BHM Day 14 (I’m behind): The Scramble for Africa


The opening of Africa to Western exploration and exploitation had begun in earnest at the end of the 18th century. By 1835, Europeans had mapped most of northwestern Africa. Among the most famous of the European explorers was David Livingstone, who charted the vast interior and Serpa Pinto, who crossed both Southern Africa and Central Africa on a difficult expedition, mapping much of the interior of the continent. Arduous expeditions in the 1850s and 1860s by Richard Burton, John Speke and James Grant located the great central lakes and the source of the Nile. By the end of the century, Europeans had charted the Nile from its source, the courses of the Niger, Congo and Zambezi Rivers had been traced, and the world now realized the vast resources of Africa.

In 1867, the Suez Canal was built across Egyptian territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. The excavation took some 10 years using forced labor of Egyptian workers during a certain period. Some sources estimate that over 30,000 people were working on the canal at any given period, that altogether more than 1.5 million people from various countries were employed, and that thousands of laborers died on the project. Steamships could now go to and from India without passing round the southern tip of Africa (the Cape). The Egyptian government became hopelessly unstable, however, and, reluctantly, in 1882, Britain took over the administration of the country.

Little by little the rest of East Africa was occupied by the British, again principally to safeguard the Indian Ocean sea-routes. At the same time, British colonists in South Africa were interested in extending their possessions northwards, particularly since gold and diamonds had been found in the interior of the region. One colonial leader, Cecil Rhodes, dreamt of building a railway right across Africa, from Cairo in the north to the Cape in the south. Rhodes, also  the founder of the De Beers diamond cartel, got his start by renting water pumps to miners during the diamond rush that started in 1871, when an 83.5 carat diamond was found in South Africa. He invested the profits of this operation into buying up claims of small mining operators, with his operations soon expanding into a separate mining company. Even today, mining takes place in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa.


Any obstacles, such as the tough Boer settlers who did not like British rule, would have to be brushed out of the way. The Boers were descendants of Dutch colonists who had arrived in the Cape long before the British. It took the British two difficult wars, in 1895 and 1899-1902, to defeat the Boers.


For France, West Africa trade was the main interest. Originally, trading stations had been set up on the West African coast to deal in slaves to be transported to the Americas. By the late 19th century, trade in palm oil and timber was interesting Europeans. French colonists were particularly active in West Africa. After defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, some French politicians, led by Jules Ferry, sought commercial gain and prestige by expanding eastwards into the African interior from Senegal and southwards from Algeria and Tunisia. At the same time, Ferry was interested in Indo-China and Madagascar. He claimed that these new colonies were in France’s commercial interests, but perhaps the need to compensate the loss of Alsace-Lorraine with a large empire was a more important consideration

By the beginning of the 1880s only a small part of Africa was under European rule, and that area was largely restricted to the coast and a short distance inland along major rivers such as the Niger and the Congo.

  • Britain      had Freetown in Sierra Leone, forts along the coast of The Gambia, a      presence at Lagos, the Gold Coast protectorate, and a fairly major set of      colonies in Southern Africa (Cape Colony, Natal, and the Transvaal which      it had annexed in 1877).
  • Southern      Africa also had the independent Boer Oranje-Vrystaat (Orange Free      State).
  • France      had settlements at Dakar and St Louis in Senegal and had penetrated a fair      distance up the river Senegal, the Assinie and Grand Bassam regions of      Cote d’Ivoire, a protectorate over the coastal region of Dahomey (now      Benin), and had begun colonization of Algeria as early as 1830.
  • Portugal      had long established bases in Angola (first arriving in 1482, and      subsequently retaking the port of Luanda from the Dutch in 1648) and      Mozambique (first arriving in 1498 and creating trading posts by 1505).
  • Spain      had small enclaves in north west Africa at Ceuta and Melilla (África Septentrional      Española or Spanish North Africa).
  • And      the Ottoman Turks controlled Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia (the strength of      Ottoman rule varied greatly).

An important factor in the “Scramble for Africa” was the sense of “grabbing” territory, even if it was impenetrable jungle or waterless desert, simply to prevent a neighbour in Europe from putting up his flag on the same land. It was King Leopold of Belgium, and his claim to the huge Congo Basin, who contributed most to this sense of urgency. He was prepared to pay from his own pocket for a colony bigger than his own country. Caught in the frenzy, Portugal felt obliged to extend its old claims, going back to the 16th century, to enormous parts of Angola and Mozambique.

The Congo provides the most curious and the most bloody example of European colonisation in Africa.

Belgium had only become independent in 1830 and was obliged by law to be a neutral country. Consequently, it could not engage in any adventures in Europe alongside the big powers. Although the Belgian people and government were not particularly enthusiastic, the king, Leopold, was desperate to give the country an Empire. “There are no small nations …. only small minds”, he is quoted as saying.

Creating an “Association Internationale Aticaine”, he had, by 1875, laid claim to a huge territory, eighty times the size of his own country, in the Congo basin. It was the king’s own property, paid for entirely out of his own pocket. By the 1880’s, however, his finances were in difficulty and, by a series of royal ordinances, the colonial tax-collectors were authorised to go into villages and extract quotas of rubber from the villagers as taxation.

The British Consul in the “Congo Independent State”, Roger Casement, produced a famous report in 1903, in which he revealed how Congolese natives were being systematically mutilated (hands, ears, noses cut oft), ‘,whipped and executed for not ‘producing enough wild rubber for their taxes. The scandals grew so great that the Belgian parliament demanded that their king relinquish his private colony and hand it over to the Belgian state (1908). The Congo had become the most notorious of all European colonies in Africa.

There was a risk of conflict between colonial countries in the “Scramble for Africa”. Like our own games of Monopoly, Diplomacy or Risk, some rules had to be written down if the game was to be played in an orderly manner.

All the European powers and the USA met in Berlin in 1885. It was decided that King Leopold of Belgium could have his claim to the huge Congo Basin. It was also decided that new colonies had to be “effectively occupied”. It was not enough simply to put up a flag and say the region was yours. You also had to officially defend and administer the area if you wanted other countries to recognise your claim.

France occupied Tunisia in May 1881 (and Guinea in 1884), which partly convinced Italy to adhere in 1882 to the German-Austrian Dual Alliance, thus forming the Triple Alliance. The same year, Great Britain occupied the nominally Ottoman Egypt, which in turn ruled over the Sudan and parts of Somalia. In 1870 and 1882, Italy took possession of the first parts of Eritrea, while Germany declared Togoland, the Cameroons and South West Africa to be under its protection in 1884. French West Africa (AOF) was founded in 1895, and French Equatorial Africa (AEF) in 1910.

Germany became the third largest colonial power in Africa, acquiring an overall empire of 2.6 million square kilometers and 14 million colonial subjects, mostly in its African possessions (Southwest Africa, Togoland, the Cameroons, and Tanganyika).

Italy continued its conquest to gain its “place in the sun”. Following the defeat of the First Italo–Ethiopian War (1895-96), it acquired Somaliland in 1899-90 and the whole of Eritrea (1899). In 1911, it engaged in a war with the Ottoman Empire, in which it acquired Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (modern Libya).

By 1900, the only areas of Africa remaining independent were Liberia and Ethiopia.


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