because the Portuguese could not live off the country and because there proved to be no military objective which an organised army could achieve and which would result in a natural ending to the war and the transfer of territory or power."

After the discovery of America fortunes began to be made in the slave trade; about the same time the discoveries of gold became known, and adventurers from Holland, France, England and other countries became active. In 1652 the Dutch settled Cape Town, though merely as a half-way port on the road to the Indies. In this pattern, the interior kingdoms and empires of Africa supplied material goods, such as gold, ivory and, eventually, slaves. The original names for the earliest West African colonies - The Gold Coast, The Ivory Coast, and The Slave Coast - confirm this disinterest in the interior. This was the extent and form of Portuguese, French, and British colonization in Africa up to about 1800.

Toward the end of the period of Europe's great wars a lively interest in Africa was awakened, and the period of great explorations began. In 1770-1772 James Bruce traveled to Abyssinia, the little-known Christian island in the sea of Mohammedanism. In 1797 Mungo Park made known the Niger country, and after him came several less known but no less important explorers.

With the success of abolitionist movements in England and the United States in the first half of the 19th century, slavery, the most lucrative of the African colonial trades, ended. This development suspended efforts to further colonize the African interior. In 1840 David Livingstone began his missionary journeys, in the course of which he crossed Africa from ocean to ocean, discovered Victoria Falls and explored the Zambezi region. In 1869, when Livingstone was thought to be lost, a Welsh American, Henry M. Stanley, was sent by the New York Herald and the London Telegraph to find him; this explorer's great contribution to the world's knowledge was the course of the Congo.

It was not until the Zulu and Boer wars of the 1870s and 1880s that European interest in African colonization was re-ignited. The causes for the second movement of African colonization are worth describing in some detail for the sake of understanding their later effects on African nationalism and independence - the results of which are still felt today, more than a century later. By the 1880s, the Western powers were experiencing the birth pangs of modernity; changes in their societies and new outlooks made wholesale colonization of Africa seem inevitable. These changes can be viewed broadly in two categories: strategic and economic.

Two strategic influences acted to stimulate European activity in Africa — the dream of King Leopold I of Belgium to found a vast empire, and the spurring of French and German ambitions by the Franco-German War of 1870. France's aim was to link its possessions on the different coasts by a massive inland empire. Germany sought for its "place in the sun" regardless of its location. England, inspired by Cecil Rhodes, worked for continuous possessions from Cape-to-Cairo. Portugal expanded its already existing colonies. Italy fought for influence over Abyssinia, and raised its flag in Tripoli. Spain maintained its few small territories and attempted expansion at its own doorway, in Morocco.

By the 1870s, the European market had begun to experience a saturation of the products of its earlier industrial revolution. Combined with an American depression and generally negative trade balances, the major powers of Europe found themselves faced with slim prospects for growth at home. The possibility of a colony whose demand for goods was captive, that is, whose demand could only be met by the parent country, combined with a monopoly on the exploitation of local resources, had irresistible appeal. In addition, Britain was rapidly becoming the leading post-industrial society and its burgeoning financial services sector, which defined that status, hungered for virgin territory in which to invest its capital. From this standpoint, colonialism was inevitable, conceived entirely for and exclusively in service of the economic health of Europe.

The strategic motivations to colonize the interior of Africa arose out of related, although somewhat more complicated, origins. Briefly put, the economic pressures to colonize were visible at the foreign policy level as strategic moves. With respect to Britain, its colonization of sub-Saharan Africa was a continuation of its efforts in Egypt. After completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, Britain gradually attempted to increase its influence over the vital trade route. Although the French were still majority shareholders in the canal, British troops had occupied it by 1882, citing a duty to protect it from the Urabi Revolt, one of the first attempts at a military coup in Africa. By 1888, the occupation was legitimized by treaty. This success was followed by the emergence of a strategic plan. The British sought to connect Egypt and South Africa by rail, and from this spine develop interior African colonies.

Though Germany was experiencing the same economic squeeze as the rest of Europe, its entry into Africa can be traced to the conflict between the new German emperor, Wilhelm II, and Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck. Wilhelm, emboldened by Germany's industrial ascendancy and recent unification, sought to make his empire a world power. The doctrine of Weltpolitik that descended from this desire was the key factor in Germany's enthusiasm for what became known as the Scramble for Africa. So violently did Bismarck disagree with this policy that it ended his career in government; Wilhelm famously accepted the chancellor's resignation in 1890.

France, already invested in the Suez Canal, began a colonial push by the start of the 1880s. Belgium, theretofore a minor player in both international relations and the doctrine of colonialism, suddenly came alive in the person of King Léopold II. Léopold commissioned Henry Morton Stanley to be the king's agent in the Congo, negotiating for the lands of the local tribes. Stanley's five-year effort (1875-1880) was made on behalf of Léopold's International African Association, a putatively philanthropic group whose mission was to bring civilization to the African interior. In fact, the organization was a front for Léopold's ultimate aim of personal dominion and private property in the Congo; a goal that by the century's end would cause several million deaths and the greatest scandal of the era.

In 1884, Léopold, cognizant of his country's small size and relative inability to enforce colonial claims, had spearheaded the Berlin conference (or "Congo Conference") to divide Africa. The agreement reached essentially created colonial Africa as it was until the independence movements of the 1960s. Through Léopold's influence, an article was introduced into the agreement that laid out the rules by which a country could claim a colony. The article, called the Principle of Effectivity, was designed to curb the claiming of territory where there was no presence or influence of the parent country. The Principle required that the parent country organize its colony to certain minimal standards, including an internal administration and a colony-wide police force. This method for claim formalization clearly worked in favor of a small country like Belgium, for which colonialism would have been impossible if every territorial claim had to be secured with sufficient troops to provide for its defense. The establishment of a colony-wide police force - of a paramilitary nature, whose purpose was to protect the state rather than its inhabitants - had long-ranging effects.

The agreement that emerged from the Conference of Berlin also formalized the economic relationship that was to dominate European presence in Africa. Under its terms, a parent nation could lose its claim to territory if it did not actively engage in economic activity. The dynamics of the sheltered markets that emerged are frightening. The main consumers of parent-country goods in a colony were industrial or agricultural concerns, such as gold mines or rubber plantations. For the most part, their objective was to extract valuable resources from the colony for export to the parent country. From this cycle, the true desirability of a colony becomes obvious. This cycle also brings the economic difficulties of modern Africa into perspective: for the better part of a hundred years, the African continent was subjected to the greatest act of economic sabotage in human history. Nowhere else has so much wealth been created in such meager economic circumstances.

In the summer of 1890 Great Britain entered into treaties with Germany, Portugal and France, partitioning the African continent. The Anglo-German agreement defined the boundaries between the British and German possessions in Eastern Africa; while England ceded the little isle of Heligoland, in the North Sea, close to the German coast, to Germany, it having been in England's possession since it was wrested from Denmark in 1814. By the Anglo-Portuguese agreement the limits of the British and Portuguese territories in South-eastern Africa were defined. The Anglo-French agreement was concerning the extent of the British and French territories in Central and Western Africa. England and Italy finally came to terms respecting the lower Red Sea coast of Africa, early in April, 1891. The British South Africa Company was doing much for the development of Southern Africa, while the British East Africa Company was active in carrying commerce and civilization into Eastern Africa. A British protectorate was proclaimed over Zanzibar, November 7, 1890.

In March, 1899, an agreement between Great Britain and France as to the delimitation of their respective spheres of influence in Africa made another affair like the Fashoda incident impossible, and public opinion in both countries was satisfied, though it was not wholly satisfactory to the Sultan of Turkey, who considered it a veiled attack on his surezainty over Tripoli, or to Italy, which has well-recognized interests in that quarter of the world.

In the middle of the 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 present Cape Colony. Its possessions had considerably increased before the "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, fell to England's share. France had nearly another third, but, half of it being desert, with a smaller population. Most of the other third was divided between Germany, Portugal, and, as sovereign of the Congo Free State, the King of the Belgians.

England's share, including Egypt and the Egyptian Soudan, comprised an area of more than three million square miles, five-and twenty times as extensive as the United Kingdom itself, but with a native population reckoned to be not very much greater than that of the home islands, or somewhere between fifty and sixty millions.Great Britain had established — in the judgment of Europe — a title to ownership of nearly a third of the habitable portions of Africa, and has made itself more or less responsible for the good government of these territories and their inhabitants. Not a tithe of the fifty, sixty, or more millions of natives thus nominally placed under British rule, had been actually subjected to it. By the end of the 19th Century these fifty or sixty millions of African natives, were nominally, though most of them are not yet actually, under British rule. All the millions who had not as yet been brought within the fold were liable to be interfered with, and controlled by, British adventurers and British officials, and to be benefited or injured thereby, as soon and as much as such interference and control may be deemed practicable or convenient.

There were only a few portions of Africa which can be colonised by white men as Australia or Canada were being colonised. At least four-fifths of the continent would never be healthy or attractive enough for the building up of such Newer Englands as were taking shape elsewhere, with or without extermination or banishment of the rightful owners of the soil. Africa, for the most part, must always be a black man's continent.

Given the spectacular lack of investment in the local economies relative to the wealth they were producing, it was hardly surprising that this cycle of exploitation continued in stride after the shift from foreign to domestic masters. Faced with the inheritance of hypertrophied organs of the parent nation's economy, rather than functioning economies of their own, several of the worst features of post-colonial statehood become understandable. First, the symptom of a strongman taking up an incredibly luxuriant lifestyle in the face of endemic poverty is simply a continuation of this cycle with the head of state replacing the parent nation. Practices favoring corruption and impunity passed from colonial leaders to the new generation of domestic leaders. Second, an economy plays a vital role in securing the social fabric through networks of salaries, debts, finance, and so on; the absence of a functioning economy necessitates a surrogate, such as a military dictatorship, a single party, or even the nationalization of a tribal conflict to maintain cohesion. Third, there was no domestic economy on which to found the higher education required to develop native-born civil servants, and no interest from parent nations to educate what was fundamentally a nation of laborers and farmers.

The colonial countries had absolutely no firsthand experience with participatory forms of government, let alone functioning democracies. The tribal traditions that characterized the continent as a whole, particularly the ingrained animosity between many of the tribes, effectively eliminated the possibility of local populations banding together into a unified group to demand change. Under these circumstances, the newly-formed domestic governments foundered almost immediately after independence, rendering the new nations even more susceptible to the first two problems.

Over the next several decades, the veil of humanitarianism that had been the public face of colonialism slipped a number of times, but never more appallingly than during the revelations about Léopold's Congo Free State. However, these disclosures were generally believed to be aberrations of a fundamentally just plan, as opposed to the purest expression of the plan itself.

By the mid-1950s, the Second World War had radically altered the landscapes of both European and international politics. The substantially weakened condition of the colonial powers left them ill equipped to resist the wave of resentment that swept public opinion in the colonies and, to a lesser extent, at home. It is not terribly surprising how quickly the vast majority of Africa received its independence, or that it was often granted after a simple colonial referendum.191 Britain found itself lamely agreeing with Asquith's line about "self-government being better than good-government" as it helplessly watched its empire dissolve. Within two years of De Gaulle's assumption of the presidency of France and creation of the Fifth Republic, all French colonies of sub-Saharan Africa were released and made independent. With the exception of South Africa and, to an extent, Ethiopia, over the last half of the 20th century, every nation of sub-Saharan Africa experienced a cycle of single-party leadership, strongman or dictatorship, military coups and regimes, and civil war that extended through the late 1980s. During this period, regardless of whether the country was rich in natural resources, virtually all wealth was concentrated in the hands of the leaders, with the vast majority of the population living in abject poverty, struggling merely to survive.

The end of the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the move of Eastern European countries towards democracy all had a profound impact upon the nations of Africa. Beginning in this period, nation after nation began drafting new constitutions and single-party systems began a slow and difficult evolution to political plurality. These reforms were often punctuated by problematic elections, with complaints of rigged results, voter fraud, and ultimate election challenges, all too frequently with good cause. In some countries, open violence and even civil wars erupted following elections, necessitating foreign interventions either in the forms of military, police peacekeepers, or negotiated settlements. These cycles of turbulence and disruption continue through much of Africa even to this day, despite years and billions of dollars in foreign donor assistance. But one thing that has not changed, or remains little changed, since colonial times is the poor quality of life for most citizens of African nations.

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Page last modified: 15-12-2016 11:12:04 ZULU