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

Africa from 1870 to 1914

In the late 1870s, Africa was almost entirely ruled by Africans. Exceptions to this rule included small slivers of territory along the western and Gold coasts, parts of Algeria, Mozambique, and the Cape Colony of South Africa – the last being the most significant directly European-controlled area of the continent. Impediments to further European advance were of different kinds, though perhaps the biggest obstacle was the Europeans’ vulnerability to African diseases. Other deterrents were less immediate. Economically, in the era before Europe’s big industrial push, it was in the Europeans' best interest to allow Africans to produce and transport goods to the coast for trade and export; the costs of life, labor, and capital required to delve into the African interior in the years before 1878 severely undermined the profitability of European-African trade. Few inroads into the interior meant that very little was known about the African continent, apart from the northern African countries of Egypt and the Magrib, and the areas around the coast that had been the centers of trade for slaves and ivory already for many centuries or decades. The east coast of Africa, particularly the area near the island of Zanzibar, had had strong trade relations with merchants from the Muslim Indian Ocean economy for many centuries.

European exploration and the beginnings of territorial imperialism, like the British in Egypt, who gained control of the country to protect their interests in the Suez Canal, sparked the next phase of European intervention in Africa. In 1884-1885, the Berlin Conference, convened by the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, set the tone: European countries set their sights on physical control over African domains, and physical control meant the establishment of administrative and military power on the continent. The result of the conference was the division of much of the African continent by the European powers, of course without input from any Africans.

France: France assumed a huge swathe of territory in the west of Africa, including the region around the Senegal and Niger Rivers, the Western Sudan, Morocco, Algeria, and areas down the into the center of Equatorial Africa; it was an enormous territory many times greater than the size of France itself.

Britain: The conference left Britain in control of a diverse grouping of territories, including those along the Gold Coast, parts of Nigeria, British East Africa (Kenya) and Uganda, the eastern Sudan, Egypt, Northern and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and South Africa.

Germany: Germany, a newcomer to the colonial game, gained “rights” to the Cameroon, an area on the southwestern corner of the continent known as German Southwest Africa (Namibia), a large piece of land between Lake Victoria in the north and Lake Tanganyika in the west and called German East Africa (Tanganyika), and a small sliver of territory on the western littoral called Togoland, sandwiched between the British Gold Coast and French West Africa.

King Leopold of Belgium: As one of the main advocates for robust European intervention in Africa, the Belgian King Leopold, was granted private (non‐national) rights to a huge territory surrounding the Congo River, thus beginning an uninterrupted century and a half of (still ongoing) political misery for the Congolese.

Others: Other European nations (Portugal, Italy and Spain) also had African paper empires. Of these, Portugal remained the most significant, having substantial land claims in the southeast (Mozambique) and southwest (Angola) of the continent. 

The years from the Berlin Conference to the outbreak of the First World War saw these paper empires transform into actual colonial empires one military intervention at a time. The famous Battle of Omdurman is one prime example, a drastically one‐sided conflict that left 10,000 Sudanese dead with minimal British casualties. Battles like this of various sizes and scopes were happening throughout the continent as European powers gradually (though not without setbacks) set out to establish “control” in “their” African territories.

Clashes were inevitable. Apart from the famous clash between Sudanese and British forces, there were many other armed resistance campaigns. Muslim leaders in French West Africa, for example, spent three decades in armed conflict with French imperial forces, launching religiously motivated jihads against the French. Zulu resistance met British and Afrikaner colonists as they moved north from Cape Colony. Even after the Anglo‐Zulu War in 1879, which saw the eventual crushing of a massive Zulu army, lasting peace between the settlers and the Zulus was not achieved. In 1906, Zulus launched a rebellion in protest of colonial policies of taxation (Bombatha Rebellion). The South African authorities, in order to force Africans into the labor market (and especially the mines) had instituted a £1 poll tax on top of the already existing “hut” tax. These taxes, payable in only in colonial money, meant that Africans would have to stop farming and herding and enter into the South African wage economy. When they refused to pay the taxes, the Natal police went to collect it. The confrontation escalated, military units advanced on the Zulu resisters, killing some three to four thousand and imprisoning an additional seven thousand people. Zulu resistance never recovered. In Southwest Africa, the Germans encountered resistance from the indigenous Herero people, who rose up against the brutality of the occupiers in 1904. In the process of quelling the revolt, the Germans killed around two‐thirds of the Herero population in a deliberate attempt to extinguish the entire population. Historians consider this to be the world’s first genocide. In this gruesome display of power, the German colonial army drove the Herero into the desert and caused up to 65,000 people to die of starvation and dehydration. Many thousands were also killed by the German strategy of poisoning the Africans’ well water. Such was the brutality of civilization when in colonial field dress.

Larger African states tried to fight back. The Asante nation in the territory of the Gold Coast resisted British domination until it was finally overwhelmed in 1900. Only in Ethiopia, where the emperors had been purchasing and stockpiling European weapons, did European imperialism meet an intractable foe. In 1896, an army of twenty thousand Italian troops met the force of Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II at the Battle of Adowa and was crushed. Ethiopia, thus, became the largest African state to avoid the fate of colonial occupation.

In sum, the transformation of European paper‐imperialism into actual territorial control marks African history deeply from 1878‐1914. The violent, brutal process ended with European countries controlling, either directly or indirectly, around 90% of African territory. By 1914, the first wave of African resistance movements, those that fought militarily to preserve the traditional African ways of life, was definitively over. Direct military confrontation would not work against superior European armies. 
Economically, African labor and commodities, like those of Latin America, went to feed the European industrializing boom. Key African commodities included palm oil from western coastal regions, natural rubber from the Congo, cocoa from the Gold Coast (today’s Ghana), gold and diamonds in South Africa, and much more. In addition to the commodities extracted from the continent’s lands, the Europeans demands two essential contributions from its people: labor and taxes.

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