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 economic 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 and access the lucrative Asian spice markets directly.
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 these goods 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 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.
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 escaped 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 larger Spanish fleet at San Juan de Ulua in Mexico after being forced to put in for repairs. Most of his 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 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 from 1621 onwards. 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 testified; 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.
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 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 West 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.
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, French and even Brandenburg forts were established in the area to facilitate trade during the Sixteenth and in to the Seventeenth Centuries.
King James I attempted to formalise English interest in West Africa through granting a Royal Charter to The Company of Adventurers of London (Guinea Company). This company was also interested in the gold coming out of West Africa. The Company sent 3 voyages to the Gambia between 1618 and 1621 but found little gold to trade and had to content itself with rather disappointing hides, wax and ambergris. John Davies attempted to instigate trade on the Sierra Leone river - mainly for redwood for dyes. However, English and Dutch interlopers undermined attempts to monopolise any trade in the area. It did not help that the Company was a Royally backed one at a time when the English Parliament was increasingly at odds with the monarch and so were keen to see it undermined going so far as to declare its monopoly power as an official 'grievance' against the king in 1624. After years of economic difficulties a new charter was issued in 1631 to what was now known as The Company of Merchants Trading to Guinea - although essentially the same personnel and financial backers as before. Crucially, this new charter said that the government would support the company against foreign competitors. And, for the first time, the foreign competitor it most envisioned to deal with was the Dutch and not the Portuguese.
This new Company set up factories at Komenda, Kormantin and Winneba in 1632 primarily to trade in gold. More factories were created later in Anomabu (1639), Takoradi (1645), Cabo Corso (1650). Kormantin became the focal point and was fortified in 1638 as it became increasingly clear that the Dutch West India Company was unwilling to allow the English free rein. It did not help the company that England was descending into civil war and the company was identified as a Royalist concern. Parliament confiscated the shares of Royalist backers and replaced them with Parliamentarian supporters. This led to its vessles being attacked by a Royalist fleet under Prince Rupert in 1652 and then further embroiled in the Anglo-Dutch war from 1652 to 1654. By 1657, the unprofitable company sold its remaining rights and forts to the English East India Company. The Dutch were still very much in control of the lion's share of trade to and from Africa.
Although the Dutch were pre-eminent in Africa, its very size and the nature of its complicated coastline meant that rivals such as the English could and did maintain, and even expand, their own trading relationships. The potential opportunities must have appeared substantial for King Charles II to grant a charter to The Royal African Company in 1660. This mercantile relationship appeared an economical way for a cash strapped king to generate cash whilst legitimating English trading contacts with official recognition as a state actor. It also set up a monopoly so that other rival English merchants had to work with the RAC or trade elsewhere - much as the Dutch had used their Chartered Companies. The RAC decided to expand beyond the gold trade and undertook to supply 3,000 slaves a year to the West Indian Colonies from 1662 onwards. England's trade focus was shifted decisively from commodoties to personnel with the RAC.
The Dutch were not content to rest on their laurels and bought out the Brandenburg forts as they sought to expand their power. Interestingly, the Danish also expanded their own presence in the increasingly lucrative opportunities by taking over the Swedish forts in a sort of rationalisation.
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 Asante (Ashanti) kingdom to facilitate trade and supply goods and slaves whereas the English (later the British) paid tribute to the Fante for similar purposes.
Unfortunately for the RAC, rather than profits, the company soon racked up considerable debts as it sought to take on the Dutch who were more than willing to defend their own monopoly rights in West Africa. In 1663, the Duke of York (who led the company at the time) sent an expedition to West Africa to capture Dutch forts which they did so before before a Dutch counter-expedition captured them all back. This so-called skirmish actually helped provoke all out war between the two nations known as the Second Anglo-Dutch War. This was part of a series of wars which 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.
In the short term, the now heavily indebted Royal African Company's trade was all but wiped out although it did spin off a new Company called the Gambia Adventurers in 1668 with a license to trade north of the Bight of Benin. The Royal Africa Company was reformed under a new Royal Charter in 1672 with enhanced rights to set up its own forts, factories and troops and even to exercise martial law in areas it controlled. The commercial nature of England's transactions with Africans was evolving into more of a governmental contact. The newly re-financed company turned even further towards the provision of slaves as sugar plantations in the Caribbean demanded ever larger sources of labour for this newly fashionable and lucrative product. The New Royal African Company appeared to be entering its own virtuous circle of success that helped enrich many backers in the City of London. It helped that its chief backer, the Duke of York, became King in 1685. Interestingly, the gold content in the company's minted coins was so high that the so-called 'guineas' were worth more than the equivalent pound sterling (21 shillings to 20). However, this period of profitability for the Royal African Company was about to come to an abrupt close, paradoxically due to a Dutch king taking over the English throne!
1688 saw a sudden change of direction for the English state. The openly Catholic James II was forced from the throne by the Glorious Revolution in 1688. The Protestant English invited the Protestant Dutch William of Orange, with his Stuart wife Mary, to become the new joint monarchs of England. This sudden Anglo-Dutch combine produced new opportunities and threats to England's relationship to Africa. On the one hand, it gave England access to many of the commerical and constitutional advances that had helped to make the Dutch so effective in their own imperial expansion; A Bank of England, a more powerful parliament, better constructed company organisations, etc... . It also provided a rare opportunity for the Dutch and English traders to work collaboratively rather than competitively. On the other hand, England's main trading agent in Africa was the Royally Chartered New RAC technically led by James II no less. This was clearly a charter that the new King William could no longer honour in its original form and it was stripped of its monopoly. A 1698 Act clarified the position stating that henceforth all African trade was open to any English merchants at a flat fee of a 10% levy for 13 years and after that to be totally free. This small but important change would mark the transition from a mercantile and monopolistic trading relationship to a far more competitive one that would end up unleashing English (and from 1707 British) commerical power at a crucial time as the new Eighteenth Century was about to unleash the power of the industrial revolution and transform trading opportunities.
By the 1690s, the English had surpassed the Dutch as the leading trader in slaves. The advent of free trade benefitted the commercial ports of Bristol and Liverpool in particular which soon made themselves a vital lynchpin in the building and provisioning of ships to participate in the African trade. The ever increasing importance of the sugar islands in the Caribbean helped to create another trading impetus. Success induced further investment in more and better ships and more merchants eager to make their fortunes.
There was also a new competitor to the English and Dutch on the scene. The French had steadily increased their presence around the Senegal. Full blown war erupted between the French and English from 1689 and lasted until 1697 and saw substantial fighting in Africa including the English temporary capture of Fort St. Louis on the Senegal and the temporary loss of Fort James on the Gambia. More worryingly for the bean counters was the amount of privateering taking its toll and ships going to and from the area. European rivalries had spilled well beyond its borders and were now routinely fought on a global scale.
West Africa's population was concentrated along its substantial river systems and its coastline which could have all sorts of complicated inlets, swamps and lagoons scattered along its length. The African societies tended to use canoes on the rivers and along the inshore coastline to facilitate trade, but the arrival of ocean going ships gave both parties an opportunity to expand each of their trading potential. The fact that Britain was about to undergo its own industrial revolution combined with the gold, pepper and slaves available meant that the coming century would provide very real commercial opportunities to European and African traders and elites at least.
The era of monopolies was coming to a close not just for English companies but for the other European powers too - even if they had to be forced to open up. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 saw the end of the War of Spanish Succession and helped limit French, Spanish and Portuguese economic and political power for the time being. As far as Africa was concerned, the British gained the legal right to transport slaves directly to the Spanish colonies in Central and Southern America for the first time. This was known as the 'Asiento'. In fact, the over-optimistic interpretation of the opportunities of this concession was partly responsible for the financial disaster of the South Sea Bubble of 1720.
Fortunately for Britain, the Eighteenth Century would not rely totally on speculation for its economic advances. Improvements in steam technology and coal production meant that ever larger factories were producing better quality goods at cheaper prices. Placing the products of this industrial revolution into the slave ships heading towards West Africa would only increase the profits of the merchants by providing a viable means for paying for the human cargoes. These slaves would then be taken to the Caribbean or South America to be exchanged for sugar which could then be sold back in Britain for yet further profit. This triangular trade created yet more wealth to invest even more into the factories of the industrial revolution or the ships to improve the efficiency of this maritime trade. Profits began to be made by elites in Britain, the Caribbean and even in Africa although the lion's share was undoubtedly for Britain itself. Britain had no monopoly on the right to carry slaves from Africa to the New World but it was harnessing the skills, products and expertise to become first amongst equals. It was also producing industrial goods and textiles that were of more value to Africans than the offerings of other European nations. Throughout the Eighteenth Century, British ships ended up carrying over half the slaves across the Atlantic.
European success in the Americas also increased the demand for slaves as more and more Caribbean islands were turned into sugar plantations, or as American colonists began planting cotton in the Southern Colonies or for expanding Portuguese and Dutch plantations in South America. The circle became insatiable as more and more slaves were brought across to make more and more products for sale back in Europe to make more money to reinvest in the slave trade. The main interruption to this trade was war which in the Eighteenth Century tended to see the British pitted against the French. But even the temporary wars could lead to further opportunities as the British demonstrated when they captured St. Louis in Senegal from the French once more in 1758. This became a new slave trading centre for the British for the next two decades until she lost it in yet another war the American War of Indepdence in 1779. The British won other Caribbean islands from the French and Spanish during the Seven Year's War and so increased the market place for British carried slaves.
The American War of Indepedence, on the other hand, made a significant dent in the trading opportunities for British ships to the American mainland itself. Any fall in British carriage of slaves was soon offset by the almost overnight disappearance of French ships due to their own revolution from 1793 onwards. As Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars ravaged Europe, the might of the Royal Navy handed British ships a virtual monopoly on the transportation of slaves which was only finally undermined by a fall in the price of sugar, repeated slave rebellions and difficulties in the Caribbean and committed lobbying against the evils of the slave trade back in Britain.
It had mainly been non-conformist Christians who had the deepest misgivings about the morality of the slave trade. Quakers like George Fox had questioned the institution of slavery as far back as 1671. Quaker settlements in North America abhorred slavery and many took every opportunity to speak out at the injustices of the system and of the means of transportation bringing them to the New World. Even the legality of the system was tested and defeated in the law courts of Britain by the 1772 Somersett case which saw Lord Chief Justice Mansfield call for the immediate release of a black freed slave who it was argued was protected by the Magna Carta. Unfortunately, British law did not extend fully to its colonies and certainly not to the colonies of other European (and soon American) states. The British colonies had their own codes, laws and regulations which regulated the status of slaves in a clear if contradictory manner to the home country. Interestingly, many black slaves were encouraged to fight for the British against the American colonists in the American War of Independence with the promise of their freedom in return. Some of these would eventually arrive in the newly formed colony of Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone was an interesting and practical experiment to provide a possible focal point for freed slaves to be able to return home to Africa. It is no coincidence that its capital was to be called 'Freetown' in the hope of celebrating the freedom of its new inhabitants. It was established in 1787 by a group of abolitionists led by Thomas Clarkson and funded entirely privately. However, it found it difficult at first to attract Africans back across the Atlantic, largely due to the inability of Africans in the Caribbean to finance or legally be allowed to leave their colonies and increasingly, their places of birth. The expected influx never materialised. Later, the Royal Navy deposited Maroons and rebels to British control from colonies like Jamaica in Sierra Leone as a way of removing troublemakers from its existing colonies. Unfortunately, the costs of maintaining this well intentioned settlement were far greater than any income generated. It soldiered on as a private concern until 1808 when the British government finally took direct control of the colony.
The creation of the African Association in 1788 was another milestone in Britain's relationship to Africa. The organisation was formed as a privately funded organisation to gather information about Africa to try and find alternative economic activities from slavery. William Wilberforce was one of the original backers but he was joined by many other non-conformists, humanitarians and well meaning bankers and investors. It would later, in 1830, be renamed as the Royal Geographical Society. The African Association funded expeditions by Mungo Park, Denham, Clapperton and the Lander brothers as they sought to establish if the Niger River joined the Atlantic through the intricate delta in modern Nigeria.
The academic explorers were soon joined by more and more missionaries as bible and missionary societies were set up by the various Christian denominations. These often financed their own expeditions and their own explorers to try and gain a better understanding of the existing African societies and geography. The most famous of these being David Livingstone who spent much of the mid-Nineteenth Century wandering around the interior of Africa. His expeditionary work proved far more valuable than his missionary work and the Royal Geographical Society took over the funding of his expedition to try and disocver the soure of the Nile.
Britain abolished the Slave Trade in 1807 under domestic pressure at home and economic pressure from a collapse in the price of sugar. The about-face for Britain was also a strategic advantage to a Royal Navy that had recently decisively defeated a French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar. The now dominant Royal Navy would acquire the right to stop and search any ship that it suspected might be carrying slaves. Special dispensation was made for their Portuguese (and later Spanish) allies to continue trading to their colonies in South America but otherwise ships could to be stopped and searched at will under the pretext of checking for slaves. This helped ensure that covert French attempts to trade outside of Europe using non-French ships could be successfully squashed.
The Napoleonic Wars allowed the Royal Navy to pick and choose the now isolated French and her allied international ports and colonies. As far as Africa is concerned, the most important of these was to be the Dutch Cape Colony in Southern Africa. This had long been used as an important victualling point for the once might Dutch East India Company, but its vitally important strategic position was obvious to the Royal Navy who took no hesitation in seizing Cape Town in 1806. Unlike much of the rest of Africa, the Cape had a pleasing climate and an environment that was less harsh to European settlers. Consequently, a large European population (mostly Dutch but with some French Huguenots) of 20,000 had grown up around the port. These 'Boers' had clashed with local African tribes who could not match the sophistication of their weaponary and died from disease or moved into the interior. The Boer use of slaves was another complicating factor for the British whose own legal codes superceded the more pro-slave codes of the previous Dutch courts. Although the British technically paid the Dutch government to take over the Cape Colony, the local Boer population had little in common and little love for their new imperial overlords. The coming century would see prolonged rivalry and clashes as the Boers sought to escape British control only to collide with powerful African societies and to see the British constantly striving to reimpose order along its Empire's borders. It was to be a turbulent century for Anglo-Boer relations often at the cost of the local African populations.
Even after the Napoleonic War, the Royal Navy continued to patrol the coast of Africa with its 'Slave Squadron'. The abolition of the Slave Trade would inadvertently prove a lasting boon to the troubled colony of Sierra Leone. Now under formal British control, the 'Slave Squadron' now had a legitimate port to release any slaves that they had discovered whilst searching suspicious looking vessels. The population of the colony started to climb rapidly with this steady influx of freed slaves.
The presence of the Slave Squadron also formalised British contact with West Africa as its ships gathered intelligence and data and mapped the coastline to a level never known before. It was also more than just a token gesture. It is estimated that one-sixth of the Royal Navy was employed in anti-slaving duties at any one time in the first half of the Nineteenth Century. Many sailors paid the price with their lives as the white man's grave took its toll. However, the presence of the Royal Navy also gave opportunities for Europeans to engage in more legitimate forms of trade. For the first time in centuries, Europeans did not have to worry that other rival European nations would send a flotilla or troops to take out forts and factories. The presence of the Royal Navy provided a security blanket that allowed for genuine trade and long term investments to take place. Freetown became the effective hub of the British presence in West Africa but the Crown also formally took over the trading forts and factories run by the Company of Merchants Trading into Africa now that their slave businesses could no longer operate. The abolition of the Slave Trade was far more consequential to British relations with West Africa as it felt obliged to substitute the slave-trading relationship by providing a formal umbrella to encourage alternative and more legitimate forms of trade.
Britain would have been content to confine itself to these forts and factories but the Nineteenth Century saw American interest in Liberia and French interest in Senegal extend. Local officers felt compelled to define the extent of British interests and entered increasingly into agreements and negotiations with inland tribes and groups to preempt French and American expansion in the area.
The logic of expansion could also see Britain run into new African rivals or obligations to defend signatories from neighbouring tribes. One example was when the slave trading Asante defeated a British military expedition in 1824. The British even considered withdrawing from the Gold Coast until lobbied by traders and African coastal allies who did not wish to be left to the mercies of the successful and wealthy Asante. George Maclean was appointed to stabilise the situation and he managed to extend British control over much of the coastal region of the Gold Coast. The British extended their influence by purchasing the remaining Danish fort at Christiansborg and by doing a remarkable exchange with the Dutch who agreed to hand over their forts and interests in West Africa in return for a free hand in the island of Sumatra on the other side of the World.
The Asante were not best pleased at the increased British presence at the cost of the Dutch with whom they had traded comfortably with for many years. The Asante assaulted the now ex-Dutch fort at Elmina and the British fort at Cape Coast in retaliation. The British fought them off but felt compelled to reduce this threat to their coastal control. They therefore created a large military force under Sir Garnet Wolseley in 1874 to impose their will on the Asante. This use of military pressure was unusual but it acted as something of a catalyst as the French in particular took note of Britain's newfound willingness to use force to extend its sphere of control. The French would later respond in kind and would soon be joined by German and Belgian actors.
A more usual pattern for extending empire was through trade as demonstrated by Britain's growing interest in the palm and vegetable oils found in present day Nigeria. Britain acquired Lagos as a port in 1861 ostensibly to help fight continued slave trading activities in the area. However, it quickly became clear that the palm oil trade was the prime motivation as exports from the port exploded. Yet again, a small foothold would slowly grow as more land and trees were required. Trade followed the flag rapidly.
It is still a hotly debated topic as to why Africa went from being one of the least colonised continents on earth to one of the most colonised and in such a short span of time. Within a couple of decades the small European presence in isolated coastal communities seemed to extend across virtually every last nook and corner of the continent. This rapid period of colonisation is often referred to as the 'Scramble for Africa' and it extended in time from just the 1870s until the Boer War at the end of the century.
South Africa posed a particular problem as much of the resident white population was hostile to British rule and attempted to evade it at every opportunity. The outlawing of Slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833 further antagonised the slave owning Boers who felt doubly aggrieved at not receiving adequate compensation. As they moved into the interior to avoid British rule they invariably came into contact with African tribes who pushed back. The unruly border saw the British repeatedly attempt to assert control over the Boers only for the Boers to fight back as they did in 1881 in the First Boer War. It did not help that diamonds were discovered in 1872 in Kimberley which encouraged British settlers and merchants to push for even further British annexation of the Southern continent - once again at Boer expense. The one attempt to placate and appease the Boers backfired spectacularly in 1879 when a British army was destroyed by Zulus resentful of yet further European expansion on their lands. The fact that the British mustered a stronger army and defeated the Zulus at Ulundi in 1881 only played into Boer hands by removing a key counterweight to their own desire to expand into interior yet further. The First Boer War would see the Boers assert independence one more time but that would not see the end of British meddling in their affairs.
East Africa saw a different dynamic. Here the British found themselves dealing with an Arab empire based in Zanzibar that connected East Africa to Indian Ocean trading patterns that saw it linked to the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East. Unfortunately for the British, much of the wealth of the Sultan of Zanzibar hinged on its control of its own slave trading networks throughout Eastern Africa to the Middle East. Here, Britain relied on informal power and the potential of the Royal Navy to goad the Sultan into gradually withdrawing from the slave trade. This well intentioned meddling did undermine the power and prestige of the Arab trading empire and would see it gradually diminish in importance creating its own power vacuum that other African tribes and European nations would eventually fill or force the British to fill.
The British were certainly not the only European actors on the scene in the 1870s and 1880s. The French seemed to resign themselves to their defeat at the hands of the Prussians in 1871 by turning their energies into expanding their own Empire particulary in North and West Africa. A French parliamentary vote to fund a French built railway to cross the Sahara acted as something of a starter pistol to the ensuing Scramble. Africa seemed to offer the promise of resources to exploit with investment opportunities for infrastructure and a potential market for European goods.
It was not just state actors who were attracted by the economic potential. Leopold, the King of Belgium, acting in a private capacity created his own private fiefdom in the Congo to extract ivory and rubber (in what would later transpire to be atrocious conditions). The French were concerned that his private concern might collapse and suck in the British to restore law and order and take control of the area. The French therefore decided to make their own treaties to the North of the Congo to set up a buffer to prevent Britain from linking any vacuum to its existing colonies in West Africa. The British were worried about the same kind of implosion but decided to push Portuguese claims from Angola as a counterweight to these French moves. To further complicate things, the newly confident Germans under the leadership of Bismarck became involved in African affairs for the first time.
British interested parties wary at the perceived foot dragging of the British Government turned back to the old formula of Chartered Companies for the first time in a century and a half. The United African Company was led by George Goldie. It was renamed and recapitalised in 1881 as the National African Company. It established sole trading arrangements with local tribal leaders along the Niger and surrounding area and established its own administration to resist French and German encroachments in the area. In many ways, this appeared to offer imperialism on the cheap - private investors took the risks and rewards. However, in the long run these private concerns found it difficult to compete effectively with state actors or with sustained internal strife.
Bismarck appeared to offer a solution of sorts by offering to host a conference in Berlin to discuss the practicalities of colonising Africa. In reality he was quite happy to see the British and French be antagonistic to one another as a way of keeping them from turning their energies on Germany. In practical terms, the Conference seemed to put a temporary pause in the Scramble by guaranteeing Free Trade in the Congo and East Africa for whoever was in charge, by ensuring open navigation of rivers like the Niger and by making it more difficult to claim ownership of land without 'effective occupation' and an administration of sorts. In reality, the Conference had merely established the preliminary rules of engagement for Empire building. Soon, countries like Germany were sending representatives throughout Africa to attempt to gain the signatures of chiefs to prove 'effective occupation' and justify their claims on new land. An expedition by the German Karl Peters on behalf of a newly incorporated German East Africa Company in East Africa forced the British to react into having to claim their own spheres of influence. The British had to be prepared to negotiate away possessions like Heligoland in the North Sea as a bargaining chip to maintain their interests in Uganda and Kenya. The Germans could not be completely ousted and ended up claiming Tanganyika, South-West Africa, Cameroon and Togo. The Germans were regarded as upstarts by the established British, French and Portuguese.
The French were less than impressed by the arrival of Germans and by extended claims by Britain. They had been particularly aggrieved at the decisive British move into Egypt in 1881/2 when an uprising threatened Anglo-French interests and especially the Suez Canal. The British got sucked into the power vacuum and even found itself drawn into Sudan on yet another anti-slavery campaign although in this case it ended up disastrously in Khartoum and the loss of Sudan to all Europeans for the next decade and a half. Still, the British move into Egypt was resented by the French who moved decisively into Tunisia and sent armies to subdue the Tukulor empire on the upper Niger and the Samori Toure in the western Guinea highlands. Cost was of secondary importance to a France trying to re-establish its military prestige and heritage. Their moves into the interior of Western Africa would have profound consequences for the British coastal colonies who feared that they would be deprived of their interiors and a disruption to existing trading patterns. The dominoes were well and truly falling and having knock-on effects with other European powers and their colonies.
Back in Southern Africa, it was to be newly enriched settlers who would take the initiative and force imperial expansion from the south once more. Cecil Rhodes is the most famous example of someone willing to use his locally acquired fortune to help expand British controlled territory. The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1885 in huge quantities in Boer territory acted as a catalyst for interest in the Boer Republics. British businessmen and polliticians alike jealously eyed the new economic opportunities presented by these goldfields. Rhodes' solution was to isolate these Boer republics and to make them dependent on British cooperation. To this aim he chartered the British South Africa Company and provided it with its own private army to move north of the Boer republics and conclude treaties with African tribes and stop Boer or rival European expansion into the area. They were also hoping that they would find their own gold seams extending further into the interior but were to be disappointed. They did, however, find good quality farmland in what they would call Rhodesia in Cecil's honour. Risings against the imposition of European control were brutally suppressed with the help of the newly manufactured Maxim machine guns.
Rhodes liked to talk of a Cape to Cairo railway that would carry British trade, investment and civilisation throughout the African continent. The existence of the Boer Republics was an affront to this grand vision of his and he sought to sweep them away in an elaborate attempt to provoke a rebellion by the Jameson Raid in 1895/6. This ended in disaster and saw Rhodes severely compromised as a political figure. However, within just a few years the British and Boers would end up fighting over very similar aims and although proving immeasurably more difficult than initally anticipated, ultimately ended up with a British victory over the Boer Republics. Sadly, their attempts to placate their defeated Boer adversaries with the Treaty of Vereeniging in 1902 ended up institutionalising various racist policies and depriving black South Africans of even further rights.
North Africa saw a similar chess board game play out but this time with the British competing with the French. British attempts at making a north-south railway could only be made if the French plan for an east-west one was defeated. The ultimate flashpoint was to prove to be in Sudan as one of the last pieces of the jigsaw puzzle came into play. The British had launched a patient and ambitious plan from Egypt to subdue the lawless Sudan and restore a semblanc eof law and order. Unbeknownst to the British, the French had sent their own expedition under Colonel Marchand from West Africa across the Sahara and into Sudan en route to the French colony at Djibouti. The British were amazed to discover these French troops at a small fort in Fashoda in Sudan and quickly telegraphed back to London to await further orders. After a brief diplomatic furore the heavily outnumbered French were forced to retire and retract their claims to the Sudan.
Despite their technological advantages, Europeans were not getting everything their own way. An Italian attempt to seize control of Abyssinia saw them humiliated by the Africans at Adowa. There were frequent uprisings some of which were only quelled by savage countermeasures - especially by the Germans. These uprisings caused particular problems for the German and British chartered companies who had made a somewhat odd reappearance centuries after their antecedents had been put out of their misery. The British and German governments found themselves lobbied to move in and take control of the areas supposedly ruled by these private concerns.
Obligations to existing allies could force British control into new areas such as helping the Bugandans defeat the neighbouring Bunyoro tribe. The British also sucked further into the Yoruba and Asante wars and ended up extending British control yet further into the interior of West Africa. Anti-slaving imperatives also brought new obligations along the great lakes of the African Eastern interior particularly around Nyasaland thanks to intensive lobbying from missionaries in the area. Commerce, Christianity and Civilisation appeared to be playing itself out until there was literally nothing left to seize. Africa had been claimed or in the case of the Abyssinians successfully defended themselves from European encroachment. Perhaps the last aberration was the personal fiefdom of king Leopold which was effectively confiscated from him by his own Belgian government after the extent of exploitation and savagery of his colonial endeavour was exposed to the rest of the world. Congo therefore became a Belgian colony instead of a personal one.
The beginning of the Twentieth Century saw Britain in a more diplomatically exposed position than it had been in a long time. It was mired in the deeply unpopular Boer War that cast it as something of a bully. They had only recently averted all out war with the French over Fashoda and the Germans were challenging Britain's supremacy of the seas and ability to defend its Empire by embarking on its own ambitious naval expansion under the Tirpitz Plan. Most of Africa had been claimed by various Euroeans by this time but often at the cost of offending one another. Even the more pro-imperial Conservative government in power at the start of the century realised that the Empire was one of the factors causing diplomatic isolation of Britain and started to make the first steps towards mending at least some fences.
The big political shift came in 1904 when the British entered into the Entente Cordiale with France which had long been regarded as one of its most strident colonial rivals. Disputes over the primacy of control over Egypt and Morocco were removed almost overnight. The seemingly nebulous borders between British and French colonies equally firmed up and took on more respectful attitudes to one anothers' colonial problems and issues. It was increasingly clear that the Entente Cordiale was aimed at containing the rising military and imperial aspirations of Germany - both in Europe and in Africa! The British demonstrated their subtle shift in allegiance overtly the two crises over Morocco in 1906 and again in 1911. The German Kaiser was attempting to pry apart the two new friendly nations only to end up bringing them closer together with his unsubtle diplomatic blundering. Britain also firmed up its already cordial relations with Portugal but also with Spain and Belgium as the colonial powers on the continent seemed intent on isolating the relative newcomers; the Germans.
With borders more clearly delineated, the various European powers could switch their attention to administration and investment in the slices of Africa that were now under their control. Railways, telegraph cables, canals, irrigation systems and public utilities were all built to facilitate the governing of the new colonies, to enhance trading opportunities and to defend them from rival colonial powers. The British undertook a particulalry impressive scheme to dam the Nile at Aswan in order to attempt to reduce flooding and improve irrigation systems. Of course by this time, virtually the entire Nile confluence was under British control of one kind or another making it politically more straightforward to embark on public works projects of this scale.
South Africa also saw a massive injection of investment and construction as Britain attempted to reconstruct the war ravaged regions and attempt to regain the trust of at least some of the Boer population. Alfred Milner was instrumental in attempting to use reconstruction as a means of reconciliating the defeated Boers and to help convince them of the benefits of being a part of a larger imperial system and market place. Ironically, he was attempting this at a time that the idea of an exclusive imperial club with preferential imperial tariffs was being rejected politically back in Britain. 1906 saw the Conservatives lose out to the more liberal and free trade attitude of the Liberals which heralded a real shift in attitudes to empire.
Another minor revolution in administrative attitudes was being embarked upon in both West Africa (and to a lesser extent in East Africa) thanks to the reforms and ideas of Frederick Lugard. He developed a cost effective method of ruling over large populations in areas with minimal infrastructure and often in inhospitable regions. His advocacy of 'Indirect Rule' allowed the British to clearly separate what was of importance to Britain and leave the daily practicalities of ruling to existing local rulers. He believed that Britain was only truly interested in the security of the region at a minimal cost hopefully covered by the local populations. He experimented with his system with the Sokoto Caliphate in Northern Nigeria. The Colonial Office was quickly impressed by the minimal outlay required for a stable political region. The system also had the benefit of minimising opportunities for antagonism between the rulers and ruled as local customs, aristocracies and religion were respected and honoured. Various Christian missionaries and lobby groups chafed at being restricted and discouraged from finding converts and disrupting these local cultures. However, his respectful policy of devolving power to lcoal rulers allowed the culturally diverse regions of Northern and Southern Nigeria to be successfull amalgamated into one of the largest colonies on the Continent in 1914.
In the case of Southern Africa attempts at being liberal and devolving power backfired somewhat for the African population at least. 1907 saw the Liberal government grant Transvaal and the Orange Free State granted new constitutions as part of the reconcilation process. As Europe was turning into a more dangerous system of alliances, the Liberals were attempting to give more power and responsibility for the settler colonies like Australia, Canada in what were soon to be renamed as Dominions rather than Colonies. The creation of a Dominion in Southern Africa seemed an appropriate way to incorporate the Boers into a new and more inclusive political system with a Federal system based on the four colonies of: Transvaal, Orange Free State, Natal and Cape Colony. The Union of South Africa was successfully created in 1910 and granted Dominion status. In a way, it did acheive its aim of politically placating the Boers but at the cost of sacrificing many of the rights of South Africa's black African population. Previously attempts at undermining the rights of Africans were blocked or vetoed by the Colonial Office or by Westminster directly. By granting self-government to local, white settlers, they removed protection of British Parliament and put in hands of these local politicians who often held different priorities and attitudes towards race and fairness. The first major expression of this difference of view manifested itself in 1913 with the passing of the Native Land Act. This Act denied Africans the right to own land in 87% of the Union of South Africa. They were essentially forced to live in just 13% of what were referred to as 'homelands'. This suited local Boers even more than the British settlers as it allowed them access to agricultural lands and skilled jobs that they would otherwise have had to have competed with the Africans for. Africans were quickly relegated to unskilled and low paid jobs and forced to commute or live in compounds in order to comply with the Native Land Act. In this case, devolving power to the local 'white settler tribes' resulted in their ability to institutionalise a privileged position for themselves at the cost of the local African population.
The finer subtleties of what was happening in South Africa was soon blown out of the water by events back in Europe with the outbreak of war in 1914. This was a war which quickly spilled over into the colonies and Africa became one of its most prolonged battlefields. Germany had a number of colonies scattered across the Continent and invariably bordered by British and/or French colonies. Indeed, the very first engagement of the war took place in West Africa in Togoland as the British radied the German cable station at Lome whilst the French invaded from the opposite side. The battle for the German Cameroons was more prolonged as the British invaded from Nigeria and the French from the South and East. However the Germans were able to keep a force in the field until 1916!
Events in German South West Africa filled the British authorities with an element of trepidation as it was the first test of loyalty for the recently conquered and incorporated Boers amongst whom many held a cultural affinity for the Germans. Initially there were calls from some Afrikaner nationalists to support the Germans but crucially the Boer political leadership stayed loyal to the British and encouraged their countrymen to fight on behalf of Britain. Ironically, it was to be ex-Boer generals like Botha and Smuts who would end up leading British troops in the campaigns of South-West and Eastern Africa. Botha managed to defeat a force of 3,500 troops in German South West Africa whilst Smuts captured Dar-es-Salaam in German Tanganyika. Unfortunately for the British, the German commander of forces in East Africa, Lettow-Vorbeck, proved to be as effective a guerilla fighter as the Boers had been a decade and a half earlier. He tied down hundreds of thousands of British and Imperial troops throughout Eastern and Central Africa right until the end of the fighting in 1918 - by which time he still had not been defeated and was even in the process of extending the war into Rhodesia!
World War One did not just see Africans sit passively or act solely as labourers as the war raged. Many Africans volunteered to fight on all sides and many ended up fighting in Europe as well as in Africa. Some Africans also took advantage of the war to challenged European hegemony. 1915 saw the Bussa Rebellion in Nigeria against the replacement of the Emir of Bussa by the British who believed he was too weak and ineffective at a time of war. This was put down relatively easily as forces were available in the region due to the war. The Sheikh of Senussi in the Western Desert launched a Jihad in 1915. There was a rising in Darfur in Sudan in 1916 and riots at Bongo on the Gold Coast. These were all dealt with but stretched the manpower of an Empire already at war.
The most serious challenge to the Europeans came in Nyasaland in 1915 with the Chilembwe uprising. This saw an American-educated black millenarian Christian minister called John Chilembwe attempt to coordinate an uprising with Lettow-Vorbeck's German forces fighting in the region. Chilembwe was particularly aggrieved at the condition of African porters pressed into service the Allied armies and the conditions of work for Africans on European plantations. He also attempted to use the instability of the military campaigns to seize power. His supporters attacked local plantations and killed settlers in their isolated farms. However, the hoped for coordination with the Germans never transpired and the British access to troops and communications systems allowed them to divert resources to deal with the rebellion which was over in a matter of days. The British authorities became wary of the role of his form of Christianity in encouraging resistance to colonial rule. African-run churches in particular came under scrutiny and were severely restricted at least until the end of the war! This uprising had come as a rude shock to the authorities especially as it had been led by a Western educated, European dressed and eloquent African. Chilembwe himself had been killed in the final days of the uprising but some of his supporters escaped into Portuguese Mozambique and carried on his teachings and aspirations for his proto-Nationalistic cause.
The Interwar Years
The Treaty of Versailles stripped Germany of all of its African colonies and placed most of them into the hands of the British and French as League of Nations Mandates. These Mandates were a new political construction meaning that they were under the stewardship of European control until they were self-sufficient enough to be able to govern themselves. Although no time limits were set, it was assumed that the end product would be for these mandates to achieve a substantial measure of independence in the future. Although implicit, this was the first time that Europeans conceded that Africans might be capable of running their own affairs on the international stage in some capacity. In practical terms though, the Mandates were ruled very much along the lines of the existing colonies.
The Treaty of Versailles was also notable for one other African related issue and that was the status of the Union of South Africa and role of Jan Smuts in particular. South Africa, like the other Dominions, attended the Treaty in their own right as an active participant. They were not merely observers on behalf of the British - they had the ability to influence the Treaty and were one of the final signatories. This marked a significant advance in the national development for South Africa as one of the key players on the international stage. South Africa was also awarded control over the previously German colony of South-West Africa. This effectively meant that the Dominion of South Africa had a colony of its own! As for Jan Smuts, despite his Boer background, he rose to prominence in the British Army during World War One joining the Imperial War Cabinet as an adviser to Lloyd George and was key in the later formation of the Royal Air Force. At Versailles, he was on the more liberal wing of negotiators - along with Botha. Perhaps his experience as a defeated warrior made him amenable to a more generous settlement. The ultimate harshness of the Treaty was severely criticised by Smuts who referred to it as a 'Carthaginian Peace'. For all his disappointment, Smuts was elevated into a senior statesman of the British Empire as something of a poster child for how Britain could rehabilitate defeated former foes and allow them to thrive in a fair Empire. He was called on to negotiate with Eamon De Valera in Ireland to attempt to get the Irish to agree to a Dominion status along the lines that the Boers had accepted. He returned to South Africa as Prime Minister until 1924. In many ways, Smuts was the first serious statesman to be regarded as a political giant on the World stage from Africa. The fact that he was a European speaking on behalf of a settler community made it more palatable to the European-centric international order of the day.
World War One shook the military confidence of all the European protagonists. The British were torn between having to police a larger Empire than ever with a distinct swing to pacifistic tendencies in light of the slaughter and suffering of World War One. Attempts to police the Empire with a minimum of (British) bloodshed could be seen in the attempted technique of using the recently developed air power for the first time. Mohammed Abdullah Hassan (the so-called Mad Mullah) led a revolt of the Dervish in British Somaliland. For the first time, the newly created RAF was given operational command of the campaign to defeat the Mad Mullah in late 1919, early 1920. It took just three weeks of using aircraft to attack from the air followed by ground attack forces to subdue a rebellion that had been simmering in violence for nearly a decade. The British government was delighted at the low cost of the campaign and it was dubbed "the cheapest war in history".
In fact, advances in technology that had been invented, developed or improved on the battlefields of World War One helped to transform the governance and control of Africa in the 1920s and 1930s. Air travel suddenly made it possible for politicians and administrators to move with relative ease between the colonies. They also allowed for a quicker and more effective way to map the lands that were under their control. Motorised transport gave greater freedom to traders and settlers who could move further afield from the railway arteries that had dictated their settlement patterns. The internal combustion also allowed for generators to be set up in even the most remote plantations and farms. Electrification was also introduced in the larger settlements and cities bringing power to factories and homes alike. South Africa in particular saw its cities to become every bit as sophisticated as their European or American counterparts. In fact, links to European (and increasingly American) culture were enhanced by the increasing prevalence of film, gramophones and radio. The Royal family began to broadcast Christmas Day messages to the Empire over the airwaves. Telegraph wires were being replaced or augmented by transmitting masts. The BBC set up an overseas service in 1932 to specifically broadcast to the wider Empire.
These improved communications linked Africa to the rest of the world positively and negatively. They were more plugged into the international market for primary products and foodstuffs as trains and port facilities could take products out of Africa and bring manufactured goods in. However, in the immediate aftermath of World War One it also showed that it could be used to spread disease from the wider World to Africa as the deadly Influenza Epidemic followed returning soldiers along the railways and roads of even some of the remotest parts of the Continent. Africa was truly becoming integrated into the international system.
Parts of Africa were also influenced by political developments elsewhere in the Empire. The growing importance of the Indian Nationalist Congress and of events in Ireland may have partly inspired revolts in Egypt by the nationalistic Wafd party. The extent of this challenge convinced Lord Milner to recommend conditional independence for Egypt - with some safeguards for Britain's interests. The British protectorate over Egypt was supposedly ended in 1922 and the Wafd won a landslide victory the following year under a constitution giving universal suffrage and ministerial responsibility over the day to day running of affairs. There was some confusion over the extent of just what powers Britain had retained for itself and there were to be repeated challenges over the extent of defence commitments, security of communications and the future of Sudan. In principle, if not in practice, Egypt had become only the second colony after Ireland to move decisively towards the exit of Empire.
The two other areas of large numbers of European settlers were Kenya and Rhodesia. The former saw the creation of the Young Kikuyu Association, led by Harry Thuku. This was concerned at the privileged land allocation given to white settlers. Kenya, with its safari and big game hunting reputation found it relatively easy to attract well to do British settlers. Rhodesia, on the other hand, appealed to a lower socio-economic group of British settlers - soldiers looking to start afresh after WW1 or farmers looking for new lands to work on. It was often said that the officer class was attracted to Kenya whilst the NCO class headed to Rhodesia. Rhodesia underwent a major organisational shift in the 1920s as it left British South Africa Company rule. It was clear that the hoped for gold was not going to materialise in Rhodesia and the Company's pockets were not deep enough to provide the administration and infrastructure development that the settlers wanted. The 1920 Legislative Council election saw a strong vote for the Responsible Government Association which wished to see a termination of BSAC rule. Two years later, a referendum was held on whether to demand continued BSAC rule, responsible self-government or Union with South Africa. The BSAC option was actually dropped from the referendum as it became clear that few supported this option and the company decided to lobby for Union with South Africa as a backstop position. In the end the (white) electorate selected the responsible government option - hoping that they would gain full Dominion rights over time.
The 1920s started optimistically for the colonies as prices of their primary products rose and markets seemed to grow thanks to improvements in technology and agricultural methodology. The Wall Street Crash in 1929 heralded the onslaught of the Great Depression which saw the prices of the kind of primary products that African colonies produce collapse. Tariffs by rival European powers and America only deepened the crisis. The Empire turned in on itself in an attempt to prop up the economic viability of Britain, the Dominions and the colonies themselves. Imperial imports rose to over 37% of Britain's imports in 1937 whilst it represented 40% of Britain's exports. A cash strapped British government conceded constitutional powers to the Dominions like South Africa in return for financial support - of which South Africa's Gold mines provided a particularly sought after product. The most significant transfer of power was the 1931 Statute of Westminster which granted legislative independence for the self-governing colonies (except Southern Rhodesia) whilst maintaining allegiance to the Crown. This was a decisive step towards nationhood for all the dominions whilst absolving Britain of some of its defence and finance obligations at a time of increasing austerity.
As the European and American powers turned in on themselves, the concept of needing Empires for resources returned. The Fascist Italian government of Mussolini attempted to right what he perceived as a historical stain by returning to Abyssinia to conquer it once and for all. Britain and France were revealed as little more than paper tigers as they sat idly by whilst he used poisoned gas and machine guns to impose Italian control in East Africa. The British and French were once again worried about offending the rising power of Hitler's Germany but achieved little other than to demonstrate their own impotence and that of the League of Nations which they purported to use as an instrument to maintain international peace. Both the Italians and Germans viewed the British and French empires with envy little appreciating how fragile they truly were in the 1930s and how they were both attempting to divest themselves from the costs of empire whilst attempting to retain the benefits. This was a tightrope walk that was increasingly difficult to pull off as the world headed into a Second global conflagration and once again spill onto African shores.
Although Germany had been shorn of its colonies as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, the Second World War would still see Africa become an active theatre of war in its own right. The principle, but not only, reason for this was due to Germany's fascist ally Italy having substantial imperial interests in North and East Africa. French colonies would also end up causing some complications after the Fall of France and the complications of Vichy French control. Additionally, British colonies would once again contribute manpower, economic products vital to the war effort and provide bases to help fight the threat of German submarine warfare and airbases to allow communications and personnel to flow around Axis controlled Europe and North Africa. Once again, the proximity of Africa to the central fields of conflict in Europe and the competition of European colonial powers (all be it slightly different ones from WW1) meant that Africa became embroiled in a World War for the second time within a generation of the First.
From the very outset of the Second World War, the British key strategic concern as far as Africa was concerned was the security of the Suez Canal. It was felt that its control was vital to ensure links with India, the increasingly important oilfields of the Middle East and the Dominions of the Pacific were all held open. It did not help that fascist Italy had colonies in both the neighbouring Libya and to the south of Egypt in Abyssinia and the Horn of Africa. In actual fact, despite controlling Gibraltar, Malta and the Suez Canal, Britain's historic control of the Mediterranean was challenged like never before - although less by a naval challenge and more by aerial assault from bases in Italy and Libya. This Mediterranean route was not really a viable one for supply and personnel purposes and ships tended to take the slower but safer Cape of Good Hope route to the UK.
Africa became an active theatre of operations in 1940 as a consequence of Germany unleashing its Blitzkrieg upon France. Italy, sensing the imminent demise of her beleaguered neighbour, threw in her lot with Hitler and joined in the conflagration on June 10th. Within days, Italy sent bombers to attack a Rhodesian airbase in Kenya from bases in Ethiopia. In July, Italian forces entered Kenya and advanced 100 miles before supply issues saw them halt. Likewise, Italian forces from Eritrea crossed into Sudan as far as the Blue Nile but had to stop due to lack of fuel.
August saw the most impressive Italian incursion to date as she invaded and conquered British Somaliland. The Italians deployed tanks and armoured cars against a lightly armed British contingent which withdrew in fairly good order and was largely evacuated to Aden successfully. However, this was still a defeat for the British and saw her first colony lost in entirety to the Axis powers.
The sudden collapse of France brought additional problems for the British in Africa. The issue at hand was to whom the colonies owed allegiance towards; the Vichy French government or the Free French government. Most colonies took the view that the Vichy French government was the legal successor government and so, often begrudgingly, stayed loyal to the puppet regime. The British, fearing that the French naval fleet would fall into the hands of the Germans, launched a devastating attack on French ships in Mers-el-kebir in Algeria destroying them but also killing over 1200 former allied sailors. The British interred the French naval squadron in Alexandria, Egypt also. Vichy France broke off formal diplomatic relations with Britain after these events as attitudes hardened on both sides. A concerted effort to wrest control of Senegal from Vichy forces by launching an invasion of the strategically important port of Dakar with the Free French leader Charles de Gaulle was undertaken in September 1940. Attempts to persuade the French defenders to defect from the Vichy French government fell on deaf ears as they resisted the Free French troops being landed on beaches nearby. Furthermore, the Vichy government escalated the stakes by attacking Gibraltar from bases in North Africa. The British therefore withdrew and left Senegal under Vichy French control. There was more success in Equatorial Africa where the Fremch Cameroons, Chad and Gabon were all successfully brought under Free French control by the end of the year.
September 1940 saw the first serious onslaught towards the Suez Canal when the Italians, bouyed by their success in Somaliland, invaded from Libya into Egypt. This launched the North African campaign in earnest and would see sustained warfare for the next three years along the Mediterranean coast. This first invasion was easily rebuffed by the British who, unlike in Somaliland, had modern tanks and aircraft available. They were also being reinforced by troops from India, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa amongst other imperial forces. And once again, supply issues and lack of transport severely hampered the Italian campaign who were soon on headlong retreat into Libya. An attack on Italian forces in East Africa was similarly successful as the isolated Italian forces had no way of being resupplied or able to receive reinforcements. However, British forces did not fully evict the Italians from North Africa as Churchill insisted that troops be landed in Greece and Crete in early 1941. Using Egypt as a base of operations to attack the mainland of Europe infuriated Hitler who diverted troops south through Yugoslavia to evict the British from Greece (but fatally delaying his invasion of the Soviet Union). Hitler also sent a new force called the 'Afrika Korps' under the capable leadership of Rommel to help the Italians in North Africa. Under Rommel's leadership, the Axis forces would once again take the initiative and drive British forces back into Egypt. Events in Asia did not help the Allied cause from December 1941 when the Japanese attacked British colonies like Malaya and then Singapore. Australian and Indian forces were diverted to fight in the ever expanding global war. There was now real concern that Axis forces in North Africa sweep into the Middle East and join with German forces advancing into Russia and perhaps even with Japanese forces advancing through Burma and into India. The Suez Canal had taken on a new strategic concern as the choke point to avoid any such unification of Axis forces.
Britain also had internal opposition to colonial rule to contend with in the dark days of 1942 when pro-Axis Egyptian political forces threatened to negotiate with the Axis forces now at their doorstep. A timely intervention by the British saw their forces surround the Abdeen Palace where the King of Egypt was housed and forced him, literally at gunpoint, to appoint a pro-British government. King Farouk I agreed and gave the British the government they desired. In the short term, this provided a great relief to the British fighting in North Africa, but in the long term it helped stoke anti-colonial and Republican forces in Egypt which would have consequences in the post-war world.
One silver lining for the British in this period was the arrival of the Americans on the Allied side as a consequence of the Japanese attacks in Asia. This freed up British resources and manpower to concentrate in El Alamein just 60 miles west of Alexandria and launch the biggest British Imperial offensive of the Second World War. The result of the battle was to end in a decisive Allied victory. Coupled with American landings against Vichy French colonies in North Africa (which also saw the collapse of the Vichy French government), the Allies would finally take control of the African continent in its entirety in 1943. However even after control was reasserted, Africa still maintained its strategic value in allowing Allied forces to use its bases to invade Italy and Southern France from. It also allowed the allies to launch bombing raids of German controlled Southern and Eastern Europe. And of course, African soldiers, sailors and airmen continued to serve in all theatres of war in support of the British war effort.
As the war drew to a close, Britain would find that its theoretical area of control in Africa would actually grow in size - if only temporarily. This was because much of the Italian Empire would be given to British control by the newly formed United Nations in the form of new Mandates - Somalia, Eritrea, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Likewise, the old League of Nations mandates were reissued so Tanganyika continued under British control and South West Africa continued under South African control for instance.
World War had once again taken a terrible toll on the economic and military power of Britain, but once again she emerged on the victorious side and once again she seemed to profit in Africa at least in terms of land and colonies. However, victory had been achieved at a very high economic and political price for the ailing great power and short term commitments to help defeat the Axis powers would, in the long term, haunt Britain's imperial ambitions in the post-war World.
Two elections in the post-war period would take Africa in two contradictory directions relatively quickly after the war had finished. The first key election was of a Labour government in Britain in 1945 which had demonstrated sympathies to a variety of independence and liberation movements. The other was in South Africa where a Nationalist government was elected in 1948 with a commitment to racial apartheid.
The newly elected Labour government seemed to offer a break from Britain's historic commitment to its Empire with a promise of independence to India as early as 1947. At a stroke, this altered the strategic rationale for Britain's continued involvement in the Suez Canal for starters. However, independence movements in Africa were to be disappointed at promises and commitments made to African colonies as arguments were successfully made in the British government that the colonies in Africa were just not developed enough to be able to support themselves as independent nations. The Labour government did, though, accelerate commitments towards development and economic self-sufficiency as the Colonial Service was directed to make more efforts to prepare colonies for possible self-government and ultimately independence in the future. There followed a steady stream of technocrats and advisers from Britain to Africa to expand educational and medical provisions whilst also identifying economic opportunities and developing infrastructure. Some of these attempts were over-ambitious and ended in farce such as the Ground Nuts scheme in Tanganyika which attempted to foist unfamiliar techniques on an industrial scale in inappropriate locations. But more success was had at the micro-level where specialists worked in collaboration with local populations to help transfer technical knowledge and solve local problems. However, the decolonisation process which had begun in Asia did not seem to be moving to Africa in any appreciable political manner despite a Labour government being in power in Britain until 1951.
Events in Southern Africa took a darker turn with the election of the Afrikaner Nationalist Daniel Malan over the more cosmopolitan Jan Smuts and his comparatively more liberal South African Party. Indeed, Jan Smuts had been something of a poster boy for successful absorption of a former enemy into the British Empire. He had been a Boer Commando who had fought against the British in the Boer War only to be given control of British Imperial forces in Africa against the Germans in World War One and then promoted to a Field Marshall in the British Army and served in the Imperial War Cabinet in World War Two. His defeat by the insular Malan sent shockwaves throughout the continent and served to convince many black Africans that white minority control was something to fear and fight against. Malan set about delivering his apartheid promises and restricting the rights of South Africa's black majority population through segregation and the force of law. As South Africa was a Dominion, it had been given the rights of an independent nation after the statute of Westminster in 1931. This meant that, other than to protest, there was little that the British could do about these political events in South Africa.
The other two African colonies with a significant white minority were Kenya and Southern Rhodesia. Proximity and infrastructural ties meant that the latter was more influenced by the South African model of political domination than the former. The Conservative governments of the 1950s on the surface may have appeared more sympathetic to the white settler fears, but in reality realised that accommodation would have to be made with local African polities and leaders in order to keep the peace and promote economic development. The Conservatives came up with a new initiative to try and kick start colonial self-sufficiency. The idea was the creation of large federations comprising of several colonies in an attempt to gain economies of scale for administration whilst integrating infrastructural development and hopefully boosting economic viability. It was also hoped by Conservative politicians that it could be used to tie white settlers to the economic success of their region and work more closely with their black African co-colonists. Kenya was to be tied to Tanganyika and Uganda in the British East Africa Federation whilst Southern Rhodesia was to be tied to Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland in the Central African Federation. Unfortunately, many Africans deemed it the opposite and thought that these federations were ways of institutionalising white settler control over wider areas of Africa. In the case of Kenya, their incorporation into Federation was a major reason for the eruption of the Mau Mau rebellion by the Kikuyu tribe throughout the 1950s.
The Mau Mau rebellion was only the first of a series of major challenges to the Conservative government's attempts to continue colonial control in Africa. What started out as seemingly isolated attacks on exposed European farmsteads and plantations steadily escalated in scope and savagery. Britain's responses steadily escalated also with a State of Emergency being called in 1952 and more and more regular soldiers being brought in to deal with the security situation. Wide scale detentions, interrogations and patrols gradually brought the situation under control but only at an enormous financial and ultimately political cost. Correspondingly, public opinion back at home also began to question the wisdom of making such an investment in control in a country in East Africa especially when events elsewhere on the continent further illustrated European power's declining ability to influence and control events on the continent.
Despite being identified with the more imperial and nationalistic end of the political spectrum, it was to be the Conservatives who would oversee the first significant dismantling of the British Empire in Africa. The first brick to be pulled out of the wall would be in Egypt where the consequences of the British coup in 1942 were still to be played out in full. 1952 saw the King of Egypt overthrown by his military generals, many of whom had felt betrayed and belittled by the events back in 1942. The new military government was suspicious and antagonistic to British interests and particularly hostile to her continued control, along with the French, of the Suez Canal. Attempts to negotiate continued British and French running of the Canal system seemed to succeed and a deal was done in 1954 to allow the British and French to control a narrow corridor alongside the canal whilst withdrawing their troops. However, no sooner had these western troops been withdrawn than General Nasser ordered the seizing of the Canal Zone by Egyptian forces and the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company. Britain and France's response was to be ham-fisted and ultimately disastrous as they attempted to use spurious attacks on Israel as an excuse to seize the Canal back. Launching attacks in the same week as the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union, the timing could hardly have been worse and when the United States joined United Nations powers demanding Britain and France's immediate withdrawal, Britain had little option but to comply. Britain's Prime Minister Anthony Eden had been humiliated and resigned. His replacement, Harold Macmillan, despite still being a Conservative politician, was to prove more adept at dealing with the newly emboldened clamours and calls for self-rule and independence across the continent.
Britain's political defeat over Suez forced them to reconsider their colonial policies. Britain was not the only European power under pressure to decolonise as the French and Belgians also found themselves in increasingly protracted and brutal wars to maintain control of their colonies. Rather than digging their heels in and resisting calls for independence, Britain switched to a policy of accelerating those calls for independence from relatively stable colonies whilst hoping to influence and earn goodwill from likely political inheritors and existing political elites. In effect, they hoped that by freely granting independence, they were more likely to be able to continue British economic and political relations with any new successor states. The first on the list was to be the Gold Coast colony which was to gain independence as Ghana as early as 1957. The Gold Coast had long been an economically stable and politically mature colony and was an obvious candidate to experiment with. The joy and gratitude of the population did much to embolden Britain's decolonisation process and other promises and commitments were entered into. The carrot of independence was to be one of the key reasons that the Kenyan Mau Mau rebellion was finally brought to an end. With promises of independence contingent upon peace, law and order, Kikuyu leaders were brought inside the political tent and ended up cooperating extensively with the British in transforming the political situation in Kenya before being granted its independence in 1963.
Southern Africa seemed to resist this tidal wave towards independence being granted on the basis of one person one vote regardless of skin colour. It is no accident that Macmillan travelled to the by now openly racist South African parliament to deliver his famous 'Wind of Change' speech in 1960:
"The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact"
Many South African whites did not like it and a referendum (of only the white population) to leave the Commonwealth was successful by 52% to 48% and they duly left the Commonwealth in 1961.
The other prickly problem in Southern Africa was the case of Southern Rhodesia which still had a large and influential white minority controlling most of the levers of power in the colony. Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland had no wishes to continue to be shackled to a white minority colony whilst most of the rest of black African colonies were being granted their independence. Requests to leave and gain their own independence were granted to the nation colonies in 1964 and 1965. This left Southern Rhodesia with a political constitution that could not be granted independence by the British for fear of appearing racist to the rest of black Africa. The British had committed themselves to only granting independence on the basis of one person one vote - which would inevitably lead to black rule. The white population in Southern Rhodesia felt particularly worried by what happened in nearby Congo in 1960 when the Belgians left in a hurry and much of the settler population were butchered and killed. A white dominated 'Rhodesia Front' was elected in 1964 and fell out with an also recently elected British Labour government over black participation in elections. Under the leadership of Ian Smith, the Rhodesia Front declared its independence from Britain - UDI - Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965. This was technically illegal but there was little that the British government could do about it in the short term except to condemn the action. The newly formed Rhodesia relied heavily on support from the apartheid regime in South Africa especially after United Nations' sanctions were put in place. However, when insurgencies erupted in the ex-Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique as well as independence fighters in Rhodesia itself, the South Africans began to grow weary of the unstable borders to their north and gradually withdrew overt support from the Rhodesian regime. Many white Rhodesians also found it tiresome to live in the economically besieged and increasingly dangerous country of Rhodesia and fled abroad helping to make the white minority smaller still. By 1978 it was clear that an accommodation would have to be made and Rhodesia reluctantly negotiated to technically rejoin the British Empire so that Zimbabwe could be granted its independence on a one person one vote basis in 1979.
Almost alone of the European powers, Britain had divested its control of the vast majority of its African colonies with remarkably little shedding of blood - although there was some! It also was able to maintain good relations with the majority of its former colonies. The obvious exception was Egypt which perhaps proved the wisdom of attempting to leave its colonies on good terms in a negotiated and peaceful manner rather than be forced to abandoning them due to crisis or rebellion. Not all post-colonial successor states were successful themselves though - Uganda, Nigeria and Sudan for instance all had serious problems and often saw the British backed political elites overthrown or replaced. Invariably, even if Britain itself had not been able to positively influence events in these newly independent nations, often the moral force of the Commonwealth has been influential in its place. Indeed, the re-entrance of South Africa into the Commonwealth in 1994 after the election of Nelson Mandela and a black majority government seemed to tie up the loose strands of Britain's imperial legacy on the continent of Africa. The fact that Mozambique also joined the Commonwealth, despite having no direct historical connection with the British Empire, also helps illustrate that the legacy of the British on the Continent was certainly not all bad and that her legacy had many positive aspects.
Perhaps the first Prime Minister of Nigeria, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, in his speech at independence expressed Britain's colonial legacy most coherently: "We are grateful to the British officers whom we have known first as masters, and then as leaders, and finally as partners; but always as friends".
Slave Trade Reg Collins understands why Britain is ashamed of the ruthless efficiency in which it pursued the slave trade, but wonders why it does not always get credit for its later role in suppressing the trade in the face of international hostility and recalcitrance.