COLONIALISM IN AFRICA
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
The Slave Trade.
By all accounts, this was extraordinarily divisive, destructive,
There had been slave trade within Africa since the
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
10 million in the trans-Atlantic trade.
And perhaps 5 million to the east across the
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
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
It assumed an innate moral inferiority on the part
It depended on economic exploitation and political
There were several different kinds of colonial
White settler colonies (Kenya and Southern
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
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
Roland Oliver, The African Experience.
Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa.
* In Martin and O'Meara, editors, Africa.