Mission, Civilizing

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Mission, Civilizing

Studies of Western colonial history focus on the consequences of Europe's expansion into Africa and the Americas. Atlantic historians examine the impact of transporting domesticable livestock to the Americas, the forcible spread of Christianity to Indians, the impact of European diseases on Amerindians, the ceremonies that Europeans employed to indicate that newly discovered lands belonged to their kingdoms, and the contributions of Africans transported to the New World. African historians focus on the Berlin Conference (1884–1885) and investigate European encroachments into African territories. Europe's colonization of America occurred without as much pretense and formality as its carving of Africa.

The Spanish exploration of America started with the expedition in 1492 of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506). Amidst the chaos that Columbus's voyage brought, one result was certain; when the Spaniards arrived in America, they ran roughshod over numerically superior Amerindian armies and changed their lives forever. One explanation for this lopsided victory is the Indians' lack of literary development and therefore inability to understand global methods of warfare, surprise attacks, or diplomatic deception. Without technological achievements, the European conquerors enjoyed a distinct advantage over the virtually defenseless locals. Basically, the Europeans understood how to manipulate inexperienced and nonworldly peoples. Francisco Pizarro (ca. 1475–1541) brought a European army of 168 men to attack an Incan army consisting of eighty thousand soldiers. Pizarro's superior experience in warfare and deception allowed the miniscule army of terrified Europeans to capture Atahualpa (ca. 1502–1533), leader of the Incas, and therefore scatter and dismay the enemy's battalions.

Equally important to explaining the Europeans' success is that when Columbus, Pizarro, and Hernando Cortés (ca. 1484–1547) arrived, they inadvertently transmitted devastating diseases to the Amerindian populations. The prior isolation of the Amerindians contributed to their susceptibility to contracting the lethal smallpox virus. Consequent of the sudden impact of disease, many native populations became divided and faced civil war. Epidemics caused massive depopulations of people who could have been soldiers able to ward off the European intrusions. The status of the native medical professions had been relatively ineffectual, and doctors stumbled over finding remedies for what remains today a deadly virus. In a sense, Amerindians simply lacked the technologies that would have helped them fight back.

After the United States removed the British from North America, European powers started searching for fresh lands and subjects to impose on culturally and to exploit economically. Precipitated by the discovery of new African lands in the 1880s, European interest in Africa increased radically. Between 1874 and 1877, the Welsh-born journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley (1841–1904) uncovered the terrain of the last remaining uncharted river basin in Africa, within the Congo region.

King Leopold II (1835–1909) of Belgium founded the International African Society in 1876, after which he invited Stanley to assist in researching, acquiring, and uplifting the archaic African territories. Portugal, France, England, and Belgium simultaneously scrambled to formulate a distinct Congo state under their direction. The European powers wheeled and dealt the Congo region callously. Portugal signed an agreement with Great Britain on February 26, 1884, intended to strangle the Congo's access to the Atlantic Ocean. This pattern of dominating and shifting foreign territories eventually led to each major world power possessing a portion of African land.

In November 1884 German chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) called together fourteen Western nations, including Russia and the United States, to discuss the future of Africa and to divide and conquer the continent at a peace table. The Berlin Conference officially shifted the European focus from the Americas to Africa. Bismarck's avowed motive for holding the Berlin Conference—scientific exploration—differed drastically from what occurred once negotiations broke down and centered on carving spheres of influence in Africa. Bismarck sought to oversee Germany's expansion and to demonstrate Germany's ever-growing authority to negotiate the outcome of world affairs. Unfortunately, for indigenous populations numbering over one thousand, each Western power demanded a slice or a chunk of African territory without regard to the impact of artificially dividing territories on a generic map.

The series of conferences, often termed the "Congo Conferences," concluded on February 26, 1885. The result of the conferences was the signing of the Berlin Act. One major problem with the Western powers signing the act had been their division of African territory despite the ambassadors' lack of knowledge about the linguistic and tribal boundaries of indigenous populations. This separation threatened to arouse hatred and to cause warfare among distinct populaces. Ironically, although the Europeans referred to the creation of African spheres of influence in the Berlin Act, the slave trade became internationally prohibited. At the conference, France and Belgium ultimately received control of the Congo region to establish "democratic" Congolese states. France embarked on a program of massive African colonization after the signing of the Berlin Act. Additionally, every nation consented that in order to receive recognition as possessor of an African territory, a Western power would have to demon strate tangible control over the terrain and population.

By 1895, French government officials had recognized their possession of African territories as an opportunity for rejuvenating the empire. France's unstable Third Republic (1870–1940) promulgated the ethnocentric idea that the French were the most civilized and enlightened people in the entire world. The British also issued ethnocentric declarations asserting their superiority based on pseudoscientific phrenological experiments. From a political perspective, the Third Republic's noble ideals became a pretext for spreading French business and culture into the African interior. Improvements in European science and technologies allowed French policies to take hold.

French penetration into Africa became enabled by the steam engine that powered freighters, and by the construction of railways in Africa's interior. The Berlin Act stipulated the opening of the Congo and Niger rivers to all nationals. Technological innovation transformed the Congo, Niger, Senegal, and Gambia rivers into navigable and easily passable waterways. These advancements allowed trade ships to maneuver freely inside of Africa's interior regions. Medical advancements provided cures for many of the perilous diseases afflicting French workers in Africa. With the advent of vaccinations, the discoveries of Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) and Robert Koch (1843–1910), and the knowledge that mosquitoes spread yellow fever and malaria, suddenly carving spheres of influence in Africa seemed attainable and highly lucrative.

In order for the French people to accept their nation as a colonial power, racial doctrines were disseminated throughout the country. The French had learned the consequences of colonial rebellion from the bloody Haitian independence movement, and the British had learned the serious consequences of tyrannical governance from the American colonies. Despite these lessons, French explorers still viewed Africans as dark savages mired in barbarism and anarchy, and as incapable of leaving their ancient customs behind.

Because of the growing demand for raw materials, for manpower, and for economic expansion, between 1895 and 1935 French colonial administrations entrenched themselves in several African nations. These territories included: Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Niger, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), French Sudan (now Mali), Tunisia, Morocco, and Dahomey (now Benin). One major consequence of French colonial administrative policies was the rebellions that developed as backlashes against imperial rule in Africa and the Americas. Racist policies of assimilation caused significant bloodshed on both sides and symbolized the exploitive nature of European-African colonialism.

see also Berlin Conference; Scramble for Africa.


Boahen, A. Adu, ed. Africa Under Colonial Domination, 1880–1935. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Conklin, Alice. A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895–1930. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton, 1997.

Harris, Joseph. Africans and Their History: Past and Present, 2nd rev. ed. New York: Meridian, 1998.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking, 1985.

Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800, 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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