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Africa 1914



In West Africa trade was the main interest. Originally, trading stations had been set up on the West African coast to deal in slaves to be transported to the Americas. By the late 19th century, trade in palm oil and timber was interesting Europeans. French colonists were particularly active in West Africa. After defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, some French politicians, led by Jules Ferry, sought commercial gain and prestige by expanding eastwards into the African interior from Senegal and southwards from Algeria and Tunisia.

Jules Ferry

Jules Ferry

At the same time, Ferry was interested in Indo-China and Madagascar. He claimed that these new colonies were in France's commercial interests, but perhaps the need to compensate the loss of Alsace-Lorraine with a large empire was a more important consideration.



Germany arrived very late in the "Scramble". After unification of his country in 1871, Bismark, the Chancellor, was against colonising distant parts of the world. In 1881, under pressure from businessmen and nationalists, he was forced to change policy, but it was almost too late. There was hardly anything left. Look at the map above to see what colonies Germany finally had.

Otto von Bismark

Otto von Bismark




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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)

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 by Edward Linley Sambourne

The Rhodes Colossus: Punch caricature of Cecil John Rhodes
by Edward Linley Sambourne

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 extract from a speech entitled 'The True Imperialism' made by Lord Curzon at Birmingham Town Hall in 1907

"Wherever the Empire has extended its borders ... there misery and oppression, anarchy and destitution, superstition and bigotry, have tended to disappear, and have been replaced by peace, justice, prosperity, humanity, and freedom of thought, speech, and action......

But there also has sprung, what I believe to be unique in the history of Empires, a passion of loyalty and enthusiasm which makes the heart of the remotest British citizen thrill at the thought of the destiny which he shares, and causes him to revere a particular piece of coloured bunting as the symbol of all that is noblest in his own nature and of best import for the good of the world"



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.

A Punch cartoon showing King Leopold of Belgium

King Leopold II of Belgium as a snake entangling a congolese rubber collector

A Punch cartoon showing King Leopold of Belgium looking at the spoils of his African campaign

A Punch cartoon showing King Leopold II of Belgium as a snake entangling a congolese rubber collector

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

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.








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