Gabriel Lambert Why Scramble for Africa?

Global and Imperial History

Take up the White Man's burden -Send forth the best ye breed-Go bind your sons to exile To serve your captives' need; To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild-Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child. 1 In this extract from The White Man s Buren , Kipling succinctly captures the zeitgeist - it was the western and specifically the white man s heavy responsibility to bring Christianity, civilization and commerce 2 to the dark continent and indeed all primitive peoples across the world. But do such apparently philanthropic (though inherently racist) sentiments provide a suitable explanation for the scramble for Africa, in which every part of the continent, save Liberia and Ethiopia, was annexed or made a protectorate by 1914? Imperialist rhetoric , with its mix of self-interest, racial arrogance and missionary zeal 3 may well have concealed deeper reasons for the rapid seizure of land by the European powers economic and strategic factors may have been a more important motivating factor than the moral crusade Kipling advocated. Yet, the very term scramble is misleading. If one can identify distinct regional or country-specific reasons for annexation, or if one would like to distinguish between the carving up of land on paper at the 1884-5 Berlin Conference and the physical process of annexation, it would be best to talk of scrambles . It is also necessary to distinguish between means and motive if some European countries had the ability to partition Africa earlier in the 19th century, why did they not? European states may have possessed the ability to annex African territory before the 1880s, but it was only in th is period that they could do so without suffering major losses in battle and by disease. In early 19th century West Africa the annual mortality rate was around 250-750 per 1000, mostly due to malaria. 4 Yet, by the latter part of the century, largely due to the discovery of the prophylactic properties of the cinchona tree from South America in the late 1840s, the death rate had dropped to 50-100 per 1000. In a British expedition to the Asante capital of Kumasi lasting two months only 2% of the force was lost due to disease.5 The invention and widespread use of repeating rifles with hollow-based bullets to catch rifling from around 1885 and the patent of the Maxim machine gun, capable of firing 11 bullets per second in 1886, meant that a relatively small number of trained troops could wield unprecedented firepower at superior

1

The White Man s Burden, Rudyard Kipling, 1899, was urging America to take up the White Man s burden in the Phillipines after Spanish-American war. 2 Parker, J., and Rathbone, R., African History, p88 3 ibid, p95 4 Curtin, P., Feierman, S., Thompson, L., Vansina, J., African History, p445 5 ibid, p446

Gabriel Lambert

Global and Imperial History

ranges.6 Therefore, whilst the annexation of Algeria took France a lengthy 17 years of attrition beginning in 1830 since both sides had similar weapons, the Mahdist army was essentially broken in a single battle at Omdurman in 1898 where it suffered 11,000 dead to the British 49 since they repeatedly charged ranks of machine guns and rapidly-firing rifles.7 Thus technologically, it was only in the 1880s that Europe had the means to undertake invasions in an efficient and inexpensive manner. However, it must be added that, before the scramble began in earnest in 1880s, it was unlikely that any European power would have been able to interfere extensively in Africa, regardless of technology. Most developed states were either suffering internal crises, did not exist, or had other territorial ambitions. France suffered revolutions in 1830, 1848 and, most embarrassingly, in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, Germany and Italy were not a united countries until around 1871, Russia had a large Asian landmass for expansion and the USA was preoccupied with Mexican conquest and then the devastating Civil War. 8 The only power who might have taken an more significant interest in Africa was Britain. Yet her concerns were and remained primarily commercial all she required for this aim was free trade, which she guaranteed through her navy. There was simply no need to annex territory if it was simply being used to trade. What changed in Britain and the other European powers that gave them the motive as well as the means to compete to occupy African territory? One explanation is economic. A Marxist position would argue that the political bodies of the time were simply representing the monopolistic groups of financial capital 9 in their commitment to secure colonies. Interestingly, this idea was shared, though in different terms, by William Gregory, former Tory MP and governor of Ceylon who argued that the government s decision to invade Egypt was at the request of a clique of investors . 10 It is true that the loss of confidence in Egyptian stability in June 1882 when the money markets learnt of Egyptian instability may have influenced the British decision to invade (though concerns for the Suez Canal as the fastest route to India remained paramount). However, other than in Egypt and South Africa, there was very little foreign capital invested in Africa. British investment in Egypt was still only 1.3% of the total capital invested abroad in non-European countries in 1913. 11 Indeed, trade with the continent also remained low, suggesting that economic justifications of annexation were groundless in 1909 British trade with tropical Africa stood at £14 million, up from £2.3 million in the late 1860s but still only representing 2% of extra-European trade. 12 Yet, in the early 1880s, there was no way of predicting what the economic return from Africa would be. For instance, France saw in the interior of Africa markets
6

7

Iliffe, J., Africans The History of a Continent, p193 Parker, J., and Rathbone, R., African History, p98 8 Oliver, R., and Matthew, G., History of East Africa, p357 9 Sik, E., in Betts, R. F., The Scramble for Africa Causes and Dimensions of Empire, p65 10 James, L., The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, p273 11 Sanderson, G.N., The European Partition of Africa: Origins and Dynamics , p101 12 ibid, p101

Gabriel Lambert

Global and Imperial History

and outlets for capital which would not merely palliate but cure the malaise of the industrial economy. 13 Similarly, the Leeds Mercury of the 28 February 1885 predicted a vast market for cotton goods, blankets, crockery, muskets. 14 Thus it was expected that Africa would yield far more both in terms of new markets and raw materials such as cotton, dye-woods, waxes, vegetable oils and lubricants to fuel her growing industrialization. 15 Such expectations were understandable, given the general condition of the world economy from the mid-1870s most European markets had been flooded with inexpensive agricultural produce as their own export rates fell. Tariffs raised by most European countries gave rise to the idea of forming imperial trading blocks with preferential rates to encourage growth. This was apparent with Portugal s systematic exploitation of Angola and Mozambique in what might be termed new mercantilism . 16 Whilst the nationalistic fervour from colonial relations might provide a means of distracting the urban proletariat from radical socialism and anarchism its prime function was to try to drag Portugal out of financial crisis. Colonial goods were shipped for re-export from Portugal (mainly cocoa, rubber and coffee, the latter two from Angola) and tariffs were raised on domestic consumables such as sugar.17 As it transpired, the coffee market was already saturated from South America. But it was far more appealing to contemplate colonial expansion than complex domestic economic reform that would inevitably risk alienating a section of one s population. But even if the actual yields from colonies were low, it was the prospect of systematic economic gain to aid the struggling European economies that attracted many to Africa. In some cases, economic interest groups, particularly traders and merchants, specifically requested either annexation of territory in which they were operating. This was particularly true of British merchants the importance of Egypt stability to provide a capital market and the pressure from financiers to invade has already been mentioned but William Mackinnon and his involvement in East Africa provides another example. As long as the conditions for legitimate commerce and Christianity were established, it did not matter to Britain who actually possessed the territories on the east coast.18 It was far easier to operate indirectly, by strengthening a local state, in this case the Sultan Barghash of Zanzibar. It was only the arrival of Carl Peters, the founder of the Gesellschaft für Deutsche Kolonisation in 1885 who successfully sought treaties with the local chiefs and the need after 1887 to secure the source of the Nile that spurred the grant of a royal charter to Mackinnon s new trading company in 1888, thereby demonstrating direct British support for his territorial acquisitions on th e east coast.19 Thus what started as an indirect economic relationship rapidly turned into a more direct, important relationship. But this change occurred not because
13 14

ibid, p101 James, L., The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, p293 15 Oliver, R., and Matthew, G., History of East Africa, p352 16 Clarence-Smith, G. The Third Portuguese Empire. A Study in Economic Imperialism, p81 17 ibid, pp87-8 18 Oliver, R., and Matthew, G., History of East Africa, p356 19 ibid, p377

Gabriel Lambert

Global and Imperial History

the British government took an economic interest in the region but as a result of a strategic concern that Germany might capture land that covered the source of the Nile, a river that was vital for British interests after they had recognised the need to stay. 20 East Africa raises a more general point about the centrality of strategy for the shape and speed of the scramble . For Britain, the Cape Colony was valuable because it was, according to Lord Caledon, the governor in 1809, an outpost subservient to the protecting and securing of our East Indian possessions. 21 Throughout the scramble, Britain s concern for her existing colonies, especially India, dominated her behaviour in Africa in the south and Egypt in particular. But colonies also had their uses as tools of statesmanship the British invasion of Sudan in 1896, sometimes portrayed as a means of rebutting the French or as an example of a violent quest to avenge the martyr General Gordon, was originally intended as a campaign to distract the Mahdists from attacking Italian Eritrea after Italy was militarily weak from defeat in Ethiopia.22 In this way colonial actions could be used to further European diplomatic interests. The master of this policy was Bismarck. He saw little value in colonies themselves I want no colonies. They are good only for providing offices. 23 It seems extremely unlikely that Bismarck was bowing to public pressure in his colonial ambitions, rather he provoked Britain by laying claim to lands that hitherto had no claimant but Britain to draw closer to France. Thus the German colonies, at least those acquired until Bismarck s death might be seen as the accidental by-product of an abortive Franco-German entente. 24 It was only after Bismarck s death that they took on a spurious ideological value 25 and their original purposes as mechanisms through which to achieve European diplomatic goals was forgotten. It is tempting to see a little more behind Bismarck s actions. When Lüderitz occupied land in South Africa around the Orange River in1883, Bismarck inquired from the Foreign Office in Britain as to the nature of their claims in the area. It took them over six months to reply, finally saying that any foreign power interfering between Angola and the Cape Frontier would be seen to be infringing on Britain s rights. 26 This delay and the implied arrogance infuriated Bismarck and he promptly declared the German protectorate of Angra Pequeña. Bismarck was frustrated, not because of the specific land concerned, but because of the lack of respect Britain gave Germany over her claim. A defence of national prestige was needed. This prestige was most important for France after her loss of Alsace-Lorraine she was keen to regain a sense of national greatness. When Tunisia was annexed in 1881 the Republican leader Gambetta remarked France has regained its status as a great power 27 showing the importance of the colony for national pride. The Fashoda crisis of 1898 was a vain attempt by

20 21

ibid, p390 James, L., The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, p251 22 Sanderson, G.N., The European Partition of Africa: Origins and Dynamics , p113 23 Bismark in 1871 in Oliver, R., and Matthew, G., History of East Africa, p364 24 Taylore, A. J. P., in Betts, R. F., The Scramble for Africa Causes and Dimensions of Empire, p 21 25 ibid, p22 26 Oliver, R., and Matthew, G., History of East Africa, p366 27 Wesseling, H.L., The European Colonial Empires, 1815-1919, p150

Gabriel Lambert

Global and Imperial History

France to recapture some of her Egyptian territory, prompted by jealousy of British success in the area.28 Italy too placed great ideological importance in colonies as symbols of her power. The annexation of Libya in 1911 was prompted by both nationalists who craved glory and Catholics who supported religious conversion. This patriotism manifested itself outside of the state in passionate individuals who often dragged reluctant governments into new territory. The governor of Senegal Brière de l Isle was determined to revitalise French colonial wealth and used the funds given in 1879 for a railway from Senegal to Niger to finance a military venture to the river at Bamoko. 29 The examples are numerous General Gordon arrogantly assumed he could beat back the Mahdi at Khartoum in 1884 and disobeyed orders by remaining there. As alluded to previously, the future invasion of Sudan was a crusade for civilization and vengeance for the death of Gordon 30 his heroism therefore motivated future generations to conquer. Cecil Rhodes, the social Darwinist believed it was fitting that Anglo-Saxon races should rule world and did everything in his power to extend British influence by annexing Bechuanaland in 1884-5. 31 His career ended with the Jameson raid where he attempted to annex Transvaal for Britain. Thus nationalism was an unpredictable force it could be exploited by governments to distract from domestic hardship by emphasising the importance of national prestige or it could be seized by individuals with the financial power to make their own visions of colonial empires a reality, whether or not the governments of their nations wished it or not. It has hopefully become clear that the motivation behind the scramble for Africa was not undertaken because of a concern for the initiation, under European guidance, of millions of Negroes into superior conditions of existence 32 as Kipling thought. Indeed, the White Man s burden led to a halving in the population of the Congo under Leopold II s exploitative extraction of rubber and ivory. Economic, strategic and nationalistic motives, when combined with technical means shaped the pace and shape of the scramble with the rhetoric of civilizing the natives being used as a cover. Perhaps the most important omission is the sense of tension that fostered such a rapid seizure of territory the French were jealous of the British, the Germans felt humiliated by the British lack of respect for their emerging empire and the British were suspicious of the motivations of all the major powers. It was this mutual antagonism and the desire not to be outdone by any rival that made the scramble such a rapid acquisition of territory.

28 29

ibid p178 Iliffe, J., Africans The History of a Continent, p187 30 James, L., The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, p283 31 ibid, p259 32 Blanning, E. in Betts, R. F., The Scramble for Africa Causes and Dimensions of Empire p1

Gabriel Lambert

Global and Imperial History

Bibliography Albertini, R. von, European Colonial Rule, 1880 -1940 (London 1982). Betts, R. F., The Scramble for Africa Causes and Dimensions of Empire (1966) Clarence-Smith, G. The Third Portuguese Empire. A Study in Economic Imperialism (Manchester, 1985). Curtin, P., Cross-Cultural Trade in World History (New York, 1984). Curtin, P., Feierman, S., Thompson, L., Vansina, J., African History (1978) Hochschild, A., King Leopold s Ghost (Boston 1998). Iliffe, J., Africans The History of a Continent (Cambridge 2002) James, L., The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (London 1998) Lonsdale, J., The European Scramble and Conquest in African History , in R. Oliver and G.N. Sanderson (eds.), Cambridge History of Africa, vol. vi, (Cambridge, 1985) Oliver, R., and Matthew, G., History of East Africa (Oxford 1963) Parker, J., and Rathbone, R., African History (Oxford 2007) Sanderson, G.N., The European Partition of Africa: Origins and Dynamics , in R. Oliver and G.N. Sanderson (eds.), Cambridge History of Africa, vol. vi, (Cambridge, 1985) Wesseling, H.L., The European Colonial Empires, 1815 -1919 (Harlow, 2004). Wolf, E., Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley,1982).