The Practice and Legacy of Colonialism
There is a general consensus among African historians that colonialism is morally wrong. It is not difficult to understand this conclusion! Colonialism, after all, is a political system in which an external nation takes complete control of a territory in another area of the world. Moreover, the colonized people do not invite the colonial power, nor do they have any say in how they are governed. Colonialism is, by definition and practice, undemocratic!
In spite of the universal recognition that colonialism is morally reprehensible, there are differing opinions on the social, economic, and political consequences of colonialism. Since colonialism was practiced differently throughout Africa, the consequences of colonial rule will differ from colony to colony. In this section, we will look briefly at some of the general outcomes of colonialism in Africa. These outcomes are addressed in more detail in Module Six: The Geography of Africa, Module Eight: Culture and Society in Africa, Module Nine: African Economies, and Module Ten: African Politics and Government.
Political Practice and Legacy
You learned in the last activity that there were four different forms of colonial rule practiced in Africa: Company, Direct, Indirect, and Settler. The practice of governing was somewhat different depending on the form of colonialism. In spite of these differences, all colonial governments shared certain attributes.
1. Colonial political systems were undemocratic.
No matter what form colonial rule took, all colonial systems were undemocratic. Colonial governments did not allow popular participation. Decisions and policies were made with little or no input from the African peoples. Even in the case where decisions or policies may have benefited some people, they were still undemocratic since there were no mechanisms for the people to officially express their opinions.
2. Law and Order (“Peace”) was a primary objective of colonial governments.
As you learned above, colonial rule was most often imposed without consent from the African people. Understandably, people were not happy with being governed without any representation, and colonial governments faced the potential of civil disobedience or outright resistance to their rule. Consequently, the maintenance of “peace” and law and order was a top priority of colonial governments. As a result, in most African colonies, more money was spent on developing and maintaining a police force and an army than was spent on education, housing, and health-care combined!
3. Colonial governments lacked capacity.
Most colonial governments were not rich. The European colonial powers were not willing to fund the governing of their colonies in Africa fully. Each colony was responsible for raising most of the revenue (money) needed to fund the operations of colonial rule. Module Nine: African Economies details how different colonies attempted to raise revenues. But no matter how rich in resources a colony was, the government lacked the income and revenue necessary to develop a government system able to go beyond maintaining law and order. This meant that colonial governments were not able to provide basic infrastructure, such as roads and communication networks, nor were they able to provide basic social services such as education, health care, and housing.
4. Colonial governments practiced “divide and rule.” Given the lack of capacity and the strong emphasis on law and order, all forms of colonial rule engaged in
“divide and rule,” by implementing policies that intentionally weakened indigenous power networks and institutions. Module Ten: African Politics and Governments explains how post-colonial ethnic conflicts in many parts of Africa have their roots in colonial policy of separating language, religious, and ethnic groups, and how these policies often created or exacerbated group differences.
Economic Practice and Legacy
Two primary factors influenced colonial economic practice. First, from early in the 19th century, Europeans believed that Africa was rich in natural resources, and one of reasons for colonialism was the desire to gain control of Africa’s abundant store of natural resources. Secondly, as indicated above, European colonial powers did not want to spend their own money to establish and maintain their colonies in Africa. Rather, they insisted that each colony (if at all possible) supply the revenues necessary to govern the colony.
As you will learn in Module Nine: African Economies, each individual colonial government in Africa developed economic policies and practices that fit these two agendas. Meeting these two goals of generating wealth for the colonial power in Europe while simultaneously generating revenues for the local colonial rule had a lasting impact on economic practice in Africa.
Just as there was a variety of types of colonial rule, there was also different types of colonial economies (detailed in Module Nine: African Economies) in Africa. However in spite of differences, there were some similarities between all types of colonial economic practice.
1. Emphasis on exploitation of raw materials for export. Colonial regimes concentrated on finding and exploiting the most profitable natural resources in each colony. In mineral-rich colonies, the emphasis was placed on mining. In other territories, the colonial power identified agricultural products suitable for export to Europe. In either case, the emphasis was on developing the resources for export, not for local use or consumption. Profits from the export of mineral and agricultural goods were also sent to Europe. Profits that could have been used to promote social and economic development in the colonies were not available. The small taxes levied on exports went to support colonial rule.
2. High demand for labor.
Mining of minerals and the production of crops for export necessitated a ready supply of inexpensive labor. Consequently, colonial governments exerted considerable effort “recruiting” labor for these endeavors. As is detailed in Module Six: Geography of Africa and Module Nine: African Economies, at times colonial governments resorted to policies of forced labor in order to provide adequate labor for mines and plantations. At other times, their tactics were not as harsh, but in almost all situations, Africans labored in poor working conditions, for long hours, with inadequate pay. To improve the pay and working conditions of the labors would have lessened profits. The demand for labor also resulted in large-scale movements of people from areas that were not involved in colonial production to areas, including new urban areas, where colonial production occurred.
Social Practice and Legacy
In most African colonies, given the lack of revenue, very little was done officially to promote social change or social development. However, the colonial experience had a dramatic impact on African societies. Once again, it is important to remember that the colonial impact on Africa was not uniform across the continent, although some social consequences were experienced in most African colonies.
1. Movement of People.
Colonial economic and political practices resulted in the massive movements of people in most African colonies. In some locales, migrations were primarily from one rural area to another. In other places, the migration was from rural areas to urban areas. In either case, these movements resulted in dislocation of peoples that impacted society and culture. Social and cultural beliefs and practices were challenged by these migrations. Long-held practices had to be adapted (and at times were completed abandoned) to fit the new circumstances. In U.S. history, rural to urban migration in the early 20th century had a similar impact on American society and culture.
2. Dislocation of Families.
Families were often split up by migration. For example, men recruited to work in mines and on plantations often had to leave their families behind. As a result, women and adolescents were forced to take on new roles and to cope in absence of their husbands and fathers. Even when families remained unaffected by migration, they underwent considerable stress and change as the result of the colonial experience. Prior to colonialism, the extended family structure was the norm in most African societies. But by the end of colonial era, the nuclear family was becoming the norm in many African countries. (See discussion in Module Eight: African Societies and Cultures)
A number of precolonial African societies had towns and small cities. However, even in these societies, most people were engaged in agriculture in rural villages or homesteads. During colonialism, urbanization occurred fairly rapidly in many African colonies. Urban living resulted in changes in economic activities and occupation, and changes in the way people lived. These changes often challenged existing values, beliefs, and social practices.
4. Religious changes.
As you will learn in Module Fourteen: Religion in Africa, there was a significant change in religious belief and practice as a result of colonialism. At the beginning of the colonial era, less than five per cent of the people in Africa identified themselves as Christian. Today, nearly fifty percent of the people in Africa identify themselves as Christians. Colonial rule provided an environment in which Christianity, in many forms, spread easily throughout many parts of Africa. While Islam was widespread in Africa prior to the coming of colonialism, it also benefited from colonialism, by spreading even further. British and French colonial officials actively discouraged Christian mission work in Muslim areas. Peace and order established by colonial rule provided an environment in which Islam could consolidate its hold in certain African colonies.
However, in spite of these significant changes, many Africans continued to hold to and practice traditional religions.
Throughout human history, all societies have practiced a form of “public” education. Education is the method by which families and societies transfer beliefs, values, and skills between generations. Throughout human history, education has mainly been informal. That is, values and knowledge were learned in informal settings in the home, church, and through work and play. It has only been in the past 200 years that public education has become more formalized, taking place in schools with an added emphasis on literacy and numeracy -reading, writing, and mathematics.
Koranic Schools were widespread in the Islamic areas of Africa prior to the coming of colonial rule. Koranic schools focused on learning to read the Koran, the holy book of Islam. The Koran was written in Arabic. Consequently, students learned to read Arabic, and not their local language, at the Koranic schools. However, schools that emphasized literacy and numeracy in African languages were not common. Proponents of colonialism claimed that it was necessary to enlighten and civilize African peoples and societies (refer back to the poem The White Man’s Burden). Given this concern, you would think that colonial governments would have made a major effort to introduce schools throughout Africa. The truth is that most colonial governments did little to support schools. Most formal schooling African colonies was a result of the work of missionaries.
Missionaries felt that education and schools were essential to their mission. Their primary concern was the conversion of people to Christianity. Missionaries believed that the ability of African peoples to read the Bible in their own language was important to the conversion process. However, most mission societies were not wealthy, and they could not support the number of schools that they really wanted. Consequently, with limited government support, most African children did not go to school during the colonial era. In fact at the end of colonial rule, no colony could boast that more than half of their children finished elementary school, and far fewer attended secondary school.
However, in spite of lack of support for public education, schooling had a dramatic impact on children who were fortunate enough to attend school. Indeed, most of the leaders of Africa’s independence movements (see next section), leaders of post-independent African governments and economies, were products of one of the few mission or fewer government schools.
Your teacher will provide you with a printed table titled Characteristics of Colonialism. Using information provided in the last two learning activities, fill in appropriate answers in each box of the table.
Click here to view Characteristics of Colonialism table.
Go on to Activity Four or go to one of the other activities in this module
- Activity One: The Atlantic Slave Trade
- Activity Two: Colonial Exploration and Conquest in Africa
- Activity Three: The Practice and Legacy of Colonialism
- Activity Four: Resistance, Nationalism and Independence