“A New Map of Africa, from the best Authorities”By John Lodge
“General Chart of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope”By John Barrow
“Map of the west coast of Africa from Sierra Leone to Cape Palmas”By Anthony Finley
“Spezial-Karte von Afrika”By Hermann Habenicht
An Overview of the Colonization of Africa
While African continent was well known to many Europeans of classical times, much of this knowledge was lost during the Dark Ages, leaving the continent to be slowly rediscovered with the advent of sea travel over the early modern period. Portuguese explorers were the first Europeans to begin to push out into the unknown, rediscovering the Canary Islands in 1312. Slowly, these explorers pushed past Morocco in North Africa into the unknown south.
By 1456, the Portuguese crown claimed a trade monopoly over the west coast of Africa. Trading posts were slowly established in this region, the first of which was São Jorge de Mina in what is now Ghana, built in 1482. Like many European African possessions, this castle traded hands many times, first falling to the Dutch in 1637 and finally the British in the mid 1800s. The Portuguese continued to push the boundaries of European knowledge, successfully rounding the Cape of Good Hope at the turn of the 15th century. Having reached the lucrative spice port of Calicut in 1498, Portuguese traders and explorers focused their goals not on colonizing the new-found lands of Africa, but rather on trading with Asia.
The Portuguese did not hold their monopoly over the West African coast for long. Traders and explorers from Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, and a host of other nations attempted to gain monopolies on the lucrative African trade routes. Trading posts of all nationalities sprang up on the African coastline. After the Portuguese established the profitability of the slave trade in the mid 16th century, many of these stations became centers for the Atlantic Slave trade. However, these posts remained relatively small and limited to the coast, with most traders receiving slaves through dealings with native leaders. Most nations remained on a relatively even standing with established African nations. The Portuguese continued to foster a good relationship with the Congo Empire through the 18th century, even bringing native princes back to Portugal for education. This was certainly not part of the high imperialism which would arise in the late 19th century.
In one area, however, this trend of coastal trading stations did not occur. While the Portuguese were content to simply round the Cape of Good Hope en-route to India, the Dutch established a station at Table Bay in 1652, in what is now Cape Town. Settlers arrived and began to push into the hinterland, first as farmers, then as semi-nomadic cattlemen. What allowed for this unusual sort of settlement? Africa is a continent which contains natural barriers which prevented the penetration of the early European explorers. While north Africa held the unforgiving Sahara Desert, the lush, tropical forests of the Central African coast were nearly impenetrable and host to numerous deadly diseases which quickly took their toll on any Europeans venturing inwards. Farther south, the coast became rocky and mountainous, with few natural harbors suitable for European ships. However, South Africa had a milder climate, with suitable anchorage for European ships and a plethora of grazing land for cattle.
Over this period of early exploration and coastal trading, possessions traded hands frequently, many times resulting from events occurring not in Africa but in Europe. European powers at war looked to hurt trade and national pride by raiding and seizing African trading posts and the ships that served them. One such even occurred in 1795, when the British took control of the Dutch colony in South Africa in order to prevent it from falling into the hands of the French Republic, which had invaded the Netherlands. This particular map was developed from the records of John Barrow, who was ordered to survey the new colony. While many in Britain felt the holdings should simply be used as a stopover point for interest in Australia and India, others clearly had different ideas. On the map are suggestions for future colonists, marking such things as “good corn land” and “grazing and grain country.” South Africa became the first major European settlement on the African continent. By 1800, roughly 87% of all Europeans on the continent were concentrated in South Africa.
Even while reaching its peak in the later decades of the 18th century, the Atlantic slave trade that brought wealth to many European merchants was beginning to experience serious backlash at home. The 19th century saw a severe decline in the trafficking of humans across the Atlantic, thanks primarily to the work of Britain.
However, as one draw to the African continent faded, another rose to take its place. In the place of slaver came the thirst for knowledge. Europeans wished to ‘fill in the blank spaces’ in their maps of Africa. Take for example these two maps, produced roughly 100 years apart. The first, published by John Lodge around 1780, depicts the African continent in great detail, with little to no blank space. The second, published by John Bartholomew in 1879, not only contains accurate and standardized place names, but also large swaths of unlabeled land. Gone are the random mountain ranges from central Africa as Europeans began to place a higher emphasis on scientific accuracy.
The penetration of the African wilderness by explorers first began in force in the 1830s. Even then, however, it was contained around four main rivers, the Nile, The Niger, the Congo, and the Zambezi.
In the south, the Boers continued to push inland, partially to escape what they saw as oppressive British rule, partially for the promise of free, expansive land. Still, most other European possessions remained on the coast.
Over this first part of the 19th century, Britain and France emerged as the most influential European powers on the African continent, active throughout the century from one corner to the other. As early as 1787, Great Britain had already began to meddle with African sovereignty, establishing Sierra Leone as a short lived colony for freed slaves. In 1789, the French began their work in Africa with the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt. While these events do not mark the beginning of French or British interest in the continent, they are important as the beginning of direct government involvement, as opposed to work by private citizens. The French brutally occupy Algeria from the 1830s onwards, killing millions while establishing the North African country as the jewel of French colonial holdings until the mid 20th century. In 1841 the British set forth on the unfruitful Niger Experiment, attempting to promote the palm-oil trade as a replacement for slavery. Huge numbers of Europeans die in the tropical climate. Over this period, Britain worked to consolidate its holdings on the horn of Africa by buying out competing nations, such as the Dutch in 1851 and the Danish in 1871. By 1868, the British were involved across the continent in the Anglo-Indian invasion of Ethiopia as the result of a hostage crisis. While the British had no intention of staying in Ethiopia, this event shows the ability and willingness to meddle in African affairs. In the north, the Suez Canal is completed as a French undertaking in 1869, followed by the British invasion in 1882 following Egyptian bankruptcy. Originally intended to simply protect interests, the British found themselves forced to remain in Egypt in order to prop up a crippled government. Finally, in the late 18th century, the French found Dakar in order to expand colonial trade interests in the area following British activity in the Ivory Coast and Ghana,
Still, while European nations obviously began to take a more active role in African politics, this meddling remained concentrated primarily to the coastal regions, with little expansion into the African heartland.
Moreover, much of the activity in West Africa can be seen as attempts to protect or further trade. During the late 19th century, trade on the African continent began to grow rapidly. For example, while in 1850 British goods made up only 12% of the Saharan cotton trade, by 1891 this number had grown to over 70%. To European economic powers, this greatly increasing trade was worth protecting. This motivating factor would drive colonialism through the early years of the 20th century.
What is now known as “the Scramble for Africa,” or the rapid colonization of Africa, began around 1871, finding propulsion from events in Europe just like many earlier colonial actions. Two new powerful countries, German and Italy, emerge out of turmoil in Europe that saw the traditional powerhouses of France and Austria defeated and embarrassed within 5 short years. However, European countries did not dive head first into the fray of claiming new colonies. Domestic politics in many European countries worked to prevent expansion leading up to the Berlin Conference of 1884. French citizens pushed their government to focus on the recently lost province of Alsace-Lorraine, while German citizens wished to exploit their hard won prize before focusing overseas. After occupying Egypt in 1882, British politicians faced vast public outcry against the involvement, which was deplored as bankers pulling the strings of the government. However, this sentiment would not last.
Many historians pinpoint West Africa as the location for the beginning of the Scramble. Europe suffered a prolonged economic depression in the 1870s which led to the reinstatement of many protectionist tariffs in countries across Europe. This meant trade between Europe and colonies as well. As a country which prided itself on a free market economy, Britain could not simply hide behind tariffs and practiced what some historians refer to as defensive colonialism, claiming and expanding colonies in West Africa in order to protect its trade. Again, trade exists as a dominant force in the colonization of Africa.
This move by the British pushed German and French interests together and a conference in Berlin was scheduled among the major European powers with the hopes of preventing a British hegemony on the continent. The Berlin Conference, held from 1884 to 1885, was also known as the Congo Conference as one of the major issues addressed was deciding the legitimacy of King Leopold’s Congo Free State. Leopold was granted what became essentially a private colony in one of the most resource rich regions of the world. More importantly, the conference also instituted a principle of effective occupation. From this point forward, European powers making claims in Africa were required to provide law and order, thus proving effective occupation. No longer would vague claims keep other interested countries at bay. This development forced European powers to take a much more hands on approach to their claims in Africa or risk losing them. Like a domino effect, inter-European rivalries were played out in Africa as nations moved to snap up remaining lands.
This particular map, published by the Justus Perthes publishing house in 1885 to celebrate the Berlin Conference and the rise of German imperialism, can be seen as accurately depicting German colonial motivations. Visible is an emphasis placed on trade, as trading routes are meticulously mapped along each body of water. By comparing the Perthes Atlas to a 1910 Max Moisel map of German East Africa, it is possible to see the rapid expansion of German imperialism over roughly two decades. Additionally, this second map displays the European obsession with extracting resource wealth from the African continent by clearly identifying gold fields within the German colony.
Even as governments were moving to quickly snapped up and shore up African claims at the turn of the 20th century, a great change brewed in the form of another European war. When the clouds had settled in the wake of WWI, Germany found itself relieved of its colonies, both in Africa and elsewhere, while France and Britain once again reigned supreme on the Dark continent. While 10% of Africa had been under European rule in 1870, by 1920 only 10% remained outside the European grasp. With a colossal effort, Africa had been subjugated to foreign rulers in a short window. It would take another colossal effort by parties on both continents to even begin to reverse this complicated process.
(The preceding text is a transcription of the embedded video presentation)
Words from the Curators
Web Resources for Research on Colonial Africa
- The BBC’s site about European colonization of Africa
- Fordham’s Internet African History Sourcebook
- The Library of Congress’s summary of the history of Liberia
- A brief overview of the British Empire in Africa
- A timeline of African colonization