The late 1800’s brought about much change on the African continent. Africa as it is known today was shaped by the events that took place in what is known as the Partition of Africa, also known as the Scramble for Africa. In 1833 the British Empire abolished slavery, this lead to a multitude of challenges for the African people as slavery was indeed the center of all economic gain prior to that point; as Africa began to integrate “into the capitalist world-economy” a race to power began in Europe as European Empires began colonizing the African continent with the purpose of economic gain as well as political power; Africa today is scarred by the occurrences of the past century, but some may argue that although colonialism in Africa was extremely cruel it did indeed modernize the continent. There are many “Africa’s” in Africa, meaning that each colonial rule was different in the way it conducted and expressed its power and rule thus each area suffered and gained in distinct ways; this paper will argue the aforementioned subtopics of colonial dynamics.
It is no secret that the Kingdoms of Africa gained ample wealth from the slave trade, Adu Boahen explains that “The abolition and suppression of the slave trade came as shock to many Africans and posed a great challenge to them cannot be denied”, Asante King at the time Osei Bonsu tells us how “A long time ago the great king liked plenty of trade, more than now; then many ships came, and they brought ivory, gold and slaves; but now he – the British King – will not let the ships come as before and the people buy gold and ivory only”. For centuries “the external economy of virtually the whole of Africa depended on the slave trade to the Americas, the Indian Ocean Islands and India, Europe, and the Middle East”. This meant that Africa as a continent had to find another means to occupy this “huge economic vacuum created by the cessation of the slave trade”. The slave trade was “the most inhumane and abominable” trading activity that ever existed, and thankfully the African continent was able to change through this revolutionary period from slave trade to trading in natural products. The ending of slavery “meant a corresponding cessation of wars and raids that produced the slaves and, with that, the beginning of peace and stability in those regions of the continent that had been the principle sources of that inhuman traffic”. Shortly the wealth across the continent began to distribute and Africa had fully integrated “into the capitalist world-economy”. The stability and peace in Africa was not going to remain the same for long as powerful outside forces were lurking in the background.
To understand colonialism in Africa, it is important to understand what was happening in Europe at the time. There was huge rivalry between Britain, France, Germany, and other european superpowers, thus there was a political reason tied to power; Africa offered an open market, hence the economic growth of these superpowers. Ad Boahen speaks about how “It was not economic conditions and especially the need to invest surplus capital alone that gave rise to the new imperialist spirit in Europe; political and social conditions were equally important”. Africa was and still is today a land of opportunity, so rich in resource which ultimately might have been its curse as with colonialism and post-colonialist actions has lead to corruption and the downgrade of many areas. What is interesting to note its that at the start of this New Imperialist Era, the African rulers presented with the colonial challenge believed that cooperation on an economical level – through trade – with Europe would have been a success or in Adu’s words a “Mutual benefit”, the African rulers “were determined to defend their sovereignty, religion, and traditional way of life” as all this took place; but as Adu Boahen explains it was not quite what happened: “The majority of these African rulers and intellectual leaders had not realized that by the 1880’s and 1890’s, the Europe that they were about to encounter was not the same Europe that they had been dealing with since the fifteenth century. It was now a Europe which had witnessed the industrial revolution and was desperatley in need of markers as well as raw materials.” Europe saw Africa as a target to become richer and more powerful. What Africans had not taken into consideration was that “Europe had by that time, again partly as a result of the industrial revolution, dropped her old attitude of free trade and informal political control in favor of trade monopoly and direct political and financial control or colonial imperialism.” Europe on every scale was more advanced, militarily the Africans stood no chance as Europeans had moved on to the Maxim-gun, the first machine gun, in battles the europeans would slaughter thousands of african warriors as if it was nothing. On a medical scale Europeans were light years ahead and did not die as frequently as before… Europe was colonizing Africa through sheer power. King Leopold’s Congo was the first to set an imperial foot on African soil, as he lost Vietnam to the french his eyes turned to Africa as he said “I intend to find out discreetly whether there is anything doing in Africa” and surely there was “doing” as shortly after King Leopold said “We must obtain a slice of this magnifique gâteau Africain”. Soon, following in King Leopold’s footsteps, the other European superpowers began the Scramble for Africa. Africa is a big continent, thus it is hard to talk about Africa as a whole when many areas faced different circumstances and got different outcomes from the events of the past century. Africa has been scared by the colonial period and suffers from it today. In Basil Davidson’s documentary African Cake it is visible how rule under certain monarchs was truly different: In Nigeria the British monarch allowed the native chiefs to rule as they did before and Nigeria acted as a protectorate for the Britain. In Senegal a French colony it worked similar to Nigeria with the British, the big difference was that in the minds of the French, the senegalese and all other people from the colonies of France could one day become actual French nationals/citizens. These two examples show how the colonial rule was subtle, taxes would be paid to the Monarch and life would continue as it did before allowing the national tribes to tule their people. In the Congo it was very difference as the rule was harsh and cruel, the Belgium colonials would chop off limbs as punishment to those who did not meet the desired production rates of rubber. These examples are just to show how in Africa there are many “Africa’s” each with different experiences that left distinct scars.
Scars were indeed left, but what did Africa gain from this New Imperialist movement? John Reader explains how at the start King Leopold’s idea was not just economic gain but also to create a “standard of civilization” for the African continent. The idea was to that the “Standard of civilization might be planted in the soil of central Africa. A line of stations might be established, extending across the continent from coast to coast… For purposes of relief, of science and of pacification… as a means of abolishing slavery, of establishing harmony among the chiefs, and providing for them just and disinterested arbitrators”. If King Leopold had actually done what he said he would have been remembered as a great, but like many power and money corrupt the individual. In reality there was a push for modernization, there was this idea that it was the “white man’s” obligation to do so as in the eyes of many Africans were just savages waiting to be tamed, although it derived from India it was the Idea of Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden”. What Europeans failed to understand is that maybe many of these countries did not want such a fast paced modernization, which in the end left Africa “semi-developed” as you can travel 100 meters and go from the stone age to the rocket age, meaning that in 100 meters you can see kids playing in the gutter and right next to them a multimillion dollar skyscraper. The fast paced modernization left the scars of inequality, but did in fact bring about gains in terms of economic wealth, stability in some areas, education, health, and other factors. Africa today is the continent with the fastest growing economies in the world, unfortunately it is diagnosed with he recourse curse which is its worse enemy and best friend at the same time. The scars have left dependencies, and at the same time they have built beautiful cities that thrive. There is no way we can measure the pro’s and con’s as there have been too many gains and too many scars.
I grew up in Western Africa, thus I have lived and encountered outcomes of the past century. Corruption, poor leadership, powerful MNC’s all are factors of post-colonial Africa and the dependency to their ex colonial rulers. The abolition of slavery did not give Africa enough time to voice themselves as shortly after they were oppressed by a much powerful force that exploited the land for economical and political gains. Colonialism in Africa, knowns as the Partition of Africa brought about much change and left a continent influenced by its conquerors. Good and bad came out if it with no realistic way to measure it. Africa is changing though, and we need to keep that in mind. Today Africa is still the land of opportunity with the largest economic growth in the world, theres a push to westernization which is accepted by the young generations of Africans as globalization ties it all together. MNC’s are not as self centered as they once were and actually give back to the country which they exploit for natural raw material. The events of the past shape what you will become in the future, you learn from the past and move on and strive for greatness… The improvements in Africa on all scales are stratospheric. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.
A Adu Boahen, African Perspectives on Colonialism, Chapters 1-2
John Reader, Africa: A Biography of a Continent, Chapters 46-47
Film Screening: Basil Davidson, African Cake, parts 1&2