Events Leading to the Scramble for Africa

Stanley meets Livingstone

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The Scramble for Africa (1880–1900) was a period of rapid colonization of the African continent by European powers. But it wouldn't have happened except for the particular economic, social, and military evolution Europe was going through.

Europeans in Africa up to the 1880s

By the beginning of the 1880s, only a small part of Africa was under European rule, and that area was largely restricted to the coast and a short distance inland along major rivers such as the Niger and the Congo.

  • Britain had Freetown in Sierra Leone, forts along the coast of The Gambia, a presence at Lagos, the Gold Coast protectorate, and a fairly major set of colonies in Southern Africa (Cape Colony, Natal, and the Transvaal which it had annexed in 1877).
  • Southern Africa also had the independent Boer Oranje-Vrystaat (Orange Free State).
  • France had settlements at Dakar and St Louis in Senegal and had penetrated a fair distance up the river Senegal, the Assinie, and Grand Bassam regions of Cote d'Ivoire, a protectorate over the coastal region of Dahomey (now Benin), and had begun colonization of Algeria as early as 1830.
  • Portugal had long-established bases in Angola (first arriving in 1482, and subsequently retaking the port of Luanda from the Dutch in 1648) and Mozambique (first arriving in 1498 and creating trading posts by 1505).
  • Spain had small enclaves in northwest Africa at Ceuta and Melilla (África Septentrional Española or Spanish North Africa).
  • The Ottoman Turks controlled Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia (the strength of Ottoman rule varied greatly).

Causes of the Scramble for Africa

There were several factors that created the impetus for the Scramble for Africa, and most of these were to do with events in Europe rather than in Africa.

  • End of the trade of enslaved people: Britain had had some success in halting the trade of enslaved people around the shores of Africa, but inland the story was different. Muslim traders from north of the Sahara and on the East Coast still traded inland, and many local chiefs were reluctant to give up the use of enslaved people. Reports of trips and markets involving enslaved people were brought back to Europe by various explorers such as David Livingstone, and 19th-century Black activists in Britain and Europe were calling for more to be done.
  • Exploration: During the 19th century, barely a year went by without a European expedition into Africa. The boom in exploration was triggered to a great extent by the creation of the African Association by wealthy Englishmen in 1788, who wanted someone to "find" the fabled city of Timbuktu and chart the course of the Niger River. As the 19th century wore on, the goal of the European explorer changed, and rather than traveling out of pure curiosity they began to record details of markets, goods, and resources for the wealthy philanthropists who financed their trips.
  • Henry Morton Stanley: This naturalized American (born in Wales) was the explorer most closely connected to the start of the Scramble for Africa. Stanley had crossed the continent and located the "missing" Livingstone, but he is more infamously known for his explorations on behalf of King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold hired Stanley to obtain treaties with local chieftains along the course of the River Congo with an eye on creating his own colony. Belgium was not in a financial position to fund a colony at that time. Stanley's work triggered a rush of European explorers such as the German journalist Carl Peters to do the same for various European countries.
  • Capitalism: The end of European trading of enslaved people left a need for commerce between Europe and Africa. Capitalists may have seen the light over the practice of enslavement, but they still wanted to exploit the continent. New "legitimate" trade would be encouraged. Explorers located vast reserves of raw materials, plotted the course of trade routes, navigated rivers, and identified population centers that could serve as markets for manufactured goods from Europe. It was a time of plantations and cash crops, when the region's workforce was put to work to producing rubber, coffee, sugar, palm oil, timber, etc for Europe. And the benefits were more enticing if a colony could be set up, which gave the European nation a monopoly.
  • Steam engines and iron-hulled boats: In 1840, the first British ocean-going iron warship called Nemesis arrived at Macao, south China. It changed the face of international relations between Europe and the rest of the world. The Nemesis had a shallow draft (five feet), a hull of iron, and two powerful steam engines. It could navigate the non-tidal sections of rivers, allowing inland access, and it was heavily armed. Livingstone used a steamer to travel up the Zambezi River in 1858 and had the parts transported overland to Lake Nyassa. Steamers also allowed Henry Morton Stanley and Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza to explore the Congo.
  • Quinine and medical advances: Africa, especially the western regions, was known as the "White Man's Grave" because of the danger of two diseases: malaria and yellow fever. During the 18th century, only one in 10 Europeans sent out to the continent by the Royal African Company survived. Six of the 10 died in their first year. In 1817, French scientists Pierre-Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Bienaimé Caventou extracted quinine from the bark of the South American cinchona tree. It proved to be the solution to malaria; Europeans could now survive the ravages of the disease in Africa. Unfortunately, yellow fever continued to be a problem, and even today there is no specific treatment for the disease.
  • Politics: After the creation of a unified Germany (1871) and Italy (a longer process, but its capital relocated to Rome in 1871) there was no room left in Europe for expansion. Britain, France, and Germany were in an intricate political dance, trying to maintain their dominance, and an overseas empire would secure it. France, which had lost two provinces to Germany in 1870, looked to Africa to gain more territory. Britain looked toward Egypt and the control of the Suez Canal as well as pursuing territory in gold-rich southern Africa. Germany, under the expert management of Chancellor Bismarck, had come late to the idea of overseas colonies but was now fully convinced of their worth. All that was needed was some mechanism to be put in place to stop overt conflict over the coming land grab.
  • Military innovation: At the beginning of the 19th century, Europe was only marginally ahead of Africa in terms of available weapons, as traders had long supplied them to local chiefs and many had stockpiles of guns and gunpowder. But two innovations gave Europe a massive advantage. In the late 1860s, percussion caps were being incorporated into cartridges. What previously came as a separate bullet, powder, and wadding was now a single entity, easily transported and relatively weatherproof. The second innovation was the breech-loading rifle. Older model muskets, held by most Africans, were front loaders, which were slow to use (maximum of three rounds per minute) and had to be loaded while standing. Breech-loading guns, in comparison, could be fired between two to four times faster and could be loaded even in a prone position. Europeans, with an eye to colonization and conquest, restricted the sale of the new weaponry to Africa maintaining military superiority.

The Mad Rush Into Africa in the Early 1880s

Within just 20 years, the political face of Africa had changed, with only Liberia (a colony run by formerly enslaved African Americans) and Ethiopia remaining free of European control. The start of the 1880s saw a rapid increase in European nations claiming territory in Africa:

  • In 1880, the region to the north of the river Congo became a French protectorate following a treaty between the King of the Bateke, Makoko, and the explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza.
  • In 1881, Tunisia became a French protectorate and the Transvaal regained its independence.
  • In 1882, Britain occupied Egypt (France pulled out of joint occupation), and Italy began colonization of Eritrea.
  • In 1884, British and French Somaliland were created.
  • In 1884, German South West Africa, Cameroon, German East Africa, and Togo were created and Río de Oro claimed by Spain.

Europeans Set the Rules for Dividing up the Continent

The Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 (and the resultant General Act of the Conference at Berlin) laid down ground rules for the further partitioning of Africa. Navigation on the Niger and Congo rivers was to be free to all, and to declare a protectorate over a region the European colonizer must show effective occupancy and develop a "sphere of influence."

The floodgates of European colonization had opened.

Sources and Further Reading

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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Events Leading to the Scramble for Africa." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2021, February 16). Events Leading to the Scramble for Africa. Retrieved from Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Events Leading to the Scramble for Africa." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).