Africa and the British Empire

The Dark Continent
British Empire and Africa
Africa Tranquil?
It might seem a little strange to understand that despite being on Europe's doorstep, Africa was the Continent that, with a few exceptions, was pretty much left to last on the imperial check list. The reasons for this had to do with various geographical and environmental challenges which were severe enough to curtail most European endeavours to penetrate the Dark Continent despite its physical proximity. Asia and the Americas appeared to offer more lucrative economical opportunities in more benign conditions. Besides, once Europeans acquired enough maritime technological skill and expertise it was often easier to do business with parts of the World that could be accessed by the sea or had favourable winds to and/or from them as destinations. The Trade Winds across the Atlantic made it easier for ships to go from East to West than it was to go from North to South. The Doldrums beneath West Africa became notoriously difficult to navigate through safely. In time, Europeans came to the conclusion that it was easier to cross the Atlantic to South America before catching the Southern Hemisphere's Trade Winds back towards the Cape of Good Hope and then they could catch the Indian Ocean's Trade Winds and pretty much bypass Africa completely.

Land access to Africa was equally problematic from the North with the Sahara Desert presenting a formidable natural obstacle to Europeans. It did not help that the more palatable Mediterranean Coastline was occupied by more formidable Arab and Ottoman societies which were strong enough to compete with and repel European incursions for many centuries. These would act as conduits for limited trade opportunities from the African interior but even they had to deal with the difficulties of traversing the Sahara Desert and imposed their own costs and taxes on any goods coming out of Africa - if not consume them themselves. These Arab and Ottoman states tended to view Europe with suspicion and although not averse to trade did so only if it was to their own advantage.

Another barrier to entry was Africa's reputation as "The White Man's Grave". The one part of the Africa's Western coastline which is not desert is West Africa and the Congo's equatorial forests. The local populations had built up considerable natural defences and immunities to the myriad diseases and pathogens to be found in the area. Early European connections to West Africa would literally see them 'drop like flies' as they discovered themselves how harsh the conditions were to the European constitution and especially with its severely limited understanding of medical knowledge and especially the causes of disease. It would take centuries of scientific endeavour before Europeans would have enough understanding of prevention and treatment of diseases to be able to feel confident enough to stay in the region for extended periods of time.

Yet another barrier to European incursion was the formidable African societies that existed throughout most of the continent. Unlike the sparsely populated Americas or Australia, Africa was a densely populated Continent with many sophisticated societies well adapted to their environment and not cut off entirely from the rest of the World. The Arab cultures in particular brought many of the world's key technological and cultural advances to the attention of many African tribes - even if these were often used as a means by the Arabs to subdue and exploit African lands and peoples themselves. Still, many African societies were aware of concepts such as literacy, organised religion, iron-making and gunpowder. This meant that Europeans would not find Africans as easy to dominate and intimidate as they were able to do in other parts of the World. However, if there was one weakness to the African polity when Europeans did begin to show an interest in exploiting the resources of the Continent, it was the relative fractured nature of African societies. There were so many competing tribes and societies that it was hard for Africa to offer a sustained and consistent level of resistance to these Europeans. These divisions would often fatally undermine the Continent's ability to defend itself.

So Europe was more than aware of the existence of Africa and Africans but with formidable Islamic buffer civilisations, the Sahara Desert, a hostile and difficult to reach coastline, disease and an often densely populated and sophisticated indigenous populations it perhaps becomes less surprising that Africa took so long to come to the attention of Europe's empires. Perhaps it is something of a complement to the Continent that it was the last part of the World that was systematically divided up by the Europeans - only after they had established benign colonies, settlements or trading relationships with the rest of the World did they turn to 'The Dark Continent'.

The Portuguese Period
Undeniably, it was the remarkable maritime achievements of the Portuguese in the late 15th and early 16th centuries who first brought the European spotlight onto the Africa beyond its Mediterranean coastline. Portuguese sailors patiently probed the African Western coastline in an attempt to discover if they could round the Continent in order to enter the Indian Ocean and plug themselves into the Spice Trade and thus bypassing the Arab and Ottoman strangleholds on this immensely lucrative trade. It was Bartholomew Diaz who finally managed to round the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and see the Indian Ocean before him. A decade later, his fellow countryman, Vasco de Gama, made the first successful voyage all the way to the Spice Islands from Europe and return by the same route. The proof of concept had been achieved by the Portuguese.

The Portuguese were naturally very defensive about the routes and method by which they were able to reach the Spice Islands. They set up a series of forts along the route and jealously guarded their maps and charts. Their forts provided the first serious European presence on the Continent, but even these tended to hug the coastline and were little more than victualling and resupply bases for the ships taking the long and arduous journey to and from Asia. The defenders rarely entered the interior if they could at all help it.

They entered into an agreement with Spain, the Treaty of Tordesilhas, in 1494 in an attempt to clearly define each others' spheres of influence. The Spanish were effectively to have control over the American route to the Orient and Portugal over the African route. The one aberration to this agreement was a Portuguese claim to Brazil which unbeknownst to the signers of the agreement lay on the wrong side of the dividing parallel. However, this agreement ensured that the two Catholic powers at least would not squabble over the increasingly profitable routes.

British Empire and Africa
Slaves in the Interior
One commodity that did catch the eye of these early Europeans in Africa were slaves to act as manpower. Initially, slavery was something of an opportunistic seizing of curious onlookers. There was little market back in Europe as labour was one commodity that the Feudal System had in abundance. Besides, their Arab neighbours had a much more sophisticated slave trading system that had been in operation for many centuries. It was not until the Spanish discovery of the Americas (whilst searching for their own route to the Spice Islands) that attitudes to slavery were transformed. After it became clear that the local indigenous populations in the Americas were being wiped out by European diseases or retired into the interior there was an immediate demand for hardy labour. The Spanish granted the monopoly rights (The Asiento de Negros) to supply slaves to the Americas to the Portuguese who by this time were well established along their maritime routes around Africa. However, rather than seizing Africans directly, they plugged themselves into the existing trading networks and bartered for the supply of manpower. As early as 1494, the Portuguese had signed agreements with West African leaders to trade rather than seize assets. It just so happened that the prime commodity required evolved from being simple victuals to human beings on an ever increasingly large scale.

Portuguese interest in the slave trade saw them take a more activist role in supporting and supplanting African and Arab kingdoms that might help or hinder their acquisition of suitable manpower. Portuguese influence in Guinea Angola and Mozambique were all expanded by supporting those tribes able to supply slaves often at the cost of those who resisted such attempts. The fact that the Portuguese would supply muskets in return for these slaves meant that the recipients could use these firearms as a force multiplier in achieving their own expansion and thus secure yet more slaves to trade to the Portuguese. The precedent for what would become known as the Atlantic Slave Trade had been set.

In fact, it was the lucrative slave trade that first caught the imagination of England's Merchant Adventurers in the Sixteenth Century as they sought to discover the sources of Portuguese and Spanish wealth for themselves. The first recorded example of slaves being brought to England were 5 African slaves brought back by John Lok in 1555. This feat was copied by William Towerson in 1556 and 1557. However, it was the exploits of John Hawkins in the 1560s that attempted to take this trade to the next level. He reasoned that he could muscle in on the decaying Portuguese trade and take the slaves directly to the Americas where they could be sold at a far greater profit than they could back in Europe. His first voyage in 1562 and second in 1564 seemed to confirm this profitable route except that it alerted the Spanish and Portuguese authorities to a breach of their monopoly by their Protestant foes. His third voyage in 1567 saw the Spanish attempt to reassert control on this English interloper. Hawkins' small fleet was caught by a Spanish fleet at San Juan de Ulua in Mexico after being forced to put in for repairs. Most of the fleet was destroyed and Hawkins barely escaped back to England with his life. Many of his crew were captured and ironically enslaved in the Americas themselves. This early English attempt to gain entry to the profitable slave trade had failed - but it had alerted the English to the potential profits that could be had from the Continent.

It was actually a kinsman and a mariner who just managed to escape with Hawkins at San Juan de Ulua, Sir Francis Drake, who was the first Englishman to round the Cape of Good Hope. However, he was actually doing the journey in reverse as he had captured Portuguese and Spanish navigators to take him around Cape Horn and into the Pacific before navigating his way back along the Indian Ocean Trade Winds to Africa in 1581 and then back to England.

At this stage in time, Portugal was able to hold off English interest in this part of the World. The English resorted to attempting to discover North-East and North-West Passages to find their own route to the Spice Islands. Although unsuccessful in these enterprises, the latter ones in particular increasingly drew English attention across the Atlantic to North America where they were to find lands and resources which were easier to adapt to than those found in Africa. It was not going to be the English who challenged the Portuguese for early supremacy in Africa, rather it was the Dutch.

The Dutch Incursion
British Empire and Africa
The Netherlands had been part of the Spanish Empire for many years due to various dynastic and political marriages. Indeed Portugal itself joined with Spain for a similar reason in the Sixteenth Century. However, the largely Protestant Dutch began to engage in a savage war of independence that would see it ultimately break from Spain and assert itself as a young and dynamic power on the European scene by the end of the Sixteenth Century. It developed considerable expertise in finance and naval technology which when combined with their hostility to the old Catholic powers meant that it would become a formidable challenger to the existing status quo or Spanish and Portuguese dominance of trade to the Spice Islands and the New World. Dutch ships began to make the long and arduous journey to Asia and those that returned made considerable fortunes. However, it was clear that safe harbours and re-victualling opportunities would make any investment in these difficult journeys more likely to receive a return.

In 1602 the Dutch East India Company was created with the express intention of breaking the Portuguese monopoly in trade from the Spice Islands via the Cape of Good Hope. Dutch Innovative use of finance meant that the Dutch East India could raise the necessary money to build high quality ships with the latest armament and sustain them in long term campaigns to undermine Portuguese power and prestige in Africa, the Indian Ocean and the Spice Islands themselves. The Portuguese monopoly had survived for over a century but was now going to be challenged by the Dutch upstarts.

The Dutch slowly but surely undermined Portuguese trading agreements in Asia and established their own trading routes which vied directly with the established Portuguese routes. Each successful journey helped to provide yet more finance to the company for more ships and yet better armaments. The most important Dutch foothold in Africa was to become the Cape of Good Hope that was established by Jan van Riebeeck in 1652 as a resupply base. Eventually, the relatively benign environment would attract Dutch (and French Huguenot) settlers who would help to convert it into a full fledged European colony over the following decades.

West Africa saw another Dutch Company gain a foothold in the region, the Dutch West India Company in 1621. This was established to challenge Spanish trading routes to and from the New World but quickly realised that the Portuguese slave trade to the New World was an opportunity too good to miss. There was also the lure of gold as the name given to a stretch of West Africa testifies; the Gold Coast. Gold had been mined and produced in West Africa for centuries and had a reputation for fine workmanship as well as for the precious metal itself.

It was clarified that the Dutch East India Company had responsibility for Dutch trade East of the Good Hope and the Dutch West India Company from the West. This effectively cut Africa into two different halves as far as Dutch interest and administration was concerned. The Dutch East India Company would take control of the Cape itself and various harbours up the East coast of Africa whilst the Dutch West India Company became embroiled in West Africa and challenged the existing trade routes across the Atlantic and especially in Brazil.

British Empire and Africa
Guinea Map
Early Dutch trading posts were attacked and destroyed by the Portuguese and so these were upgraded to full blown forts. The Dutch then set about systematically attacking and undermining Portuguese forts in West Africa and across the Atlantic in Brazil in a sustained campaign that went on for decades. 1637 saw them attack and take the largest Portuguese Fort in Western Africa at Elmina forcing the survivors to seek refuge in Sao Tome. The Dutch East India Company went on to capture other Portuguese forts like San Sebastian and Fort Santo Antonio. The Dutch took over many of the trading relationships already established by the Portuguese and especially in the provision of slaves. Interestingly, the Dutch East India Company had already captured much of Brazil from the Portuguese at this time and so continued the transportation of African slaves to the New World in similarly horrific conditions, but under a different flag. When the Portuguese recaptured Brazil in 1654, the Dutch sought new plantation lands in Surinam and the Caribbean and so continued the supply of slaves across the Atlantic.

British Empire and Africa
Dutch and Danish Forts in Accra
The Dutch had effectively muscled the Portuguese out of the Gold Coast and took over much of the lucrative slave trade. However, the Dutch would find that their efforts would actually see fellow Europeans attempt to join in with the trade. Swedish, Danish, English and even Brandenburg forts were established in the area to facilitate trade during the Sixteenth and in to the Seventeenth Centuries.

Relationships between these largely Protestant European powers were tense and often relied on differing alliances with local African tribes. For example, the Dutch paid tribute to the Ashanti kingdom to facilitate trade and supply goods and slaves whereas he English (later the British) paid tribute to the Fante for similar purposes.

British Empire and Africa
The Crown of Ardra
The English and Dutch, despite being co-religionists, were particularly hostile to one another's claims. In 1663, the Duke of York sent an expedition to West Africa to capture the Dutch forts which they did so before before a Dutch counter expedition captured them back. This so-called skirmish actually helped provoke all out war between the two nations known as the Second Anglo-Dutch War. These wars were fought on a global scale throughout the Seventeenth Century and saw the two nations vie for power and influence in the field of maritime trade.

British Empire and Africa
European Forts
The Dutch bought out the Brandenburg forts and the Swedish forts were taken over by the Danish in a sort of rationalisation. However the hostility between the Dutch and the English continued to wrangle and broke out into yet another warf from 1694 to 1700 in the series of wars called the Komenda Wars over European control of trade from and Ghana. These were a complicated series of wars that cost both the Dutch and the English a great deal of capital for little real gain. However, it did illustrate that the English (soon to become the British from 1707) were becoming an increasingly important player in Africa. They may have lost out to the Dutch East India Company in Asia but had proved more resilient and successful in the Americas and increasingly in Africa.

The British Ascendancy
British Empire and Africa
The Guinea Coin
British Empire and Africa
Surgeons Required!
British Empire and Africa
Black Ivory
British Empire and Africa
Dahomey King
British Empire and Africa
Seizing Slaves
British Empire and Africa
European Hub of Slave Trade
British Empire and Africa
Cape Coast Castle
British Empire and Africa
Mungo Park and Toll Bridge
British Empire and Africa
1818 Caricaturing of Africans
British Empire and Africa
River Niger Greeting
Empire in Africa Maps
Africa Maps
British Cameroons
British Kaffraria
British Somaliland
British Togoland
Cape Colony
Fernando Po
Gold Coast
Griqualand West
Northern Nigeria
Northern Rhodesia
Orange River Colony (Orange Free State)
St Helena
Sierra Leone
South Africa
South West Africa
Southern Nigeria
Southern Rhodesia
Walvis Bay
Historiography of Africa
Timeline of African History
1488 Portuguese discover Cape of Good Hope
1494 Treaty of Tordesilhas
1494 Portuguese King agrees to trade with West African leaders
1498 Vasco de Gama undertakes first journey to Spice Islands
1562 Hawkins' First Voyage
1564 Hawkins' Second Voyage
1567 Hawkins' Third Voyage
1580 Portugal unites with Spain
1581 Drake rounds Cape of Good Hope
1602 Dutch East India Company formed
1621 Dutch West India Company established
1652 Dutch establish Cape of Good Hope
1660 British West Africa Company established
1663 Fort James constructed in Gambia
1694 - 1700 Komenda Wars
Further Reading
Trade, Plunder and Settlement: Maritime Enterprise and the Genesis of the British Empire 1480 - 1630
by Kenneth R. Andrews

European Beginnings in West Africa 1454 - 1578
by John Blake

Europeans in West Africa
by John Blake

Trade and Politics on the Gold Coast
by Kwame Yeboa Daaku

The Royal African Company
by K Davies

English Seamen and Traders in Guinea
by P Hair and J Alsop

The Slave Coast of West Africa
by R. Law

Fortified Trade- Posts: The English in West Africa: 1645 - 1822
by A Lawrence

East of Mina: Afro-European relations on the Gold Coast in the 1550s and 1560s
by A Da Mota

A History of the Upper Guinea Coaast, 1545 - 1800
by W. Rodney

Benin and the Europeans
by A. Ryder

Hawkins of Plymouth
by J Williamson

The Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa
by G Zook

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