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Sub-Saharan Africa, European Presence in

Sub-Saharan Africa, European Presence in

The first European contact with sub-Saharan Africa was a byproduct of the Portuguese desire to bypass the Muslim world and to tap the gold trade from Africa and the spice trade from the Indies. By 1444, the Portuguese had passed the Senegal River and entered into contact with black African peoples. They reached the Gold Coast in 1471 and the Congo River in 1483. In 1488 Bartolomeo Dias (ca. 1450–1500) rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Ten years later, Vasco da Gama (ca. 1469–1524) reached India. In the process, the Portuguese also discovered a series of islands in the Atlantic Ocean: Madeira in 1418, the Cape Verde Islands in 1460, and São Tomé in 1470.

European settlement in Africa was limited. In 1482 the Portuguese began construction of a fort, El Mina, on the Gold Coast, which became the major center of their gold trade. Many Portuguese settled on the Atlantic islands, which became either commercial entrepôts or centers of plantation agriculture, usually using African slaves. There was also an important Portuguese presence in the Congo kingdom and on the East African coast, where they tried to control the Indian Ocean trade that was profitable for Arab traders.

The Portuguese diaspora was largely made up of men, who often married local women. They thus developed Luso-African populations, Catholic in belief, but linked by language and culture to both Portugal and various African cultures. Cape Verdians developed trading communities along the West Africa coast. In the Zambezi Valley, the Portuguese gave land grants called prazos to men, who married locally and exploited their ties with Portugal and with local African rulers to form small states.

Portugal was a small country, which by the late sixteenth century was being challenged by the Dutch, British, and French, who wanted to participate in the slave and gold trades. In East Africa, Arab traders and a Swahili resistance won control of all areas north of Mozambique. Few of the other Europeans settled in Africa. This was partly a result of African resistance. African states generally restricted the European presence to coastal ports of trade. It was also due to the high mortality rate Europeans experienced along most of the African coast. Europeans had little resistance to diseases like malaria and yellow fever that decimated their numbers. Slave traders generally traded from their ships or from temporary installations in various ports of trade. African merchants often prolonged negotiations over slave cargoes, knowing that disease would press Europeans to settle quickly in order to get back to the sea. The mortality rate of sailors on slaving expeditions was higher than that for the slaves themselves.


There were some European installations. The French had bases at Saint-Louis and Gorée in what is now Senegal. All trading nations maintained castles on the Gold Coast, where the climate was somewhat more favorable than elsewhere. There were small European installations on the Slave Coast, particularly at Whydah in what is now Benin. The Portuguese founded Luanda (in Angola) in 1576 and maintained settlements on the Mozambique coast, most notably on Mozambique Island.

The number of Europeans in these settlements was very small. As late as the early nineteenth century, there were little more than two hundred French-born males in the two Senegalese settlements. The majority of the population of most of these settlements was slaves, some of them trusted figures who led trading expeditions and played key roles in military and economic life.

Most of the "Europeans" were either of mixed descent or were Africans who learned European languages and participated in Atlantic culture. The slave trade was lucrative enough to attract Europeans willing to risk the possibility of an early death. A small number survived their first bouts with malaria and lived many years. Many others left their trading establishments in the hands of their African wives, many of whom proved to be shrewd traders. Those who lived long enough also left behind offspring, some of whom were educated in Europe and many of whom expanded family trading operations.

This persisted into the nineteenth century. When the British abolished the slave trade, they pressured other European nations to do the same and eventually to sign treaties allowing each other the right to search and seize ships in the slave trade. Over about sixty years, the British freed more than 180,000 people, who were taken to Freetown in Sierra Leone, where the only international prize court was available. The function of this court was to decide whether the ships seized were slavers and thus subject to seizure under international law. Entrusted to European missions, these people, known as Creoles or Krio, eagerly absorbed education and usually became Christians. They provided West Africa's first modern professionals: doctors, lawyers, judges, civil servants, ministers, teachers, and journalists. They also helped staff the nascent colonial administrations, the missions, and British commercial operations.

The most important area of European settlement was South Africa, where the climate was more temperate than areas further north. South Africa was also strategic because of its commanding position on the only trade route to India and Indonesia. The voyage to the Indies was a long one, generally about five months. Ships usually stopped at several places to pick up supplies and fuel.

The Dutch East India Company founded Cape Town as a refreshment station. The climate was favorable, but the hinterland was inhabited by hunters and herders, who lacked a surplus and were not eager for trade. The company thus settled a small number of colonists to provide food for passing ships. After the arrival of French Huguenot settlers in the 1680s, the Dutch East India Company stopped further immigration because it did not want the cost of a real colony. Still, the disease environment was favorable, native people were a limited threat, and good land was available. In 1717 there were only two thousand free people in the colony, but the population grew rapidly.

In spite of company efforts, the frontier pushed rapidly inland. The residents of Cape Town itself focused on servicing ships going to and from Asia. In the area around the city, grain and wine production provided supplies for the boats. The frontier saw the emergence of a more extensive economy based on ways of using cattle learned from the local Khoi. Better armed than native people, the frontiersmen tended to be poor in goods, but wealthy in land, cattle, and dependants.

Some of the local Khoi and San were decimated by European diseases like smallpox. Others retreated into the far interior. A large group moved into service on the European farms. Some were children of San hunters taken prisoner when their parents were killed and raised as virtual slaves on farms of the Dutch frontiersmen. The Cape Town slaves, the frontier servants, and the offspring of mixed marriages eventually merged into a group labeled Coloured. Others passed into the European population, which grew rapidly, largely as a result of natural increase.


In the nineteenth century, the European presence in Africa changed dramatically and well before European medical science came to terms with Africa's tropical diseases. The first change was the attack on slavery. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833. The French abolished slavery in 1848 but were not as resolute as the British in their efforts to try to exterminate the Atlantic slave trade. Though the slave trade persisted into midcentury and actually grew in East, Central and Northeast Africa, the closing of American markets and improved methods of steam navigation destroyed the Atlantic trade by the 1860s. Fueled by abolitionist groups in Britain, the United States, and Europe, the fight against slavery increased European involvement in Africa.

It did so largely through the second change, the development of Christian missions in Africa. Catholic missionaries under Portuguese auspices played an earlier role, particularly in the Congo, where they created a Christian community. In the eighteenth century, the Catholic Church lacked both funds and personnel to continue these efforts, but Protestants, led by newer churches like the British Methodists and Quakers or German Pietists, became involved in mission efforts.

South Africa became an important field for mission activity. Freetown in Sierra Leone became a particularly important center as missions responded to the needs of the recently freed recaptives, as those freed by the British Navy were called. The Catholic Church reemerged as a major factor in mission activity from the 1840s. In 1856 the Scottish explorer David Livingstone (1813–1873) gave an important speech at Westminster Abbey in London calling for young missionaries to carry the faith to Africa and to struggle against the slave trade. As a result, by the time the scramble for Africa took place in the 1880s, Christian missions were found in all parts of Africa.

Many of the first converts were runaway slaves, who took refuge at mission stations and, like the Creoles of West Africa, eagerly sought education. Missions depended on the ability to raise money, and thus lectures by returning missionaries and publications by and about them helped spread information on Africa in Europe.

The third change was an increase in exploration. The primary drive for the first explorations was scientific curiosity about unknown parts of the world. From 1768 to 1773, James Bruce (1730–1794), a Scottish landowner, explored Ethiopia. In 1788 the African Association was founded in Great Britain to encourage exploration. Many of the early explorers paid with their lives. In 1796 the Scottish explorer Mungo Park (1771–1806) became the first European to see the Niger River, but he died in 1806 on a second exploration seeking to find out where the river went. Scottish explorer Hugh Clapperton (1788–1827) died in the same effort, but in 1830 the British explorer Richard Lander (1804–1834) found the Niger's outlet.

Many explorers were also missionaries, the most famous being Livingstone, who covered much of Central and southern Africa between 1851 and his death in 1873. German scholar Heinrich Barth (1821–1865) spent four years in central Sudan. French military officers included Louis-Gustave Binger (1856–1936), who explored western Sudan, and Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza (1852–1905), who explored the area north of the Congo River. Many, like Park and de Brazza, traveled alone or with one or two companions. Others, like the brutal British explorer Henry Morton Stanley (1841–1904), traveled in large, well-armed, and well-funded caravans, which could shoot their way out of difficult situations.

Underwriting all of this was the Industrial Revolution, which dramatically increased European wealth and power. This wealth created an industrial bourgeoisie convinced of the value of free labor and hostile to slavery. It provided the funding for the missionaries and explorers. European wealth also changed the pattern of European economic involvement with Africa. It reduced the price of products European commerce sold in Africa. The cost of cotton cloth, for example, was reduced to about 5 percent of what it had been. Cheaper commodities provided an incentive for Africans to produce cash crops.

Estimated populations of Sub-Saharan Africa, 1500
Source: Adapted from table 6.1 'African Population, 1–2001 A.D.,' in Angus Maddison, The World Economy: Historical Statistics (Paris: Development Centre of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development 2003), p. 190.
West Africa14,000,000
East Africa12,800,000
Central Africa8,000,000
Southern Africa3,500,000

The Industrial Revolution also created new needs and intensified old ones. From the 1790s, European demand for vegetable oils increased dramatically. Palm oil and peanut oil were used to lubricate machines and to produce soap and, later, margarine. European hopes that Africa would provide a new source of cotton produced limited results, but Zanzibar (in present-day Tanzania) became the world's largest producer of cloves. Cocoa, coffee, gum, wool, and copra were all important, and after 1870 Africa became a major source of rubber, which was used to make tires for bicycles and later automobiles.

New products created new structures. The French expanded their presence in Senegal in the 1850s. The British established a protectorate over Lagos (a port in present-day Nigeria) in 1851 and then occupied the city in 1861. European commercial houses increased their activity in various places along the coasts of Africa. All major powers established consulates in Zanzibar. The British also created a consulate for the bights of Benin and Biafra. Credit machinery, some based on the trust system of the slave trade, was expanded and facilitated the commercial penetration of the interior. In West Africa, European merchants and banks provided credit, while in East Africa, it was Indian financiers.

This slow expansion took place in spite of the continued high mortality. In an 1841 expedition up the Niger, forty-eight Europeans lost their lives to malaria. Thirteen years later, the Scottish explorer William Balfour Baikie (1825–1864) sent another expedition up the Niger with instructions that all Europeans were to use quinine to prevent disease. Not a single person died. The use of quinine made it possible for Europeans to operate in the interior of Africa, though the discovery of the parasites that caused malaria and yellow fever did not take place until the early twentieth century. The European military presence was still mostly African soldiers. The armies that conquered Africa in the latter part of the century were largely armies of African soldiers, often of slave origin, under the command of European officers.

Technological progress was also important. The steamboat dramatically reduced the cost of shipping, making it possible for bulkier items to be shipped profitably. By the middle of the century, mail steamers were calling at major ports in Africa, making it possible for both European and African traders to buy space and ship relatively small lots of goods. Improvements in weaponry—breach-loader rifles, repeaters, field artillery, and toward the end of the century, the machine gun—made killing much more efficient. Many of these weapons could be obtained by African military leaders, but the cost was high and the long-term effect was to facilitate the European ability to dominate any field of combat. European business interests also began talking of railroads opening up the interior, though as late as 1870 there was only one small line in Africa, in Cape Town.


In 1880 the area actually under European sovereignty was minuscule, but the seeds of change were already there. Britain and France had spheres of influence they were anxious to protect. The French were talking about building rail lines to connect coastal Senegal to the Niger River. New competitors were emerging. Many in Germany, which was challenging British industrial ascendancy, were convinced that Germany needed empire to protect its interests. The chancellor, Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), was skeptical, but procolonial interests were sending explorers like Carl Peters (1856–1918) to Africa and publishing procolonial books. Leopold II (1835–1909), the king of the Belgians, was financing exploration and the development of stations in the Congo Basin.

In South Africa, Afrikaner dissidents had trekked into the interior in the 1830s and 1840s to create republics free of the control of Great Britain. The stakes in a struggle for control of the South African interior were increased when the discovery of diamonds in 1867 and gold in 1884 made South Africa a potentially rich and powerful country.

The French were the first to move. In 1879 Captain Joseph-Simon Gallieni (1849–1916) was sent to Sudan to chart a route for the railroad. A year later, Major Gustave Borgnis-Desbordes (1839–1900) began the conquest. By 1883, the French were in Bamako (in presentday Mali) and on the Niger River. During the same period, the British were involved in a series of wars in South Africa, but their effort to occupy the Transvaal led to an Afrikaner revolt and British withdrawal. Then, in 1884 and 1885, Bismarck took treaties that various German explorers had signed with African chiefs and claimed four colonies: German East Africa (later Tanganyika), South-West Africa (now Namibia), Togo, and Cameroon. In doing so, they opened up the race for control of Africa.

The Congress of Berlin, convened in late 1884, recognized Leopold II as ruler of the Congo Basin, provided guarantees for free trade, and set up ground rules for partition. The major precondition to a claim was effective occupation, though that often meant a treaty with an African leader and the establishment of a post with a flag. During the succeeding years, there were a series of races for control of places of limited interest and often with limited wealth. This was preemptive colonization, seizing areas of unknown value to keep rivals out. In general, European leaders resolved all border conflicts in Europe, sometimes to the dissatisfaction of colonial proconsuls, who often had exaggerated views of the value of these territories.

The colonial states created by the scramble were unusual in that men from one culture ruled people of a totally different culture and in a totally different part of the world. It was unusual too in that the colonizers did not seek to become part of the world of the colonized, nor did they make it possible for the colonized to enter large parts of their world. All of West Africa, Uganda, and parts of equatorial Africa were colonies of exploitation with relatively few European settlers.

The European parliaments that had authorized the conquest of Africa were reluctant to appropriate funds for its administration. With most of Africa's wealth produced by hoe-wielding peasants, there was little surplus to be taxed. Thus, colonial administration was very thin and often staffed by administrators who relocated regularly and thus had only a superficial knowledge of the people they governed. They depended heavily on a larger group of African chiefs, clerks, interpreters, guards, and messengers. Colonial administrators did not come to stay. The economic benefits of the peasant-based colonies were controlled by export-import houses.

There were a series of areas that attracted settlers. The Rhodesian territories were a product of the South African frontier. Colonized under a charter to the British South Africa Company, they were settled by British and Afrikaner settlers from South Africa. Southern Rhodesia had the largest settler population. The white invaders never numbered more than 4 percent of the total population, but they eventually received about half the land, including most of the best land and the land closest to the rail line. The early years were difficult for many settlers, who often had little capital, but with time they became a wealthy and privileged community. In Northern Rhodesia, there were fewer settlers, but many of them received large land grants near the rail line in order to provide food for the copper mines. Whites ran the government and benefited from segregation and discrimination.

The second large settler area was the East African Protectorate, later Kenya, which was colonized partially to keep the Germans out. The British built a railroad to make it possible to tap the fertile lands of Uganda, but once built, they were worried that it could not pay for itself. The railroad traversed a highland area, which was quite comfortable for European settlers. Much of this highland area was set aside for white settlement. At its peak, there were only about seventy thousand settlers. Kenya attracted a wealthier and more privileged body of settlers than Rhodesia. Many of them were originally attracted to the area to hunt. While most white settlers became wealthy, they were able to do so largely because they were subsidized. Africans in Kenya and Rhodesia paid the highest taxes in Africa, which forced many of them to take work at low wages. White settlers also benefited from better roads and from government agricultural policy.

There were also small nuclei of white settlement in other areas: French planters in Guinea and the Ivory Coast, Belgians in the eastern Congo, Germans around Mount Kilimanjaro in German East Africa, and Portuguese in coffee-growing areas of Angola. There were also European colonists in many of the cities, especially Dakar, Senegal; Nairobi, Kenya; Lourenço Marques (now Maputo, Mozambique); Lépoldville (now Kinsasha, Democratic Republic of the Congo); and Luanda. As colonization became more comfortable, many of these urban settlers, often merchants or restaurant owners, sometimes skilled mechanics or teachers, came to stay. Missionaries also came to stay and with medical progress, often lived out long lives in Africa. With the exception of the missionaries, most of the settlers had little interest in Africa except as a place to live a comfortable life.

Other areas that attracted white settlement were colonies heavily dependent on mineral wealth. There were small mining enterprises in many colonies—for example, gold in the Gold Coast and tin in Nigeria. The major mineral complexes, however, were gold in South Africa and Rhodesia, diamonds in South Africa, and copper in the Congo and Northern Rhodesia. These large mining complexes involved both substantial investment and a large labor force. High taxes and coercive recruitment policies were used to drain labor flow into the mines.

Most colonies were autocracies. A corps of white administrators ruled through African chiefs and were responsible only to a governor and to superiors in the mother country. The only Africans who had the vote were the inhabitants of the Four Communes of Senegal (Saint-Louis, Dakar, Rufisque, and Gorée) and propertied Africans in the Cape Colony. In some colonies, there was a legislative council that included a small number of settlers or wealthy Africans. In general, Africans played no role in their own government.


To govern Africa at minimal cost, European states had to educate Africans. They generally tried to educate relatively few, though for the missionaries, education was a prerequisite to religious knowledge. Education, however, opened the door to nationalistic and anticolonial activity. So too did foreign travel, which was one reason the Belgians prevented the Congolese from coming to Belgium for many years.

The earliest nationalist response came from Creoles who in the late nineteenth century were disturbed that discrimination deprived them of positions they once occupied. Religion was an important area of protonationalist activity, some people seeking only to separate themselves from the missions, others to develop African churches with independent theologies. Some educated groups also formed early: the African National Congress in South Africa in 1912, the Kikuyu Association in Kenya in 1919, and the National Congress of British West Africa in 1920.

During the 1930s, economic hardship led to strike activity and the formation of a number of radical youth movements. An important role was played by "been-tos," Africans such as future Nigerian president Nnamdi Azikiwe (1904–1996) who had studied abroad and returned to Africa to oppose colonial rule and seek radical economic change.

World War II was the beginning of the end of colonial rule. Africans were influenced by the democratic propaganda of the Allies. Many also served abroad in both European and Asian theaters of war and came back determined to struggle. But the war affected European colonialism in other ways. The war crushed right-wing forces in Europe. An important role in new regimes was played by Communists, who were hostile to colonialism, and by Socialists, who were committed to a more democratic form of colonialism. The new French constitution provided African nations with representation in the French Parliament. Britain willingly granted independence to India and Pakistan, setting an example for Africa.

Europe was also weak and threatened by the high cost of repression. Britain won a difficult war in Malaya; the French lost in Indochina, as did the Dutch in Indonesia. In Kenya, a small, poorly armed Mau Mau force tied up parts of the British army for four years. And some Europeans began to ask whether European countries benefited in any way from colonial rule.

All of this might have been meaningless if Africans were not insistent. Protest in Ghana led to a form of self-government in 1951. In French Africa, the left-wing Rassemblement Democratique Africain (African Democratic Assembly) grew in strength in elections, and in 1958 French president Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) offered the African colonies self-government or independence. Only Guinea rejected de Gaulle's form of self-government, but in doing so it put pressure on all the others. By 1960, all of France's African colonies were independent.

In the Belgian Congo, riots in 1959 led to a total collapse of Belgian authority. One by one, various colonies negotiated their independence. Only South Africa, Rhodesia, and the Portuguese colonies resisted what British prime minister Harold Macmillan (1894–1986) called "the winds of change," but in 1974 the collapse of the dictatorship in Portugal of Marcello Caetano (1906–1980) led to the independence of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau. A harsh guerilla war wore down Rhodesia to the point where it lacked the resources and the will to continue fighting.


Scottish explorer Mungo Park was born on September 10, 1771, in Foulshiels, Scotland, the seventh of thirteen children of a tenant farmer. After studying anatomy and surgery at the University of Edinburgh without earning a degree, Park joined his sister and her husband, James Dickson, in London. An amateur botanist, Dickson was acquainted with Joseph Banks, the founder of the African Association, and managed to find his brother-in-law work as a doctor on a ship bound for the island of Sumatra. During his trip, Park gathered many native plants as well, which he showed to Banks upon his return. Impressed, Banks suggested that the young Scotsman attempt an expedition to reach the Niger River, a journey tried three times by the African Association without success. The British government was also interested in expanding their settlements in West Africa and desired new information about waterways in the region.

Park set out for Africa in May of 1795, and one month later reached the British outpost of Pisania on the Gambia River. There he remained until December, preparing his journey into the heartland and studying Mandingo, the local language. Setting out with four porters, a guide, and a servant, Park began a northeast trek, passing through friendly and unfriendly towns and villages. Abandoned by most of his entourage, Park was taken prisoner by the king of Benown and held for several months until he escaped in June 1796. Alone, he continued on his journey and eventually reached Segou, situated on the banks of the Niger River, making him probably the first European to have seen the African river.

Park returned to London on December 25, 1797, wrote a popular book about his exploits, and established a medical practice in Scotland. However, the quiet life of medicine in a small town failed to stimulate Park, and when the British government contacted him about further exploring the Niger and contesting French presence in the region, Parks accepted the offer and returned to the Gambia River on April 6, 1805. Leaving Pisania on May 4, Park reached the Niger a second time on August 19, but with only seven of the forty or so Europeans that had begun that leg of the trip, the others having died of malaria and dysentery. Rather than returning, Park decided to follow the path of the Niger to the sea, searching for new trade routes, and took a new guide, Ahmadi Fatouma.

Before he left the town of Sansanding on the Niger, Park wrote one final letter home, which his old guide, Isaaco, took to the coast. After five years passed without another letter, the British government hired Isaaco to learn the fate of Park. Eventually, Isaaco found Fatouma, who said the expedition had sailed past the city of Goa, nearly 1,500 miles from their starting point at Bamako. Here, in March or April of 1806, Park met his end after a local king, dissatisfied with the gifts the Scotsman offered, commanded his men to attack Park, who drowned in the Niger.

South Africa conceded independence to Namibia in 1989. A year later, South Africa released Nelson Mandela (b. 1918) from prison and lifted bans on the major opposition parties, the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-African Congress. After a period of negotiation, a democratic election was held in 1994, which brought Mandela and the ANC to power.

Europeans, however, are still in Africa, particularly in those countries that have achieved some measure of peace and social order. The colonial officials have been replaced by diplomats, aid officials, representatives of nongovernmental organizations, businesspeople, and tourists. South Africa has become a multiracial democracy. The churches are still there, but the leadership is African.

see also Decolonization, Sub-Saharan Africa; Nationalism, Africa; Scramble for Africa.


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Crowder, Michael. West Africa Under Colonial Rule. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968.

Elphick, Richard, and Hermann Giliomee, eds. The Shaping of South African Society, 1652–1840. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989; Cape Town, South Africa: Maskew, Miller, Longman, 1989.

Hallett, Robin. The Penetration of Africa: European Enterprise and Exploration Principally in Northern and Western Africa Up to 1830. London: Routledge, 1965.

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