The Scramble for Africa, also known as the Partition of Africa or the Conquest of Africa, refers to the invasion, annexation, division, and colonisation of most of Africa by seven Western European powers during an era known as New Imperialism (between 1870 and 1914). This period of rapid European colonisation led to a significant shift in the global political landscape and continues to impact the politics and economy of Africa today.
Background of the Scramble for Africa
In the early 19th century, European businessmen established small trading posts along the African coasts, primarily trading with locals. However, they seldom ventured inland due to the high mortality rates from tropical diseases such as malaria. By the 1840s, European explorers had mapped much of East Africa and Central Africa, paving the way for future colonisation.
By 1870, Europeans controlled approximately 10% of the African continent, with their territories mainly located near the coasts. The most important holdings were Angola and Mozambique, held by Portugal; the Cape Colony, held by Great Britain; and Algeria, held by France. By 1914, only Ethiopia and Liberia remained independent of European control, with Liberia having strong connections to the United States.
Technological advances, such as the steam engine, telegraphs, and medical advancements like quinine (an effective treatment for malaria), facilitated European expansion overseas. These innovations allowed Europeans to access vast expanses of the tropics, setting the stage for the Scramble for Africa.
Causes of the Scramble for Africa
There are several main causes of the Scramble for Africa, including European competition, ethnocentrism, the spread of Christianity, and new innovations.
European competition and global markets
Sub-Saharan Africa, one of the last regions of the world largely untouched by informal imperialism, was attractive to European entrepreneurs. During a time when European nations were experiencing a growing trade deficit and shrinking continental markets due to the Long Depression (1873-1896), Africa offered an open market that could generate a trade surplus.
Surplus capital was often more profitably invested overseas, where cheap materials, limited competition, and abundant raw materials made a more significant premium possible. The demand for raw materials like ivory, rubber, palm oil, cocoa, diamonds, tea, and tin drove European interest in Africa. Additionally, Britain wanted control of the southern and eastern coasts of Africa for stopover ports on the route to Asia and its empire in India.
Ethnocentrism and nationalism
The belief in European racial superiority informed their interactions with the indigenous peoples they encountered, including native Africans. This ethnocentrism fueled the desire to expand European empires and establish colonies as a status symbol. The idea of “greatness” became linked with the “White Man’s Burden” – a sense of duty underlying many nations’ imperialistic strategies.
Spread of Christianity
Similar to the belief in their own racial superiority, Europeans also promoted Christianity as superior to the religious beliefs of the indigenous peoples they encountered, including those in Africa. Christian missionaries often accompanied early explorers to the African interior, and the spread of Christianity was a key feature of European imperialism in Africa.
New technologies and innovations, such as the steam engine, steamships, railways, and telegraphs, allowed the European powers to venture further and faster into the African interior. The Maxim gun, a machine gun invented by Hiram Maxim that could fire up to 600 rounds per minute, played a vital role in Europe’s success in Africa.
Major events of the Scramble for Africa
The Scramble for Africa unfolded through a series of major events that led to the colonisation and division of the African continent by European powers. These events include European interest in the Suez Canal, the Berlin Conference, the First and Second Moroccan Crises, European colonisation in South Africa, and the brutal rule of King Leopold II in the Congo.
European interest in the Suez Canal
The Suez Canal, completed in 1869, was an important waterway between East and West, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. Britain, with its vast empire and naval power, had a keen interest in controlling the Suez Canal, as it provided a quicker and more direct route to its colonies in the Far East and India. British influence in Egypt and control over the canal began in 1882.
Berlin Conference of 1884
German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck called the Berlin Conference of 1884 to reduce tensions between European powers and determine how to divide the African continent among them. The conference involved 14 nations and resulted in the creation of a set of boundary lines and defined territories for the nations involved. African societies were not consulted in this process, and the resulting borders often forced together groups with a history of conflict.
European colonisation in South Africa
The first to establish a permanent settlement in South Africa was the Dutch East India Company, which set up a base at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. British colonisation in South Africa began between 1815 and 1910, primarily to service and restock ships en route to India and the Far East. The British colonisation of South Africa culminated in the Boer War, a major conflict between the British Empire and the Boer Republics.
Rule of Leopold II in the Congo
Leopold II, King of Belgium from 1865 to 1909, gained control of the Congo through a series of events, including hiring explorer Henry Morton Stanley to carry out expeditions in the Congo River basin. Leopold II’s brutal rule over the Congo Free State, his personal possession, led to the exploitation of the region’s valuable resources, such as rubber and ivory, and the widespread abuse of the Congolese people.
First and Second Moroccan Crises
The First Moroccan Crisis (1905-1906) erupted over disagreements between France and Germany regarding the status of Morocco and who should have influence over the region. The Second Moroccan Crisis (1911) began amidst a rebellion against the Moroccan Sultan Abdelhafid, with France sending troops to regain control of the situation. These crises heightened tensions between European powers and are considered significant factors leading to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
Impact of the Scramble for Africa
The Scramble for Africa had a profound impact on the history of the world, with both positive and negative outcomes for the people of Europe and Africa. European imperialism in Africa led to the exploitation of the continent’s resources and the oppression of its people. However, it also introduced new technologies, infrastructure, and education systems, which continue to shape the politics and economy of Africa today.
Exploitation and oppression
The European colonisation of Africa resulted in the exploitation of the continent’s resources and the oppression of its people. During this period, forced labour, land expropriation, and political marginalisation were common practices. The brutal rule of Leopold II in the Congo is a prime example of the negative consequences of European imperialism in Africa.
Introduction of new technologies and infrastructure
European colonisation also introduced new technologies and infrastructure to Africa, such as railways, telegraphs, and modern medical treatments. These advancements facilitated trade, communication, and transportation within the continent, contributing to its economic development.
Education and cultural exchange
European imperialism in Africa led to the establishment of schools and the introduction of new educational systems. While these systems often promoted European values and ideals, they also gave African people access to new knowledge and skills. Cultural exchange between Europeans and Africans during this period influenced art, literature, and music on both continents.
Political and economic legacy
The political and economic systems imposed by European powers during the Scramble for Africa continue to affect the politics and economy of the continent today. The arbitrary borders drawn by European powers often grouped together diverse ethnic and cultural groups, leading to ongoing tensions and conflicts in some regions. Additionally, the economic systems established during this period have contributed to Africa’s uneven distribution of resources and wealth.
The Scramble for Africa was a difficult and transformative period in world history, driven by European competition, ethnocentrism, the spread of Christianity, and new innovations. The colonisation and division of Africa by European powers had lasting impacts on the continent, both positive and negative. Today, the legacy of the Scramble for Africa continues to shape the political, economic, and social landscape of this diverse and dynamic continent.