During the Scramble for Africa at the end of the nineteenth century, European powers staked claims to virtually the entire continent. At meetings in Berlin, Paris, London and other capitals, European statesmen and diplomats bargained over the separate spheres of interest they intended to establish there. Their knowledge of the vast African hinterland was slight. Hitherto Europeans had known Africa more as a coastline than a continent; their presence had been confined mainly to small, isolated enclaves on the coast used for trading purposes; only in Algeria and in southern Africa had more substantial European settlement taken root.
The maps used to carve up the African continent were mostly inaccurate; large areas were described as terra incognita. When marking out the boundaries of their new territories, European negotiators frequently resorted to drawing straight lines on the map, taking little or no account of the myriad of traditional monarchies, chiefdoms and other African societies that existed on the ground. Nearly one half of the new frontiers imposed on Africa were geometric lines, lines of latitude and longitude, other straight lines or arcs of circles. In some cases, African societies were rent apart: the Bakongo were partitioned between French Congo, Belgian Congo and Portuguese Angola; Somaliland was carved up between Britain, Italy and France. In all, the new boundaries cut through some 190 culture groups. In other cases, Europe’s new colonial territories enclosed hundreds of diverse and independent groups, with no common history, culture, language or religion. Nigeria, for example, contained as many as 250 ethnolinguistic groups. Officials sent to the Belgian Congo eventually identified six thousand chiefdoms there. Some kingdoms survived intact: the French retained the monarchy in Morocco and in Tunisia; the British ruled Egypt in the name of a dynasty of foreign monarchs founded in 1811 by an Albanian mercenary serving in the Turkish army. Other kingdoms, such as Asante in the Gold Coast (Ghana) and Loziland in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) were merged into larger colonial units. Kingdoms that had been historically antagonistic to one another, such as Buganda and Bunyoro in Uganda, were linked into the same colony. In the Sahel, new territories were established across the great divide between the desert regions of the Sahara and the belt of tropical forests to the south – Sudan, Chad and Nigeria – throwing together Muslim and non-Muslim peoples in latent hostility.
As the haggling in Europe over African territory continued, land and peoples became little more than pieces on a chessboard. ‘We have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where they were,’ Britain’s prime minister, Lord Salisbury, remarked sardonically to a London audience. Britain traded the North Sea island of Heligoland with the Germans for Zanzibar, and parts of northern Nigeria with the French for fishing rights off Newfoundland. France exchanged parts of Cameroon with Germany in return for German recognition of the French protectorate over Morocco. By the time the Scramble for Africa was over, some 10,000 African polities had been amalgamated into forty European colonies and protectorates.
Thus were born the modern states of Africa.
On the ground, European rule was enforced both by treaty and by conquest. From their enclaves on the coast, officials moved ever deeper into the interior to proclaim the changes agreed in the chancelleries and country mansions of Europe. The task was a prolonged one: French claims extended over about 3.75 million square miles; those of Britain over about 2 million square miles. Many treaties were duly signed. The Basuto king, Moshoeshoe, fearful of the encroachment of white settlers into his mountain terrain in southern Africa, appealed for the protection of Queen Victoria, imploring that his people might be considered ‘fleas in the Queen’s blanket’. Several of his neighbours – the Tswana chiefdoms of Bechuanaland (Botswana) and the Swazi – followed suit.
But episodes of resistance occurred in parts of nearly every African colony. Some were settled by short, sharp actions. The powerful Muslim emirs of the Sokoto Caliphate, ruling from crenellated palaces of red clay on the edge of the Sahara desert, soon came to terms with a small British expeditionary force sent to incorporate them into northern Nigeria. But other episodes were more prolonged. After occupying the Asante capital, Kumasi, the British were besieged there for four months until reinforcements suppressed resistance. Elsewhere in West Africa, Samori Ture, the founder of a Mandingo empire, waged an eight-year campaign of remarkable tenacity and military skill against the French. In Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) the Ndebele and Shona fought ferociously against white settlers who had seized large areas of land. In Kenya, the Nandi bore the brunt of six punitive expeditions by British forces. In German East Africa (Tanganyika) and South West Africa (Namibia), German administrations inflicted fearful repression to stamp out rebellions, annihilating more than three quarters of the Herero people and half of the Nama people between 1904 and 1908. In Angola Chief Mandume of the Ovambo mustered an army of forty thousand to defy the Portuguese.
Scores of African rulers who resisted colonial rule died in battle or were executed or sent into exile after defeat. Samori of the Mandingo was captured and died in exile two years later; the Asantehene, King Agyeman Prempeh, was deposed and exiled for nearly thirty years; Lobengula of the Ndebele died in flight; Behazin of Dahomey and Cetshwayo of the Zulu were banished from their homelands.
In the concluding act of the partition of Africa, Britain, at the height of its imperial power, set out to take over two independent Boer republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and incorporate them into the British Empire, assuming that a war of conquest would take at most a matter of months. It turned into a gruelling campaign lasting three years, required nearly half a million imperial troops to finish it, and left a legacy of bitterness and hatred among Afrikaners that endured for generations. Faced with guerrilla warfare for which they were unprepared, British military commanders resorted to scorched-earth tactics, destroying thousands of farmsteads, razing villages to the ground and slaughtering livestock on a massive scale, reducing the Boers to an impoverished people. Women and children were rounded up and placed in what the British called concentration camps, where conditions were so appalling that some 26,000 died there from disease and malnutrition, most of them under the age of sixteen. All this became part of a Boer heritage passed in anger from one generation to the next, spawning a virulent Afrikaner nationalism that eventually took hold of South Africa.
Small-scale revolts against colonial rule continued for many years. The Baoulé of Côte d’Ivoire fought the French village by village until 1911; the Igbo of Nigeria were not fully defeated until 1919; the Jola of Senegal not until the 1920s; the Dinka of southern Sudan not until 1927. In the desert wastelands of Somaliland a fiery Muslim sheikh, Muhammad ’Abdille Hassan, dubbed by his adversaries the ‘Mad Mullah’, led Dervish warriors in a holy war against the British for twenty years until his death in 1920. Bedouin resistance against Italian rule in Libya ended only in 1931 after nine years of guerrilla warfare. By the 1930s, however, the colonial states of Africa were firmly entrenched; they had, moreover, acquired a legitimacy in the eyes of their inhabitants.
A reshuffle of territory occurred as a result of the First World War. German colonies were shared out among Britain, France, Belgium and the Union of South Africa, a British dominion founded in 1910. Tanganyika was handed over to Britain; South West Africa to South Africa; the tiny territories of Rwanda-Burundi were passed to Belgium; and Togoland and Cameroon were divided up between Britain and France. As a reward for Italian support in the First World War, Britain gave Jubaland to Italy to form part of Italian Somaliland, moving the border of Kenya westwards. But otherwise the boundaries of Africa remained fixed.
Only one African state managed to stave off the onslaught of European occupation during the Scramble: Ethiopia, an ancient Christian kingdom, once ruled by the legendary Prester John. In 1896, when the Italians, with 10,000 European troops, invaded Ethiopia from their coastal enclave at Massawa on the Red Sea, they were routed by the emperor, Menelik. The Italians were thus forced to confine themselves to occupying Eritrea. Forty years later, however, the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, took revenge. Determined to construct an East African empire, he ordered the conquest of Ethiopia, using half a million troops, aerial bombardment and poison gas to accomplish it. After a seven-month long campaign, Italian forces captured the capital, Addis Ababa; the emperor, Haile Selassie, fled into exile in England; and Ethiopia was turned into an Italian province to add to Italian possessions in Eritrea and Somaliland.
Having expended so much effort on acquiring African empires, Europe’s colonial powers then lost much of their earlier interest in them. Few parts of Africa offered the prospect of immediate wealth. Colonial governments were concerned above all to make their territories financially self-supporting. Administration was thus kept to a minimum; education was placed in the hands of Christian missionaries ; economic activity was left to commercial companies. The main functions of government were limited to maintaining law and order, raising taxation and providing an infrastructure of roads and railways. There seemed to be no need for more rapid development. Colonial rule was expected to last for hundreds of years.
In much of Africa, therefore, the colonial imprint was barely noticeable. Only a thin white line of control existed. In northern Nigeria, Frederick Lugard set out to rule 10 million people with a staff of nine European administrators and a regiment of the West African Frontier Force consisting of 3,000 African troops under the command of European officers. By the late 1930s, following the amalgamation of northern and southern Nigeria into one territory in 1914, the number of colonial administrators for a population of 20 million people was still less than 400. The Sudan Political Service consisted of 140 officials ruling over 9 million people. The whole of French Equatorial Africa in the mid-1930s was run by 206 administrative officers. French West Africa, comprising eight territories with a population of 15 million, was served by only 385 colonial administrators. The whole of British tropical Africa, where 43 million people lived, was governed by 1,200 administrators. Belgium ran the Congo in 1936 with 728 administrators. Scattered across vast stretches of Africa, lone district administrators became virtually absolute rulers of their domain, functioning simultaneously as police chief, judge, tax collector, head of labour recruitment, special agent and meteorological observer. In French Africa they were known as rois de la brousse – kings of the bush. A veteran native commissioner in Southern Rhodesia remembered being told that his duties as a district officer were to: ‘Get to know your district, and your people. Keep on eye on them, collect tax if possible, but for God’s sake, don’t worry headquarters.’
With so few men on the ground, colonial governments relied heavily on African chiefs and other functionaries to collaborate with officials and exercise control on their behalf. The British, in particular, favoured a system of ‘indirect rule’, using African authorities to keep order, collect taxes and supply labour, that involved a minimum of staff and expense. The model for indirect rule was devised by Lugard in northern Nigeria where Fulani emirs had governed in accordance with Islamic traditions of law and discipline stretching back for centuries. Lugard posted British Residents at their courts but allowed the emirs to continue to police, tax and administer justice on their behalf much as before. Similar methods of indirect rule were adopted in Buganda, in Loziland and in other parts of Britain’s African empire.
In many cases, however, African chiefs came to constitute no more than a new class of intermediaries paid to transmit government orders. As agents of colonial rule, the role they played was far removed from their traditional position at the apex of authority, balancing many diverse interests. Some chiefs were members of old royal families carefully selected for their willingness to collaborate; others had no traditional legitimacy at all. The chefs de canton appointed by the French were effectively administrative officers chosen from the ranks of the more efficient clerks and interpreters in government service. In some cases where chiefs did not exist, as among the acephalous village societies of the Igbo of southern Nigeria, chiefdoms were invented. In other cases, ‘traditional’ chiefs were left bereft of all functions.
Year by year the new colonies gradually took shape. Railway lines snaking into the interior from the coast reached Lake Victoria in 1901, Katanga in 1910, Kano in northern Nigeria in 1912 and Lake Tanganyika in 1914. New patterns of economic activity were established. African colonies became significant exporters of minerals and agricultural commodities such as groundnuts, palm oil, cotton, coffee, cocoa and sisal. By 1911 the Gold Coast (Ghana) had become the world’s leading exporter of cocoa. In the highlands of eastern and southern Africa and along the Mediterranean coast of Algeria and Tunisia, European settlers acquired huge landholdings, establishing the basis of large-scale commercial agriculture. In Kenya the fertile White Highlands were designated for their exclusive use. In 1931 half of the entire land area of Southern Rhodesia was stipulated for the use of white farmers who at the time numbered no more than 2,500. In South Africa some 87 per cent of the total area was declared white land.
Through the efforts of Christian missionaries, literacy and primary education were slowly introduced throughout Africa south of the Sahara. By 1910 about 16,000 European missionaries were stationed there. With government support, a handful of secondary schools were established, becoming the nurseries of new African elites: Achimota College in the Gold Coast; the Ecole Normale William Ponty in Senegal; Makerere in Uganda; Kaduna in Nigeria; Lovedale and Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. North Africa’s first Western-style university opened in Cairo in 1909.
The small educated elites that colonial rule produced in the 1920s and 1930s were preoccupied primarily with their own status, seeking to gain for themselves a role in administration in preference to the chiefs whom they regarded as rivals for power. They paid little attention to the welfare of the rural masses. Few espoused nationalist ambitions.
In 1936 Ferhat Abbas, a political activist and writer, who had studied pharmacology at Algiers University, summed up his view on Algerian nationalism in a weekly publication he had founded:If I had discovered an Algerian nation, I would be a nationalist and I would not blush for it as though it were a crime. Men who die for a patriotic ideal are daily honoured and regarded. My life is worth no more than theirs. Yet I will not die for the Algerian homeland, because such a homeland does not exist. I have not found it. I have questioned history, I have asked the living and the dead, I have visited the cemeteries; no one has told me of it . . . One does not build on the wind.
A prominent Northern Nigerian, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, who was destined to become the first federal prime minister, remarked in 1948: ‘Since 1914 the British Government has been trying to make Nigeria into one country, but the Nigerian people themselves are historically different in their backgrounds, in their religious beliefs and customs and do not show themselves any signs of willingness to unite . . . Nigerian unity is only a British invention.’ In a book published in 1947, the Yoruba leader, Obafemi Awolowo, who dominated Western Nigerian politics for more than thirty years, wrote: ‘Nigeria is not a nation. It is a mere geographical expression. There are no “Nigerians” in the same sense as there are “English”, “Welsh”, or “French”. The word “Nigerian” is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria and those who do not.’
The Second World War, however, brought profound change to Africa. Showing a purpose and vigour never seen on the continent before, colonial governments built airports, expanded harbours, constructed roads and supply depots and demanded ever greater production of copper, tin, groundnuts – any commodity, in fact, useful in the war effort. Bases such as Freetown, Takoradi, Mombasa and Accra became a vital part of the Allied network. Thousands of African troops were recruited for war service. From British territories, some 374,000 Africans served in the British army. African units helped to defeat the Italians in Ethiopia and to restore Emperor Haile Selassie to his throne. African regiments were sent to India and fought with distinction in Burma. In India and Burma, African soldiers learned how nationalist movements there had forced promises of self-government from the British government even though their populations were mainly poor and illiterate.
From French Africa some 80,000 African troops were shipped to France to fight the Germans. But for France the war brought the spectacle of a nation not only defeated but divided into opposing camps – Free French and pro-Vichy – which fought each other for the loyalty of the empire. Much of French Africa sided with the Vichy regime. But French Equatorial Africa, responding to General de Gaulle’s appeal for help in exile, rallied to the cause of the Free French. For two and a half years, Brazzaville, a small town on the north bank of the Congo river, became the temporary capital of what purported to be the government of France.
The war also threw up decisive shifts in power, away from Europe and its colonial powers. As European influence declined, the emerging superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, competed for ascendancy. For different reasons, both were anti-colonial powers. When Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt drew up the Atlantic Charter in 1941, supporting the right of all peoples to choose their own government, Churchill had in mind self-determination only for the conquered nations of Europe, not for British territories. But Roosevelt was adamant that postwar objectives should include self-determination for all colonial peoples
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