Scramble for Africa

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the New Imperialism
Origins of New Imperialism
Imperialism in Asia
Scramble for Africa
Imperial rivalry
Theories of New Imperialism

The Scramble for Africa was the period between the 1880s and the start of World War I, when colonial empires in Africa proliferated more rapidly than anywhere else on the globe. It is the canonical example of the New Imperialism.

The latter half of 19th century saw the transition from an "informal" empire of control through military and economic dominance to direct control, marked from the 1870s on by the scramble for territory in areas previously regarded as merely under Western influence. The Berlin Conference (1884 - 1885) mediated the imperial competition among the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the French Third Republic and the German Empire, defining "effective occupation" as the criterion for international recognition of colonial claims and codifying the imposition of direct rule, accomplished usually through armed force.

For information on the colonization of Africa prior to the 1880s, including Carthaginian and early European colonization, see Colonization of Africa.

David Livingstone, early explorer of the interior of Africa
David Livingstone, early explorer of the interior of Africa
Henry Morton Stanley, discoverer of the 'lost' Livingstone, and later a pawn of Léopold II
Henry Morton Stanley, discoverer of the 'lost' Livingstone, and later a pawn of Léopold II
Léopold II, Belgian king, and on his own account one of the most active movers of the scramble
Léopold II, Belgian king, and on his own account one of the most active movers of the scramble
Jules Ferry, French politician proponent of colonialisation
Jules Ferry, French politician proponent of colonialisation
Francesco Crispi, Italian politician proponent of colonialisation
Francesco Crispi, Italian politician proponent of colonialisation


Opening of the continent

The opening of Africa to Western exploration and exploitation had begun in earnest at the end of the 18th century. By 1835, Europeans had mapped most of northwestern Africa. Among the greatest of the European explorers was David Livingstone, who charted the vast interior and Serpa Pinto, who crossed both Southern Africa and Central Africa on a difficult expedition, mapping much of the interior of the continent. By the end of the century, Europeans had charted the Nile from its source, the courses of the Niger, Congo and Zambezi Rivers had been traced, and the world now realized the vast resources of Africa.

However, on the eve of the New Imperialist scramble for Africa, only ten percent of the continent was under the control of Western nations. In 1875, the most important holdings were Algeria, administered by the French Third Republic; the Cape Colony, held by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; and Angola, held by Portugal. David Livingstone's explorations, carried on by Henry Morton Stanley, galvanized the European nations into action. But at first, his ideas found little support, except from Léopold II of Belgium, who in 1876 had organized the International African Association. As an agent of the association, Stanley was sent to the Congo region, where he made treaties with several African chiefs and by 1882 obtained over 900,000 square miles (2,300,000 km²) of territory.

Technological advancement facilitated overseas expansionism. Industrialization brought about rapid advancements in transportation and communication, especially in the forms of steam navigation, railroads, and telegraphs. Medical advances also were important, especially medicines for tropical diseases. The development of an effective treatment for malaria enabled vast expanses of the tropics to be penetrated.

Africa and global markets

Sub-Saharan Africa, the last region of the world largely untouched by "informal imperialism" and "civilization", was also attractive to Europe's ruling elites for other reasons. During a time when Britain's balance of trade showed a growing deficit, with shrinking and increasingly protectionist continental markets, Africa offered Britain an open market that would garner it a trade surplus: a market that bought more from the metropole than it sold overall. Britain, like most other industrial countries, had long since begun to run an unfavorable 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 more important sector of its economy. Invisible financial exports, as mentioned, kept Britain out of the red, especially capital investments outside Europe, particularly to the developing and open markets in Africa, predominantly white settler colonies, the Middle East, South Asia , Southeast Asia, and Oceania.

In addition, surplus capital was often more profitably invested overseas, where cheap labor, limited competition, and abundant raw materials made a greater premium possible. Another inducement to imperialism, of course, arose from the demand for raw materials unavailable in Europe, especially copper, cotton, rubber, tea, and tin, to which European consumers had grown accustomed and upon which European industry had grown dependent.

However, in Africa (exclusive of what would become the Union of South Africa in 1909), the amount of capital investment by Europeans was relatively small before and after the Berlin Conference. Consequently, the companies involved in tropical African commerce were small and politically insignificant, exerting only a tiny influence on domestic politics. These observations might detract from the pro-imperialist arguments of Léopold II of Belgium, 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. But later historians have noted that such statistics only obscured the fact that formal control of tropical Africa had great strategic value in an era of imperial rivalry.

Strategic rivalry

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, especially among supporters of the Conservative Party, to secure lucrative markets such as British Raj India, Qing Dynasty China, and Latin America from encroaching rivals. Thus, securing the key waterway between East and West — the Suez Canal— was crucial.

As a result, the important developments were taking place in the Nile valley. Shortly before the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, Isma'il Pasha, the ruler of Egypt, borrowed enormous sums from French and English 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 the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Benjamin Disraeli, who sought to give his country practical control in the management of this strategic waterway. When Isma'il Pasha repudiated Egypt's foreign debt in 1879, Britain and France assumed joint financial control over the country, forcing the Egyptian ruler to abdicate. The Egyptian ruling classes did not relish foreign intervention. A serious revolt broke out in 1882. Britain decided to quell the revolt and then assume responsibility for the administration of the country.

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 a conference in Berlin to discuss the Africa problem. The diplomats put on a humanitarian façade by condemning the slave trade, prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages and 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, and they 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. In spite of the rules, the competitors ignored the rules when convenient and on several occasions war was barely avoided.

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 a colony proper); Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda were subjugated in the 1890s and early 1900s; and in the south, the Cape Colony (first acquired in 1795) provided a base for the subjugation of neighboring African states and the Dutch Afrikaner settlers who had left the Cape to avoid the British and then founded their own republics (see Boer War).

The Fashoda Incident (1898) was one of the most crucial conflicts on Europe's way of consolidating holdings in the continent. It brought Britain and France to the verge of war but ended in a major strategic victory for Britain. It stemmed from battles over control of the Nile headwaters, which caused Britain to expand in the Sudan.

The French thrust into the African interior was mainly from West Africa (modern day Senegal) eastward, through the Sahel along the southern border of the Sahara, a territory covering modern day Senegal, Mali, Niger, and Chad. Their ultimate aim was to have an uninterrupted link between the Niger River and the Nile, thus controlling all trade to and from the Sahel region, by virtue of their existing control over the Caravan routes through the Sahara. The British, on the other hand, wanted to link their possessions in Southern Africa (modern South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Zambia), with their territories in East Africa (modern Kenya), and these two areas with the Nile basin. Sudan (which in those days included modern day Uganda) was obviously key to the fulfillment of these ambitions, especially since Egypt was already under British control. This 'red line' through Africa is made most famous by Cecil Rhodes. Along with Lord Milner (the British colonial minister in South Africa), Rhodes advocated such a "Cape to Cairo" empire linking by rail the Suez Canal to the mineral-rich Southern part of the continent. Though hampered by German occupation of Tanganyika until the end of World War I, Rhodes successfully lobbied on behalf of such a sprawling East African empire.

When one draws a line from Cape Town to Cairo (Rhodes' dream), and one from Dakar to the Horn of Africa (now Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti), (the French ambition), these two lines intersect somewhere in eastern Sudan near Fashoda, explaining its strategic importance. In short, Britain had sought to extend its East African empire contiguously from Cairo to the Cape of Good Hope, while France had sought to extend its own holdings from Dakar to the Sudan, which would enable its empire to span the entire continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

A French force under Jean-Baptiste Marchand arrived first at the strategically located fort at Fashoda soon followed by a British force under Lord Kitchener, commander in chief of the British army since 1892. The French withdrew after a standoff, continued to press claims to other posts in the region. In March 1899 the French and British agreed that the source of the Nile and Congo Rivers should mark the frontier between their spheres of influence.

Germany was the third largest colonial power in Africa, acquiring an overall empire of 2.6 million square kilometers and 14 million colonial subjects, mostly in its African possessions (Southwest Africa, Togoland, the Cameroons, and Tanganyika).

In the process, by the end of the century, Europe added almost 9 million square miles (23,000,000 km²) — one-fifth of the land area of the globe — to its overseas colonial possessions. Europe's formal holdings now included the entire African continent except Liberia and Ethiopia.

The colonial encounter

The production of cash crops

Capitalism, an economic system in which capital, or wealth, is put to work to produce more capital, revolutionized traditional economies, inducing social changes and political consequences that revolutionized African and Asian societies. Maximizing production and minimizing cost did not necessarily coincide with traditional, seasonal patterns of agricultural production. The ethic of wage productivity was thus, in many respects, a new concept to supposedly 'idle natives' merely accustomed to older patterns of production. Balanced, subsistence-based economies shifted to specialization and accumulation of surpluses. Tribal states or empires organized along precarious, unwritten cultural traditions also shifted to a division of labor based on legal protection of land and labor — once inalienable, but now commodities to be bought, sold, or traded.

The Congo Free State

Main article:Congo Free State

Clearing tropical forests ate away at profit margins. However, ample plots of already-cleared land were available. Above, a Congolese farming village is emptied and leveled to make way for a rubber plantation.
Clearing tropical forests ate away at profit margins. However, ample plots of already-cleared land were available. Above, a Congolese farming village is emptied and leveled to make way for a rubber plantation.

The integration of traditional economies in Africa within the framework of the modern, capitalist economy was particularly exploitative. Exploitation of the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina, German Southwest Africa, Rhodesia, and South Africa paled in comparison to that of the Congo basin, where the Congo Free State was ruled (1885-1908) by King Léopold II of Belgium but not by the state of Belgium as such. The fortunes of Léopold, the famed "philanthropist", "abolitionist", and self-anointed sovereign of a territory seventy-six times larger geographically than Belgium itself, and those of the multinational concessionary companies under his auspices, were mainly made on the proceeds of Congolese rubber, which had never before been produced on such a scale. Unknown numbers of "indolent natives," unaccustomed to the bourgeois ethos of labor productivity, were the victims of murder, starvation, exhaustion induced by over-work, and disease. International exposure (1903-1904) of the atrocities conducted by Léopold's agents and concession-holders forced him (1907-1908) to submit the territory to formal Belgian colonial rule.

The extermination of the Herero

Main article: Herero massacre

In 1985, the United Nations' Whitaker Report recognized the German attempt to exterminate the Herero and Namaqua peoples of South-West Africa as one of the earliest attempts at genocide in the 20th century. In total, some 65,000 Herero (80 percent of the total Herero population), and 10,000 Namaqua (50 percent of the total Namaqua population) were killed. Characteristic of this genocide was death by starvation and the poisoning of wells for the Herero and Namaqua population that was trapped in the Namib Desert.

Many historians have stressed the historic importance of these atrocities, tracing the evolution from Wilhelm II of Germany to Adolf Hitler, from German Southwest Africa to the Holocaust.

Partition of Africa

Map showing European claimants to the African continent in 1913
Map showing European claimants to the African continent in 1913


The British were primarily interested in maintaining secure communication lines to India, which led to initial interest in Egypt and South Africa. Once these two areas were secure, it was the intent of British colonialists such as Cecil Rhodes to establish a Cape-Cairo railway.

Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (now Sudan)
British East Africa
British Somaliland
Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)
Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia)
Bechuanaland (now Botswana)
Orange Free State
British South Africa
The Gambia
Sierra Leone
British Gold Coast (now Ghana)


French West Africa
French Sudan (now Mali)
Côte d'Ivoire
Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso)
Dahomey (now Benin).
French Equatorial Africa
Middle Congo (now the Republic of the Congo)
Oubangi-Chari (now the Central African Republic)
French Somaliland (now Djibouti)


Portuguese Cabinda
Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique)
Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau)
Cape Verde Islands
São Tomé and Príncipe


German Kamerun
German East Africa (now Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania)
German South-West Africa (now Namibia)
German Togoland


Italian North Africa
Italian Somaliland (now Somalia)


Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo)


Spanish Sahara (now Western Sahara, composed of:)
Rio de Oro
Saguia el-Hamra
Spanish Morocco
Tarfaya Strip
Rio Muni (now part of Equatorial Guinea)

Independent Nations

Liberia, founded by the United States' American Colonization Society
Abyssinia, now Ethiopia and annexed by Italy during the Abyssinia Crisis


Between 1885 and 1914 Britain took nearly 30% of Africa's population under her control, to 15% for France's, 9% for Germany, 7% for Belgium and only 1% for Italy. Nigeria alone contributed 15 million subjects, more than in the whole of French West Africa or the entire German colonial empire. It was paradoxical that Britain, the staunch advocate of free trade, emerged in 1914 with not only the largest overseas empire thanks to her long-standing presence in India, but also the greatest gains in the "scramble for Africa", reflecting her advantageous position at its inception.

See also

Further reading

  • Pakenham, Thomas: The Scramble for Africa. Abacus History, 1991. ISBN 0349104492
  • Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Bogle-L'Ouverture Publications, London and Tanzanian Publishing House, Dar-Es-Salaam 1973.

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