Africa

The Scramble for Africa, also called the Partition of Africa or the Conquest of Africa, was the invasion, occupation, division, and colonization of most of Africa by seven Western European powers during a short period known to historians as the New Imperialism (between 1881 and 1914). The 10 percent of Africa that was under formal European control in 1870 increased to almost 90 percent by 1914, with only Ethiopia (Abyssinia) and Liberia remaining independent, though Ethiopia would later be invaded and occupied by Italy in 1936.

The Berlin Conference of 1884, which regulated European colonization and trade in Africa, is usually referred to as the starting point of the Scramble for Africa. There were considerable political rivalries among the European empires in the last quarter of the 19th century. Partitioning Africa was effected without wars between European nations. In the later years of the 19th century, the European nations transitioned from “informal imperialism” — i.e., exercising military influence and economic dominance — to direct rule, bringing about colonial imperialism.

By 1840, businessmen from Europe had established small trading posts along the coast, but they seldom moved inland, preferring to stay near the sea. They primarily traded with locals. Large parts of the continent were essentially uninhabitable for Europeans because of their high mortality rates from tropical diseases such as malaria. In the middle decades of the 19th century, European explorers mapped much of East Africa and Central Africa.

Even as late as the 1870s, Europeans controlled only ten percent of the African continent, with all their territories located near the coast. The most important holdings were Angola and Mozambique, held by Portugal; the Cape Colony, held by Great Britain ; and Algeria, held by France. By 1914, only Ethiopia and Liberia remained independent of European control, and Liberia had strong connections to the United States.

Technological advances facilitated European expansion overseas. Industrialization brought about rapid advancements in transportation and communication, especially in the forms of steamships, railways and telegraphs. Medical advances also played an important role, especially medicines for tropical diseases, which helped control their adverse effects. The development of quinine, an effective treatment for malaria, made vast expanses of the tropics more accessible for Europeans.


 

Berlin Conference (1884–85)

The Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, also known as the Congo Conference, regulated European colonization and trade in Africa during the New Imperialism period and coincided with Germany’s sudden emergence as an imperial power. The conference was organized by Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of Germany. Its outcome, the General Act of the Berlin Conference, can be seen as the formalisation of the Scramble for Africa, but some scholars of history warn against an overemphasis of its role in the colonial partitioning of Africa and draw attention to bilateral agreements concluded before and after the conference. The conference contributed to ushering in a period of heightened colonial activity by European powers, which eliminated or overrode most existing forms of African autonomy and self-governance. Despite fourteen countries being represented, five of them – Austria-Hungary, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden-Norway, and the United States – came home without any formal possessions in Africa.

Prior to the conference, European diplomats approached governments in Africa in the same manner as they did in the Western Hemisphere by establishing a connection to local trade networks. In the early 1800s, the European demand for ivory, which was then often used in the production of luxury goods, led many European merchants into the interior markets of Africa. European spheres of power and influence were limited to coastal Africa at this time as Europeans had only established trading posts up to this point.

In 1876, King Leopold II of Belgium, who had founded and controlled the International African Association the same year, invited Henry Morton Stanley to join him in researching and ‘civilizing’ the continent. In 1878, the International Congo Society was also formed, with more economic goals but still closely related to the former society. Léopold secretly bought off the foreign investors in the Congo Society, which was turned to imperialistic goals, with the ‘African Society’ serving primarily as a philanthropic front.

From 1878 to 1885, Stanley returned to the Congo not as a reporter but as Leopold’s agent, with the secret mission to organise what would become known as the Congo Free State soon after the closure of the Berlin Conference in August 1885. French agents discovered Leopold’s plans, and in response France sent its own explorers to Africa. In 1881, French naval officer Pierre de Brazza was dispatched to central Africa, travelled into the western Congo basin, and raised the French flag over the newly founded Brazzaville in what is now the Republic of Congo. Finally, Portugal, which had essentially abandoned a colonial empire in the area, long held through the mostly defunct proxy Kongo Empire, also claimed the area, based on old treaties with Restoration-era Spain and the Roman Catholic Church. It quickly made a treaty on 26 February 1884 with its former ally, Great Britain, to block off the Congo Society’s access to the Atlantic.

By the early 1880s many factors including diplomatic successes, greater European local knowledge, and the demand of resources such as gold, timber, and rubber, triggered dramatically increased European involvement in the continent of Africa. Stanley’s charting of the Congo River Basin (1874–1877) removed the last terra incognita from European maps of the continent, delineating the areas of British, Portuguese, French and Belgian control. These European nations raced to annex territory that might be claimed by rivals.

France moved to take over Tunisia, one of the last of the Barbary states, using a claim of another piracy incident. French claims by Pierre de Brazza were quickly acted on by the French military which took control of what is now the Republic of the Congo in 1881 and Guinea in 1884. Italy became part of the Triple Alliance, an event which upset Bismarck’s carefully laid plans and led Germany to join the European invasion of Africa.

In 1882, realizing the geopolitical extent of Portuguese control on the coasts, but seeing penetration by France eastward across Central Africa toward Ethiopia, the Nile, and the Suez Canal, Britain saw its vital trade route through Egypt to India threatened. Under the pretext of the collapsed Egyptian financing and a subsequent mutiny in which hundreds of British subjects were murdered or injured, Britain intervened in the nominally Ottoman Egypt, which it controlled for decades.

Conference

The European race for colonialism made Germany start launching expeditions of its own, which frightened both British and French statesmen. Hoping to quickly soothe the brewing conflict, Belgian King Leopold II convinced France and Germany that common trade in Africa was in the best interests of all three countries. Under support from the British and the initiative of Portugal, Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor of Germany, called on representatives of 13 nations in Europe as well as the United States to take part in the Berlin Conference in 1884 to work out a joint policy on the African continent.

The conference was opened on November 15, 1884, and continued until it closed on 26 February 1885. The number of plenipotentiaries varied per nation, but these 14 countries sent representatives to attend the Berlin Conference and sign the subsequent Berlin Act.


 

Britain’s administration of Egypt and South Africa

Britain’s administration of Egypt and the Cape Colony contributed to a preoccupation over securing the source of the Nile River. Egypt was taken over by the British in 1882 leaving the Ottoman Empire in a nominal role until 1914, when London made it a protectorate. Egypt was never an actual British 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. Theophilus Shepstone annexed the South African Republic (or Transvaal) in 1877 for the British Empire, after it had been independent for twenty years.
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 (or Transvaal) were this time defeated and absorbed into the British Empire.

The French thrust into the African interior was mainly from the coasts of West Africa (modern day Senegal) eastward, through the Sahel along the southern border of the Sahara, a huge desert covering most of present-day Senegal, Mali, Niger, and Chad. Their ultimate aim was to have an uninterrupted colonial empire from the Niger River to the Nile, thus controlling all trade to and from the Sahel region, by virtue of their existing control over the Caravan routes through the Sahara. The British, on the other hand, wanted to link their possessions in Southern Africa (modern South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Zambia), with their territories in East Africa (modern Kenya), and these two areas with the Nile basin.

The Sudan (which included most of present-day Uganda) was the key to the fulfillment of these ambitions, especially since Egypt was already under British control. This “red line” through Africa is made most famous by Cecil Rhodes. Along with Lord Milner, the British colonial minister in South Africa, Rhodes advocated such a “Cape to Cairo” empire, linking the Suez Canal to the mineral-rich Southern part of the continent by rail. Though hampered by German occupation of Tanganyika until the end of World War I, Rhodes successfully lobbied on behalf of such a sprawling African empire.

If one draws a line from Cape Town to Cairo (Rhodes’s dream), and one from Dakar to the Horn of Africa (now Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia), (the French ambition), these two lines intersect somewhere in eastern Sudan near Fashoda, explaining its strategic importance. In short, Britain had sought to extend its East African empire contiguously from Cairo to the Cape of Good Hope, while France had sought to extend its own holdings from Dakar to the Sudan, which would enable its empire to span the entire continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

A French force under Jean-Baptiste Marchand arrived first at the strategically located fort at Fashoda, soon followed by a British force under Lord Kitchener, commander in chief of the British Army since 1892. The French withdrew after a standoff and continued to press claims to other posts in the region. In March 1899, the French and British agreed that the source of the Nile and Congo Rivers should mark the frontier between their spheres of influence.


 

Transition to independence (Decolonisation)

Following World War II, rapid decolonisation swept across the continent of Africa as many territories gained their independence from European colonisation.

In August 1941, United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met to discuss their post-war goals. In that meeting, they agreed to the Atlantic Charter, which in part stipulated that they would, “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.” This agreement became the post-WWII stepping stone toward independence as nationalism grew throughout Africa.

Consumed with post-war debt, European powers were no longer able to afford the resources needed to maintain control of their African colonies. This allowed for African nationalists to negotiate decolonisation very quickly and with minimal casualties. Some territories, however, saw great death tolls as a result of their fight for independence.

On 6 March 1957, Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast) became the second sub-Saharan African country to gain its independence from European colonisation. Starting with the 1945 Pan-African Congress, the Gold Coast’s (modern-day Ghana’s) independence leader Kwame Nkrumah made his focus clear. In the conference’s declaration, he wrote, “we believe in the rights of all peoples to govern themselves. We affirm the right of all colonial peoples to control their own destiny. All colonies must be free from foreign imperialist control, whether political or economic.”

In 1949, the conflict ramped up when British troops opened fire on Ghanaian protesters. Riots broke out across the territory and while Nkrumah and other leaders ended up in prison, the event became a catalyst for the independence movement. After being released from prison, Nkrumah founded the Convention People’s Party (CPP), which launched a mass-based campaign for independence with the slogan ‘Self Government Now!’” Heightened nationalism within the country grew their power and the political party widely expanded. In February of 1951, the Convention People’s Party gained political power by winning 34 of 38 elected seats, including one for Nkrumah who was imprisoned at the time. London revised the Gold Coast Constitution to give Ghanaians a majority in the legislature in 1951. In 1956 Ghana requested independence inside the Commonwealth, which was granted peacefully in 1957 with Nkrumah as prime minister and Queen Elizabeth II as sovereign.

Winds of Change

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan gave the famous “Wind of Change” speech in South Africa in February 1960, where he spoke of “the wind of change blowing through this continent”. Macmillan urgently wanted to avoid the same kind of colonial war that France was fighting in Algeria. Under his premiership decolonisation proceeded rapidly.

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 not a peaceful process. Kenyan independence was preceded by the eight-year Mau Mau Uprising. In Rhodesia, the 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence by the white minority resulted in a civil war that lasted until the Lancaster House Agreement of 1979, which set the terms for recognised independence in 1980, as the new nation of Zimbabwe.

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