The Europeans in Africa

The hold that the Muslims obtained on the Middle East and North Africa, and especially the fact that the Byzantine Empire finally fell into their hands in 1453, meant that the routes along which Italian commercial cities obtained merchandise from the East became uncertain. A remarkable revival in the field of natural science and nautical science during the Renaissance and an accompanying urge to acquire knowledge of unknown territories led to European merchants seeking their own sea route to the East.

Portugal and Spain took the lead because of their geographic location, their desire to attack their Muslim enemies outside Europe as well, and the fact that a very adventurous spirit like Prince Henry the Navigator (died 1460) arrived on the scene. Cape Bojador (1434), the Senegal River (1445) and Cape Verde (1456) were reached during Prince Henry’s lifetime, and this brought the Portuguese into contact with parts of Africa that offered good trading opportunities. Pepper, ivory, gold and slaves were obtained in the Guinea region.

In 1486 Diogo Cão progressed as far south as Cape Cross and early in 1488 Bartholomew Diaz succeeded in sailing around the southern tip of the continent. The following year another Portuguese discoverer, Pedro de Covilhão, visited the Muslim settlements on the east coast of Africa via the Red Sea and penetrated as far as Sofala. He then sent back a report on his voyages to Portugal and settled in Ethiopia.

During the Nineties of that century Portugal and Spain reached an understanding that led to Spain turning to the New World for its voyages of discovery, and Portugal concentrating on the further discovery of the coast of Africa. During the years 1497-1498 Vasco da Gama succeeded in completing a voyage to India.

However, because the Portuguese’s main aim was trade with the East, these discoveries did not at first excite an intense interest in Africa. They did establish trading posts, for instance on the west coast between the Senegal River and Angola and also on the east coast between Sofala and Malindi.

The Portuguese soon took over control of the Muslim settlements on the east coast and it was only during the latter half of the seventeenth century that the Oman Arabs succeeded in restoring Muslim control as far south as Zanzibar. However, the Portuguese took a stand south of Zanzibar and defeated the Mwenemutapa (Monomotapa) kingdom of the Zambezi region at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

Like the Arab influence, that of the Portuguese was restricted to the coastal area, while trade relations with the interior were maintained.

From the end of the sixteenth century Portugal had to contend with competition on the route around Africa. The Netherlands, England and France started trading with the East, and their ships stopped at the Cape. The Dutch developed an early interest in Africa with a view to establishing a refreshment post. On April 6, 1652, the United Dutch East India Company established the Dutch settlement at the Cape.

From the beginning of the eighteenth century it expanded rapidly and by 1795 it included the entire area from the Buffels River on the west coast to the Great Fish River in the east. After two short intervening periods under English (1795-1802) and Dutch (1803-1806) control, England affirmed its authority in the Cape Colony. Near the Great Fish River the white colonists moving eastward repeatedly clashed with the black tribes moving southward.

A large group of Dutch-speaking colonists left the Cape Colony in 1835-1838 because of their dissatisfaction with British rule and settled north of the Orange River, where they obtained a new territory through negotiations with the black inhabitants of the area. This led to the establishment of the republics of the Transvaal (1852) and the Orange Free State (1854).

From the seventeenth century onward European powers also began to take an interest in the coast of Guinea because of the merchandise that could be obtained there. The French established trading posts on the Senegal River and in Upper Guinea and the Dutch and English concentrated on the Gold Coast (today Ghana). In addition to gold, ivory and spices, this trade concentrated on obtaining slaves for, among other places, Brazil and the West Indies.


The interior of Africa remained a closed book to the Europeans during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Only in the Portuguese territories of Angola and Mozambique did Roman Catholic missionaries penetrate further than the coastal area. A well-known example of their work is the conversion of Nzinga Mbemba (Alfonso), who ruled the kingdom of the Congo from 1507 to 1543.

The European exploration of the interior of Africa gradually received more attention. By 1800 the territory south of the Orange River was already well known. The territory in West Africa was introduced to Europe by the travels of Mungo Park (1795-1797, 1805-1806), Caillé (1827-1828) and Clapperton and Lander (1825-1827, 1830). The Sahara was crossed by Caillé, Denham, Clapperton and Oudney (1823-1825), Barth (1850-1856) and Rohlfs (1862, 1864, 1869).

Nachtigal visited the eastern area of Sudan between 1869 and 1874. The upper reaches of the Nile and the lake area region were explored by Burton, Speke, Grant, Schweinfurth, Baker and Livingstone between 1854 and 1870. Livingstone also visited the Zambezi region, as well as northern Angola, between 1841 and 1864.

This sudden introduction of Africa to the outside world naturally elicited European interest in the continent. The measure of peace that existed in Europe after 1815 and the needs created by industrial progress were factors that led to European powers becoming interested in gaining control of useful territories in Africa. Others were driven to the people of Africa by a renewed missionary zeal.


In 1830 France began to expand its authority over Algeria. This was the beginning of a process whereby almost the entire Africa would be placed under the rule of European powers. It is understandable that the colonisation would encounter many serious problems, as the circumstances and inhabitants of Africa were virtually unknown to the Europeans.

Jungle, desert, tropical diseases, a distinctive way of thinking and a singular approach to life would mean that the Europeans had a lot to learn and would make many mistakes in their attempts to benefit from the continent and to bring benefits to it. In many cases the colonisers and the inhabitants simply did not understand each other and this led to clashes.

The proposed journeys of discovery, but especially the travels of Henry Morton Stanley during the 1870s in the area of the Congo River, speeded up the colonisation process. In 1876, Leopold II of Belgium, impressed by Stanley’s reports, gathered the European powers at a conference where the International Association of Africa was created with the purpose of ‘discovering’ and ‘civilising’ Central Africa (according to Western standards of the time).

Stanley was sent out and between 1879 and 1884 he entered into hundreds of treaties with tribes in the Congo territory. However, the Association thereby incurred the wrath of Portugal, who pointed out that they had been the first to visit the area and therefore had the first claim to it.

On a second Africa conference, this time in Berlin in 1884-1885 (the so-called Berlin Conference), Portugal’s claims were rejected and the general principle was laid down that a power could only claim an area if it actually occupied such area. In practice countries simply annexed any unoccupied territory.

Scramble for Africa

France annexed Tunis in 1881 and with its interests in Senegal, Dahomay, the Ivory Coast and French Guinea expanded its influence over the western hump of Africa. England and France succeeded in gaining control over Egypt and Sudan, but in 1885 the Sudan regained its independence. In the same year Leopold II became king of the Congo territory as well and remained so until it was converted into a full Belgian colony in 1908. Madagascar became a French protectorate in 1895.

The European power with by far the most colonies in Africa was Great Britain. The Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Nigeria, Kenya, part of Somaliland, Bechuanaland, North and South Rhodesia, etc, were acquired in due course apart from its South African possessions.

In 1884-1886 Germany also entered the scramble and placed German South West Africa under its protective rule. Shortly thereafter German East Africa (Tanganyika; present Tanzania), Togo and Cameroon also became German colonies.

Other smaller powers that gained colonies in Africa were Portugal (Guinea and Cabinda, in addition to Angola and Mozambique), Spain (Rio de Oro, Spanish Guinea and the island of Fernando Po) and Italy (Eritrea and part of Somaliland). Libya was still under Turkish rule. By 1899 the whole of Africa, apart from Ethiopia, Liberia and the two white republics in South Africa, was under the control of powers outside the continent.

In a fierce national struggle (1899-1902) the South African republics were defeated by Great Britain, but in 1910 they were united with the Cape Colony and Natal with dominion status in the Union of South Africa.

The most important change brought about in the constitutional position in Africa during World War I was that the former German and Turkish territories were entrusted to some of the allied powers as mandate territories in 1919. Thus Libya came under Italian supervision, German East Africa under Britain, Togo and the Cameroon were divided into mandate territories of Britain and France and German South West Africa became a mandate territory of the Union of South Africa.


The indigenous population of Africa therefore lost their independence in a mighty colonisation process and the European world expanded its authority over them. That this could take place within about seventy years should primarily be attributed to the fact that there was an immense gap between Africa and Europe in the technological field. The drying out of North Africa approximately two millennia BC separated the inhabitants of Africa from developments in Europe and the greater part of the continent lived a slumbering existence. However, the arrival of the European in Africa restored contact and this inspired the indigenous populations to try to overcome this huge gap of knowledge.

European control of Africa therefore set certain important developments in motion on the continent. The incessant intertribal and racial strife was dampened to an extent and a relative peace initially existed in the colonies. However, the very establishment of European rule led to bloodshed in some cases, for instance France’s tough struggle for Algeria, the resistance experienced by the Germans from the Hereros and Namas in South West Africa, the national resistance in Ethiopia under Menelik against Italian onslaughts in 1896, as well as that of the Boer republics against British imperialism.

During the last twenty years of the nineteenth century three movements developed in the Sudan region in particular that offered great resistance to the British and French penetration. They were those of the Mahdi in the eastern Sudan territory, Samory in the west and Rabah in the vicinity of Lake Chad.

Conflict and loss of life, unsettlement and the impoverishment of the population, the disintegration of traditional social structures and the loss of freedom and human dignity were negative consequences of European penetration into Africa. Indigenous knowledge systems that had developed over millennia were lost and were not replaced by sufficient ‘Western’ knowledge and resources to support sustainable development, for example in the fields of agriculture and health.

The economic progress, including physical infrastructure, that the Europeans brought to Africa, in many cases did not reach the man in the street and often resulted in the exploitation of the working class. Urbanisation further isolated people from the protection of the extended family system upheld in traditional societies and many young people, especially, fell into a life of crime, drugs, prostitution and alcoholism. Corruption became a problem.


Even long before that, but also during the period of European occupation, white missionaries brought the Christian faith to Africa south of the Sahara. In addition to early Roman Catholic missionaries in the Portuguese territories, many Protestant mission societies increasingly concentrated on Africa, especially since the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Examples are the Berlin Missionary Society in South and East Africa, the Rhenish and London societies in South and South West Africa, the Methodist and Basel Societies of West Africa and the Scottish Presbyterian Church in almost all parts of the subcontinent. From France various Roman Catholic organisations undertook missionary work in Africa. The result of all this missionary work was that in due course independent churches came into existence across the continent. They also built and maintained schools and hospitals in the societies they served.

On the other hand this led to many indigenous inhabitants of Africa losing touch with their traditional religions, which in most cases included honouring the “ancestral spirits” and even “animism” (the belief that everything in nature has a soul or spirit). This again brought conflict with the traditional way of life in black society. In many cases, however, traditional elements were preserved in spite of conversion to ‘Western’ religion.

Economic motives

Economic motives played an important role in the colonisation process and the trade activities in Africa were thereby stimulated by it. The contact with the Europeans made a wealth of new knowledge available to Africans: technical skills, the combating of debilitating diseases, means of communication, economic and political institutions and so forth.

However, this contact and colonisation also had negative consequences: the slave trade that had existed in Africa for a long time, resulting from tribal wars and conquests as well as the behaviour of Arabs, received new impetus with the arrival of the early European traders. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, a strong philanthropic and religious zeal arose in England – one of the foremost traders in slaves from Africa – and this led to the abolition of the slave trade by European powers.

However, the slave trade did terrible damage to Africa: for example, it is estimated that between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries approximately 10 million people were transported from the coast of Guinea alone. The slaves were paid for in firearms in particular.

Together with the traders European liquor also found its way to Africa. Next to the traditional types of liquor this encouraged dependency. This led to a weakening in morals.

The behaviour of Europeans, as also of the Arabs, in Africa was not without exploitation. A mercantilist approach was responsible for the European governments being primarily interested in benefiting economically from the colonies and therefore maintaining political control there. The development of the colonies and their populations were left almost exclusively in the hands of private undertakings and only in cases of absolute necessity was financial assistance voted for development projects, for example.

Missionary societies and many European colonists, however, worked for advancement and development. Only during the first half of the twentieth century did the realisation that economic advances in the colonies would also benefit the colonising power lead to stimulation of economic development in the colonies.


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