(Lecture Notes)

Prior to 1870

  • Until the 19th Century, African exchanges with other parts of the world served chiefly to obtain luxury commodities for commercial and political elites.

  • The early contacts with Europeans resulted in the diffusion of a wide spectrum of social and cultural influences--everything from food crops, musical instruments, and religious practices to disease.

  • Commercial and cultural influences along the periphery of the continent from the 15th Century on resulted in cumulative and far-reaching disruptions for African societies. These intensified in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

  • From the end of the 18th Century, the production of agricultural and forest crops for export contributed to the social and cultural changes. By imposing a largely extractive economy, colonial rule accelerated the changes.

Trade and Commerce.

  • Long before the Europeans, West African societies were linked by extensive trading patterns across the Sahara to the north and east.

  • In East Africa, the Swahili societies extended trade along the coast from Somalia to Mozambique. They also established links with inland societies such as Great Zimbabwe and Mwene Matapa.

  • The Portuguese were the first Europeans to establish regular contacts. They began trading along the coast and raiding coastal communities in the early 15th Century. They soon stopped raiding and began accomodating themselves to the landlord-stranger practices of the Africans. The Portugese moved inland along the Zambezi River to trade with the Shona and Mutapa peoples of what is now Zimbabwe.

The Slave Trade. By all accounts, this was extraordinarily divisive, destructive, devastating.

  • There had been slave trade within Africa since the 600s.

      People attribute internal slaving to the freedom traders had to move within the continent, to the collusion of political elites (selling slaves for their own gain), and to economic distress --drought and famine.

  • Over time, millions and millions of Africans were transported as slaves.

      As many as 7.5 million across the Sahara, the northern route.

      10 million in the trans-Atlantic trade.

      And perhaps 5 million to the east across the Indian Ocean.

      The demands of the plantation owners in the Americas (the "pull") and the human misery and social dislocation in west Africa (the "push") helped drive the trade, particularly in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

  • It is estimated that 80% of the slaves were transported between 1701 and 1850.

  • By the 19th Century, virtually no area of the continent was free from slaving.

  • Some societies disintegrated. Most were at the least severely destabilized. Some scholars propose that disease was even more destructive.

The 19th Century

  • The slave trade was suppressed and "legitimate" commerce was expanded.

      With the growing scientific interest in Africa, a number of European explorers travelled to Africa to "discover" it. European began ethnographic studies.

      Christian missionaries began spreading through Africa. They were most succesful where there was no competition from Muslims, where social structures were breaking down, and where they could organize and discipline the Africans. (The effects . . .)

      The African sense of hospitality enabled scientists, missionaries and traders to move relatively freely into the interior.

  • After mid-century, European commerce with sub-Saharan Africa changed. Prices declined, and African middlemen were squeezed out. They began looking to education as a way of finding a place in the new structure.

  • The "scramble for Africa" simply completed and fixed a long process of influence, change, and disruption.

The Partition of Africa--the Berlin Conference of 1884-85.

  • Until the last two decades of the 19th Century, most of Africa remained under African control

  • Within two decades after the conference, virtually all of the continent was under European control. Only Ethiopia and Liberia retained sovereignty.

  • The period of so-called High Imperialism--the most autocratic phase of colonial rule--lasted roughly from 1885-1945. During that time, Africans had few political and civil rights. Actual independence did not begin until 1957 with the 'freeing' of Ghana from British sovreignty.

  • The causes of the partition were mainly political and economic. That is, national rivalries, power politics, and a quest for national glory were behind the political motives. The desire to acquire and control new markets and to obtain raw materials were also strong motives.

  • The terms of the Conference often forced governments or their private agents to pursue a military conquest. The Berlin treaty required the European nations to "effectively occupy" before they claimed sovereignty.

  • Armed African resistance was often fierce--e.g:

      The Shona-Ndebele uprising in 1895-96 lasted almost a year.

      In 1906, the Zulus of Natal fought against colonial subjugation--not to speak of their earlier resistance to Boer advances in South Africa.

  • Africans sought other means of resistance, as well--through labor unions and strikes, boycotts, etc.


  • A racially based (or racist) system of political, economic, and cultural domination forcibly imposed by a technologically superior foreign minority on an indigenous majority.

      It relied on "scientific" assumptions about White superiority.

      It assumed that the nation state and an industrial capital economy were the most advanced forms of human organization.

      It assumed an innate moral inferiority on the part of Africans.

      It depended on economic exploitation and political oppression.

  • There were several different kinds of colonial organization:

      White settler colonies (Kenya and Southern Rhodesia [Zimbabwe]).

      Indirect rule colonies (Nigeria and Botswana).

      Direct rule colonies (Senegal).

      The direct and indirect rule systems relied heavily on traditional African rulers.

      The White settler colonies, especially, established new traditions--like the gentleman farmer identity for lower class immigrants--to promote self-esteem and respect. They established an elite caste system.

        White settler politics were organized to perpetuate their political and economic supremacy.

        In these colonies, there was a virtual master-slave relationship between Whites and Blacks.

        The Whites expropriated vast areas of the best farm land.

      The colonies, whatever the form of governance, were essentially extensions of the metropolitan state.

      They were not organized to develop (even over time) independent African nation-states.

  • The degree of colonization differed from place to place. Some Africans were affected lightly. The colonizers were limited to small numbers of administrators, traders, and missionaries. In Northern Nigeria, there was one white administrator for every 100,000 Africans.

  • Only 5% of the Africans were educated in missionary schools. They received a western style education, not in order to become leaders of their own countries, but to assume subordinate positions in the colonial system.

  • The Europeans established an export economy that extracted raw materials and returned manufactured goods.

      Trade was oriented toward the metropole. The economic advantages accrued mainly to Europeans.

      This economy developed at the expense of indigenous populations. Their land was expropriated. They were often forced into wage labor. African farmers could not compete with the large commercial White farms.

      It created a dependency which in most countries still persists. Thus, the term "neo-colonialism."

  • The legacy of colonialism continues to contribute significantly to the instability and fragility of the African states might be summarized


George E. Brooks, "African 'Landlords' and European 'Strangers': African-European Relations until 1870."*
Sheldon Gellar, "The Colonial Era."*
Edmund J. Keller, "Decolonization, Independence, and Beyond."*
Roland Oliver, The African Experience.
Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa.

* In Martin and O'Meara, editors, Africa.