Britain's African Colonies

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Britain's African Colonies

British imperial interests in Africa predate the Berlin Conference of 1884 to 1885, which is usually considered the defining event in the scramble and partition of Africa. By 1871 Britain had established crown colonies in Gambia, Sierra Leone, Lagos, and at the Cape and Natal provinces in South Africa. England built Fort James at the current site of Banjul on the Gambia River in 1618. Sierra Leone became a colony in 1801, and Britain brought the Cape and Natal provinces under its control in the early nineteenth century. These territorial acquisitions that occurred before the dawn of "new imperialism" provided the British with a foundation they built on during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Besides Gambia and Sierra Leone, the other British colonies in western Africa included the Gold Coast (Ghana) and Nigeria. The West African coast was part of the elaborate network of transatlantic slave trade and hence was not immune from the commercial interests of various European nations. In 1844 British officials signed treaties with Fante chiefs as equals. The British economic interests were subsequently enhanced and by the 1870s they monopolized trade in the region. In 1874 the British colonized the coastal Fante states. However, it was not until 1901 that the British conquered Ashanti (Asante). This followed a series of wars between the British and the Ashanti in which the latter lost. This was a significant step in bringing the coast and hinterland regions under British colonial rule.

In the context of Nigeria, the British declared Lagos its protectorate in 1851. The Royal Niger Company was granted a charter to help advance the political and economic interests of the British in the Niger Delta region. It was not until 1900 that the northern part of Nigeria was brought under control, thereby bringing the entire country under formal British colonial rule.

In 1875 Britain increased its influence in Egypt when it bought a substantial share in the Suez Canal. Safeguarding the canal became a major preoccupation of the British government. When the Egyptian economy went into recession and defaulted on its debts, the British government increased its military involvement in Egypt, suppressed the Ahmed Urabi revolt, and occupied the country in 1882. Egypt thus came under British rule as a protectorate. Once Britain occupied Egypt in 1882, it made its way to the Egyptian colony of Sudan. The Anglo-Egyptian forces met stiff resistance from the Mahdi forces in Sudan, and it was not until the 1890s that the country was formally brought under control.

In eastern Africa, the Imperial British East Africa Company was instrumental in establishing Kenya and Uganda as British spheres of influence before the two countries were formally brought under the direct control of the British government: Uganda in 1894 and the British East Africa Protectorate (Kenya) in 1895. In eastern Africa, some communities, including the Giriama, Kikuyu, and the Nandi in Kenya, fiercely contested the imposition of British imperial control, while in Uganda the British sent military expeditions against the Bunyoro.

In contrast, some communities supported the imposition of British rule because they wanted to maintain their preexisting political and economic situation by working closely with the British. The Baganda had an elaborate governance infrastructure, which the British wished to preserve with a view to using Baganda agents in establishing colonial rule. The Masai in Kenya sought assistance from the British because of emergent humanitarian needs brought about by drought and famine. Britain's control of British Somaliland, which is the territory at the mouth of the Red Sea, was concluded in 1884 when it was declared a protectorate.

The British colonization of the Cape Colony between 1802 and 1806 was significant in the context of its imperial interests in India. Having conquered the Cape from the Dutch, the British made it a port of call for their ships en route to India. It was the discovery of gold and diamonds eight decades later that forced Britain to get directly involved in southern Africa with a view to controlling the economic and political destiny of the region. British colonists went to South Africa in large numbers, a development that provoked resentment from the Afrikaners who fiercely resisted the British expansion into the interior as well as their permanent presence. Their stay was bound to undermine the Afrikaner dominance in South Africa.

The arrival of one of the great British empire-builders in Africa, Cecil Rhodes (1853–1902), drastically changed the hitherto existing territorial situation in southern Africa by pressing inland and winning for the British the territories of Bechuanaland (Botswana), Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe, respectively), and Nyasaland (Malawi). The African communities, especially the Shona and Ndebele, fiercely resisted the conquest of these lands in Central Africa. In what is today the Republic of South Africa, the provinces of Cape Colony, Natal, Orange Free State, and the Transvaal were united to form the Union of South Africa, which was granted autonomy and thus began to be self-governed in 1910. The whites dominated the political system until 1994, when the country attained majority rule under the leadership of Nelson Mandela (b. 1918).

The British method of colonial administration was dependent on the prevailing local situation. The British retained governmental structures in preexisting centralized polities. The examples of the kingdom of Buganda in Uganda and the Sokoto caliphate in Nigeria are instructive of the British determination to maintain the status quo so long as the leadership accepted its status as subject to the British Crown.

In situations of decentralized polities, the British appointed chiefs through whom orders and directives were communicated to the local population. This method of rule in which the British officials were appointed as governors as well as provincial and district commissioners, while Africans served as chiefs under the designated European officials, is called indirect rule. The system was cost-effective because the British needed only a few European officials to govern the colony. The governor was the most powerful person in the colony and was assisted by executive and legislative councils in carrying out the duties of governance. For most of the colonial period these councils were the preserve of European colonial officials. It was the European missionaries who often represented African interests in these councils.

The construction of physical and social infrastructure was a major undertaking of the British colonial state. Roads and railways were built, as were social facilities such as schools and hospitals. English and vernacular languages were promoted in primary schools, but as students proceeded to higher levels, English became the only language of instruction. Education served to produce elite that would serve in the administration.

The British imposed their law, but also encouraged customary law in the colonies. In the context of the economy, there were few attempts at industrializing the colonies. Besides South Africa, most British colonies were dependent on agriculture as the mainstay of their economy. In the predominantly settler colonies, such as Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, African land was alienated for European settlement. This became a major issue during the decolonization era, when Africans in these settler colonies took up arms to fight for independence with a view to getting back their land.

Whether through resistance or peaceful means, Britain managed to negotiate its way out of Africa by leaving a legacy that is still evident today. English is either the official language or one of the official languages in the former British colonies. The legal system in the former colonies is, in its basic structure and outlines, a continuing legacy of colonialism. Also, the governmental system and bureaucracy still reflects the basic parameters of what was bequeathed to African countries by Britain at independence. The inequality institutionalized during colonialism is still manifested in some of the countries. The explosive land issue in the former settler colonies exemplifies the challenges that independent governments have to contend with in confronting their colonial past. The former colonies are still members of the British Commonwealth and meet regularly to deliberate on matters of education, health, economy and trade, and human rights. Finally, Britain still retains strong links with its former colonies through diplomatic missions.

see also Urabi Rebellion; Asante Wars; Berlin Conference; Indirect Rule, Africa; Rhodes, Cecil; Scramble for Africa; Warrant Chiefs, Africa.


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Elkins, Caroline. Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya. New York: Henry Holt, 2005.

Falola, Toyin, ed. Africa; Vol. 3: Colonial Africa, 1885–1939. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2001.

Falola, Toyin, ed. African Politics in Postimperial Times: The Essays of Richard L. Sklar. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2001.

Louis, William Roger, ed. The Oxford History of the British Empire; Vol. 4: The Twentieth Century, edited by Judith M. Brown and William Roger Louis. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1999.