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Colonization of Africa

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Ancient Colonization

North Africa in particular experienced colonization from Europe and Asia Minor in the early historical period.

The city of Carthage was established in what is now Tunisia by Phoenician colonists, becoming a major power in the Mediterranean by the 4th century BC. Over time the city changed hands, falling to the Romans after the Third Punic War, where it served as the capital city of the Romans' African province. Gothic Vandals briefly established a kingdom there in the 5th century, which shortly thereafter fell to the Romans again, this time the Byzantines. The Ancient Egyptian civilization also fell under the sway of the Greeks, later passing to the Romans. The whole of Roman/Byzantine North Africa eventually fell to the Arabs in the 7th century, who brought the Islamic religion and Arabic language (see History of Islam).

Early modern period

(Insert post-7th century, pre-1880 information here.)

The Scramble for Africa


Established empires, notably Britain, Portugal and France, had already expropriated vast areas of Africa and Asia, and emerging imperial powers like Italy and Germany had done likewise on a smaller scale. With the dismissal of the aging Chancellor Bismarck by Kaiser Wilhelm II, the relatively orderly colonisation became a frantic scramble. The 1885 Congress of Berlin, initiated by Bismarck to establish international guidelines for the acquisition of African territory, formalized this new phase in the history of Western imperialism. Between the Franco-Prussian War and the Great War, Europe added almost 9 million square miles — one-fifth of the land area of the globe — to its overseas colonial possessions.

Motivations behind the "Scramble for Africa"

J.A. Hobson, a British liberal writing at the time of the fierce debate on imperialism during the Boer War, observed the spectacle of the "Scramble for Africa" and emphasized changes in European social structures and attitudes as well as capital flow. His so-called accumulation theory suggested that that capitalism suffered from under-consumption due the rise of monopoly capitalism and the resultant concentration of wealth in fewer hands, which apparently gave rise to a misdistribution of purchasing power. Logically, this argument is sound, given the huge impoverished industrial working class then often far too poor to consume the goods produced by an industrialised economy.

J.A. Hobson and later Lenin linked the problem of shrinking continental markets driving European capital overseas to an inequitable distribution of wealth in industrial Europe. Lenin and that "bourgeois economist" to his liking contended that the wages of workers did not represent enough purchasing power to absorb the vast amount of capital accumulated during the Second Industrial Revolution, which prompted finance to lobby for imperial expansionism.

Since the "Scramble for Africa" was the predominant feature of New Imperialism and formal empire, opponents of Hobson[?]'s accumulation theory often point to frequent cases when military and bureaucratic costs of occupation exceeded financial returns. In Africa (exclusive of South Africa) the amount of capital investment by Europeans was relatively small before and after the 1885 Congress of Berlin, and the companies involved in tropical African commerce were small and politically insignificant, exerting only a tiny influence on domestic politics.

First, this observation might detract from the pro-imperialist arguments of Leopold II, Francesco Crispi[?], and Jules Ferry, but Hobson argued against imperialism from a slightly different standpoint. Hobon concluded that finance was manipulating events to its own profit, but often against broader national interests. Second, any such statistics only obscure the fact that African formal control of tropical Africa had strategic implications in an era of feasible inter-capitalist competition, particularly for Britain, which was under intense economic and thus political pressure to secure lucrative markets such as India, China, and Latin America. In Britain's case this process of capitalist diffusion had in many regions led it to acquire colonies in the interests of commercial security; France and Germany would later follow suit. For example, although the then inconspicuously moribund Czarist Empire proved to be little treat to Great Britain following its stunning defeat in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, British Conservatives in particular feared that Russia would continue to usurp Ottoman Empire territory and acquire a port on the Mediterranean or even Constantinople — a long touted goal of Eastern Orthodoxy. These fears became especially pronounced following the 1869 completion of the nearby Suez Canal, prompting the official rationale behind Benjamin Disraeli's purchase of the waterway. The close proximity of the Czar's (territorially) expanding empire in Central Asia to India also terrified Lord Curzon, thus triggering the Afghan Wars. Cecil Rhodes and Alfred Milner[?] also advocated the prospect of a "Cape to Cairo" empire, which would link by rail the extrinsically important canal to the intrinsically mineral and diamond rich South, from a strategic standpoint. Though hampered by German conquest of Tanganyika until the end of WW1, Rhodes successfully lobbied on behalf of such a sprawling East African empire.

Formal colonies were often, in hindsight, strategic outposts to protect large zones of 'investment', such as India, Latin America, and China. Britain, in as sense, continued to adhere to the Cobdenite notion that informal colonialism was preferable — the established consensus among industrial capitalists during the age of Pax Britannica between the downfall of Napoleon and the Franco-Prussian War. What changed since the Disraeli's Crystal Palace Speech was not necessarily a preference for colonialism over informal empire, but the attitude toward formal rule in largely tropical areas once considered too 'backward' for trade. Sovereign areas already hospitable to informal empire largely avoided formal rule during the shift to New Imperialism. China, for instance, was not a backward country unable to secure the prerequisite stability and security for western-style commerce, but a highly advanced empire unwilling to admit western commerce, which entailed large exports of opium from British India, which may explain the West's satisfaction with informal "Spheres of Influences". China, unlike tropical Africa, was a securable market without formal control. Following the First Opium War, British commerce, and later capital invested by other newly industrializing powers, was securable with a smaller degree of formal control than in Southeast Asia, West Africa, and the Pacific. But in many respects, China was a colony and a large-scale receptacle of Western capital investments. Western powers did intervene military there to quell domestic chaos, such as the horrific Taiping Rebellion and the anti-imperialist Boxer Rebellion. For example, General Gordon, later the imperialist 'martyr' in the Sudan, is often accredited as having saved the Manchu Dynasty from the Taiping insurrection.

Formal empire in Sub-Saharan Africa, the last vast region of the world largely untouched by "informal imperialism" and "civilization", was also attractive to Europe's ruling elites for other potential reasons. First, insofar as the "Dark Continent" was agricultural or extractive, and no longer 'stagnant' since its integration with the world's interdependent capitalist economy, it required more capital for development that it could provide itself. Second, during a time when in nearly every year since the 1813 liberalization of trade onward Britain's balance of trade showed a deficit, and a time of shrinking and increasingly protectionist continental markets, Africa offered Britain an open market that would garner it a trade surplus — a market that bought more from the metropole than it sold overall. Britain, like most other industrial countries, had long since begun to run an unfavorable balance of trade (which was increasingly offset, however, by the income from overseas investments). As perhaps the world's first post-industrial nation, financial services[?] became an increasingly more important sector of its economy. Invisible financial exports, as mentioned, kept Britain out of the red, especially capital investments outside Europe, particularly to the developing and open markets in Africa, predominately white 'settler colonies', the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific.

Changes in African Society

Capitalism, an economic system in which capital, or wealth, is put to work to produce more capital, revolutionized traditional economies, inducing social changes and political consequences that revolutionized African and Asian societies. Maximizing production and minimizing cost did not necessarily coincide with traditional, seasonal patterns of agricultural production. The ethic wage productivity was thus, in many respects, a new concept to supposedly 'idle' natives merely accustomed to older patterns of production. Balanced, subsistence-based economies shifted to specialization and accumulation of surpluses. Tribal states or empires organized along precarious, unwritten cultural traditions also shifted to a division of labor based on legal protection of land and labor—once inalienable, but now commodities to be bought, sold, or traded.

The Congo Free State

Exploitation of the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina, German Southwest Africa[?], Rhodesia, and South Africa paled in comparison to that of the Congo Free State and its barely less brutal successor, the Belgian Congo. The fortunes of King Leopold II[?], the famed philanthropist, abolitionist, and self-anointed sovereign of the Congo Free State — 76 times larger geographically than Belgium itself — and those of multinational concessionary companies under his auspices, were mainly made on the proceeds of the brutal extraction of Congolese rubber. Between 1880 and 1920 the population of Congo was halved; over 10 million Congolese died.

Extermination of the Herero

In 1985, the United Nation's Whitaker Report recognized the German attempt to exterminate the Herero and Nama peoples of Southwest Africa as one of the earliest attempts at genocide in the twentieth century. In total, some 65,000 Herero (80 percent of the total Herero population), and 10,000 Nama (50 percent of the total Nama population) were killed. Characteristic of this genocide was death by starvation and the poisoning of wells for the Herero and Nama population that was trapped in the Namib desert.

Many historians have stressed the the historic importance of these autrocities, tracing the evolution from Kaiser Wilhelm II to Hitler, from Southwest Africa to Auschwitz.

Partition of Africa

Here is a list of the partition of Africa from the years 1885 to 1914; it shows the colonies as they were known then and who ruled them:


The British were primarily interested in maintaining secure communication lines to India, which led to initial interest in Egypt and South Africa. Once these two areas were secure, it was the intent of British colonialists such as Cecil Rhodes to establish a Cape to Cairo railway.

Anglo-Egyptian Sudan
British East Africa
British Somaliland
Southern Rhodesia
Northern Rhodesia
Orange Free State
British South Africa
The Gambia
Sierra Leone
British Gold Coast


Côte d'Ivoire (French West Africa)
French Equitorial Africa
French Somaliland
French Sudan


German Kamerun
German East Africa
German South-West Africa
German Togoland


Portuguese West Africa
Portuguese East Africa
Portuguese Cabinda
Portuguese Guinea


Italian North Africa
Italian Somaliland


Belgian Congo


Spanish Sahara
Rio De Oro
Rio Muni

Independent Nations

Abyssinia (Ethiopia}

See also:

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