FC122: European Imperial Expansion in Africa (c.1870-1914)


FC122 in the Hyperflow of History;
Covered in multimedia lecture #1328.
Whatever happens we have got/The Maxim gun and they have not. 19th century European poem


Ever since the rise of a capitalist economy and strong nation states armed with efficient military machines (c.1500), Europe had steadily extended its power across the globe.  By 1800, European and European derived colonies had extended the dominance of European culture over 35% of the globe.  Up until this point, the usual explanation for European expansion was the "three G's": God, gold, and glory.  Colonies in South America provided gold and silver.  Those in the Caribbean produced sugar, a virtual "white gold", for European markets.  West African colonies provided slaves for the Caribbean sugar plantations.  And the North American colonies and India provided their governments with markets and raw materials.

In the nineteenth century the nature and motives for colonial imperialism changed dramatically.  As with the Industrial Revolution, Britain also led the way in the late nineteenth century in a new wave of expansion (known as neo-imperialism) that would put European civilization in control of 85% of the globe.  The classic argument explaining this phenomenon has focused on the Industrial Revolution's growing need for new resources and markets.  However, this oversimplifies the case.  If one looks at where European colonies expanded, in particular in Africa, one sees little economic sense in doing so.  Instead, there were three interrelated causes driving Europeans to go out and virtually conquer the globe: growing economic competition as the industrial revolution spread, internal political stresses caused by industrialization, and rising international rivalries.

  1. Economic causes.  The 1860's were an economically unsettled time that came to a head with a depression in 1873.  While all industrial countries were hurt, Britain especially was feeling the pinch.  Its reliance on raw materials was damaging its balance of trade.  And it was facing growing competition from newly industrializing nations, especially Germany, who had newer factories and cheaper labor.

  2. Internal political stresses.  Economic changes have always caused political problems, and Europe in the late 1800's was no exception.  Britain in particular was seeing a transformation of the relatively unified political party system of the pre-industrial era into a more fragmented patchwork of special interest groups: labor unions, land owners, bankers, industrialists, etc.  Politicians were desperate for some new cause or ideology to unify the voters behind them.

  3. International tensions. In 1871 the fragile balance of power in Europe had been radically altered by the emergence of a strongly unified Germany and Italy, the equally destabilizing process of the rapid disintegration of Ottoman power in southeastern Europe and the Middle East, and the growing rebelliousness in Ireland against British rule.  The British public was especially upset by these challenges to the stability of the world they had known and by Britain's apparent inability to act effectively.

Therefore, Benjamin Disraeli, British prime minister in the 1870's, first pushed the idea of renewed imperial expansion as a way to protect vital British overseas markets, resources and jobs, enhance Britain's national prestige, and give it an edge against other European countries without colonies.  Never mind the fact that these arguments were grossly exaggerated if not downright false.  The lure of new markets was especially misleading since there were often few consumers in Africa and Asia who could even afford European goods.  Granted, as Europe's industries diversified in the late 1800's, there was a growing need for certain resources not found in Europe, such as oil, rubber, and non-ferrous metal.  However, many of the resources sought by Europeans were unnecessary luxury or consumer items like bananas, coffee, and African palm oil for soap.  Despite that, Disraeli had found one issue he could exploit in order to unify the British voters behind him.  The British public and even Queen Victoria (who was also Empress of India) came to believe in the need for colonies.

Of course, opposing politicians could not let Disraeli monopolize the imperialism issue and leave them in his dust.  Conservatives and liberals alike also pushed for imperial expansion.  Justifying these wholesale conquests was easy enough.  Britons saw themselves as bringing the benefits of Christianity and European civilization to less developed peoples.  The new ideas of Darwinism, in particular "survival of the fittest", were adapted, or distorted, into Social Darwinism.  This claimed that human societies, just like some animals, are better adapted to survive than others.  Therefore, it was the "white man's burden" to bring his superior civilization to the inferior cultures of Africa and Asia.  Social Darwinism was really little more than a polite or pseudo-scientific term for racism.

The "Dark Continent"

Before 1870 Europeans had made little headway into Africa, either as conquerors or explorers, mainly because of their lack of resistance to the area's tropical diseases.  This left Africa in a shroud of mystery that earned it the title of the "Dark Continent".  After 1870, Europeans made rapid inroads into Africa thanks to the industrial revolution which gave them two new weapons: vaccines for combating the diseases and rifles and machine guns for combating the African natives.

Three lines of development got Europeans interested in Africa and triggered a virtual land rush there.  First of all was a highly publicized expedition by the journalist, Henry Stanley to find the explorer David Livingston who had been missing for some time.  Stanley's best selling account, mostly remembered for the quotation, "Dr. Livingston, I presume", especially interested King Leopold of Belgium who ruthlessly conquered and exploited the Congo (modern Zaire).

The other two lines of development concerned British expansion into Egypt and South Africa.  In Egypt, the ruler's lavish lifestyle led to a growing debt and the eventual takeover of his shares of the Suez Canal by British bankers.  The loss of revenue from the canal further disrupted Egypt's stability.  Therefore, in order to protect the Suez Canal from native revolution, the British government took over Egypt in the 1880's.  Control of Egypt led to near hysteria over the outlandish possibility that the government in Sudan could cut off the source of the Nile and turn Egypt into a desert.  As a result, the British also conquered Sudan.

Britain had taken over South Africa from the Dutch in 1815 to secure their route to India.  The Dutch settlers (known as Boers) were unhappy with Britain's abolition of slavery in 1832 and trekked inland to settle the Orange Free State and Transvaal. The Boers were left alone until the discovery of diamonds and gold prompted a rush of British prospectors into the Boer territories.  Growing friction between the Boers and these newcomers eventually caused the British to take over the Boer Republic of Transvaal in order to protect British business interests there.  This got the British into hostilities with various native peoples, most notably the Zulus.  After some hard fighting, including the massacre of one British army by the Zulus and a desperately fought guerrilla war against the Dutch Boers at the turn of the century, the British successfully occupied the area.

In each case, one can see how involvement in one area led to involvement in other areas and so on.  Even more important was that growing British colonial power alarmed other industrializing nations who wanted their own colonies so they could keep up with Britain.  Therefore, Disraeli's strategy to mobilize British public opinion also dragged other European countries with economic and political problems similar to Britain's into imperial expansion.  The result was a virtual scramble for colonies in Africa and Asia.

The German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, held the Congress of Berlin in 1884 to establish the ground rules for all the imperialist powers involved in this land rush.  (No Africans or Asians were invited.)  The participants agreed to give prior notice before claiming a new colony.  However, mutual distrust between the European powers often led them to be more secretive and sneaky in claiming new colonies.

As stated above, largely the same forces drove the other powers in their grab for colonies as drove Britain: a feeling of economic vulnerability that colonies would magically cure, a fear that other powers would get a head start in claiming colonies, and a need to unify the voters behind a common cause.  Each country also had its own particular set of circumstances to drive it along.

In Germany, Bismarck saw colonies as more of a nuisance and drain of resources.  However, the new Kaiser, Wilhelm II, fired Bismarck in 1890 and pursued an aggressive policy of building an empire (and navy to protect it) in order to claim "Germany's place in the sun.  There was also concern about the emigration of Germans to non-German areas, especially America.  German colonies would provide homes for emigrants and enclaves of German culture across the globe.  France felt the need for a unifying cause after the humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the unsettling economic conditions brought on by depression and huge war indemnities to Germany.  Colonies would enhance its national prestige and also give it some leverage for future revenge against Germany.  Italy, also newly unified in 1871, was still much more politically fragmented and economically undeveloped than Germany.  Colonies would provide some focus for national pride and unity.

The partitioning of Africa was one of history's more brutal and insensitive episodes.  Europeans came in and carved up Africa along arbitrary boundaries that split some tribes up and threw others together.  Europeans legitimized this by having the Africans sign treaties that they did not understand the meaning of.  They also used forced labor to build railroads, etc., killing thousands in the process.  By 1914, practically all of Africa had fallen prey to European aggression.

The impact of neo-imperialism

 was generally negative.  For one thing, European colonial boundaries often cut across old tribal boundaries or combined peoples of different (and hostile) tribes.  Even after liberation from European rule, the old colonial boundaries remained to further disrupt traditional patterns of life.  This mess is still being sorted out today, a continuing legacy of European rule.  There was also the humiliation and suffering colonial peoples were subjected to.  While Europeans did work to abolish slavery, they still killed thousands through forced labor (slavery by another name) in order to complete their building projects and bring the "benefits" of European civilization to Africa.

There was also the issue of imposing European culture upon native peoples because it was supposedly superior.  For example, Europeans would impose their agricultural techniques on Africans and, in the process, ruined the soil, which was better suited for the traditional slash and burn agriculture.  They would teach African school children poems about daffodils, even though there were no daffodils in Africa.  In the end, this cultural policy backfired against Europeans.  Many colonial subjects went to Europe to get college educations and brought back the dangerous ideas of liberalism, nationalism, and Marxism.  That, combined with the fact that many colonials served in European armies and had picked up on European firearms technology, helped lead to the ultimate downfall of the European colonial empires.

Even for the European powers, colonies were often more of a liability than an asset.  For one thing, many colonies cost more to rule than they brought back in revenues and resources.  Second, as the number of available places to take over decreased by 1900, tensions rose between the European powers wanting to take those places. True, by 1914, European or European derived powers controlled 85% of the globe and were definitely sitting on top of the world.  But the beginning of the end was near as the specter of the First World War loomed on the horizon.