World History: Imperialism in Africa-I (Scramble for Africa)

Africa saw the most dramatic colonisation during the later part of 19th century and early 20th century.

A unique fact about European colonization of Africa is that it was colonized so late in history. Although certain European powers had built settlements or ports along the African coast; yet by and large, the whole of Africa remained uncolonized even till 1860s and 1870s. For thousands of years, the African tribes lived through out the interior of African continent often fighting with other tribes for dominance and expansion. Except strategic trading ports, the Europeans were not much interested in interior Africa.

However, a competition for Africa’s territory and resources started after a Scottish missionary David Livingstone and an explorer HM Stanley mapped much of Africa. This mapping revealed the true value of Africa {in terms of natural resources} and fuelled European interest in the continent. This is how a tremendous competition to take over African territory started which is called Scramble for Africa.

Scramble for Africa

The term “Scramble for Africa” is used to describe the period of intense European interest in colonization, occupation and annexation of Africa between the 1880s and 1914. Other terms used for the same phenomena include “Partition of Africa” and “Race for Africa“.

No European power wanted to be left out of the race to acquire territories in Africa. The competition was so fierce that there was a fear of war between the European countries. To avoid the war, Bismarck called together representatives of major European countries to deal with rival colonial claims. This was called Berlin Conference. However, this Berlin conference is called the starting point for Scramble for Africa.

Berlin Conference

Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 was held in Berlin, Germany between 1884-1885 and was attended by fourteen European nations whose aim was to divide up the continent among themselves. The conference was put together by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

Ignoring the rights of existing African kingdoms and people’s altogether, European powers claimed the right to acquire inland territories by expansion from existing coastal possessions. They agreed that possession should involved effective occupation of the land and control over the people. They agreed that any European country could claim land in Africa by notifying other nations of their claims and showing they could control the area.

No African ruler attended these meetings, yet the conference sealed Africa’s fate. By 1914, only Liberia and Ethiopia could remain free from European control.

Outcome of Berlin Conference

Berlin Conference divided up Africa into spheres of influence, whereby each country knew what territory was theirs and what was not. France controlled much of Northwest Africa, while Great Britain controlled parts of Southern Africa and Northeastern Africa. Belgium, Germany, and Portugal also controlled pockets of territory here and there throughout the continent. Post Berlin conference, the European powers sought to snatch up regions of Africa for themselves. Also, many European countries engaged in colonization and exploitation under the pretense of civilization and humanitarian reasons.

Leopold-II and Congo Free State

Today, Belgium is a small country. However, during the scramble days, it had dreamt of a great empire in Africa. Its King Leopold II set up a private colony called the Congo Free State, whereby he extracted from it a fortune. The Congo Free State was set up under the guise of philanthropic activity, but in reality, it was just a way for the greedy king to get rich and exploit the area.

Summary of Impact of Imperialism on Africa

In the beginning, the Europeans thought that the Africa would prove to be a great market for their products. However, soon they realized that they were wrong. Nevertheless, Africa was rich in mineral resources so it proved to be of great wealth for Europeans. Further, the Europeans grew business of cash-crop plantations such as peanuts, palm oil, cocoa, and rubber. These products displaced the food crops grown by farmers to feed their families. This resulted in famines; and Africans started getting starved to death.

Secondly, the scramble for Africa divided the continent by artificial boundaries {visible on Africa’s current map also as straight lines} that unnaturally divided groups created problems even long after the Europeans left from there. There was a breakdown of African traditional cultures. The people were forced to leave the villages to find ways to support themselves and this caused identity problems.  Many Africans died of new diseases such as smallpox.  Thousands of Africans lost lives in resisting the Europeans.

However, there were some positive effects also. For a considerable period, the local warfare among African tribes were reduced. Humanitarian efforts in some colonies improved sanitation and brought health and education facilities. Literacy and health conditions improved. African colonies gained railroads, dams, and telephone and telegraph lines. However, these only benefited European business interests, not Africans’ lives.