Last Updated 10 Mar 2020

The Colonial Experience in West Africa

Category Experience
Essay type Research
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The Twentieth Century brought with it vast changes for the peoples of West Africa. The yoke of colonialism bound them together into a new political, economic, and social order. It was as if hundreds of years of history had suddenly ended, and begun again anew. In the wake of the Berlin West Africa Conference, in 1885, the great powers of Europe - Britain, France, Germany, and even Portugal and Belgium - had carved up West Africa among themselves. European overlords either completely replaced, or else adopted a "supervisory" position over the native African authorities.

Proud kingdoms, like those of the Asante, Benin, and Dahomey, found themselves forced to adapt or disappear, as West Africans struggled to make sense of a world that had been turned completely upside down and inside out. For "inside out," could easily describe the reversal of economic roles that came along with European conquest. Formerly, European traders had stayed close to the coast, allowing the African rulers and merchants to supply Europe and her New World colonies with slaves and other "merchandise.

The British had finally succeeded in ending the slave trade some years before, and many of the coastal kingdoms of West Africa had languished as a result. Some had been almost wholly dependent upon the trade in human beings - now there would have to be new sources of revenue. For the most part, these new sources of income would be developed by Europeans who would exploit West Africa's people and resources for the benefit of their home countries. However, the Africans would also learn from their new masters. Some of them would obtain a Western education, or work to introduce the ideas of the modern industrial world to Africa.

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European science, technology, education, political, economic, cultural, and religious ideas would all have a profound impact on West Africa. The pre-colonial relationship between Europeans and West Africans was one of mutual trade. In the first half of the Nineteenth Century, Europeans vastly increased their purchases of palm oil, and also continued to buy tropical hardwoods, while Africans received the products of Europe's industrial revolution: cotton and woolen textiles and iron. 1 It was only as direct European influence began to increase that economic conditions were gradually modified.

The introduction of cocoa by European missionaries in the 1860s, led to its becoming a major cash crop and primary export by the earliest period of European colonial domination, around 1900. Gold and coca were the mainstays of the economy in the Gold Coast (now Ghana). To keep up with their seemingly insatiable demands for these and other products, the British, French, and other others, introduced more modern techniques of production. In particular, they employed industrial methods of mining, and built railroads and port facilities to enable a vastly increased flow of goods.

Yet it would be wrong to think that was no African response to changed economic conditions. Already, in the late 1800s, African merchant families, such as the Sarbahs, began to encourage rubber production: In contrast to the palm oil trade, the rubber trade, because of a greater monetary return per unit of labour input and weight, drew into its orbit thousands of producers from the deep interior, including Sefwi, Kwahu, Asante and the distant states of Brong-Ahafo, all more than 100 miles from the coast.

The rubber trade also gave rise to a new group of middle-men or broken from the Fanti states, Asin, Denkyera, and Akim, who carried the trade to the further limits of the forest zone and in so doing accelerated the extension of the cash economy. Rubber became a major export with shipments totalling well over one million pounds volume in 1886; and by 1893, the Gold Coast ranked first among the rubber exporting countries of the British Empire and third in the world. 3

Africans were, therefore, fully able to adapt themselves to European conditions in order to increase the size and extent of their markets, even if this necessitated adopting new techniques, and even entirely new crops, like rubber. On the down side, an economy based on growing and harvesting rubber latex caused significant social upheavals. The influence of the coastal mercantile families and kingdoms waned in favor of inland economic interests. 4 Families like the Sarbahs expanded their trading networks deep into the Interior, opening up branch story, cajoling purchasers, and further turning economic focus toward the one paramount crop.

They also became increasingly dependent on fluctuations in the European market. 5 Furthermore, the conflict between European sponsored economic development, and meddlesome European control can be seen in the 1920's Gold Coast, where British Governor Guggisberg pursued a policy that was in many ways detrimental to the future of the African peoples under his control: Anti-modernisation, anti-urban, and anti-development. Regulations and barriers against innovation proliferated.... Official policy did nothing to encourage the emergence of a commercial middle class.

Its effect instead was to establish a highly formidable machinery of bureaucratic control.... The most damaging effect of colonial policy on the ground was the way in which it hindered the emergence of a 'native modernizing cadre', one result of which 'was to divert into long and bitter anti-colonial struggles much brilliant talent which could have been used creatively in development sectors'. 6 The subordination of African interests to European profits condemned West Africans to economic backwards through lack of skills and genuine opportunities.

The lack of skill and opportunity open to native West Africans leads naturally to a discussion of European education and the new horizons it presented. Prior to the era of colonial domination, West Africa's peoples had had little contact with Western ideas, except for he occasional interactions with Christian missionaries. The states, large and small, of West Africa had been universally pre-industrial, and had possessed nothing in the way of modern communications, transportation, or even the kind of complex educational and political institutions that existed in the Christian and Muslim worlds.

Missionaries were the first to introduce Western educational methods into West Africa: For them education took place in schools, where obedient pupils listened to teachers, took examinations, and received diplomas certifying knowledge. Discipline was important, not only to make the children study, but also to mold desirable habits and (that was usually considered to be even more important than learning itself). 7 On the whole, Western education extended only to teaching subjects that Europeans thought would be useful to their "charges.

Vocational training was sufficient for people who would never have to govern themselves. 8 Nevertheless, an exposure to the Western academic tradition inspired many African families to push for a higher level of education for their children. "Few pupils wanted to undergo the cost and the hardship of study, only to be prepared for a rural life and a low living standard. " 9 In the 1930's, in French West Africa, Colonial Government officials began to formulate a new approach that appeared to look forward to a synthesis of the European and Native traditions.

France's redefined mission civilisatrice [civilizing mission] was to be fulfilled... by teaching the subject populations how to live according to "authentic African traditions,"... This vision of France's role overseas as the protector of indigenous cultures in the colonies challenged earlier presentations of the colonial mission that had presented France as the bearer of "European civilization" and "French culture" destined to bring Africa out of the "darkness" in which many late-nineteenth-century colonizers claimed its people lived. 10

The French administrators went so far as to strongly encourage African arts and crafts, sponsor African festivals - even to teach Africans "how to be African"(! ). In order to avoid contamination by native teachers already trained in the earlier European methods, the French actually brought in teachers from France to lead the Africans in the study of their native West African culture; these teachers being observed leading Natives in local folk dances, etc. 11 Such plans represented an interesting attempt to keep Native elites loyal to France, while at the same time, well-rooted in their Native lands and cultures.

Ostensibly, such practices would avoid the "stateless" quality of Africans educated under the earlier system. Nonetheless, exposure to European educational and economic ideas - even when those ideas were fused with African traditions - could not forestall an African thirst for greater freedom and opportunity along European lines. Colonial rulers often imposed a dual system of justice - a European one for major offenses, and a Native one for those offenses deemed minor by the Colonial Authorities.

The French, early on, abolished the Native courts and legal system, except in rare cases, while even under the British, it was quite clear that Native justice was distinctly secondary to the "real" justice of the Europeans. 12 Dichotomies such as these further entrenched notions of West African inferiority. The French instituted a policy of not interfering in African customs and culture, as long as those customs did not conflict with the French aim of achieving some sort of "evolution" among Africans. 13 It was taken utterly for granted that African culture was inherently inferior to French civilization.

By contrast, the British authorities endeavored to maintain equilibrium by combining traditional African smallholder society with the demands of the British Cocoa Board. Rural West African society was to be maintained at all costs to prevent a breakdown of the social order, such as occurred when jobs were scarce and peasants left for the cities in the hope of finding work. There, oddly enough, the British actually encouraged the growth of an urban petit bourgeoisie in the dream of preventing rebellion.

With the collapse of world markets during the Great Depression, urban and peasant unrest increased - with the noticeable difference that now a radicalized bourgeoisie was available to lead that unrest. 14 In short, the European colonial administrations of West Africa both helped and exploited Africans. With their thirst for profits, and a belief in the superiority of their own institutions, technology, and culture, they dreamed of "advancing" the native population while at the same time keeping that population economically productive, and under firm European control.

Yet in so doing, they introduced many attributes of the modern world to the peoples of West Africa. European notions of development, education, and justice split traditional African life into separate public and private spheres - especially for those who embraced European learning and techniques. 15 The divide that grew up between Europeanized Africans, and those who have remained closer to their traditional ways of life remains a problem even today.

One of the lasting legacies of European Colonization in West Africa was this impartial transformation; this creation of a society existing in two worlds, trained properly for neither. Once opened to the full force of the industrial (and later post-industrial) economy, the traditional African economy could not compete. At the same time, not enough West Africans were educated, in the European sense, to provide the skills and leadership to easily lead their people into a new era. European rule has left West Africa with many choices, not all of them good.

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The Colonial Experience in West Africa. (2018, Jun 20). Retrieved from

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