Colonialism by its very nature has racist connotations. British colonialism in particular was structured as a dictatorship, using violence to pacify the colonial subjects and to maintain order. There was little or no input from the colonised in the way that they were governed: The British Colonial Office in London made all the decisions concerning the colonies. The British also tended to choose a preferred ethnic group over all the others in the countries that they colonised, divide and rule.
British colonisation of Africa coincided with the era of scientific racism as represented by social Darwinism (survival of the fittest). The British believed that because they had superior weaponry and were therefore more technologically advanced than the Africans, that they had a right to colonise and exploit the resources of the Africans in the name of promoting civilization.
Britain had many colonies in Africa: in British West Africa there was Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Southern Cameroon, and Sierra Leone.
In British East Africa there was Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania (formerly Tanganyika and Zanzibar).
In British South Africa there was South Africa, Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Nyasaland (Malawi), Lesotho, Botswana, and Swaziland.
Britain had a strange and unique colonial history with Egypt. The Sudan, formerly known as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, was jointly ruled by Egypt and Britain, because they had jointly colonised the area. The joint colonial administration of the Sudan by Egypt and Britain was known as the condominium government.
The British system of government affected the type of racial or ethnic problems that all of Britain’s African colonies had during the colonial period, the immediate postcolonial period, and from the 1980s into the twenty-first century.
Ethnic rivalries were not serious in precolonial Africa. The majority of ethnic nations lived in their independent small polities.
There were, however, some large conquering empires: the Bugandan Empire in Uganda; the Zulus in South Africa; the Mwene Mutapa Empire of the Shona people in Zambia, or Great Zimbabwe; the Benin Empire; the kingdoms of the Yoruba (Ife, Oyo, and Ibadan); the Ashanti in Ghana; the Fulani Empire in northern Nigeria, which even tried to extend into regions of Sierra Leone; the Kanem-Bornu Empire around the Lake Chad area of northern Nigeria; and the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria, who lived in small democratic states with the few exceptions of some representative monarchies. However all this changed with the British Empire’s entrance into Africa.
The “Scramble for Africa” is the popular name for the invasion, occupation, colonization and annexation of African territory by European powers during the period of New Imperialism, between 1881 and 1914. It is also called the Partition of Africa and the Conquest of Africa. In 1870, only 10 percent of Africa was under European control; by 1914 it was 90 percent of the continent, with only Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and Liberia still being independent.
The Berlin Conference of 1884, which regulated European colonization and trade in Africa, is usually referred to as the starting point of the Conquest of Africa. Consequent to the political and economic rivalries among the European empires in the last quarter of the 19th century, the partitioning of Africa was how the Europeans avoided warring amongst themselves over Africa.
The latter years of the 19th century saw the transition from “informal imperialism” (hegemony), by military influence and economic dominance, to the direct rule of a people which brought about colonial imperialism.
Britain’s administration of Egypt and the Cape Colony contributed to a preoccupation over securing the source of the Nile River. Egypt was overrun by British forces in 1882 (although not formally declared a protectorate until 1914, and never an actual colony); Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda were subjugated in the 1890s and early 20th century; and in the south, the Cape Colony (first acquired in 1795) provided a base for the subjugation of neighbouring African states and the Dutch Afrikaner settlers who had left the Cape to avoid the British and then founded their own republics.
In 1877, Theophilus Shepstone annexed the South African Republic (Transvaal – independent from 1857 to 1877) for the British Empire. In 1879, after the Anglo-Zulu War, Britain consolidated its control of most of the territories of South Africa.
The Boers protested, and in December 1880 they revolted, leading to the First Boer War (1880–81). British Prime Minister William Gladstone signed a peace treaty on 23 March 1881, giving self-government to the Boers in the Transvaal.
The Jameson Raid of 1895 was a failed attempt by the British South Africa Company and the Johannesburg Reform Committee to overthrow the Boer government in the Transvaal.
The Second Boer War, fought between 1899 and 1902, was about control of the gold and diamond industries; the independent Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Transvaal) were this time defeated and absorbed into the British Empire.
Cape to Cairo
The Dutch East India Company had founded the Cape Colony on the southern tip of Africa in 1652 as a way station for its ships travelling to and from its colonies in the East Indies. Britain formally acquired the colony, and its large Afrikaner (or Boer) population in 1806, having occupied it in 1795 in order to prevent its falling into French hands, following the invasion of the Netherlands by France.
British immigration began to rise after 1820, and pushed thousands of Boers, resentful of British rule, northwards to found their own—mostly short-lived—independent republics, during the Great Trek of the late 1830s and early 1840s. In the process the Voortrekkers clashed repeatedly with the British, who had their own agenda with regard to colonial expansion in South Africa and with several African polities, including those of the Sotho and the Zulu nations.
Eventually the Boers established two republics which had a longer lifespan: the South African Republic or Transvaal Republic (1852–77; 1881–1902) and the Orange Free State (1854–1902).
In 1902 Britain occupied both republics, concluding a treaty with the two Boer Republics following the Second Boer War 1899–1902.
In 1869 the Suez Canal was opened under Napoleon III, linking the Mediterranean with the Indian Ocean. The Canal was at first opposed by the British, though once open its strategic value was quickly recognised.
In 1875, the Conservative government of Benjamin Disraeli bought the indebted Egyptian ruler Ismail Pasha’s 44 percent shareholding in the Suez Canal for £4 million (£280 million in 2011). Although this did not grant outright control of the strategic waterway, it did give Britain leverage. Joint Anglo-French financial control over Egypt ended in outright British occupation in 1882. The French were still majority shareholders and attempted to weaken the British position, but a compromise was reached with the 1888 Convention of Constantinople, which made the Canal officially neutral territory.
As French, Belgian and Portuguese activity in the lower Congo River region threatened to undermine orderly penetration of tropical Africa, the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 sought to regulate the competition between the European powers in what was called the “Scramble for Africa” by defining “effective occupation” as the criterion for international recognition of territorial claims.
The scramble continued into the 1890s, and caused Britain to reconsider its decision in 1885 to withdraw from Sudan.
A joint force of British and Egyptian troops defeated the Mahdist Army in 1896, and rebuffed a French attempted invasion at Fashoda in 1898. Sudan was nominally made an Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, though in reality, a British colony.
British gains in southern and East Africa prompted Cecil Rhodes, pioneer of British expansion in Africa, to urge a “Cape to Cairo” railway linking the strategically important Suez Canal to the mineral-rich South. In 1888 Rhodes with his privately owned British South Africa Company occupied and annexed territories subsequently named after him, Rhodesia.
Suez and its aftermath
In 1951, the Conservative Party was returned to power in Britain, under the leadership of Winston Churchill. Churchill and the Conservatives believed that Britain’s position as a world power relied on the continued existence of the empire, with the base at the Suez Canal allowing Britain to maintain its pre-eminent position in the Middle East in spite of the loss of India.
However, Churchill could not ignore Gamal Abdul Nasser’s new revolutionary government of Egypt that had taken power in 1952, and the following year it was agreed that British troops would withdraw from the Suez Canal zone and that Sudan would be granted self-determination by 1955, with independence to follow. Sudan was granted independence on 1 January 1956.
In July 1956, Nasser unilaterally nationalised the Suez Canal. The response of Anthony Eden, who had succeeded Churchill as Prime Minister, was to collude with France to engineer an Israeli attack on Egypt that would give Britain and France an excuse to intervene militarily and retake the canal. Eden infuriated his US counterpart, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, by his lack of consultation, and Eisenhower refused to back the invasion.
Another of Eisenhower’s concerns was the possibility of a wider war with the Soviet Union after it threatened to intervene on the Egyptian side. Eisenhower applied financial leverage by threatening to sell US reserves of the British pound and thereby precipitate a collapse of the British currency. Though the invasion force was militarily successful in its objectives, UN intervention and US pressure forced Britain into a humiliating withdrawal of its forces, and Eden resigned.
The Suez Crisis very publicly exposed Britain’s limitations to the world and confirmed Britain’s decline on the world stage, demonstrating that henceforth it could no longer act without at least the acquiescence, if not the full support, of the United States. The events at Suez wounded British national pride, leading one MP to describe it as “Britain’s Waterloo” and another to suggest that the country had become an “American satellite”. Margaret Thatcher later described the mindset she believed had befallen the British political establishment as “Suez syndrome”, from which Britain did not recover until the successful recapture of the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982.
While the Suez Crisis caused British power in the Middle East to weaken, it did not collapse. Britain again soon deployed its armed forces to the region, intervening in Oman (1957), Jordan (1958) and Kuwait (1961), though on these occasions with American approval, as the new Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s foreign policy was to remain firmly aligned with the United States. Britain maintained a presence in the Middle East for another decade, withdrawing from Aden in 1967, and Bahrain in 1971.
Wind of change
Macmillan gave a speech in Cape Town, South Africa in February 1960 where he spoke of “the wind of change blowing through this continent.” Macmillan wished to avoid the same kind of colonial war that France was fighting in Algeria, and under his premiership decolonisation proceeded rapidly. To the three colonies that had been granted independence in the 1950s—Sudan, the Gold Coast and Malaya—were added nearly ten times that number during the 1960s.
Britain’s remaining colonies in Africa, except for Southern Rhodesia, were all granted independence by 1968.
British withdrawal from the southern and eastern parts of Africa was complicated by the region’s white settler populations, particularly in Rhodesia, where racial tensions had led Ian Smith, the Prime Minister, to a Unilateral Declaration of Independence from the British Empire in 1965.
Rhodesia remained in a state of civil war between its black and white population until the Lancaster House Agreement of 1979. This agreement temporarily returned Rhodesia to British colonial rule until elections could be held under British supervision. The elections were held the following year and won by Robert Mugabe, who became the Prime Minister of the newly independent state of Zimbabwe.