Britain’s Relationship With Its African Empire In The Period 1870 – 1981

Assess the significance of strategic concerns in influencing Britain’s relationship with its African empire in the period c1870 – c1981 The last three decades of the 19th century saw an unrelenting wave of expansionist policy followed by most, if not all of the major European powers over the African continent, and so has been dubbed as the “Scramble for Africa”. France, Belgium, Portugal, Germany, Italy and Britain all laid claim to vast swathes of African land and by the turn of the century controlled roughly ninety per cent of the continent. The question this essay seeks to answer is why this “scramble” was triggered.

There are a variety of arguments that have been put forward by historians: the economic arguments are the most important as the vast availability of much needed and highly prized goods (precious metals, diamonds, metals, ivory, palm oil, etc. ) would ensure a rich market. The second most important factor could be argued as one of the key triggers for the “Scramble for Africa” was the strategic factors of the Africa Continent, in terms of the protection of trade routes and of valuable assets. Also the “civilisation and evangelisation” argument plays a role, but largely as an appeaser for the British public.

Upon completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, British interest in Egypt increased, as the canal opened up a much more effective trade route to the “Jewel in the Crown”; India. The Suez Canal drastically decreased the time taken for ships to sail from Britain to India, from a six week journey that entailed navigating the Cape, to a two week journey, resulting in better improvements in communications between the Viceroy and Whitehall and greatly increasing the profits of trading companies as shipments could be made more frequently.

The importance of the Suez Canal to Britain was paramount; the Nationalist Rebellion in 1882 saw the occupation of Egypt by British forces, in order to protect the European population (an estimated fifty European civilians were killed in the rebellion), but most importantly, to protect, and maintain control of, the Suez Canal. The strategic motivation behind this was to reinforce British interests in the area, especially trade with Egypt as any unrest in the area could affect British trade with the rest of its Empire.

Furthermore, the Canal was a significant link to India, which held absolute importance to the British. Protection of the canal, therefore, ensured protection of India. As well as that, the Ottoman Empire’s sphere of influence was expanding to envelop Egypt, which, if occurred, would have been a severe blow to British supremacy; as a vital trade link for its Empire, Britain would have to have secured the safety of the Suez Canal, which could have resulted in war with the Ottoman Empire, or a treaty and/or a tariff imposed, a move that would have severely damaged Britain’s image of “glorious isolation”.

The occupation of several African nations can also be seen to have been motivated by imperial strategy. The Berlin Conference in 1885 set a precedence that would change the face of imperial expansion. Most empire building had previously been an informal process; the creation of trade posts, creating and strengthening of ties with local traders/chiefs etc. the conference, signed by the major European powers (including Britain) stated that a power much formally annex a territory if it were to become part of the empire.

This triggered a rush to formally annex the territories informally controlled by said powers- a process that especially endangered Britain’s position in Africa, as it relied much more upon informal expansionist policies to build its empire. Territories such as Bechuanaland, Kenya, Sudan and Egypt were similarly annexed. In this way, Britain prevented the expansion of other European powers and protected its own sphere of influence on the Continent. The most important factor for the “Scramble of Africa”, is however, the economic factors.

The Continent provided an untapped source of raw materials that were much needed by the European powers; fuel consumption was at an all-time high, much in part due to the later arrival of the Industrial Revolution in the newly unified Germany and Italy. Not only that, but goods such as gold, and diamonds were found in seeming abundance in parts of Africa- by the early 1900’s, the Rand (a strip of land in Southern Africa that encompassed the Transvaal State) was home to gold mines valued at £700million and was a key factor that prompted the Second Boer War between 1899-1902.

What one must also not lose sight of is that although Britain committed itself to the expansion of its Empire in Africa for strategic concerns, these reasons all link back to increasing Britain’s wealth, be it controlling new markets, controlling highly demanded products (such as Egyptian cotton)or being the first European access to much needed raw materials.

Even the annexing of the original Dutch Cape Colony in the 1830’s was primarily due to economic factors; strategically important to protect the trade route with India, but only necessary due to the great economic importance of said trade route. It is for this reason that economic factors were the main reason to explain Britain’s expansion in Africa, not strategic concerns. There is also the “civilised and evangelise” argument to consider, dubbed by Rudyard Kipling as “The White Man’s Burden” argument.

In the late 19th century, as the height of British Imperialism and expansion, a national pride in the Empire was rife. The British considered themselves to be the greatest race in the world, created by God to rule, justly and fairly, and civilise the world. This was done in the form of providing infrastructure, such as improved transport, civil service etc. in the hope that this would make the lives of Africans more civilised and productive. Christianity was also used to spread this, as it was it was hoped that it would instil a strong moral code amongst the “natives”.

However, it is unlikely that this was a strong motivation factor for British expansion in Africa for many reasons, and was instead something used to pacify the British public; after all, the “average Joe” would have been more likely to submit to the idea of imperial expansion to help out Africans, rather than knowing that they were allowing the richer to get richer, as was the case with Cecil Rhodes, who, with funding from the British Crown, created a vast personal fortune, became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and had a country named after him; Rhodesia.

As well as this, there is little evidence to show that Britain tried to improve the infrastructure of any of its African colonies. To conclude, it is clear that strategic factors are not the most significant explanation for British expansion in Africa, as, although, important, were only made necessary by economic factors at the time. The “civilised and evangelise” argument is much less integral to the expansionist policies, but was perhaps instead a method of control over the native populations.