Colonisation of Africa

A map of Africa in 1910

The history of external colonisation of Africa can be divided into two stages: Classical antiquity and European colonialism. In popular parlance, discussions of colonialism in Africa usually focus on the European conquests that resulted in the scramble for Africa after the Berlin Conference in the 19th century.[1][2]

In nearly all African countries today, the language used in government and media is a relic inherited from one of these waves of colonisation. The existence of a vast African diaspora is largely the legacy of the practice of transporting millions of African slaves out of the continent by these external colonisers. Some modern scholars also blame the current under-development of Africa on the colonial era.[3]

Chronological overview

Main article: History of Africa

Ancient and Medieval colonisation

North Africa experienced colonisation from Europe and Western Asia in the early historical period, particularly Greeks and Phoenicians.

Under Egypt's Pharaoh Amasis (570–526 BC) a Greek mercantile colony was established at Naucratis, some 50 miles from the later Alexandria.[4] Greeks also colonised Cyrenaica around the same time.[5] There was also an attempt in 513 BC to establish a Greek colony between Cyrene and Carthage, which resulted in the combined local and Carthaginian expulsion two years later of the Greek colonists.[6]

Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) founded Alexandria during his conquest of Egypt. This became one of the major cities of Hellenistic and Roman times, a trading and cultural centre as well as a military headquarters and communications hub.

Phoenicians established a number of colonies along the coast of North Africa. Some of these were founded relatively early. Utica, for example, was founded c. 1100 BC. Carthage, which means New City, has a traditional foundation date of 814 BC. It was established in what is now Tunisia and became a major power in the Mediterranean by the 4th century BC. The Carthaginians themselves sent out expeditions to explore and establish colonies along Africa's Atlantic coast. A surviving account of such is that of Hanno, which Harden who quotes it places at c. 425 BC.[7]

Carthage encountered and struggled with the Romans. After the third and final war between them, the Third Punic War (150–146 BC), Rome completely destroyed Carthage. Scullard mentions plans by such as Gaius Gracchus in the late 2nd century BC, Julius Caesar and Augustus in the mid- and late 1st century BC to establish a new Roman colony near the same site. This was established and under Augustus served as the capital city of the Roman province of Africa.[8]

Gothic Vandals briefly established a kingdom there in the 5th century, which shortly thereafter fell to the Romans again, this time the Byzantines. The whole of Roman/Byzantine North Africa eventually fell to the Arabs in the 7th century.

Arabs introduced the Arabic language and Islam in the early Medieval period, while the Malay people introduced varieties of their language to Madagascar even earlier.

Early modern period

Map of West Africa, ca. 1736, "explaining what belongs to England, Holland, Denmark, etc."

Early European expeditions concentrated on colonising previously uninhabited islands such as the Cape Verde Islands and São Tomé Island, or establishing coastal forts as a base for trade. These forts often developed areas of influence along coastal strips, but, with the exception of the Senegal River, the vast interior of Africa was not colonised and was little-known to Europeans until the late 19th century.

Vincent Khapoya mentions Ali Mazrui's three interrelated broad reasons for European exploration of Africa: to increase knowledge, to spread Christianity and to increase national esteem.[9] Khapoya continues with a listing of reasons ("political/strategic, cultural and economic") for colonialism.[10]

Scramble for Africa



Main article: Scramble for Africa

Established empires, notably Britain, Portugal and France, had already claimed for themselves vast areas of Africa and Asia, and emerging imperial powers like Italy and Germany had done likewise on a smaller scale. With the dismissal of the aging Chancellor Bismarck by Kaiser Wilhelm II, the relatively orderly colonisation became a frantic scramble. The 1884 Berlin Conference, initiated by Bismarck to establish international guidelines for the acquisition of African territory, formalised this "New Imperialism". Between the Franco-Prussian War and the Great War, Europe added almost 9 million square miles (23,000,000 km²)—one-fifth of the land area of the globe—to its overseas colonial possessions.

Vincent Khapoya notes the great self-esteem some European states felt at possessing territory many times larger than themselves. He adds the significant contribution made by Africans to struggle among the Great Powers. He states that one million people of African descent fought for the Allies in World War I and two million in World War II.[11]

Khapoya considers the colonisers' administrative styles. "The French, the Portuguese, the Germans and the Belgians exercised a highly centralised type of administration called 'direct rule.'"[12] The British sought to rule by identifying local power holders and encouraging or forcing these to administer for the British Empire. This was indirect rule.[13]

France ruled from France, appointing chiefs individually without considering traditional criteria, but rather loyalty to France. France established two large colonial federations in Africa, French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa. France appointed officials, passed laws and had to approve any measures passed by colonial assemblies.

Local groups in German East Africa resisted German enforced labour and taxation. The Germans were almost driven out of the area in 1888.[14] A decade later the colony seemed conquered, though, "It had been a long drawn-out struggle and inland administration centres were in reality little more than a series of small military fortresses." In 1905, the Germans were astonished by a widely supported uprising. This resistance was at first successful. However, within a year, the insurgency was suppressed by reinforcing troops armed with machine guns. German attempts to seize control in Southwest Africa also produced ardent resistance, which was very forcefully put down.[15]

King Leopold II of Belgium called his vast private colony the Congo Free State. Effectively this meant those exploiting the area were free of all restraint and answerable only to the Belgian king.[16] The treatment of the Africans under this system was harsh enough to cause the other colonial powers to plead with the Belgian king to exercise some moderating influence. Eventually the Belgian government annexed the territory as a Belgian colony.[16]

Khapoya notes the significant attention colonial powers paid to the economics of colonisation. This included: acquisition of land, often enforced labour, introduction of cash crops, sometimes even to the neglect of food crops, changing inter-African trading patterns of pre-colonial times, introduction of labourers from India, etc. and the continuation of Africa as a source of raw materials for European industry.[17] Colonial powers later focused on abolishing slavery, developing infrastructure, and improving health and education.[18][19]


Vincent Khapoya notes the significant resistance imperialist powers faced to their domination in Africa. Technical superiority enabled conquest and control. Pro-independence Africans recognised the value of European education in dealing with Europeans in Africa. Some Africans established their own churches. Africans also noticed the unequal evidences of gratitude they received for their efforts to support Imperialist countries during the world wars.[20]

Vincent Khapoya also notes that while European imposed borders did not correspond to traditional territories, such new territories provided entities to focus efforts by movements for increased political voice up to independence. Among local groups so concerned were professionals such as lawyers and doctors, the petite bourgeoisie (clerks, teachers, small merchants), urban workers, cash crop farmers, peasant farmers, etc. Trade unions and other initially non political associations evolved into political movements.

Khapoya describes the differences in gaining independence by British and French colonies. Britain sought to follow a process of gradual transfer of power. The French policy of assimilation faced some resentment, especially in North Africa.[21] Shillington describes the granting of independence in March 1956 to Morocco and Tunisia to allow concentration on Algeria where there was a long (1954–62) and bloody armed struggle to achieve independence.[22] Khapoya writes that when President de Gaulle in 1958 held a referendum in its African colonies on the issue, only Guinea voted for outright independence. Nevertheless, in 1959 France amended the constitution to allow other colonies this option.[23]

As Shillington describes farmers in British East Africa were upset by attempts to take their land and to impose agricultural methods against their wishes and experience. In Tanganyika, Julius Nyerere exerted influence not only among Africans, united by the common Swahili language, but also on some white leaders whose disproportionate voice under a racially weighted constitution was significant. He became leader of an independent Tanganyika in 1961. In Kenya, whites had evicted African tenant farmers in the 1930s. Since the '40s there had been conflict. This intensified in 1952. By 1955 Britain had suppressed the revolt. By 1960 Britain accepted the principle of African majority rule. Kenya became independent three years later.[24]

Shillington vividly portrays Belgium's initial opposition to independence, the demands by some urban Africans, the 1957 and 1958 local elections meant to calm this dissatisfaction, the general unrest that swept the colony, the rapid granting of independence and the civil strife that ensued.[25]

The main period of decolonisation in Africa began after World War II. Growing independence movements, indigenous political parties and trade unions coupled with pressure from within the imperialist powers and from the United States ensured the decolonisation of the majority of the continent by 1980. While some areas, in particular South Africa, retain a large population of European descent, only the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla and the islands of Réunion, the Canary Islands and Madeira remain under European control.

See also



  • Bensoussan, David (2012). Il était une fois le Maroc - Témoignages du passé judéo-marocain (2nd ed.). iUniverse. ISBN 978-1-4759-2609-5. 
  • Boardman, John (1973) [1964]. The Greeks Overseas. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 
  • Crowther, Michael (1978) [1962]. The Story of Nigeria. London: Faber and Faber. 
  • Davidson, Basil (1966) [1964]. The African Past. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. 
  • Ferguson, Niall (2003). Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. London: Allen Lane. ISBN 0-7139-9615-3. 
  • Harden, Donald (1971) [1962]. The Phoenicians. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 
  • Harris, Norman Dwight (1914). Intervention and Colonization in Africa. Houghton Mifflin. 
  • Khapoya, Vincent B. (1998) [1994]. The African Experience (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0137458525. 
  • Lovejoy, Paul E. (2012). Transformations of Slavery: a History of Slavery in Africa (3rd ed.). London: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521176187. 
  • Miers, Suzanne; Klein, Martin A. (1998). Slavery and Colonial Rule in Africa (Slave and Post-Slave Societies and Cultures). Routledge. ISBN 9780714644363. 
  • Rodney, Walter (1972). How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. London: Bogle-L'Ouverture. ISBN 0-9501546-4-4. 
  • Scullard, H. H. (1976) [1959]. From the Gracchi to Nero. London: Methuen and Co. 
  • Shillington, Kevin (1995) [1989]. History of Africa (2nd ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 9780312125981. 

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