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

Africans React to a World at War

We will concentrate on four African reactions to the world at war: willing participation, forced participation, migration and revolt.

Willing participation is fairly self‐explanatory. For some Africans, especially those who were facing increasingly dire economic circumstances due to the shifts caused by entry into the world economy, participation in the military and labor armies of the European powers guaranteed a steady – if low – wage. Others saw service as an opportunity to prove one’s worth – and on a large‐scale level some African leaders and others like Gandhi thought that by serving the colonial interests at a time of crisis they would be rewarded at peacetime, a notion that was quickly trampled in the aftermath of the Paris peace, as we saw in chapter 3. Self-determination of peoples was certainly not extended to Africa.

Forced participation is also an obvious concept – but it is important to understand how the “force” worked. It would have been too difficult for British or French forces to develop the procedures for something like regular domestic conscription as in the United States or Europe during times of acute need – imagine for yourself the difficulties of forcing colonized peoples to fight in a foreign war. The answer to this problem was to work through local African chiefs. The chiefs were given quotas of men they were required to provide to the army. The chief would then fill the quota by various means – which often included taking advantage of power positions to exploit less powerful kinship groups within his domain. Thus, we see emerging here what would become an essential part of the colonial structure – the indirect application of colonial pressure through local advocates, often creating or deepening social divisions.

Migration was a multifaceted reaction. Some Africans, like on the Western coast, tried to escape French rule and service by migrating inland to the less strictly administered zones. Others migrated away from rural lands for employment on the coast or in the cities – a phenomenon common in much of the world during this time. Much of these labor migrations were forced – especially in the cases of large-scale infrastructural projects like the building of railroads, canals and motorways. Migrations caused many social and economic problems in Africa. Not only were lands left uncultivated, but rapid urbanization strained unprepared cities. The movement of people in such masses, as it always does, promoted the outbreak of deadly epidemics.

The final reaction was revolt. Throughout Africa, different peoples rose up against the colonial masters – chiefly on grounds of forced labor, forced military service or conscription, substantial increases in taxation, and inflation and the decline of living standards. These revolts only intensified in the postwar environment. Added to wartime damage, we see for the first time in Africa the problem of mass unemployment as hundreds of thousands of soldiers returned home to an entirely different world. Wartime industries slowed down or ceased and with Europe in the midst of drastic economic crisis, little help flowed in from outside. And remember, there were no mitigating social programs here to ease the suffering – no unemployment aid, no foreign aid, no social security and few and unsophisticated health services.

Let’s summarize some thoughts on African between 1914 and 1918. We see large-scale disruptions in the everyday life of Africans in all parts of the continent. The economy was in turmoil; millions of people were drafted into the war effort. Diseases spread. Migrations changed the nature of both rural and urban life. Cities increased in size. Local chiefs became more important figures in the relationship between European colonial administrators and African populations. At the same time, huge social problems were coming into existence, like modern‐style unemployment as more Africans left the subsistence agricultural economy and found work in the mines, ports and infrastructural projects, often under substantial force by the colonial powers. A working class was created and concentrated. A generation of young Africans gained direct experience with European organization and ideals. This education had taken place largely in missionary schools. Some African students also left Africa to study at European universities, a trend that would continue and grow in the 1920s.

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