Africa, Scramble for

Africa, Scramble for
   The term Scramble for Africa defines a 30-year period stretching from 1884 to 1914 during which European nations abandoned their earlier preference for informal rule and instead engaged in a frenzied race to carve up the continent of Africa and create formal colonial empires there. The process was so rapid and complete that although only 10 percent of Africa was under European control at the start of the scramble, by 1912 the entire continent, with the exceptions of Liberia and Ethiopia, had been devoured.
   Informal Rule
   Since the end of the American Revolution, European powers were generally reluctant to take on new colonies, preferring instead to rely on free trade and informal economic control in the belief that it was more profitable, more flexible, and avoided unnecessary foreign entanglements. There were some notable exceptions to this rule - including the expansion of British holdings in India, the colonization of Australia, New Zealand and French Indochina, but none of the exceptions were part of a grand colonial scheme. They were instead haphazard, often ill- thought-out acquisitions triggered by efforts to divert attention from domestic problems in Europe, responses to local conditions in potential colonies, or the result of actions by men on the spot.
   In Africa, for example, the French invaded Algeria in 1830 in an effort to distract the masses from the deeply unpopular regime of Charles X. Elsewhere Louis Faidherbe, the French Governor of Senegal from 1854–1865, repeatedly acted on his own authority and, against the wishes of his superiors in Paris, expanded French holdings by deliberately provoking border wars with his Muslim neighbors. British expansion in South Africa, on the other hand, was largely triggered by the Great Trek in which the Boers tried unsuccessfully to flee British control as a result of disagreements over native policy and anglicization.
   Europeans otherwise contented themselves for most of the nineteenth century with a handful of coastal forts and trading stations inherited from the days of the recently abolished transatlantic slave trade. The combination of disease, punishing terrain, and potential resistance from the indigenous peoples made the prospect of expansion inland difficult, dangerous, and expensive. It was also unnecessary because African middlemen were already bringing everything that European merchants wanted to coastal trading ports for export abroad.
   In the 1870s, however, the situation began to change. The steady industrialization of Europe, together with intensified international economic competition, tarnished the allure of free trade and led many nations to consider the acquisition of formal colonies as a form of safety net that would guarantee future access to markets and raw materials. Colonies also promised to ensure domestic political stability at home in Europe by distracting the masses from chronically low wages and poor working conditions. For newly unified countries like Italy and Germany, the acquisition of colonies symbolized proof of Great Power status. Other nations sought colonies to improve their strategic position, protect foreign investments, or, in the case of France, to acquire additional manpower and raw materials to recover from the Franco-Prussian War. Additional considerations behind the sudden renewed interest in formal colonization included simple Victorian curiosity, social Darwinism, the pursuit of profit, and the desire to spread Christianity.
   The Prelude to the Scramble
   Although all of Europe was increasingly interested in resuming the creation of formal colonial empires, it took the actions of Leopold II of Belgium to set these pentup impulses into motion. Chafing under the restrictions imposed by his status as the constitutional monarch of Belgium, Leopold opted to make a name and fortune for himself in Africa. Although the privately funded International Congo Society was ostensibly founded in 1878 to explore the Congo River basin and engage in “humanitarian” work, Leopold used it to hire Henry Morton Stanley and send him on a secret mission lasting from 1879–1884 to sign treaties with African chieftains granting Leopold political authority and trading rights along the southern bank of the Congo River.
   When news of Stanley’s activities leaked out, the French, who had possessions in nearby Gabon, sprang into action and sent Savorgnan de Brazza to negotiate treaties of their own along the northern bank of the Congo lest Leopold secure a total monopoly on trade in the region. This expedition in turn upset Britain, worried in the wake of its takeover of Egypt that France was seeking revenge by trying to secure a monopoly on the Congo River trade. Consequently, in late February 1884, the British government suddenly recognized Portugal’s historical claims to the Congo delta in the hopes of ensuring that a friendly power would control access to the lucrative Congo basin. Although it had yet to be ratified by the British parliament, the Anglo-Portuguese treaty infuriated the rest of Europe, as it settled bilaterally what was thought to be a larger international issue. German chancellor Otto von Bismarck promptly seized the opportunity simultaneously, both to steal the diplomatic limelight and to placate France by joining prime minister Jules Ferry in demanding that the entire matter be submitted to an international conference open to all interested parties. The need for such a conference was further underscored by Germany’s sudden announcements in April and July 1884 that it had established protectorates over southwest Africa, Cameroon, and Togo. Germany’s claims, which were based on paper partitions rather than physical occupation, created a dangerous precedent and raised the possibility that rival nations could claim the same piece of territory or, worse yet, that one country could claim the entire continent. As either situation could lead to a war, it was imperative that a conference be convened to establish ground rules for future colonial acquisitions. During the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 the participants agreed to recognize existing German and Belgian claims, yet insisted that all future efforts to claim territory in Africa had to be officially announced and had to be backed up by actual occupation.
   The Scramble for Territory
   Once the ground rules had been set, all of the major European powers engaged in a desperate race to claim African territory. In the Congo, Leopold confined his subsequent expansion to the occupation of areas already claimed on paper before the Berlin Conference. Similarly, in Togo, Cameroon, and southwest Africa, the Germans sought only to make good on their paper partitions by occupying the interior. The rest of the continent, however, was an altogether different matter. Britain, which had enjoyed informal control over the East African coastline dating back to 1840 as a result of its efforts to end the slave trade and its involvement in the Sultan of Zanzibar ’s clove plantations, was suddenly forced to formalize its claims in the region as a result of the announcement in February 1885, just days after the Berlin Conference, that Germany had established a new protectorate in East Africa. Thereafter British and German officials raced to sign additional treaties with interior peoples and establish formal occupation of their respective protectorates. This rivalry finally ended in 1890 with the signing of an Anglo-German Treaty. Eager to establish credentials as a world power, Italy followed the British and German lead in trying to create colonies in East Africa. When the French closed the door on their hopes of colonizing Tunisia in 1881, the Italians opted instead to transform their existing small protectorate in Somalia into a larger formal empire by intervening in the internal politics of neighboring Ethiopia. When Ethiopia resisted, the Italians invaded and but were crushed at the Battle of Adowa in 1896. In the resultant peace settlement, Ethiopia nonetheless allowed Italy to retain Eritrea and expand its holdings in Somalia. Still, in an effort to ease the sting of their humiliation at Adowa, the Italians began plotting to take over the Ottoman province of Libya. They finally got their chance in 1911 when unrest inside the Ottoman Empire created a pretext for a successful invasion and the creation of a new Italian colony. The principal architect of British expansion in South Africa, meanwhile, was Cecil Rhodes, prime minister of the Cape Colony and head of the De Beers diamond mine. As an ardent imperialist who thought that Britain was destined to rule most of the world, Rhodes pushed relentlessly to expand South Africa northward with the goal of creating an unbroken band of British African territory united north to south by a Cape-to-Cairo railroad. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, he used his political position and his fortune to bring this plan to fruition. In the process he forcibly annexed a variety of African kingdoms and sought to topple the Boer republic in the Transvaal in an effort to both secure control of additional rumored gold fields and to create a single block of British territory. His activities helped trigger the Second Boer War (1899–1902), which eventually led to the creation of a South African federation uniting Cape Colony and the Boer Republics under the Union Jack.
   In west and central Africa, France, shut out of Egypt, resolved to expand its existing holdings so as to surround and contain nearby British territories. Ideally, the French hoped to continue their expansion all the way across Africa in an effort to seize the headwaters of the Nile and force Britain out of Egypt altogether. Britain initially ignored this threat to concentrate instead on expanding into the interior of Nigeria and the Gold Coast in search of additional sources of trade goods, but the 1896 expedition by Jean-Baptiste Marchand forced London to reassess French goals. Marchand’s plan was to drag a small steamship in pieces from the Congo to the Sudan where he and his compatriots would reassemble it before sailing down the Nile claiming everything they saw in the process. Desperate to prevent this, Britain dispatched an army from Egypt to recapture the Sudan, which had fallen under the control of the Mahdi and his successors, and keep the source of the Nile out of French hands. Although the French beat them to the tiny riverside village of Fashoda in 1898, the British, having arrived with an army and a railroad, forced the French to withdraw, precipitating a diplomatic crisis that was not mended until the establishment of the Entente Cordiale. In exchange, Britain signed a 1904 agreement recognizing French claims to Morocco.
   Although the colonial powers continued to negotiate periodic border adjustments to their newly acquired holdings right up until the outbreak of World War I, by the turn of the century the scramble for Africa had largely given way to the tasks of governing, extracting resources and trying to “uplift” subject African populations. In a bitter twist of irony, the benefits that Europe hoped to realize from these activities were largely destroyed by the onset of war in 1914.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>.
    Betts, Raymond F., ed. TheScramblefor Africa: Causes and Dimensions of Empire. Boston: D. C. Heath and Co., 1966;
    Chamberlain, Muriel. The Scramble for Africa , 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 1999;
    Cook, Scott B. Colonial Encounters in the Age of High Imperialism . New York: Longman, 1996;
    Pakenham, Thomas. The Scramble for Africa: White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent, 1876 to 1912 . New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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