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Colonialism in Africa
What does colonialism mean?
The occupation and control of one nation by another.
Over the last few hundred years, various European nations have colonized many
areas of the world. These European colonies were in North and South America,
Africa, Asia, Australia, and various smaller islands around the world. European
nations colonized Africa from the late 19th century until the middle to later 20th
century. Although Europeans had had contact with many parts of Africa much
longer than this (for example, through the Atlantic Slave Trade), they did not impose
a formal rule of law over Africa until this time period.
The Atlantic Slave Trade
Before the 1500’s, slavery was common in Africa. But slaves usually won their
freedom after a few years. Some even became important citizens among the people
who enslaved them. Their own people could even buy slaves out of slavery.
Then the European powers began to build colonies in North and South America.
They practiced a new kind of slavery there. The Europeans treated slaves like
property, not like people. Freedom in the future was out of the question. The African
slave trade did not end until the 1800’s. By then, millions of Africans had been taken
from their homelands, never to return.
Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch settlers in the Americas needed workers for their
plantations and mines. At first they enslaved Native Americans, but then many
became sick and died from diseases or brutal working conditions. Others ran away
and to replace them the Europeans started to import enslaved Africans.
The Europeans thought Africans would make good slaves. Africans were skilled
farmers, miners and metal workers. They also did not know the territory they would
be in and therefore they could not escape.
By the 1700’s about 78,000 African slaves were being transported across the
Atlantic each year. But even this did not satisfy the demand for slaves. Some African
leaders began to kidnap people from neighboring areas to sell as slaves.
Captured Africans were branded with hot irons. In the slave ships, captives lay side
by side on filthy shelves stacked from floor to ceiling. They got little food or water
on the journey across the Atlantic. As many as 20% of slaves died during each
crossing and to make up for these expected losses the ships captains packed in more
people for each trip.
After the slave trade ended, Europeans then began to raid Africa’s interior for
resources. They wanted resources to fuel the new factories that were springing up
all across Europe. Europeans also saw Africa as a place to build empires. While
Africans fiercely resisted European conquest, they were no match for the weapons
that the Europeans had to defend themselves.
The 19th century in Europe was a time of industrialization. Factories in Europe
required raw materials to be manufactured into marketable products. As a result,
Europeans sought both a source of raw materials, as well as, a market for
manufactured goods in Africa. This economic motivation played a large role in the
colonization of Africa
Politics in Europe also led to the colonization of Africa.
Nationalism-a strong of identification with and pride in one's nationresulted in competition between European nations. This competition often
resulted in wars between nations. Competition over colonial expansion in
Africa was another way that national competition between European nations
was demonstrated in the late 19th century.
One of the causes of the Scramble for Africa, (1885-1910) which resulted in the
colonization of all of Africa in just twenty-five years, was the competition between
European nations. No major nation wanted to be without colonies. The competition
was particularly strong between Britain, France, and Germany, the strongest
European nation-states in the late 19th century.
In addition, ideologies of racial hierarchy were prevalent in Europe in the 19th
century. Many Europeans viewed themselves as the most advanced civilization in
the world, and some saw it as their mission to "enlighten" and "civilize" people in
the rest of the world.
European nations were able to make certain areas of Africa into their colonies in
two main ways. Some African leaders were willing to sign treaties with Europeans
for various reasons. In some cases, they saw it to their benefit to gain European
allies. In other cases, there was not a clear understanding of what the treaties were
about or what the consequences of them would be. Secondly, military force was
used in some cases when there was a large amount of resistance to colonial rule.
The Treaty of Berlin and the "Scramble for Africa"
All of this treaty making and territory claiming by European nations caused a
competitive rush for territory in Africa. This period is sometimes referred to as the
"Scramble for Africa." As a result, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Germany
initiated a conference in 1884 for European nations to regulate the rush for
territory. The conference served several main purposes.
First, European nations were interested in being assured access to various
important trade routes, particularly along the Niger and Congo river basins.
Secondly, there was a concern to suppress the internal slave trade that was still
going on in some parts of Africa. Thirdly, a ban was put on importing firearms into
Africa, which resulted in Europeans having a monopoly on guns in Africa. And
finally, occupation of territories in Africa was discussed. The result of this
conference was a treaty called the Treaty of Berlin. By 1900, almost 90% of Africa
was under European control.
The borders of African countries today were imposed from the outside by European
nations. Often the people who drew these borders paid no attention to
ethnolinguistic groups or existing political organization at the time of
colonialization. Sometimes they grouped together people who had never been
united under the same government before. Sometimes they divided existing systems
of government at the time of colonial conquest. Also, note that the borders of African
colonies in 1914 were still different than what they would become in the latter part
of the 20th century.
Economic Companies
In the early days of colonialism, European nations allowed the establishment of
private companies that were granted large territories to administrate in Africa.
Businessmen who were interested in exploiting the natural resources of the
territories they were allowed to govern formed these companies. These companies
could set up their own systems of taxation and labor recruitment. For their part, the
European powers that provided charters for these companies did so because the
companies took responsibility for all of the expenses related to establishing and
administering the colonies. This was a good deal for the European countries. They
had the political benefit of having additional colonies in Africa, but not the expense!
These companies were eventually unsuccessful in that they were unable to generate
consistent profits for their shareholders. Governing a colony was expensive, and the
companies faced opposition from Africans and missionaries over the harsh nature of
company rule. By 1924, all Company rule was replaced by various forms of
European colonial governance.
Direct Rule
One such form of colonial administration is called direct rule. The French, Belgians,
Germans, and Portuguese are considered to have used this model in governing their
African colonies. They had centralized administrations, usually in urban centers,
that stressed policies of assimilation. This means that the colonialists had the
intention of "civilizing" African societies so they would be more like Europe. As part
of this strategy, colonialists did not try to negotiate governance with indigenous
African rulers and governments. Indigenous authorities had a subordinate place in
these administrations. Direct rule also used the strategy of "divide and rule" by
implementing policies that intentionally weakened indigenous power networks and
institutions. Module Ten: African Politics and Government will address direct rule in
more detail.
Indirect Rule
Primarily, the British used indirect rule to govern their colonies. This system of
governance used indigenous African rulers within the colonial administration,
although they often maintained an inferior role. Overall, it was a more cooperative
model than direct rule. Lord Lugard, a British colonial administrator, used this
system of government first in Nigeria and later brought it to British East Africa. This
system of government assumed that all Africans were organized as "tribes" with
chiefs. However, this was not always the case. Remember that people in Africa had
diverse types of government ranging from highly centralized states to "stateless
societies." As a result, indirect rule increased divisions between ethnic groups and
gave power to certain "big men" who had never had it before in pre-colonial history.
Consequences of these significant changes in social organization and identity are
still being felt today.
Settler Rule
Settler rule refers to the type of colonialism in southern Africa in which European
settlers imposed direct rule on their colonies. Settler colonies differed from other
colonies in Africa in that a significant number of immigrants from Europe settled in
these colonies. These immigrants or settlers were not like missionaries or European
colonial officials. Just like early European immigrants to the United States and
Canada, settlers in Africa planned to make the colonies their permanent home. In
order to thrive in the colonies, settlers demanded special political and economic
rights and protection. Security and prosperity for the settlers depended on
economic exploitation and political oppression of the African population that vastly
outnumbered the settlers. Consequently, settler rule was characterized by its harsh
policies toward the indigenous African population.