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Africa, partition of

Africa, partition of. Africa is the nearest continent to western Europe, yet its colonization lagged far behind more distant parts of the world. That was partly because of the health risks it presented to Europeans, and partly because there seemed little to take them there. The main exception was trade, in slaves and other goods, which could be carried on perfectly well through African and Arab middlemen at the coasts. A number of maritime nations had posts in Africa from the 16th cent. onwards, including the Portuguese, Spaniards, and—a little later—the Dutch and British in the west and south. As late as the 1860s, however, their presence in tropical Africa was marginal. Britain seemed content with this. In 1865 a parliamentary select committee recommended withdrawing from three of her four west coast settlements altogether. It was shortly after that, however, that interest in Africa hotted up again.

The reasons for this were the use of quinine as a prophylaxis against malaria; missionary activities; a new demand for Africa's natural products; booming trade to the East, which passed round Africa on two sides after the Suez canal was opened in 1869; and native rebellions, which tended to suck British troops and government inland. Other European countries also became involved, especially France in the north and west. In 1882 Britain took control of Egypt after a rebellion there against the local khedive and his growing dependence on European financiers threatened her own interests, particularly in Suez. That sparked off the main stage of the ‘scramble for Africa’, in which several European nations vied for control.

To prevent that leading to conflict, the German chancellor Bismarck called a conference in Berlin in 1884, which parcelled west and central Africa out amongst the claimants. That was done with relatively little fuss, mainly because none of the latter felt desperately strongly about it. The only new colony to feel the effects of this immediately was the Congo ‘Free State’, chiefly because of its bloody exploitation by its new owner, the Belgian King Leopold II.

In the 1890s the action shifted to the east and south. Here the lion's share went to Britain, including the Sudan, most of east-central Africa, and the Rhodesias. This time the competition was somewhat keener, threatening conflicts with France over Fashoda in 1898, and Germany on the eve of the second Boer War. The risk, however, was felt to be worth it, both because of the reputed riches of the area and because these countries were seen as indirectly vital to the protection of Britain's trade routes to the East. By 1900 the process was more or less completed, leaving virtually the whole of Africa—barring only Ethiopia and Liberia—in European hands.

Bernard Porter

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