Module Seven (B), Activity Two

Colonial Exploration and Conquest in Africa

This activity discusses colonialism in Africa. Colonialism has also been addressed in Module Six: Africa and Its Geography, Module Nine: Economics of Africa, Module Ten: African Politics and Government, and Module Fifteen: Africa and the World.

What does colonialism mean? Take a couple of minutes to write a few sentences describing what you know already about colonialism. Also write down a few questions addressing what you do not understand or would like to learn about colonialism. Some of these questions may be answered in this activity. Some of them may not be. Where could you look to try to find answers to these questions? When you are finished, your teacher may ask you to share some of the things you wrote down in a class discussion.

Student Writing Assignment:

  • What does colonialism mean?
  • What are some questions you have about colonialism?
  • Where could you look to find answers to these questions?

Colonialism is generally defined as the occupation and control of one nation by another. Do you know of any countries around the world, either in or outside of Africa, which have been colonized at some point in their history? Over the last few hundred years, various European nations have colonized many areas of the world. These European colonies were in North and South America, Africa, Asia, Australia, and various smaller islands around the world. European nations colonized Africa from the late 19th century until the middle to later 20th century. Although Europeans had had contact with many parts of Africa much longer than this (for example, through the Atlantic Slave Trade), they did not impose a formal rule of law over Africa until this time period.

Look at the map below that lists colonial languages that are spoken in the various nations of Africa. By looking at the languages listed, which European countries do you expect were involved in colonizing Africa?

Colonial Languages Map

Colonial Conquest in Africa

The 19th century in Europe was a time of industrialization. Factories in Europe required raw materials to be manufactured into marketable products. As a result, Europeans sought both a source of raw materials, as well as, a market for manufactured goods in Africa. This economic motivation played a large role in the colonization of Africa. In Module Nine: African Economies, you will learn more about the economic reasons for colonialism and the economic practices introduced by colonial governments.

Politics in Europe also led to the colonization of Africa. Module Ten: African Politics will show how nationalism in Europe resulted in the formation of the nation-states in Europe that we are familiar with today. (Nationalism -a strong identification with and pride in one's nation-resulted in competition between European nations.) This competition often resulted in wars between nations. Competition over colonial expansion in Africa was another way that national competition between European nations was demonstrated in the late 19th century. One of the causes of the Scramble for Africa, (1885-1910) which resulted in the colonization of all of Africa in just twenty-five years, was the competition between European nations. No major nation wanted to be without colonies. The competition was particularly strong between Britain, France, and Germany, the strongest European nation-states in the late 19th century.

In addition, ideologies of racial hierarchy were prevalent in Europe in the 19th century. Many Europeans viewed themselves as the most advanced civilization in the world, and some saw it as their mission to "enlighten" and "civilize" people in the rest of the world. This feeling of racial superiority and "responsibility" was captured in a poem written in 1899, The White Man's Burden by the British poet Rudyard Kipling (click on the title to read it). Many inaccurate and racialized stereotypes of African peoples, which existed at the time, were used to justify colonialism in Africa.

The colonization of Africa coincided with the expansion of Christian missionary activity in Africa. You will remember from the last module that parts of Africa, such as Ethiopia and Egypt, were home to Christians right from the beginning of Christianity as a region. However, Christianity was introduced to the rest of Africa only in the modern era. Christian missionary activity began in earnest in the 19th century during the same period of time that European countries were becoming more engaged in Africa. Historians do not all agree on what the relationship was between Christian missionary activity and colonialism. However, evidence suggests that while many missionaries opposed the harsher aspects of colonialism, they were supportive of the colonization of African countries. Missionaries who supported colonialism believed that European control would provide a political environment that would facilitate missionary activity in Africa. This support for colonialism played an important role in legitimizing the colonial endeavor among the citizens of the colonizing powers in Europe.

European nations were able to make certain areas of Africa into their colonies in two main ways. Some African leaders were willing to sign treaties with Europeans for various reasons. In some cases, they saw it to their benefit to gain European allies. In other cases, there was not a clear understanding of what the treaties were about or what the consequences of them would be. Secondly, military force was used in some cases when there was a large amount of resistance to colonial rule.

The Treaty of Berlin and the "Scramble for Africa"

All of this treaty making and territory claiming by European nations caused a competitive rush for territory in Africa. This period is sometimes referred to as the "Scramble for Africa." As a result, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Germany initiated a conference in 1884 for European nations to regulate the rush for territory. The conference served several main purposes. First, European nations were interested in being assured access to various important trade routes, particularly along the Niger and Congo river basins. Secondly, there was a concern to suppress the internal slave trade that was still going on in some parts of Africa. Thirdly, a ban was put on importing firearms into Africa, which resulted in Europeans having a monopoly on guns in Africa. And finally, occupation of territories in Africa was discussed. The result of this conference was a treaty called the Treaty of Berlin. By 1900, almost 90% of Africa was under European control.

Colonialism Brings New Borders for Africa

The map below indicates the African territories that had been colonized by European nations by 1914. It is important to notice how borders have shifted as a result of colonialism. The borders of African countries today were imposed from the outside by European nations. Often the people who drew these borders paid no attention to ethno-linguistic groups or existing political organization at the time of colonization. Sometimes they grouped together people who had never been united under the same government before. Sometimes they divided existing systems of government at the time of colonial conquest. Also, note that the borders of African colonies in 1914 were still different than what they would become in the latter part of the 20th century. The map below compares today's borders (drawn in white) with the borders that had been made in 1914 (shown in color.) Having looked at the map for 1914, now look at the map below that shows how borders shifted again by 1945. Note that these borders are virtually the same that they are today for independent African nations.

Colonialism 1914 Map                              Colonialism 1945 Map

Take a moment to think about why people draw borders. If you had been involved in making the decision of where to draw colonial borders in Africa, what factors would you consider? What would your interests be as a European nation? How would these interests conflict with people in Africa and other Europeans? And what problems might come about as a result?

Student Writing Assignment:

  • What factors would you consider if you were a European drawing colonial borders in Africa?
  • What would your interests be as a European?
  • How would these interests conflict with Africans and other Europeans?
  • What problems might come about as a result?

Types of Colonial Rule

Once claims were made and borders were drawn for territories in Africa, European nations had to come up with a plan for how to govern their newly acquired colonies. There are four main ways in which European nations ruled African colonies. Keep in mind that each of these four divisions is a broad category that historians use to talk about types of colonial rule. Within each category, details of individual and local situations varied from place to place.

1. Economic Companies

In the early days of colonialism, European nations allowed the establishment of private companies that were granted large territories to administrate in Africa. These companies were formed by businessmen who were interested in exploiting the natural resources of the territories they were allowed to govern. These companies could set up their own systems of taxation and labor recruitment. For their part, the European powers who provided charters for these companies did so because the companies took responsibility for all of the expenses related to establishing and administering the colonies. This was a good deal for the European countries. They had the political benefit of having additional colonies in Africa, but not the expense!

The British East Africa Company, established in 1888, colonized Kenya on behalf of Britain. It made treaties that claimed to offer protection to various peoples of East Africa in exchange for recognition of the company's sovereignty by African rulers. It governed Kenya until 1893.

The British South Africa Company, another example of company rule, was formed in 1887. It lasted longer than the British East African Company. The B.S.A.C., under the control of John Cecil Rhodes, using force and coercion colonized three territories in south-central Africa: Nyasaland (Malawi), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). The Company governed these colonies until 1923.

These companies were eventually unsuccessful in that they were unable to generate consistent profits for their shareholders. Governing a colony was expensive, and the companies faced opposition from Africans and missionaries over the harsh nature of company rule. By 1924, all Company rule was replaced by various forms of European colonial governance.

2. Direct Rule

One such form of colonial administration is called direct rule. The French, Belgians, Germans, and Portuguese are considered to have used this model in governing their African colonies. They had centralized administrations, usually in urban centers, that stressed policies of assimilation. This means that the colonialists had the intention of "civilizing" African societies so they would be more like Europe. As part of this strategy, colonialists did not try to negotiate governance with indigenous African rulers and governments. Indigenous authorities had a subordinate place in these administrations. Direct rule also used the strategy of "divide and rule" by implementing policies that intentionally weakened indigenous power networks and institutions. Module Ten: African Politics and Government will address direct rule in more detail.

3. Indirect Rule

Primarily, the British used indirect rule to govern their colonies. This system of governance used indigenous African rulers within the colonial administration, although they often maintained an inferior role. Overall, it was a more cooperative model than direct rule. Lord Lugard, a British colonial administrator, used this system of government first in Nigeria and later brought it to British East Africa. This system of government assumed that all Africans were organized as "tribes" with chiefs. However, this was not always the case. You will remember from Module 7(A) that people in Africa had diverse types of government ranging from highly centralized states to "stateless societies." As a result, indirect rule increased divisions between ethnic groups and gave power to certain "big men" who had never had it before in precolonial history. Consequences of these significant changes in social organization and identity are still being felt today. These issues will be discussed in more detail in Module Ten: African Politics and Government.

4. Settler Rule

Settler rule refers to the type of colonialism in southern Africa in which European settlers imposed direct rule on their colonies. Settler colonies differed from other colonies in Africa in that a significant number of immigrants from Europe settled in these colonies. These immigrants or settlers were not like missionaries or European colonial officials. Just like early European immigrants to the United States and Canada, settlers in Africa planned to make the colonies their permanent home. As you will learn in Module Nine: African Economies and Module Ten: African Politics and Government, in order to thrive in the colonies, settlers demanded special political and economic rights and protection. Security and prosperity for the settlers depended on economic exploitation and political oppression of the African population that vastly outnumbered the settlers. Consequently, settler rule was characterized by its harsh policies toward the indigenous African population.

Settler colonies were found primarily in southern Africa including the colonies of South Africa, Southern and Northern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe and Zambia), Angola, Mozambique, and South West Africa (Namibia). Settlers from Holland, Britain, Germany, and Portugal colonized these areas. In addition, settler rule was practiced in Kenya, a British colony in East Africa, and in Algeria, a French colony in North Africa.

Map Assignment

Using information from this lesson and from the map Colonialism (1945), complete the following map assignment. Your teacher will provide you with a blank political map of Africa. On the blank map, please fill in the following information:

  1. Fill in the name of each colony in the appropriate place. You can simply copy this information from the map Colonialism (1945).
  2. In each colony, write in the type of colonial rule experienced in that country: Direct, Indirect, Settler. You should not use the category Company Rule since by 1945 there were no Company ruled colonies remaining in Africa.

Student Writing Assignment:

Now it is time for you to write again. Think about what you have learned about colonialism in this activity, as well as other Modules in Exploring Africa. Write an essay about one page long that discusses the changes that happened in Africa through European colonial rule. Highlight how those changes have affected what Africa is like today. For example, you could discuss government, language, economics, or any number of other things. But be as specific as you can! When you are finished, turn in your writing assignment to be corrected by your teacher.

Go on to Activity Three or go to one of the other activities in this module