Scramble for Africa

The Partitioning of a Continent

In the shadow of the Age of Imperialism, a dramatic saga unfolded that would forever alter the destiny of a continent. Dubbed the “Scramble for Africa,” this frenetic period was characterized by the voracious appetite of European powers to carve up an ancient land. Between 1870 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, this intense competition saw nearly the entire African continent fall under the dominion of major European powers.

Before European interference, Africa was a tapestry of vibrant societies, kingdoms, and empires, such as the Mali and Songhai Empires in West Africa and the Swahili Coast’s city-states in East Africa. These civilizations flourished with sophisticated cultural, political, and economic systems long before European explorers set foot on the continent. The initial European contact, facilitated by the trans-Saharan and trans-Atlantic trade routes, gradually began weaving Africa into the broader narrative of Europe’s expanding global influence, albeit with limited territorial impact. 

This push into the African interior was initially hampered by significant obstacles such as navigational challenges and the prevalence of diseases like malaria, which confined European activities mainly to the coastal regions where they engaged in the slave trade. However, by the 1870s, despite being predominantly under African control, the continent was on the cusp of significant change. Missionaries, explorers, and traders revealed Africa’s vast raw material wealth, compelling European nations like Great Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Belgium, and Italy to aggressively extend their territorial claims.

Map of Africa’s diverse kingdoms and empires before European colonization

Map of Africa’s diverse kingdoms and empires before European colonization

The advent of the Industrial Revolution intensified the European demand for raw materials and new markets, fueling a fervent rush to tap into Africa’s abundant resources. Driven by a potent mix of nationalism and inter-state rivalries, where empire expansion became a symbol of national prestige, Europe’s colonization efforts surged. Innovations such as steamboats, advanced weaponry, and medical breakthroughs like quinine for malaria treatment, significantly tilted the balance, enabling Europeans to establish dominance over vast African territories with unprecedented ease.

Europeans referred to Africa as the “Dark Continent” due to their limited knowledge about it. This label evolved into the more pejorative “Darkest Africa,” implying that its inhabitants were barbaric. Post-Industrial Revolution, Europeans equated civilization with industrialization and technological advancement, criteria that African societies didn’t meet in their eyes, thus deeming them uncivilized. Such perceptions allowed European colonizers to disregard the continent’s diverse tribes and kingdoms.

Short-statured African pygmies and a European explorer (some pygmies would be exposed in human zoos)

The Berlin Conference of 1884-85, convened by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, marked a pivotal moment in the Scramble for Africa. Thirteen European countries and the United States gathered to officially partition Africa, aiming to avert conflicts among European powers. Significantly, African leaders were not invited to the conference, reflecting the European view of Africa as a land to be dominated and owned. This led to the division of Africa into regions with arbitrary boundaries, often cutting across tribal and cultural lines, treating the continent as a commodity.

Otto von Bismarck at the Berlin Conference, 1884

Otto von Bismarck at the Berlin Conference, 1884

Numerous African communities valiantly resisted in an effort to maintain sovereignty over their territories but were ultimately overpowered by European military might. A notable exception occurred in Northern Africa, where Ethiopia successfully repelled an Italian invasion in 1896. Although Italy managed a temporary occupation later, it was short-lived. By 1914, Liberia and Ethiopia stood as the sole African nations retaining their independence amidst widespread European colonization.

1913 Colonial Africa Map showing Belgian (orange), British (pink), French (purple), German (blue), Italian (lime green), Portuguese (dark green), and Spanish (yellow) empires

1913 Colonial Africa Map showing Belgian (orange), British (pink), French (purple), German (blue), Italian (lime green), Portuguese (dark green), and Spanish (yellow) empires

European colonial strategies in Africa ranged from direct to indirect rule, each with distinct consequences for the colonies. France notably practiced direct rule, integrating its colonies as part of France itself and promoting French culture, language, and laws through a process known as cultural assimilation.

Conversely, the British favored indirect rule, leveraging existing local hierarchies to enforce British policies. This method minimized the need for a large British administrative presence but tended to amplify existing social inequalities.

The modern civilization of Europeː France in Morocco & England in Egypt by A.H. Zaki, 1908-14

The modern civilization of Europeː France in Morocco & England in Egypt by A.H. Zaki, 1908-14

The economic policies introduced by colonizers were predominantly extractive and aimed at channeling African resources towards European markets. This led to the exploitation of agricultural and mineral wealth, often forcing Africans into growing cash crops at the expense of essential food crops, which caused economic disarray and frequent famines.

Forced labor was a common and brutal feature of colonial rule, most infamously in the Congo Free State under Belgium’s King Leopold II. Here, the local populace was subjected to extreme violence to extract rubber, resulting in horrific abuses and the loss of millions of lives.

Congolese laborers tapping rubber

Congolese laborers tapping rubber

As the world emerged from the ashes of World War II, the landscape of international power underwent significant changes. The devastating impact of the war severely weakened European powers both economically and politically, eroding their ability to maintain their colonial empires. In this new world order, the United States and the Soviet Union ascended as superpowers, each championing the cause of Africa’s decolonization, albeit for their own strategic reasons. 

The United States portrayed its support as an extension of its anti-colonial legacy and a commitment to the principles of self-determination. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, encouraged independence movements to propagate socialism and undermine Western influence.

Decolonization across Africa was inconsistent; some countries transitioned to independence peacefully, while others endured prolonged and brutal conflicts.

European influence profoundly transformed the African continent, stripping away autonomy, introducing new diseases, igniting conflicts, and disrupting indigenous lifestyles. Though European control eventually waned, it left a legacy of challenges. Africans have since been endeavoring to rebuild their economies and establish stable governance, working towards a future that acknowledges and incorporates their rich histories and diverse cultures.

Words of wisdom

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” —Nelson Mandela

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” —Albert Einstein

“The sky is the ultimate art gallery just above us.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.” —Albert Camus


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