Exemplar history essay

September 24, 2017

What drove European colonialism in Africa?


The motives underlying European colonialism in Africa have aroused vigorous debate among scholars ever since the publication of J.A. Hobson’s seminal treatise Imperialism, in 1902.[1] The ensuing debate following Hobson’s work generated a plethora of studies on late Victorian European imperialism that sought either to reinforce Hobson’s theory of ‘surplus capital’ or discredit the claims of any materialist explanation for European colonialism in Africa.[2] In recent years, explanations of colonialism in Africa that stress the causal complexity and contingency of the phenomenon have tended to succeed over mono-causal theories of the partition.[3] Colonialism in Africa was not monolithic; it was driven by the pre-existing strategic and political imperatives of European powers within a context of rapid economic, technological and intellectual change. Furthermore, European colonial rule in Africa was not something that was conceived a priori, as Richard Reid points out: “The “Scramble” for Africa was just that: a largely uncoordinated, often headlong rush from the coast into the hinterland and beyond…which resulted in the demarcation of some of the most bizarre territorial entities in modern global history”.[4] What this essay will seek to illustrate is that colonialism in Africa is best understood as a historical process that was driven by a range of divergent and often competing agents, interests and factors.

Although this account will mostly focus on what has been called the “Scramble” for Africa, it is important to acknowledge that European colonialism has a history that pre-dates the late Victorian partition of the continent. Before 1884 the coast of Africa was largely controlled by the traditional maritime powers of Britain, France and Portugal. The French and the British, in particular, established a system of ‘informal’ empire whereby direct control was largely limited to coastal forts with a reliance on establishing strong diplomatic ties with elites on the coast and the hinterland.[5] The British firmly established themselves on the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, Lagos Island and the mouth of the Gambia; this allowed them to exert influence over the peoples of Dahomey and Yorubaland.[6] The French established equivalent strongholds on the Ivory Coast, Senegal and at Libreville in Gabon.[7] Portugal’s influence rested on the control of the ports of Luanda and Benguela and the colony of Mozambique where it could continue engage in the slave trade even after other European powers had abolished it.[8] Although European footholds in Africa had been bases for the slave trade, the nineteenth century saw the growth of ‘legitimate’ commerce in commodities such as palm oil, gum arabic and ground nuts.[9] What this shows is that European colonialism (before the partition) in Africa was driven largely by material interests; colonialists were largely uninterested in establishing formal rule in the interior of Africa, nor were they concerned with schemes to reform African society along European lines.

In the wake of the “Great Depression” (1873-1896) European attitudes towards the continent of Africa began to change. The depression which affected the industrial nations of Europe was caused by a sustained contraction in prices, incomes and investment.[10] Prices fell because demand and supply in advanced economies had fallen into disequilibrium; production had outstripped the capacity of advanced economies to consume the goods that were produced, creating a crisis of “under consumption”.[11] The shrinking of European markets coupled with the realisation that existing overseas outlets for European capital were no longer as remunerative as they once were created the context in which Africa began to be seen a palliative to Europe’s economic ills.[12] Although European encroachment into the interior of Africa had been marginal, by the 1870s the recently discovered lands in Africa came to be seen as El Dorados which were ripe for economic exploitation.[13] The relative scarcity of new markets in Europe coupled with growing tales of mythical El Dorados in previously unexplored places acted as potent incentives to the minds of European policy-makers leading directly to the events which led to Africa’s partition in the last two decades of the nineteenth century.[14]  

Although economic change provided some of the impetus behind the colonisation of Africa, it was the diplomatic and strategic imperatives of European policy makers that defined how and when Africa was to be partitioned. In the case of Britain, formal acquisition of territory was often seen as undesirable so long as other European powers did not seek to encroach on these territories and establish protectionist barriers to trade. Colonies such as the Cape, and in particular, Egypt had an instrumental value in the eyes of British Policy-makers because they were valuable routes to Britain’s most prized imperial possession, India. It was Egypt’s strategic significance that was the driving force behind Britain’s military intervention in 1882 when the Urabi revolt threatened to wrest the Egyptian state from British control.[15]

For nations such as France, Portugal and imperial newcomers such as Germany and Italy, colonial acquisition in Africa was more strongly motivated by the need to gain or restore national prestige. French colonialism in the late nineteenth century was driven by the need to restore national pride after a catastrophic defeat to Prussia in 1871. The fall of Napoleon III allowed for a new generation of imperialist politicians such as Jules Ferry and Leon Gambetta to extol the virtues of empire as compensation for French humiliation at the hands of Germany.[16] Portugal’s renewed imperial vigour in the late nineteenth century was motivated by similar reasons; Portugal saw the legitimation of its claims in Africa as a means of breaking free from Britain’s hold over its colonial policy.[17] When Portugal called for an international conference in 1884 it was in fact acting under the auspices of Bismarck’s Germany. Bismarck used the Berlin Conference to challenge Britain’s ‘informal’ and quasi-legal claims over parts of West Africa.[18] Bismarck believed that Britain was operating a “Monroe Doctrine” over Africa, which had no basis in international law, and was preventing other European powers from staking out their claims on the continent.[19] Bismarck’s motives concerning Africa were more complex than those of his European counterparts; although he was motivated by the need to raise Germany’s prestige by challenging Britain’s imperial pretensions in Africa, he was not convinced of the efficacy of colonialism.[20] Bismarck was strongly influenced by domestic political concerns; he recognised that colonialism was an electorally popular policy when he said, “That whole colonial business is a sham, but we need it for the elections”.[21] What Bismarck’s complex relationship with colonialism illustrates is that it is difficult to reduce European colonialism in Africa to a single overriding motive. European policy-makers contended with a number of political priorities and constraints which affected their positions over the colonisation of Africa.

The debate over the causes of European colonialism in Africa is not merely a question of ‘what’ drove colonialism in Africa, but of whom. European Colonialism in Africa was not only driven by metropolitan statesmen, but by “men on the spot”, officials and military officers who acted with a high degree of independence from the metropole.[22] Officials on the periphery such as George McClean in the Gold Coast, Harry Smith (South Africa) or Faidherbe in Senegal were able to annex territory in Africa due to the indifference of their metropolitan leaders.[23] On some occasions the men on the spot acted against the wishes of their superiors by annexing African territory to suit their own ends. This was the case in 1879 when the French military in Senegal decided to wage a war of conquest against the Umarian Empire. The officers involved believed that conquest would allow them to advance in rank and that victory would protect them from the retribution of their civilian superiors.[24] This shows that European policy-makers were not completely in charge of their state’s colonial policy, they often ceded the initiative to their official and military subordinates on the periphery.

The influence of officials on the periphery was reinforced by the activities of non-governmental interest groups operating in both the metropole and the periphery of empire. Missionaries, merchants and financiers were particularly influential in persuading policy-makers to serve their interests in Africa. When the British government decided to annex the Kingdom of Buganda in the 1890s its decision was largely influenced by the pressure exerted by the missionary movement which was operating there.[25] According to historians such as P. J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins, the interests of finance capital played a pivotal role in Britain’s involvement in the partition of Africa; the close links between ‘gentleman capitalists’ and policy-makers allowed the interests of capital to be well represented when military interventions were considered.[26] In Germany, the colonial lobby consisted of merchants, who operated in North German ports; it was their vigorous lobbying that contributed to Bismarck’s conversion to colonialism which allowed Germany to acquire string of new territories in Africa.[27] The significant contribution which various non-governmental interest groups made to colonialism further reinforces the view that there was no monolithic driving force behind European colonialism in Africa.

None of the political and economic factors mentioned thus far can fully account for the sheer speed and ferocity in which the continent of Africa was colonised in the late nineteenth century; in 1879 more than 90% of Africa was ruled by Africans, by 1900 almost all of it was governed by Europeans.[28] This dramatic change could only have been made possible by the scientific and technological changes which Europe experienced in the period before the partition. The discovery of quinine as a prophylactic against malaria drastically reduced the mortality rate of Europeans in tropical Africa; this substantially improved the success rate of European expeditions in the interior of Africa.[29] The development of steamships, the railway and breech-loading rifles in the mid-nineteenth century allowed European to launch sustained expeditions and campaigns of conquest in the interior of Africa; the natural barriers that had hitherto protected much of Africa from European encroachment had been overcome. To acknowledge the importance of scientific and technological change to the European conquest of Africa is not to say that these were the driving forces behind European colonialism. The technological advances which occurred were the necessary prerequisites for European expansion into Africa; but they were not the sufficient cause.

The conclusion that should be drawn about the causes of European colonialism in Africa is that no one theoretical model can adequately account for the complexity and nuance of the phenomenon. Mono-causal accounts which have tended to assert the primacy of economic factors have largely given way to more nuanced explanations which appreciate the contingency of the events that took place and emphasise the roles played by individuals and interest groups which stood outside traditional policy-making circles. Colonialism was not something which any one group of political agents had complete control. Metropolitan statesmen had to contend with independent minded and often bellicose officials and military officers on the periphery of empire, who they often found difficult to control. Interests groups such as the missionary movement, merchants and financiers acted as powerful lobbies in favour of colonialism; they acted as significant contributing factors to some of the military interventions that occurred in this period. The colonialism that took place in Africa in the last quarter of the nineteenth century was not a single unified occurrence. It was a dynamic process that was motivated by the strategic interests of policy-makers, the material or political concerns of interest groups and was made possible by the dramatic scientific and technological advances that took place prior to what came to be known as the “Scramble” for Africa.                 




[1] M.E, Chamberlain, The Scramble for Africa, (Harlow: 1999) pp.84-94.


[2] Ibid.


[3] Ibid.


[4] Richard J. Reid, A History of Modern Africa, (Malden: 2009) p.145.


[5] Bill Freund, The Making of Contemporary Africa, (Basingstoke: 1998) pp.63-64.


[6] Ibid.,p.64.


[7] Ibid.,p.65.


[8] Malyn Newitt, Portugal in Africa, (London: 1981) pp.6-14.


[9] Roland Oliver and Anthony Atmore, Africa since 1800, (Cambridge: 1994) p.64.


[10] Gregory P. Nowell, ‘imperialism and the era of falling prices’, Journal of Post Keynesian Economics, vol.25, no.2, p.313. 


[11] Ibid., p.317.


[12] G.N. Sanderson (ed), The Cambridge History of Africa, vol.6, pp.96-98.


[13] Ibid.,p.101.


[14] Ibid.,pp.126-136.


[15] Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher, Africa and the Victorians, (London: 1981) p.123.


[16] H.L. Wesseling, Divide and Rule, (Westport: 1996) pp.12-17.


[17] Ibid.,p.114.


[18] John Iliffe, Africans, (Cambridge: 1995) p.195.


[19] Ibid 12 at p.129.


[20] Ibid 16 at pp.109-113.


[21] Ibid 16 at p.109.


[22] Philip Curtin, et al, African History, (Harlow: 1978) p.452. 


[23] Ibid.,p.453.


[24] Ibid.,p.456.


[25] Ibid.


[26] P.J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins, British Imperialism, (Harlow: 1993) pp.351-391.


[27] Roland Oliver and Anthony Atmore, Africa since 1800, (Cambridge: 1994) p.106.


[28] Ibid.,p.100.


[29] Ibid 22 at pp.445-46.


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