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The European Colonization of Africa: The Scramble for Africa

Jacob Houston

The European Colonization of Africa, known by most as ‘The Scramble for Africa’ or the ‘Partition of Africa’, was a colonial spree occurring from 1870 to 1914. The majority of Africa during these years was put under control by the European colonial powers of the day, including Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Portugal, and Spain.

Africa, specifically Sub-Saharan Africa, had been a place of interest for Europeans ever since the Portuguese expedition off the coast of West Africa in 1418. The first confrontations between the African kingdoms and Portugal were hostile, but by 1487, however, the Portuguese had set up trading posts all across the West African coastline, all the way down to the roundabout at the Cape of Good Hope in modern day South Africa.

The objective of these expeditions was to create a roundabout passage around Africa to get to Asia, bypassing the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, so the Europeans could get to the lucrative markets in South and Eastern Asia. However, the Portuguese found that Africa had an extremely lucrative trading relationship with the Asian continent, and was full of raw goods and materials, all of which the Portuguese wished to exploit.

The interior of the African continent, however, remained unknown to Portugal, and by effect, the European nations conducting expeditions around Africa. Most of the trade occurring throughout the African coastline were of materials found in the interior of Africa, but the Europeans had no way of bypassing the numerous African Kingdoms situated around the African coastline and the interior, so, for the time, to support their growing colonies in the Western Hemisphere, began the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

The Western Hemisphere or ‘New World’ was ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus and the Spanish and 1492, which led to a turn of events that consequently caused the Columbian Exchange and the Encomienda system. The Encomienda system was a particularly Spanish system of forced labor involving the use of indigenous Native inhabitants of Spanish colonies unrightfully for mining and agriculture, each of which took a heavy toll on Native American populations in the Western Hemisphere. However, with this being said, and the growing market for enslaved people being cruelly shipped from Africa to the Western Hemisphere, caused European colonial countries to turn their sights to Africa as a way to complete their forced labor pursuits in the Americas, beginning what is now known as the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which lasted all the way up well into the 19th century, and changed the world as most know it, as millions of Africans were forcefully shipped from the African continent, either sold by slave traders or kidnapped, to the Americas, where they would be forced to work under inhumane and cruel conditions.

However, several African kingdoms actually supported the slave trade, as the Europeans used the want of weapons to encourage the selling of enslaved persons across the Atlantic Ocean. Nevertheless, after the horrors of the Transatalantic slave trade were reported and addressed, several African nations began to halt their slave trading with the Europeans, but the Transatlantic slave trade continued.

Thus, hundreds of years later, in the 19th century, as European colonies in the Americas began to slip away through revolution after revolution, and with the industrial revolution beginning in full force, several European nations abolished the slave trade and the institution of slavery as a whole, in focus to exploit other countries and nations around the world, most notably the British in India and the French in Vietnam.

However, the continent of Africa, specifically the interior, were still points of interest for the European powers of the day, and thus to compensate for their losses in the Western Hemisphere and in search for resources, the Europeans turned their sights on the African continent.

The Scramble for Africa is known by its event that is said to have put it in full force, the Berlin Conference of 1884 and 1885. Fourteen European countries, notably Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal attended. Also among the attendees was the United States. However, ironically, no African representatives were present at the Berlin Conference, which highlighted ethnocentrism and racism.

At the conference, the African continent was partitioned between the countries present, to bring ‘civilization’ to Africa, a highly racist view. Thus, the mindless plundering of the African continent continued, most notoriously in the Congo. Belgium under Leopold II sought to exploit the Congo by specifically for resources, specifically for rich deposits of gold, palm oil, rubber, timber, and ivory. The way the Belgians brought about this exploitation is still a horror to be seen today.

Under the guise of ‘civilizing’ the Congolese people, the Belgians began a system of forced labor, and if there was resistance, the Belgians punished the Congolese people with mutilation, severed limbs, and death. However, photos of these atrocities were taken by English missionary Alice Seeley Harris, and eventually through the shaming of the Belgian government, Leopold II was forced to relinquish control of the Congo, but by then, it was too late. Over half of the Congo’s population, 10 million people, died during the horrifying rule of Leopold II.

However, other European nations were not free from horrific acts committed. Germany, for example, committed a genocide in modern day Namibia, when the Herero people rebelled in 1904, in which the Germans responded by killing thousands of Herero, driving the Herero to the point where the majority of their population died of thirst and hunger, killing three fourths of the Herero population. In addition, the Germans killed half of the population of Nama people in Namibia.

The British and French notably colonized large swaths of land throughout the African continent, notably the French in West and Northern Africa and the British in Northern, Central, and Southern Africa, each implementing harsh racism based legislation in control of these colonies under the guise of ‘ending the slave trade in Africa’ and bringing ‘civilization’ to the African continent.

The British and French issued large campaigns of war to gain their territories, each brutal in the tropical environment, notably for the British being the Zulu Wars and the Boer Wars. The Zulu War is known most notably for inflicting upon Britain one of its worst defeats of all time and the worst defeat of any power to an indigenous force being at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, where British troops were soundly defeated by a force of Zulu troops sent in to stop British advancement into Zulu territory in search for Gold. However, eventually, the British won the campaign, thus, winning the war. The Boer Wars were conflicts caused by the rebellion of the Boers, descendants of Dutch colonists as far back as the 17th century, resulting in several campaigns against the Boers, a veteran of these wars being future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The British eventually won these wars, consolidating their control of Southern Africa. The French issued their own wars against several countries in Africa, notably in Morocco with the Moroccan Crises, in which the French eventually gained victory.

One country in Africa that notably resisted and succeeded in defeating European attempts at colonization was Ethiopia. The First Italo-Ethiopian War began in 1895 when Italian troops moved into Ethiopian territory following the movement of the Italian colonial capital into modern day Eritrea. However, against all odds, the Ethiopians defeated the Italian troops, and forced the Italians out of Ethiopia, leaving Ethiopia free of colonization for the rest of the Scramble for Africa period. Again, however, the Italians advanced upon Africa, specifically Libya in 1911 when the Italians were at war with the Ottoman Empire, using aircraft and other mechanizations to acquire Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, forming Italian Libya.

Thus, with several European nations gaining control of most of the African continent, and with the continent being mindlessly plundered and exploited, European control of their colonies in Africa continued into the decolonization period after the end of World War II, however, this decolonization left several African nations in shambles, as the disastrous after effects of colonization and continuous war had taken a heavy toll on their lands of people, leading to major economic instability and several civil wars, most notably the most notorious war being the Second Congo War, which further divided Central Africa.

The Scramble for Africa was a notorious, inhumane, and most effectively, horrific show of European colonization upon the African continent, exploiting Africa, which is rich with resources, and in effect committing several atrocities and genocides against the African people and the subsequent racist divisions instituted by the Europeans, leaving the continent in a period of massive rebuilding. Much can be said of the colonization, but it left lasting effects on the African continent, and subsequently the world.


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