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Scramble for Africa

 This article is part of the
New Imperialism series.
 Rise of the New Imperialism
The breakdown of Pax Britannica
  • Britain and the New Imperialism
  • France and the New Imperialism
  • The New Imperialism in newly-industrialisng countries
  • Social implications of the New Imperialism
  •  Imperialism in Asia 
     Scramble for Africa
     Imperial rivalry
     Theories of New Imperialism
    Accumulation theory
  • World Systems theory
  • The interpretations of recent scholarship
  • In the history of Africa, the Scramble for Africa is the period between the 1880s and the start of World War I, when colonial empires were acquired faster than anywhere else on the globe. It is the canonical example of the New Imperialism.

    The latter half of 19th century saw the transition from an "informal" empire of control through economic dominance to direct control, marked from the 1870s on by the scramble for territory in areas previously regarded as under influence. The Berlin Conference, 1884-85 regulated the imperial competition between Britain, France and Germany, defining "effective occupation" as the criterion for international recognition of colonial claims and codifying the imposition of direct rule, accomplished usually through armed force.

    For information on the colonisation of Africa prior to the 1880s, including Carthaginian and early European colonisation, see Colonization of Africa.

    Table of contents
    1 Opening of the continent
    2 The Colonial Encounter
    3 Partition of Africa
    4 Conclusions:
    5 External Links:

    Opening of the continent

    The opening of Africa had began in earnest at the end of the 18th century. By 1835, most of northwestern Africa had been mapped by Europeans. The greatest of the European explorers was David Livingstone, who charted the vast interior. By the end of the century, the source of the Nile had been charted by Europeans, the courses of the Niger and Congo Rivers had been traced, and the world now realized the vast resources of Africa.

    However, on the eve of the New Imperialist scramble for Africa, only ten percent of the continent was under the control of western nations. In 1875, the two most important holdings were Algeria, administered by France, and Cape Colony, held by Britain. David Livingstone's explorations, carried on by Morton Stanley, galvanized the European nations into action. But at first his ideas found little support except from the Belgian king, Leopold II, who in 1876 had organized the International African Association. As an agent of the association, Stanley was sent to the Congo region, where he made treaties with several African chiefs and by 1882 obtained over 900,000 square miles of territory.

    Technological advancement facilitated overseas expansionism. Industrialization brought about rapid advancements in transportation and communication, especially in the forms of steam navigation, railroads, and telegraphs. Medical advances were also key, especially medicines for tropical diseases. The development of malaria treatment enabled vast expanses of the tropics to be penetrated in the first place.

    Africa and global markets

    Sub-Saharan Africa, the last vast region of the world largely untouched by "informal imperialism" and "civilization", was also attractive to Europe's ruling elites for other potential reasons. First, insofar as the "Dark Continent" was agricultural or extractive, and no longer stagnant since its integration with the world's interdependent capitalist economy, it required more capital for development that it could provide itself. Second, during a time when Britain's balance of trade showed a growing deficit, with shrinking and increasingly protectionist continental markets, Africa offered Britain an open market that would garner it a trade surplus— a market that bought more from the metropole than it sold overall. Britain, like most other industrial countries, had long since begun to run an unfavorable balance of trade (which was increasingly offset, however, by the income from overseas investments).

    As perhaps the world's first post-industrial nation, financial services became an increasingly more important sector of its economy. Invisible financial exports, as mentioned, kept Britain out of the red, especially capital investments outside Europe, particularly to the developing and open markets in Africa, predominantly white settler colonies, the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific.

    In addition, such surplus capital was often more profitably invested overseas, where cheap labor, limited competition, and abundant raw materials made a greater premium possible. Another inducement to imperialism, of course, arose from the demand for raw materials unavailable in Europe, especially copper, cotton, rubber, tea, and tin, to which European consumers had grown accustomed and upon which European industry had grown dependent.

    However, in Africa (exclusive of what would become the Union of South Africa in 1909), the amount of capital investment by Europeans was relatively small before and after the Berlin Conference, the companies involved in tropical African commerce were small and politically insignificant, exerting only a tiny influence on domestic politics. These observations might detract the pro-imperialist arguments of Leopold II, Francesco Crispi, and Jules Ferry, who argued that sheltered overseas markets in Africa would solve the problems of low prices and over-production caused by shrinking continental markets. But later historians have noted that such statistics only obscured the fact that formal control of tropical Africa had great strategic value in an era of imperial rivalry.

    Strategic Rivalry

    While tropical Africa was not a large zone of investment, other regions overseas were. The vast interior — between the gold- and diamond-rich southern Africa and Egypt, had, however, key strategic value in securing the flow of overseas trade. Britain was thus under intense political pressure, especially among supporters of the Conservative Party, to secure lucrative markets such as India, China, and Latin America from encroaching rivals. Thus, securing the key waterway between East and West — the Suez Canal — was crucial.

    As a result, the important developments were taking place in the Nile valley. Shortly before the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, Ismail, the ruler of Egypt, borrowed enormous sums from French and English bankers at high rates of interest. By 1875, he was facing financial difficulties and was forced to sell his block of shares in the Suez Canal. The shares were snapped up by the prime minister of Great Britain, Benjamin Disraeli, who sought to give his country practical control in the management of this strategic waterway. When Ismail repudiated Egypt's foreign debt in 1879, Britain and France assumed joint financial control over the country, forcing the Egyptian ruler to abdicate. The Egyptian ruling classes did not relish foreign intervention. A serious revolt broke out in 1882. Britain decided to quell the revolt and then assume responsibility for the administration of the country.

    Map showing European claimants to the African continent

    The occupation of Egypt and the acquisition of the Congo were the first major moves in what came to be a precipitous scramble for African territory. In 1884 Bismarck convened a conference in Berlin to discuss the Africa problem. The diplomats put on a humanitarian façade by condemning the slave trade, prohibiting the sale of alcohol and firearms in certain regions, and by expressing concern for missionary activities. More importantly, the diplomats in Berlin laid down the rules of competition by which the great powers were to be guided in seeking colonies, and the agreed that the area along the Congo River was to be administered by Leopold II as a neutral area known as the Congo Free State in which trade and navigation were to be free. No nation was to stake claims in Africa without notifying other powers of its intentions. No territory could be formally claimed prior to being effectively occupied. In spite of the rules, the competitors ignored the rules when convenient and on several occasions war was barely avoided.

    Britain's occupations of Egypt and the Cape Colony contributed to a preoccupation over securing the source of the Nile River. By the end of the century Egypt was occupied by British forces in 1882 (although not formally declared a protectorate until 1914, and never a colony proper); Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda were subjugated in the 1890s and early 1900s; 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 (see Boer War).

    The Fashoda Incident (1898) was one of the most crucial conflicts on Europe's way of consolidating holdings in the continent. It brought Britain and France to the verge of war but ended in a major strategic victory for Britain. It stemmed from battles over control of the Nile headwaters, which caused Britain to expand in the Sudan.

    The French thrust into the African interior was mainly from West Africa (modern day Senegal) eastward, through the Sahel along the southern border of the Sahara, a territory covering modern day Senegal, Mali, Niger, and Chad. Their ultimate aim was to have an uninterrupted link between the Niger River and 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. Sudan (which in those days included modern day Uganda) was obviously 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 by rail the Suez Canal to the mineral-rich Southern part of the continent. Though hampered by German occupation of Tanganyika until the end of World War I, Rhodes successfully lobbied on behalf of such a sprawling East African empire.

    When one draws a line from Cape Town to Cairo (Rhodes' dream), and one from Dakar to the Horn of Africa (now Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti), (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, 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.

    Germany was the third largest colonial power in Africa, acquiring an overall empire of 2.6 square kilometers and 14 million colonial subjects, mostly in its African possessions (Southwest Africa, Togoland, the Cameroons, and Tanganyika).

    In the process, by the end of the century, Europe added almost 9 million square miles — one-fifth of the land area of the globe — to its overseas colonial possessions. Europe's formal holdings now included the entire African continent except Liberia and Ethiopia.

    The Colonial Encounter

    The production of cash crops

    Capitalism, an economic system in which capital, or wealth, is put to work to produce more capital, revolutionised traditional economies, inducing social changes and political consequences that revolutionised African and Asian societies. Maximising production and minimizing cost did not necessarily coincide with traditional, seasonal patterns of agricultural production. The ethic of wage productivity was thus, in many respects, a new concept to supposedly 'idle natives' merely accustomed to older patterns of production. Balanced, subsistence-based economies shifted to specialization and accumulation of surpluses. Tribal states or empires organised along precarious, unwritten cultural traditions also shifted to a division of labour based on legal protection of land and labour — once inalienable, but now commodities to be bought, sold, or traded.

    The Congo Free State

    For details, see the main Congo Free State article.

    As an aside, it must be noted that the integration of traditional economies in Africa within the framework of the modern, capitalist economy was also particularly exploitative. Exploitation of the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina, German Southwest Africa, Rhodesia, and South Africa paled in comparison to that of the Congo basin, where the Congo Free State was ruled (1885-1908) by King Leopold II of Belgium but not by the state of Belgium as such. The fortunes of Leopold, the famed philanthropist, abolitionist, and self-anointed sovereign of a country 76 times larger geographically than Belgium itself, and those of the multinational concessionary companies under his auspices, were mainly made on the proceeds of Congolese rubber, which had never before been produced on such a scale. Unknown numbers of "indolent natives", unaccustomed to the bourgeois ethos of labor productivity, were the victims of murder, starvation, exhaustion induced by over-work, and disease. International exposure (1903-04) of the atrocities conducted by Leopold's agents and concession-holders forced him (1907-08) to submit the territory to formal Belgian colonial rule.

    The extermination of the Herero

    In 1985, the United Nations' Whitaker Report recognized the German attempt to exterminate the Herero and Nama peoples of Southwest Africa as one of the earliest attempts at genocide in the twentieth century. In total, some 65,000 Herero (80 percent of the total Herero population), and 10,000 Nama (50 percent of the total Nama population) were killed. Characteristic of this genocide was death by starvation and the poisoning of wells for the Herero and Nama population that was trapped in the Namib desert.

    Many historians have stressed the historic importance of these atrocities, tracing the evolution from Kaiser Wilhelm II to Hitler, from German Southwest Africa to the Holocaust.

    Partition of Africa


    The British were primarily interested in maintaining secure communication lines to India, which led to initial interest in Egypt and South Africa. Once these two areas were secure, it was the intent of British colonialists such as Cecil Rhodes to establish a Cape to Cairo railway.

    Anglo-Egyptian Sudan
    British East Africa
    British Somaliland
    Southern Rhodesia
    Northern Rhodesia
    Orange Free State
    British South Africa
    The Gambia
    Sierra Leone
    British Gold Coast

    French West Africa
    French Sudan (now Mali)
    Côte d'Ivoire
    Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso)
    Dahomey (now Benin).
    French Equatorial Africa
    French Somaliland

    German Kamerun
    German East Africa
    German South-West Africa
    German Togoland

    Portuguese East Africa
    Portuguese Cabinda
    Portuguese Guinea

    Italian North Africa
    Italian Somaliland

    Belgian Congo

    Spanish Sahara
    Rio De Oro
    Rio Muni

    Independent Nations
    Abyssinia (now Ethiopia)


    Between 1885 and 1914 Britain took nearly 30% of Africa's population under her control, to 15% for France's, 9% for Germany, 7% for Belgium and only 1% for Italy. Nigeria alone contributed 15 million subjects, more than in the whole of French West Africa or the entire German colonial empire. It was paradoxical that Britain, the staunch advocate of free trade, emerged in 1914 with not only the largest overseas empire thanks to her long-standing presence in India, but also the greatest gains in the "scramble for Africa", reflecting her advantageous position at its inception.

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