USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Africa Between 1848 and 1914

As discussed previously in the chapter, by the mid-1880s a new generation of German leaders were coming to see the colonial question as first and foremost an issue of European power politics. Germany, they thought, could only hope to take its rightful position among the great European powers by asserting itself in the colonial domain. If Germany succeeded, it would mean that both Britain and France, the two other western powers, would have to negotiate with Germany for overseas territory. German nationalists on both the right and the left of the political spectrum were clamoring for Germany to slice out its piece of the colonial pie, its "place in the sun." In the mid-1880s, Germany asserted its control over four separate African territories: Togo, Cameron, German East Africa, and German South-West Africa. This marked the beginning of a broad and fundamental shift in German strategy away from Bismarck’s Realpolitik (namely the chess match of continental European power politics) to Weltpolitik (the contest for global influence and supremacy). At the same time as Germany entered the colonial contest in Africa, the Belgian King Leopold asserted control over the Congo, and Britain gained control over Egypt. These three acts sparked an international conference in Berlin for the purpose of setting ground rules as to which countries could legitimately govern which parts of the African continent (no Africans were present). The two basic rules the European powers agreed upon were: 1) that any European claim in Africa had to be recognized by the other powers; and 2) that the European colonizer must mobilize enough military power to effectively control the territory claimed.

While the Berlin Conference didn’t immediately effect anything on the ground in Africa, it accomplished two things. First, it declared the European powers’ intentions to carve up Africa. Second, it put those same powers in direct conflict with each other over territory. If England got a piece of eastern Africa, for example, it meant a piece less for Germany. If Germany expanded in West Africa, it meant less room for France to expand. It was this dynamic, not anything inherent to Africa, that made the so-called “Scramble for Africa” happen as rapidly as it did. The stage was now set for the Scramble to move from paper, from the conference room in Berlin, to the actual territories of Africa.

All European powers thrust into the African interior in the years following the Berlin Conference. France struck east into the region of the Senegal and Niger Rivers and south from occupied Algeria. France aimed at conquering the important trans-Saharan trading posts, thus eliminating economic competition and establishing a straight line from the western coasts of Africa, through Algeria, over the Mediterranean and into the heart of France itself. One by one, these West African trading towns fell to French forces advancing from the north and from the west. By 1906, the huge landmass between present-day Senegal to the west, Morocco and Algeria to the north, Egypt and the Sudan to the east, and the British zone of Nigeria to the south, was under French command. The island of Madagascar was also in France’s hands.

The British had a head start in the race to exert physical authority over African territories. From their foothold at the bottom of Africa in Cape Colony, they pushed north into what would become southern and northern Rhodesia. This put them into direct conflict with the Afrikaners, the settlers of Dutch descent. The growing conflict eventually broke out in the Boer Wars, as mentioned in chapter one. These hard-fought battles, during which the large British military pressed down on the small but tenacious armies of the Afrikaners, resulted in Britain gaining control of the entirety of South Africa. The spoils of war were considerable. The British had already taken the Kimberly diamond mines, now they had the gold mines of the Transvaal as well.

In equatorial Africa, Britain faced a different set of challenges. Here, it took two military campaigns, one in 1896 and one in 1900, to conquer the well-organized and powerful Asante nation. The British had already been mining gold on the Gold Coast since it occupied the southern part of the Asante region following an earlier military campaign in 1874. Now the mining escalated. The British, like the other European occupiers, realized that the most effective way to take African raw materials was to build reliable and rapid means of transporting goods. To get the gold from the interior mines to the Gold Coast, the British build railroads. The railroads had immediate results. The value of gold exports the year before the railroad finally reached the mines at Tarkwa in 1901 was £22,000. The next year, 1902, the figure rose to £97,000. A year later saw another spike to £255,000. By 1914, the British were taking £1,687,000 of gold from the Tarkwa mines.

In Belgian, King Leopold’s Congo Free State began to harvest natural rubber. Rubber exports swelled to massive proportions as the brutal European governors enforced a system of slave labor throughout the region under Leopold's private control. Rubber harvesting in the Congo was incredibly violent. An estimated six million Africans died during the decades of Leopold's rule. It was also extremely lucrative, fueling the rapidly expanding bicycle and automotive industries’ demand for raw rubber. Like in the Gold Coast, incursion and industrial development were linked in the Congo. The railroad in the Congo as on the Gold Coast was to bring the riches of the African interior into the empty cargo holds of European export fleets.

In central Africa, whether in German East Africa or British Rhodesia, the focus was on land and settlement. White immigrants, though relatively few in number, came to central Africa with the mindset of feudal lords. They took over huge agricultural estates and employed Africans, who had traditionally used the land for small-scale farming and grazing. This was not only an issue of power, which the whites, backed by the imperial powers with superior arms, clearly had. This was an issue of a complete transformation of lifestyle for the Africans, who now fell within this European feudal society. These central African societies, Rhodesia and South Africa (after independence in 1909) above all, would become the most discriminatory societies on the continent. White owners knew that their power would never be found in their numerical superiority; it was based on the recognition of their racial superiority by the mother country.

Throughout Africa, the Europeans were seeking three things. The first was raw materials for export to the rapidly developing European industrial sector. The second was agricultural production. As Europe faded as a center for growing, the rest of the world would be required to feed it. The 19th century witnessed a concerted effort in most European countries to dismantle the structures of small-scale farms within the homelands. The third thing Europeans sought in Africa and throughout the world was a market to sell their goods. Africans who worked in European mining operations, plantations, or in other wage labor positions were forced to the consume European manufactured products and to spend a hefty chunk of their wages on taxes to the European occupying government. Instead of the small-scale farming and pastoral lifestyle, Africans now worked in huge agricultural ventures dedicated to a single cash crop or product like cocoa, palm products, groundnuts, cotton, coffee, bananas, citrus fruit, timber, or rubber. 
For Africans who happened to fall outside the main areas of European attention, life was changed in more subtle ways. European countries, in order to pay for their expensive colonial administrations, introduced taxes throughout Africa. These were collected in money, usually coins, which traditional communities often failed to have. Somehow, these people would have to convert their labor into money, a process that often destroyed the traditional balance of society. In some places, a modern European legal structure took authority away that had once belonged to kings, chiefs, and elders. Where local leadership persisted, its legitimacy was compromised by the power and presence of colonial overlords.

European insertions of a new form of power into a territory brought with it a re-alignment of existing powers. Groups aligned themselves in many ways either for or against the colonizers. Africans who lined up in strong support of the Europeans reaped benefits. Groups that signed on early were often rewarded with administrative control over territory. If the group had controlled valuable territory before the colonial period, it would have to part with the most valuable resources it contained in return for political power (or mere survival) in the region. Resisters were punished. African societies had often been stratified, one group ruling over others, but the addition of European force made some of these divisions deeper and more violent.

By 1914, the African continent, with the exception of the kingdom of Ethiopia (which defeated the Italian colonial army) was entirely carved up by the European powers. African gold and diamonds flowed into European treasuries. African products added to European wealth. Railways were built for the purpose of economic exploitation. Guns continued to flow into Africa to arm police and militias that ensured European authority. Market products, like textiles, gradually but steadily replaced local production.

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