Scramble for Africa

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Scramble for Africa

Between 1875 and 1914, European countries invaded and subjugated almost all of the African continent. Historians have long debated the causes for this break with past European policies toward Africa. The rising European appetite for conquest, and the willingness of European governments to pay for imperialist ventures, has become known as the "New Imperialism" to distinguish it from older traditions of colonialism before 1850. Earlier policies focused more on seeking commercial influence rather than formal occupation.


No one cause can explain the Scramble. Rather, a conjunction of attitudes favorable to empire, technological advances, and political and social concerns led different governments to believe the occupation of Africa would be possible, necessary, and cheap. Technological developments created a short-lived, but radical, discrepancy between African and European countries. Quinine, steamboats, and new armaments like the machine gun gave Europeans a tremendous advantage over most African states. Many Europeans also considered technological prowess a sign of their moral superiority over Africans.

Economic needs also helped lead to occupation, although it was often done for getting quick profits rather than tangible benefits that resulted from colonization. J.A. Hobson (1858–1940) and Communist leader Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) argued that imperialism stemmed from the need of capitalist societies to find new markets for their factories and raw materials so as to fuel production. However, this economic explanation fails to acknowledge that very few colonies turned a profit before World War I (1914–1918) and that most European investors preferred to put their money elsewhere. Only South Africa, where gold and diamonds were discovered before 1880, attracted many companies and extensive capital.

Other factors entered into the equation of African colonization. French politicians and military officers bitter at the loss of Alsace and Lorraine saw the domination of Africa as a chance for their country to remain a world power. Nationalists from many countries clamored for wars of conquest. Some politicians, like the Conservative Party minister Lord Salisbury and German premier Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), personally disdained Africa, but felt the balance of power in Europe could only be kept through an equitable division of African spoils. Missionary writers like David Livingstone (1813–1873) presented Africa as ravaged by the slave trade and primitive superstition. The popularity of social Darwinist doctrines of European biological superiority led others to espouse empire, like South African magnate Cecil Rhodes (1853–1902). Finally, ambitious Europeans in Africa proved more willing to carve out empires using indigenous troops than their home country's regime ever planned.


Events in North and West Africa set the foundation for the occupation of Africa. The Egyptian government under Khedive Ismail (1830–1895) ran up enormous debts building the Suez Canal and other modernizing projects. Because of its debts, the British and French government took over much of Africa in 1879. European disagreements during the Balkan Crisis of 1875–1878 led to the British occupation of Cyprus. The French government received the tacit agreement of London to the occupation of Tunisia in 1881 as compensation. Once British forces put down a nationalist revolt in Egypt in 1882, French politicians demanded compensation. French officers also began expanding their authority in Senegal from 1879 onward.

By 1882 others entered the competition. Leopold II (1835–1909) of Belgium had long dreamed of creating an empire, and hired Anglo-American journalist Henry Morton Stanley (1841–1904) to help promote a supposedly scientific association, the African International Association, that had as its real goal the creation of a Central African state controlled by Leopold II himself. French officer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza (1852–1905) and Stanley both persuaded African chiefs along the Congo River to sign dubious treaties on behalf of their rival sponsors. The Portuguese government, alarmed by British designs on Southern Africa as well as these moves into Central Africa on territory it had long claimed but never controlled, signed an agreement in 1884 with the British respecting Portuguese rights on the Congo River. To resolve these disputes, Bismarck organized the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885.

The Berlin Conference set up a procedure for how African territory could be taken over by European countries. France and Germany decided to permit Leopold II to form the Congo Free State as long as he allowed free trade within its borders. Representatives from most European nations attended. The Niger and Congo Rivers were declared free for naval travel. Countries could claim territory with signed treaties and proof of "effective occupation." General "spheres of influence" were created, but the colonial borders were only fixed between 1885 and 1911.

After the Scramble, European countries did not immediately leap into invasion. French officers set their sights on the destruction of the Umarian Muslim kingdom in the late 1880s, but only succeeded in defeating it and other African leaders like Samory Touré (1830–1900) in the following decade. Attempts by European countries to rely on private companies, like Sir James Goldie's National African Company, to save expenses usually led to formal occupation once these firms proved unable to pay for and maintain colonial occupation. Competition between European countries for African land continued until World War I. French and English forces nearly squared off over the Sudan at the village of Fashoda in 1898, for example, but their disputes eventually were resolved through diplomacy.

African communities could sometimes fight guerilla wars for decades, but only once succeeded in completely defeating invaders. Ethiopia, led by Menelik II (1844–1913) and his well-prepared army, defeated Italian plans of conquest at the battle of Adowa in 1896, forcing Italy to recognize it as a sovereign nation. The white Boer republics defeated British forces in 1881, but a second war between the two resulted in English victory after a long conflict from 1899 to 1902. One of the reasons for European victory lay in the use of African auxiliaries. Another lay in political divisions between Africans. Vying factions in Buganda, the Tanzanian coast, and elsewhere tried to enlist European aid, often at the ultimate cost of their own independence. Some Africans profited from invasion, but many more suffered from taxes, forced labor, epidemics, and forced migrations in the initial years of European rule.

see also Berlin Conference; Stanley, Henry Morton.


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