Last Updated 28 Jan 2021

The Scramble for Africa

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What were the major historical factors explaining ‘the scramble for Africa’? The scramble for Africa has aptly been described as the golden period of European expansionism in the 19th century. It was an age in which the continents of Africa, Asia and Middle Eastern states were brought under the control of European powers following the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.

Eric Hobsbawm, one of the leading authorities on European imperialism, described the period as “the Age of Empire not only because it developed a new kind of imperialism, but also a much more old-fashioned reason…” referred to here as the age of “emperors” (1987: 56). It was essentially a period in which a handful of European powers (Great Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Japan, Germany etc), having emerged economically strong following rapid industrialisation, set out to pursue radical national interests overseas.

The scramble for Africa began at a time when the benefit of industrial revolution gave rise to unprecedented expansion in the production of goods and services, which needed to be exported to outlandish markets. For, the partition and the haggling that went it did not come out of the blue. It was orchestrated by a combination of factors and conditions under which European powers faced in their metropolitan countries at the time.

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Having lost their North and South American colonies, Australasia and the Pacific rim interests at the turn of the century, the European powers turned their searchlight to Africa, Asia and the Middle East for new markets - consolidating previously held trading posts and sea route communications and grabbing new territories along the way – hence the scramble for Africa. The partition has broadly been described as one of the most turning points in the history of the relationships between the “Haves” – industrialised European powers versus the “Have-nots” – tropical Africa and the countries of Asia and the middle East (Padmore, 1972: 7).

In his most eloquent work on the subject of partition – Africa and the World Peace (1972: 162), Padmore argues that “… colonial policy is the offspring of industrial policy for rich States in which capital is abundant and is rapidly accumulating, in which the manufacturing system is continually growing and characterising, if not most numerous, at least the most alert and energetic part of the population that works with its hands, in which the countryside is obliged to industrialise itself, in order to maintain itself, in such States exportation is an ssential factor of public property …” Still, Jules Ferry, “who can fittingly be described as the father of French Imperialism, whilst addressing the Chamber of Deputies in 1885, summed up the need for colonies as follows: Is it not clear that the great States of modern Europe, the moment their industrial power is found, are confronted with an immense and difficult problem, which is the basis of industrial life, the very condition of existence – the question of markets? … Can we say that this colonial policy is a luxury for modern nations?

Not at all … this policy is for all of us, a necessity, the market itself” (p. 161). Ferry’s encapsulation of what the partition of Africa meant for the French and his fellow European powers are quite instructive here. Similarly, continental echoes of the partition policy were heard in ascending order. In the Island of Great Britain, Mr Joseph Chamberlain, “the radical mayor of Birmingham and a great advocate of liberal ideals, who later deserted the Liberals and became one of the most ardent champions of Toryism …”, accepted that “a forward policy of colonial expansion in Africa was now the order of the day”.

He stated that: “it is the duty of the State to foster the trade and obtain markets for its manufactures” (p. 164). In Germany, Bismarck, who initially opposed colonial expansion, later became its advocate. Addressing the Reichstag in 1885, he declared that: “The goal of Germany’s foreign policy was to be economically independent. “Colonies”, he said, “would provide new markets for German industries, the expansion of trade, and new field for German activity, civilisation and capital … Consider what it would mean if part of the cotton and coffee which we must export could be grown in German territory overseas.

Would that not bring an increase in national wealth”? (Padmore, pp. 164 -165), he queried. H. L. Wessseling, in his Divide and Rule: The Partition for Africa (1996: 366), whilst analysing Hobson’s classic work on Imperialism: A Study, argued that the historical interpretation of the partition was based on “imperialism as a consequence of capitalism” and therefore, “primarily a struggle for profitable markets of investment”.

He acknowledged the seminal work of John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson in their Africa and the Victorians - stating that it was not until the 1960s that a new approach began to be adopted by the leading discussants of the partition policy. He opined that aside from the economic motives upon which the partition was based, there was indeed, consideration of strategic and political motives as well, noting that early writers overlooked this fact.

He summed up the views of the British political establishment thus: “The British policy makers were not so much concerned with Africa itself as with safeguarding British interests in Asia; the motive behind late Victorian strategy in Africa was to protect the all important stakes in India and the East” (p. 366). This view becomes clearer when juxtaposed with Hargreaves’ Chapter 3 in Decolonisation in Africa whilst discussing the logistics of the Second World War.

He stressed that “the protection of African supply route was a crucial contribution to the Middle East war”, adding that “extraordinary efforts were made to develop the African Line of Communications by which bulky supplies were moved to Congo river, across to Juba in the Southern Sudan, and thence to Egypt” (Hargreaves, 1988: 54). Surely, there was no question of the strategic and commercial importance of Africa, Asia and the Middle Eastern territories to the Allied Powers prior to, and during, the Second World War.

As M. E. Chamberlain succinctly attested here: “the possession of an empire came to be regarded as a kind of badge of great power status, important for prestige, irrespective of whether it was worth while economically” (Chamberlain, 1985: p. 3). Whilst huge merit pertains in this argument, there’s no doubt as Wesseling puts it: the policy of imperialism in Africa, Asia and the Middle East “differed from country to country, from period to period, and from place to place” (Wesseling, 1996, p. 366).

The argument makes it clear: “economic motives such as the protection and encouragement of trade and industry did indeed play a part … so also did such financial motives as safeguarding of loans and investments, such political motives as strategic advantage, national ambition, electoral appeal, such as ideological motives as bearing the white man’s burden, and many more” (p. 366). The method used by the European powers in gaining foothold into the African territories was generally regarded as underhand. Africans and Indians, it was assumed, only began to exist at the point they were “discovered” (Liebenow, 1986: p. 4). Accordingly, “treaties of friendship negotiated … with local political personages, or evidence of conversations alone, became converted in the 19th century diplomatic scramble into European deeds of ownership to the land, the people, and all their resources” (p. 14). Following the inordinate ways used in slicing up African territories , the Berlin conference recognised Leopold’s claims over Congo, and the various spheres of British, French and German influence in the East, West and South Africa respectively. The period following the conference was marked by the rapid annexation of the territories involved.

In order to consolidate their positions, England, France and Germany first resorted to the use of Chartered Companies (British and German East Africa Companies, the Niger Company of West Africa, and the South Africa Company), joint stock organisations with tremendous financial resources at their disposal, backed by the armed forces of their respective States. These monopoly concerns were the ones which laid the basis of government in the territories which were later officially declared as colonies and protectorates (Padmore, p. 168 – 169).

Germany, although a late entry in the colonial race, acquired German East Africa (then known as Tanganyika) in 1844, South West Africa in 1885, Cameroons and Togoland in 1885 (P. 168 - 169). “By the time the process of carving up Africa was completed, England and France had emerged as the biggest shareholders of the continent”. “England acquired the colonies of Gambia, Sierra Leone, Gold Coast (now Ghana), Nigeria on the West Coast, British Somaliland, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia), Swaziland and Basutoland, and the Union of South Africa.

France, on the other hand, got most North Africa countries of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. On the West Coast of Africa, it secured Senegal and its hinterland, forming Equatorial Africa and the Congo, Dahomey, Ivory Coast and the large Island of Madagascar. After the World War, the German West and East African colonies were later divided between the British Empire and France following the Paris conference” (p. 169), using the League of Nations to consolidate their booties. Portugal, one of the oldest colonial Powers in the world got Angola and Guinea on the West Coast, Mozambique on the East, and the cocoa island of Sao Tome and Principe in the Gulf of Guinea” (p. 169). “Italy, having met military disaster in her early imperialist attempt at Abyssinia in 1896, as well as diplomatic defeat by France over Tunisia, acquired Tripoli in the north, Eritrea on the East Coast and Italian Somaliland on the Indian Ocean” (p. 169). It has commonly been argued that the approach used by the European powers in running their territories exacerbated local anger against colonial rule.

Many ethnic groups with little in common were lumped together, thus creating confusion and rivalries, making the present day African countries extremely difficult to govern. Whilst Britain employed a mixture of direct (India) and indirect rule (Africa and others), using recognised local people to govern - the French and others tended to adopt a more direct approach. For example, the French and the Portuguese believed in the policy of integration or assimilation. This policy extended French citizenship to trained Africans whilst providing a token of autonomy to local representatives who, subsequently, were co-opted into French Parliament.

While Africa provided the best example for studying the development and expansion of European Imperialisms in their quest for markets, sources of raw materials and spheres for investing capital, this overseas projection of European capitalism was not confined to the Dark Continent. Indeed, scramble incursions were made into Asia and other parts of New World. The chief amongst these was India, often referred to as the “Jewel in the Crown” because “it differed from all other colonies of occupation in its vastly greater size and population, reaching 200 millions in 1860s” (Fieldhouse, 1965/6: 271).

According to Fieldhouse, “India provided Britain with political and military power”… therefore, “its resources were harnessed to support a great military empire before the British arrived” (Fieldhouse: p. 271). In summing up, therefore, it has to be argued that the “European domination of Africa, Asia and the Middle East has been one of the most significant phenomena of the 19th century period called “the modern age” (Liebenow, 1986: 13).

The technological superiority of the European powers and the age of industrial revolution led the West in believing that they were destined, as a matter of right, to govern people elsewhere on the globe. Regrettably, colonisation was “unable to shape African economic, social and political conditions to more than a very limited extent” (Wesseling, 1996: 372). “In economic or social respects, colonisation brought nothing essentially new … but only led to the acceleration of social and economic process of modernisation” (p. 372).

This led to the integration of Africa and the rest of the New World into the capitalist economy. If we have to look for any tangible benefit of colonialism, this has to be seen in the context of the multiplicity of states that sprung up in Africa with concomitant ethnic conflicts and political instabilities. The false notion of sovereignties accorded to African states and recognised by the United Nations, clearly shows that majority of these states are weak and unable to clear democratic legitimacies in their various territories.

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