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Europeans Rule Africa

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Takeover of Africa

On the eve of World War I, in 1914, almost the entire continent of Africa was under European rule. The only exceptions were the independent nations of Ethiopia on the Red Sea and tiny Liberia on the Atlantic coast.

In the nineteenth century, Europeans regarded Africa as a literal and figurative economic gold mine. Literally, the southern half of the continent had fairly extensive resources of gold (and diamonds). Figuratively, Africa was a repository of natural resources that Europe could not provide for itself, such as rubber and a variety of minerals. Africa boasted a variety of climates, and many regions of the continent were ideal for the cultivation of cotton, coffee, and cocoa—all highly valued in Europe.

Europe had made enormous profits from the slave trade before the mid- 1700s. Although European nations did not use African slave labor on the continent, they did carry shiploads of slaves to their colonies across the Atlantic. Millions of Africans—many sold to the traders by Africans from rival tribes— were kidnapped, transported, and sold into labor in the cotton or sugarcane fields of the Caribbean Islands, Latin America, and the southern United States. Britain alone shipped more than 3 million Africans across the ocean.

African tribal culture was centuries old by the time the first Europeans made contact with the continent. The continent was not culturally homogeneous; it was home to a large number of tribes who spoke different languages and had a great variety of customs. However, none of these was recognizable to a European as a civilized culture. European invaders of Africa behaved exactly as they had in the Americas in the 1500s: They conquered with their superior fire power, imposed their own culture and language on the native peoples, and exploited them.

In most cases, the Africans were simply not prepared for the European aggression. In some cases, Africans even welcomed Europeans as potential allies against their traditional local rivals. Africans were prone to accommodate the Europeans rather than risk armed confrontation, which they had no hope of winning due to their lack of sophisticated arms. Yet, they found many means of both passive and active resistance—everything from nonpayment of tributes and taxes to full-scale rebellion. European control was much more present in urban areas than in the countryside. Additionally, many areas of Africa were largely inaccessible without a modern transportation network, which took some time to build. European occupation therefore had relatively little effect on thousands of rural Africans.

Christian missionaries began playing an active role in Africa around the late 1700s, with the Baptist Missionary Society being founded in 1795. The men and women who traveled to Africa did not merely spread the gospel; they pro- vided practical, down-to-earth help in a number of areas. First, they brought medicines and medical help. Malaria, which was spread by mosquitoes, was (and still is) epidemic throughout most of southern Africa. The missionaries brought and distributed quinine, which helped to combat it. Second, they were teachers. They held classes for children and adults, teaching them to read and write—not just in European languages, but in their own. Unlike the more secular colonizers, the missionaries lived among the people, ate the same food, and worked hard to learn the languages. It was the missionaries who were responsible, in many cases, for creating written forms of many of the African languages for the first time. This creation of a whole class of literate, educated Africans would prove crucial in the drive for African self-determination and independence that began after World War II. Third, the missionaries used what influence they had to try to persuade the Africans to discontinue some of their cruelest traditional practices, such as human sacrifice, slavery, and polygamy.

The European trade in African slaves was a source of vast profits for Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal. Africans also profited; Europeans paid them large sums of money to round up victims from hostile tribes. From the mid-1700s until the slave trade died out, most African slaves were shipped across the ocean to work, usually in the worst and hardest jobs available, in the American colonies.

The vast majority of African slaves came from what Europeans had long called the “Gold Coast”—the coastal area of present-day Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria. The trade in slaves was so brisk for a time that the populations of these areas were decimated.

Olaudah Equiano (also known by the name of Gustavus Vasa), a slave who survived the notorious middle passage—the journey across the Atlantic—gained his freedom as an adult and wrote an important slave narrative. Equiano traveled to Britain in the early 1800s, becoming a well-known public speaker on the issue of abolition. He thus made an important contribution to the change of attitude in Britain that led to its 1807 ban on the slave trade.

Between 1858 and 1869, the French built the Suez Canal across a narrow neck of Egyptian land. This connection between the Mediterranean and Red Seas was to prove of major importance for communication, transport, and trade. The British seized the canal from the French in 1875, and soon after had established virtual control of the Egyptian government, largely for the sake of maintaining control of the canal. The British extended their authority in Egypt into neighboring Sudan. The Sudanese fought back under the leadership of Muhammad Ahmed ibn Ali, known as the Madhi. When the Madhi died, it became clear that effective Sudanese resistance depended on his leadership; without him, the Sudanese succumbed to the British in 1898. In 1899, Britain formally established Anglo-Egyptian rule in the Sudan. Britain also established itself in Nigeria and in the southern region in a colony it named Rhodesia (present-day Zambia and Zimbabwe).

Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Portugal all established a major presence on the African continent. Spain established one small colony on the Atlantic coast. The Dutch settled in South Africa, where they established the Cape Colony, which the British took over during the Napoleonic Wars. The Boers, as the Dutch South Africans were known, established the South African Republic and the Orange Free State (named for the royal house of Orange) in the mid-nineteenth century. The British eventually drove them out in the Boer War, and South Africa was made a British dominion.

European History Europe's African Colonies Map

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

World Trade and Empires in Europe Practice Test

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