Scramble for Africa

Scramble for Africa

The Scramble for Africa was a period of rapid colonization of the African continent by European powers. It lasted from 1880 to 1900.

At the beginning of the 1880s, only a small part of Africa was under European rule. Just 20 years later, almost the entire continent had been colonized.

There were several factors which led to the Scramble for Africa. Most had to do with developments in Europe rather than in Africa.

During the 19th century, barely a year went by without a European expedition into Africa. The boom in exploration was triggered by the creation of the African Association by wealthy Englishmen in 1788. The Association’s members wanted someone to find the fabled city of Timbuktu and the course of the Niger River.

As the century progressed, the goals of exploration changed. Rather than traveling out of pure curiosity, explorers started to hunt for sources of profit for the wealthy businessmen who financed their trips. As they traveled, they recorded details of markets, goods and natural resources.

The explorer most closely connected to the start of the Scramble for Africa was Henry Morton Stanley, a Welshman who later became an American citizen. After a series of explorations, Stanley began working on behalf of King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold had plans to create his own personal African colony in the Congo, and asked Stanley to lay the groundwork. Stanley succeeded in forcing various African chiefs to hand over their territory to Leopold, often by using very brutal methods. Stanley’s work triggered a rush of European explorers, eager to do the same for various European countries.

By the 1880s, the European trade in slaves, once a source of great wealth, had ended. Its disappearance created a desire for new types of commerce between Europe and Africa. Explorers located vast reserves of raw materials and identified new markets in Africa in which to sell manufactured goods from Europe. Vast plantations were set up, and Africans were paid little, or sometimes even forced, to produce rubber, coffee, sugar, palm oil, timber and other goods for Europe. Europeans also sought diamonds, gold and ivory.

Many Europeans soon realized that the commercial rewards would be even greater if a colony could be set up. A colony would give the European power in charge sole control over certain valuable goods.

By the 1850s, many European ships had powerful steam engines that allowed them to easily travel upstream. David Livingstone used a steamer to travel up the Zambezi River in 1858, and Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza and Stanley both used steamers to explore the Congo.

Africa had long been known as the “White Man’s Grave” because of the danger of two diseases: malaria and yellow fever. During the 18th century, only 1 in 10 Europeans sent to Africa by the Royal African Company survived. Then in 1817, two French scientists discovered a way to easily produce quinine, which became an effective treatment for the disease. From then on, Europeans in Africa could survive cases of malaria.

By the 1870s, there was no room left in Europe for territorial expansion. Britain, France and Germany each wanted to increase their wealth and power, and an overseas empire seemed the best solution. France had lost two provinces to Germany in 1870, and now began to look to Africa to gain more territory. Britain looked toward Egypt and gold-rich southern Africa. Germany had no desire to be left behind.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Europe was only slightly ahead of Africa in terms of weaponry, as traders had long supplied guns to African chiefs. However, two inventions gave Europe a massive advantage: improved bullets and the breech-loading rifle. The older musket guns most Africans owned were slow to fire and had to be loaded while standing. Breech-loading guns had a much faster rate of fire, and could be loaded even while lying on the ground. Europeans restricted the sale of the new weaponry to Africa, in order to maintain military superiority.

The start of the 1880s saw a rapid increase in European nations claiming territory in Africa. France claimed the region to the north of the river Congo in 1880, and then Tunisia in 1881 and Somaliland in 1884. Britain occupied Egypt in 1882, and created British Somaliland in 1884. Italy began its colonization of Eritrea in 1882. In 1884, Germany created the colonies of South West Africa, Cameroon, German East Africa and Togo.

The Berlin Conference of 1884–85 laid down rules for the further partitioning of Africa. Most importantly, the European powers were now required to prove they had a substantial presence in an area before they could establish a colony. These rules were set up to prevent conflicts between the European powers.

Once the rules were established, European colonization really took off. Within just 20 years, Africa became almost completely colonized, with only Liberia and Ethiopia remaining free of European control.

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