The Scramble for Africa, also known as the Race for Africa or Partition of Africa was a process of invasion, occupation, colonization and annexation of African territory by European powers during the New Imperialism period, between 1881 and World War I in 1914. As a result of the heightened tension between European states in the last quarter of the 19th century, the partitioning of Africa may be seen as a way for the Europeans to eliminate the threat of a Europe-wide war over Africa. The last 59 years of the 19th century saw transition from ‘informal imperialism’ of control through military influence and economic dominance to that of direct rule.
Attempts to mediate imperial competition, such as the Berlin Conference (1884–1885), failed to establish definitively the competing powers’ claims. Many African polities, states and rulers (such as the Ashanti, the Abyssinians, the Moroccans, the Dervishes and the Zulus) sought to resist this wave of European aggression. However, the industrial revolution had provided the European armies with advanced weapons such as machine guns, which African armies found difficult to resist (with the exception of the Abyssinians, who were indeed successful). Also, unlike their European counterparts, African rulers, states and people did not at first form a continental united front although within a few years, a Pan-African movement did emerge.
European exploration of the African interior began in earnest at the end of the 18th century. By 1835,Europeanshad mapped most of northwestern Africa. In the middle decades of the 19th century, the most famous of the European explorers wereDavid LivingstoneandH. M. Stanley, both of whom mapped vast areas ofSouthern AfricaandCentral Africa. Arduous expeditions in the 1850s and 1860s byRichard Burton,John SpekeandJames Grantlocated thegreat central lakesand the source of theNile. By the end of the 19th century, Europeans had charted the Nile from its source, traced the courses of theNiger,CongoandZambezi Rivers, and realized thevast resourcesof Africa.
Even as late as the 1870s, European states still controlled only 10 percent of the African continent, all their territories being near the coast. The most important holdings wereAngolaandMozambique, held byPortugal; theCape Colony, held by theUnited Kingdom; andAlgeria, held byFrance. By 1914, onlyEthiopiaandLiberiawere independent of European control.
Technological advancement facilitated overseas expansionism.Industrialisationbrought about rapid advancements in transportation and communication, especially in the forms ofsteam navigation,railways, andtelegraphs. Medical advances also were important, especially medicines fortropical diseases. The development ofquinine, an effective treatment formalaria, enabled vast expanses of the tropics to be accessed by Europeans.
Africa and global markets
Sub-Saharan Africa, one of the last regions of the world largely untouched by ‘informal imperialism’, was also attractive to Europe’s ruling elites for economic and racial reasons. During a time when Britain’s balance of trade showed a growing deficit, with shrinking and increasingly protectionist continental markets due to the Long Depression (1873–1896), Africa offered Britain,Germany, France, and other countries an open market that would garner them a trade surplus: a market that bought more from the colonial power than it sold overall. Britain, like most other industrial countries, had long since begun to run an unfavourable balance of trade (which was increasingly offset, however, by the income from overseas investments).
As Britain developed into the world’s first post-industrial nation, financial services became an increasingly important sector of its economy. Invisible financial exports, kept Britain out of the red, especially capital investments outside Europe, particularly to the developing and open markets in Africa such as to the white settler colonies, the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia.
In addition, surplus capital was often more profitably invested overseas, where cheap materials, limited competition, and abundant raw materials made a greater premium possible. Another inducement for imperialism arose from the demand for raw materials unavailable in Europe, especially copper, cotton, rubber, palm oil, cocoa, diamonds, tea, and tin, to which European consumers had grown accustomed and upon which European industry had grown dependent. Additionally, Britain wanted the southern and eastern coasts of Africa for stopover ports on the route to Asia and its empire in India.
However, in Africa – exclusive of the area which became the Union of South Africa in 1910 – the amount of capital investment by Europeans was relatively small, compared to other continents. Consequently, the companies involved in tropical African commerce were relatively small, apart from Cecil Rhodes’s De Beers Mining Company. Rhodes had carved out Rhodesia for himself; Léopold II of Belgium later, and with considerably greater brutality, exploited the Congo Free State. These events might detract from the pro-imperialist arguments of colonial lobbies such as the Alldeutscher Verband, Francesco Crispi and Jules Ferry, who argued that sheltered overseas markets in Africa would solve the problems of low prices and over-production caused by shrinking continental markets.
John A. Hobson argued, in Imperialism, that this shrinking of continental markets was a key factor of the global “New Imperialism” period.
William Easterly of New York University, however, disagrees with the link made between capitalism and imperialism, arguing that colonialism is used mostly to promote state-led development rather than ‘corporate’ development. He has stated that “imperialism is not so clearly linked to capitalism and free markets… historically there has been a closer link between colonialism/imperialism and state-led approaches to development.”
While tropical Africa was not a large zone of investment, other regions overseas were. The vast interior between the gold and diamond-rich Southern Africa and Egypt, had, however, key strategic value in securing the flow of overseas trade. Britain was thus under intense political pressure to secure lucrative markets against encroaching rivals, in China and the British Empire’s eastern colonies, most notably India, Malaya, Australia and New Zealand. Thus, securing the key waterway between East and West – the Suez Canal – was crucial. The rivalry between the UK, France, Germany and the other European powers account for a large part of the colonization. Thus, while Germany, which had been unified under Prussia’s rule only after the 1866 Battle of Sadowa and the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, was hardly a colonial power before the New Imperialism period, it would eagerly participate in the race. A rising industrial power close on the heels of Britain, it had not yet had the chance to control overseas territories, mainly due to its late unification, its fragmentation in various states, and its absence of experience in modern navigation. This would change under Bismarck’s leadership, who implemented the Weltpolitik (World Politics) and, after putting in place the basis of France’s isolation with the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary and then the 1882 Triple Alliance with Italy, called for the 1884–1885 Berlin Conference which set the rules of effective control of a foreign territory. Germany’s expansionism would lead to the Tirpitz Plan, implemented by Admiral von Tirpitz, who would also champion the various Fleet Acts starting in 1898, thus engaging in an arms race with Britain. By 1914, they had given Germany the second largest naval force in the world (roughly 40% smaller than the Royal Navy). According to von Tirpitz, this aggressive naval policy was supported by the National Liberal Party rather than by the conservatives, thus demonstrating that the main supports of the European nation states’ imperialism were the rising middle classes.
The scramble for African territory also reflected a concern for the acquisition of military and naval bases for strategic purposes and the exercise of power on an international scene. The ability to influence international events depended largely upon new weapons – steel ships driven by steam power – and for the maintenance of these growing navies, coaling stations and ports of call were required. Defence bases were also needed for the protection of sea routes and communication lines, particularly of expensive and vital international waterways such as the Suez Canal.
Colonies were also seen as important aspects of ‘balance of power’ negotiations – useful as items of exchange at times of international bargaining. Colonies carrying a heavy native population were also important as a source of military power; Britain and France used large numbers of British Indian and North African soldiers respectively in many of their colonial wars. In the great age of nationalism there was strong pressure for a nation to acquire an empire as a status symbol; the idea of ‘greatness’ became inextricably linked with the sense of ‘duty’ that many European nations used to justify their imperialistic ambitions.
Germany began its world expansion in the 1880s under Bismarck’s leadership, encouraged by the national middle class. Some of them, claiming themselves of Friedrich List’s thought, advocated expansion in the Philippines and in Timor; others proposed to set themselves in Formosa (modern Taiwan), etc. At the end of the 1870s, these isolated voices began to be relayed by a real imperialist policy, which was backed by mercantilist thesis. In 1881, Hübbe-Schleiden, a lawyer, published Deutsche Kolonisation, according to which the ‘development of national consciousness demanded an independent overseas policy’. Pan-germanism was thus linked to the young nation’s imperialist drives. In the beginning of the 1880s, theDeutscher Kolonialverein was created, and got its own magazine in 1884, the Kolonialzeitung. This colonial lobby was also relayed by the nationalist Alldeutscher Verband. Generally Bismarck was opposed to widespread German colonialism, but he had to resign at the insistence of the new German Emperor Wilhelm II on 18 March 1890. Wilhelm II instead adopted a very aggressive policy of colonisation and introduced colonial expansion in the 20th century with the Weltpolitik (‘World Politics’) strategy.
Germany thus became the third largest colonial power in Africa. Nearly all of its overall empire of 2.6 million square kilometres and 14 million colonial subjects in 1914 was found in its African possessions of Southwest Africa, Togoland, the Cameroons, and Tanganyika. The scramble for Africa led Bismarck to propose the 1884–1885 Berlin Conference. Following the 1904 Entente cordiale between France and the UK, Germany tried to isolate France in 1905 with the First Moroccan Crisis. This led to the 1905 Algeciras Conference, in which France’s influence on Morocco was compensated by the exchange of other territories, and then to the Agadir Crisis in 1911. Along with the 1898 Fashoda Incident between France and the UK, this succession of international crises reveals the bitterness of the struggle between the various imperalist nations, which ultimately led to World War I.
Clash of rival imperialisms
While de Brazza was exploring the Kongo Kingdom for France, Stanley also explored it in the early 1880s on behalf of Léopold II of Belgium, who would have his personal Congo Free State. While pretending to advocate humanitarianism and denounceslavery, Leopold II used the most inhumane tactics to exploit his newly acquired lands. His crimes were revealed by 1905, but he remained in control until 1908, when he was forced to turn over control to the Belgian government.
France occupied Tunisia in May 1881 (and Guinea in 1884), which partly convinced Italy to adhere in 1882 to the German-Austrian Dual Alliance, thus forming the Triple Alliance. The same year, Britain occupied Egypt (hitherto an autonomous state owing nominal fealty to the Ottoman Empire), which ruled over Sudan,, and parts of Chad, Eritrea, and Somalia. In 1870 and 1882, Italy took possession of the first parts of Eritrea, while Germany declared Togoland, the Cameroons and South West Africato be under its protection in 1884. French West Africa (AOF) was founded in 1895, and French Equatorial Africa (AEF) in 1910.
Italy continued its conquest to gain its ‘place in the sun’. Following the defeat of the First Italo–Ethiopian War (1895–1896), it acquired Italian Somaliland in 1889–1890 and the whole of Eritrea (1899). In 1911, it engaged in a war with the Ottoman Empire, in which it acquired Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (modern Libya). Enrico Corradini, who fully supported the war, and later merged his group in the early fascist party (PNF), developed in 1919 the concept of Proletarian Nationalism, supposed to legitimise Italy’s imperialism by a mixture of socialism with nationalism: ‘We must start by recognizing the fact that there are proletarian nations as well as proletarian classes; that is to say, there are nations whose living conditions are subject…to the way of life of other nations, just as classes are. Once this is realised, nationalism must insist firmly on this truth: Italy is, materially and morally, a proletarian nation.’ The Second Italo-Abyssinian War (1935–1936), ordered by Mussolini, would actually be one of the last colonial wars (that is, intended to colonize a foreign country, opposed to wars of national liberation), occupying Ethiopia which had remained the last African independent territory apart from Liberia, for five years. The Spanish Civil War, marking a new phase of what some call the European Civil War, began in 1936.
On the other hand, the British abandoned their “splendid isolation” in 1902 with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, which would enable the Empire of Japan to be victorious during the war against Russia (1904–1905). The UK then signed the Entente cordiale with France in 1904, and, in 1907, the Triple Entente which included Russia, thus pitted against the Triple Alliance which Bismarck had patiently assembled.
American Colonization Society and foundation of Liberia
The United States took part, marginally, in this enterprise, through the American Colonization Society (ACS), established in 1816 by Robert Finley. The ACS offered emigration to Liberia (‘Land of the Free’), a colony founded in 1820, to free black slaves; emancipated slave Lott Carey actually became the first American Baptist missionary in Africa. This colonisation attempt was resisted by the native people.
The ACS was led by Southerners, and its first president was James Monroe, from Virginia, who became the fifthpresident of the United States from 1817 to 1825. Thus, ironically one of the main proponents of American colonisation of Africa was the same man who proclaimed, in his 1823 State of the Union address, the US opinion that European powers should no longer colonise the Americas or interfere with the affairs of sovereign nations located in the Americas. In return, the US planned to stay neutral in wars between European powers and in wars between a European power and its colonies. However, if these latter type of wars were to occur in the Americas, the U.S. would view such action as hostile toward itself. This famous statement became known as the Monroe Doctrine and was the base of United States isolationism during the 19th century.
Although the Liberia colony never became quite as big as envisaged, it was only the first step in the American colonisation of Africa, according to its early proponents. Thus, Jehudi Ashmun, an early leader of the ACS, envisioned an American empire in Africa. Between 1825 and 1826, he took steps to lease, annex, or buy tribal lands along the coast and along major rivers leading inland. Like his predecessor Lt. Robert Stockton, who in 1821 established the site for Monrovia by ‘persuading’ a local chief referred to as ‘King Peter’ to sell Cape Montserado (or Cape Mesurado) by pointing a pistol at his head, Ashmun was prepared to use force to extend the colony’s territory. In a May 1825 treaty, King Peter and other native kings agreed to sell land in return for 500 bars of tobacco, three barrels of rum, five casks of powder, five umbrellas, ten iron posts, and ten pairs of shoes, among other items. In March 1825, the ACS began a quarterly, The African Repository and Colonial Journal, edited by Rev. Ralph Randolph Gurley (1797–1872), who headed the Society until 1844. Conceived as the Society’s propaganda organ, the Repository promoted both colonisation and Liberia.
The Society controlled the colony of Liberia until 1847 when, under the perception that the British might annex the settlement, Liberia was proclaimed a free and independent state, thus becoming the first African decolonised state. By 1867, the Society had sent more than 13,000 emigrants. After the American Civil War (1861–1865), when many blacks wanted to go to Liberia, financial support for colonisation had waned. During its later years the society focused on educational and missionary efforts in Liberia rather than further emigration.
Crises prior to the First World War
Colonization of the Congo
Henry Morton Stanley
David Livingstone’s explorations, carried on by Henry Morton Stanley, excited imaginations. But at first, Stanley’s grandiose ideas for colonisation found little support owing to the problems and scale of action required, except from Léopold II of Belgium, who in 1876 had organised the International African Association. From 1869 to 1874, Stanley was secretly sent by Léopold II to the Congo region, where he made treaties with several African chiefs along the Congo River and by 1882 had sufficient territory to form the basis of the Congo Free State. Léopold II personally owned the colony from 1885 and used it as a source of ivory and rubber.
Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza in his version of ‘native’ dress, photographed by Félix Nadar
While Stanley was exploring Congo on behalf of Léopold II of Belgium, the Franco-Italian marine officer Pierre de Brazzatravelled into the western Congo basin and raised the French flag over the newly founded Brazzaville in 1881, thus occupying today’s Republic of the Congo. Portugal, which also claimed the area due to old treaties with the native Kongo Empire, made a treaty with Britain on February 26, 1884 to block off the Congo Society’s access to the Atlantic.
By 1890 the Congo Free State had consolidated its control of its territory between Leopoldville and Stanleyville and was looking to push south down the Lualaba River from Stanleyville. At the same time the British South Africa Company of Cecil Rhodes(who once declared, ‘all of these stars… these vast worlds that remain out of reach. If I could, I would annex other planets’ ) was expanding north from the Limpopo River sending the Pioneer Column, guided by Frederick Selous, through Matabelelandand starting a colony in Mashonaland. To the West, attention was drawn to the land where their expansions would meetKatanga, site of the Yeke Kingdom of Msiri. As well as being the most powerful ruler militarily in the area, Msiri traded large quantities of copper, ivory and slaves, and rumours of gold reached European ears. The scramble for Katanga was a prime example of the period. Rhodes and the BSAC sent two expeditions to Msiri in 1890 led by Alfred Sharpe, who was rebuffed, and Joseph Thomson who failed to reach Katanga. In 1891 Leopold sent four CFS expeditions. The Le Marinel Expedition could only extract a vaguely worded letter. The Delcommune Expeditionwas rebuffed. The well-armed Stairs Expedition had orders to take Katanga with or without Msiri’s consent; Msiri refused, was shot, and the expedition cut off his head and stuck it on a pole as a ‘barbaric lesson’ to the people. The Bia Expedition finished off the job of establishing an administration of sorts and a ‘police presence’ in Katanga.
Native Congo Free State labourers who failed to meet rubber collection quotas were often punished by having their hands cut off
The half million square kilometres of Katanga came into Leopold’s possession and brought his African realm up to 2,300,000 square kilometres (890,000 sq mi), about 75 times larger than Belgium. The Congo Free State imposed such a terror regime on the colonised people, including mass killings with millions of victims, and slave labour, that Belgium, under pressure from the Congo Reform Association, ended Leopold II’s rule and annexed it in 1908 as a colony of Belgium, known as the Belgian Congo.
A hard-hitting 1906 Punchcartoon depicting King Leopold IIof Belgium as a rubber vine entangling a Congolese man.
King Leopold II of Belgium’s brutality in his former colony of the Congo Free State, now the DRC, was well documented; up to 8 million of the estimated 16 million native inhabitants died between 1885 and 1908. According to the former British diplomat Roger Casement, this depopulation had four main causes: “indiscriminate war”, starvation, reduction of births and diseases. Sleeping sickness ravaged the country and must also be taken into account for the dramatic decrease in population.
Estimates of the total death toll vary considerably. As the first census did not take place until 1924, it is difficult to quantify the population loss of the period. Casement’s report set it at three million. See Congo Free State for further details including numbers of victims.
A similar situation occurred in the neighbouring French Congo. Most of the resource extraction was run by concession companies, whose brutal methods resulted in the loss of up to 50 percent of the indigenous population. The French government appointed a commission, headed by de Brazza, in 1905 to investigate the rumoured abuses in the colony. However, de Brazza died on the return trip, and his “searingly critical” report was neither acted upon nor released to the public. In the 1920s, about 20,000 forced labourers died building a railroad through the French territory.
Ferdinand de Lesseps had obtained many concessions from Isma’il Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt and Sudan, in 1854–1856, to build the Suez Canal. Some sources estimate the workforce at 30,000, but others estimate that 120,000 workers died over the ten years of construction due to malnutrition, fatigue and disease, especially cholera. Shortly before its completion in 1869, Khedive Isma’il borrowed enormous sums from British and French bankers at high rates of interest. By 1875, he was facing financial difficulties and was forced to sell his block of shares in the Suez Canal. The shares were snapped up by Britain, under its Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who sought to give his country practical control in the management of this strategic waterway. When Isma’il repudiated Egypt’s foreign debt in 1879, Britain and France seized joint financial control over the country, forcing the Egyptian ruler to abdicate, and installing his eldest son Tewfik Pasha in his place. The Egyptian and Sudanese ruling classes did not relish foreign intervention. In 1881, the Mahdist revolt erupted in Sudan under Muhammad Ahmad, severing Tewfik’s authority in Sudan. The same year, Tewfik suffered an even more perilous rebellion by his own Egyptian army in the form of the Urabi Revolt. In 1882, Tewfik appealed for direct British military assistance, commencing Britain’s occupation of Egypt. A joint British-Egyptian military force ultimately defeated the Mahdist forces in Sudan in 1898. Thereafter, Britain (rather than Egypt) seized effective control of Sudan.
The occupation of Egypt, and the acquisition of the Congo were the first major moves in what came to be a precipitous scramble for African territory. In 1884, Otto von Bismarck convened the 1884–1885 Berlin Conference to discuss the Africa problem. The diplomats put on a humanitarian façade by condemning the slave trade, prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beveragesand firearms in certain regions, and by expressing concern for missionary activities. More importantly, the diplomats in Berlin laid down the rules of competition by which the great powers were to be guided in seeking colonies. They also agreed that the area along the Congo River was to be administered by Léopold II of Belgium as a neutral area, known as the Congo Free State, in which trade and navigation were to be free. No nation was to stake claims in Africa without notifying other powers of its intentions. No territory could be formally claimed prior to being effectively occupied. However, the competitors ignored the rules when convenient and on several occasions war was only narrowly avoided.
Britain’s occupation of Egypt and South Africa
Britain’s occupations of Egypt and the Cape Colony contributed to a preoccupation over securing the source of the Nile River. Egypt was occupied by British forces in 1882 (although not formally declared a protectorate until 1914, and never an actual colony); Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda were subjugated in the 1890s and early 20th century; and in the south, the Cape Colony (first acquired in 1795) provided a base for the subjugation of neighbouring African states and the Dutch&