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TWO CENTURIES OF REVOLUTIONARY CHANGE
The 'Scramble for Africa'
At the end of the 18th century colonialism seemed to have become a thing of the past. Britain had lost its Thirteen Colonies in America, Spain and Portugal had lost most of South America and Holland was having difficulties holding onto the East Indies.
A hundred years later, however, a second wave of colonisation took place. Within twenty years, from 1880 to 1900, every corner of the Earth, from the highest mountains in the Himalayas to the most remote Pacific island and Antarctica, came to be claimed by one or other European power. Africa saw the most dramatic colonisation. It was divided up as if it had been a cake split between greedy European leaders. This was called the "Scramble for Africa".
Historians still debate the reasons for this "New Imperialism" and find it difficult to agree on any single cause.
An American cartoon depicting Britain taking African territory (circa. 1900)
It seems that the "Scramble for Africa" began for strategic reasons. After the Congress of Vienna Britain acquired the Cape Colony in South Africa. It was an important port on the sea route to India.
In 1867, the Suez Canal was built across Egyptian territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Steamships could now go to and from India without passing round the southern tip of Africa (the Cape). The Egyptian government became hopelessly unstable, however, and, reluctantly, in 1882, Britain took over the administration of the country. This began the "Scramble for Africa".
Little by little the rest of East Africa was occupied by the British, again principally to safeguard the Indian Ocean sea-routes. At the same time, British colonists in South Africa were interested in extending their possessions northwards, particularly since gold and diamonds had been found in the interior of the region. One colonial leader, Cecil Rhodes, dreamt of building a railway right across Africa, from Cairo in the north to the Cape in the south.
The Rhodes Colossus: Punch caricature of Cecil John Rhodes
Any obstacles, such as the tough Boer settlers who did not like British rule, would have to be brushed out of the way. The Boers were descendants of Dutch colonists who had arrived in the Cape long before the British. It took the British two difficult wars, in 1895 and 1899-1902, to defeat the Boers.
An important factor in the "Scramble for Africa" was the sense of "grabbing" territory, even if it was impenetrable jungle or waterless desert, simply to prevent a neighbour in Europe from putting up his flag on the same land. It was King Leopold of Belgium, and his claim to the huge Congo Basin, who contributed most to this sense of urgency. He was prepared to pay from his own pocket for a colony bigger than his own country. Caught in the frenzy, Portugal felt obliged to extend its old claims, going back to the 16th century, to enormous parts of Angola and Mozambique.
King Leopold and the Belgian Congo
The Congo provides the most curious and the most bloody example of European colonisation in Africa.
Leopold II of Belgium
Belgium had only become independent in 1830 and was obliged by law to be a neutral country. Consequently, it could not engage in any adventures in Europe alongside the big powers. Although the Belgian people and government were not particularly enthusiastic, the king, Leopold, was desperate to give the country an Empire. "There are no small nations .... only small minds", he is quoted as saying.
Creating an "Association Internationale Aticaine", he had, by 1875, laid claim to a huge territory, eighty times the size of his own country, in the Congo basin. It was the king's own property, paid for entirely out of his own pocket. By the 1880's, however, his finances were in difficulty and, by a series of royal ordinances, the colonial tax-collectors were authorised to go into villages and extract quotas of rubber from the villagers as taxation.
The British Consul in the "Congo Independent State", Roger Casement, produced a famous report in 1903, in which he revealed how Congolese natives were being systematically mutilated (hands, ears, noses cut oft), ',whipped and executed for not 'producing enough wild rubber for their (taxes. The scandals grew so great that ithe Belgian parliament demanded that their king relinquish his private colony and hand it over to the Belgian state (1908). The Congo had become the most notorious of all European colonies in Africa.