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Scramble for Africa

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Border gore in real life!
The white man's burden
Icon imperialism.svg
The empires strike back
Veni, vidi, vici
I do not want to miss a good chance of getting us a slice of this magnificent African cake.
— Leopold II[1][2]

The term "Scramble for Africa" refers to the rapid division and colonial exploitation of the African continent, largely taking place between the years 1880 and 1913. By the beginning of World War I in 1914, only Ethiopia, Darwiish StateWikipedia, and Liberia remained as independent African states.

While it began with the increasing ability and keenness of Europeans to explore the interior of the continent, the true starting pistol was the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference,Wikipedia[3] in which the various European powers sat at a table and agreed to play nice with each other while colonizing. Having ensured that no one (white) would be shot over the question of who got what in Africa, Europeans proceeded to occupy and rule their assigned bits of the continent.

This period is also notable for further entrenching racism in European societies through the use of racialist pseudoscience and philosophy, as the (mainly European) colonial powers in the age of rising liberalism felt the need to justify their subjugation of the native Africans.

African colonization is generally seen as being part of the era of New Imperialism,Wikipedia which refers to a period of rapid colonial expansion by European powers, the United States, and the Japanese Empire during the 19th and early 20th Centuries.


Slave trade and early colonialism[edit]

Europeans had interests in Africa long before the 19th Century, of course, as the slave trade can attest to. Motivated by commodities such as gold, spices, and ivory, Portugal funded expeditions to explore the African coastline as early as 1460.[4] European nations established small territories on the African coast where they would trade commodities with the local African kingdoms as well as purchase slaves.[5]

Exploration of the continent[edit]

Much later, in the late 18th century, young British men inspired by the Enlightenment ideals of knowledge-gaining established the African Association in 1788 to sponsor African exploration.[6] However, this wasn't purely intellectual; most of the motivation involved international prestige, trade opportunities, and plain old money. The British began sending well-financed expeditions into the African interior shortly after the Napoleonic Wars, with the purpose of charting major rivers and establishing diplomatic and trade relations with the native populations. Despite finding a rich natural environment, the expeditions ultimately failed when the men and pack animals fell desperately ill.[7] As technology and medical knowledge (especially with the development of quinine to treat malaria)[8] improved, so did successes in exploration, with British explorers finally locating the coveted source of the Nile in 1858.[9]

With the gates to Africa finally thrown open, European colonization could begin.

Strategic interests and natural resources[edit]

African mine workers in the Belgian Congo. Oh, we'll be coming back to the Belgian Congo...

Along with natural resources like diamonds, copper, and palm oil, Africa represented a valuable market for Europeans to sell to and generate export surpluses.[10] Most warships at the time also ran on steam engines; they consequently required so-called coaling stations across the world, which was why seemingly useless islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific were so valued. Owning African ports would vastly increase any fleet's effective range.[11] But perhaps most importantly, owning land in Africa was seen as directly affecting the power of each nation in European affairs.[12] With the German Empire explodingWikipedia onto the world stage in 1870, the British facing threats to their empire, and the French seeking to reclaim past colonial glory, African land became the key to power and thus skyrocketed in value.

Most importantly, however, was the fact that Africa's tropical climate was host to latex plants. Native to the Congo, the rubber plant (Landolphia owariensis), is known for its thick white sap known as latex,[13] which can be processed into rubber. In 1839, the vulcanization process was invented, and vulcanized rubber then became the primary material used in tires and certain machine components.[14] As a result, rubber, and the trees which produce latex, became an enormously valuable industrial resource. Europeans sought to establish rubber plantations in Africa, and bad things happened.

Also, the land was just there, and pre-WWI European nations never did manage to lay eyes on foreign land they didn't immediately want to take.

Colonial racism[edit]

Nope, nothing racist here.

The "Mission to Civilize"[edit]

I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. ... If there be a God, I think that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible.
—Cecil Rhodes, British businessman and founder of the Rhodesia colony.[15]

As this was taking place during the latter 19th Century, most of the colonizing powers felt a much greater need to justify their colonization. It was, after all, harder to reconcile Europe's increasing liberalism with the oppression that colonialism would bring down upon the native Africans. This being said, colonialism was generally popular in the opening stages of the Scramble, with the public only souring on the concept after revelations of hideous crimes towards natives and other settlers.[16]

The rationalization came in the form of the "mission to civilize." This was the idea that colonization was not only acceptable, but necessary, because European intervention in Africa and Asia would allow them to bring Western civilization to the "backward" natives. This concept of Africa originated among Western Europeans as a justification for slavery, as defenders of the institution did much to portray Africa as being so wretched that blacks were better off as slaves.[17] This idea was flexible enough to become the justification for colonialism. European geographers also put forward the notion that "northern" climates fostered people with greater intelligence and work ethic than did tropical climates.[18]

A notable example of this phenomenon was seen in France, a highly liberal nation by the standards of the time. The "mission civilisatrice" became especially prominent after the restoration of republicanism, when the zeal for domestic modernization manifested overseas as a desire to rectify the problems of Africa.[19] This is how French imperialists ensured support for their African adventures from an otherwise democratically-minded population.

"Scientific" racism[edit]

Just a black guy locked up in a zoo with a chimpanzee. Why does RationalWiki keep making everything in this article about race?

Naturally, the Scramble for Africa couldn't have happened without a good ol' dose of racism. Science in general, which had made rapid leaps forward in the 19th Century, was quickly warped and misused by pro-colonial Europeans who sought intellectual reasons why Africans and Asians were naturally inferior.

Social Darwinism became popular in this era, and it refers to the idea that Charles Darwin's theories of natural selection could also apply to the various human races. Three guesses for which race was perceived to be the "fittest." It was adopted as an intellectual supporting argument for European racial and colonial policies, as well as domestic laissez-faire capitalism and lack of social programs.

Other infamous pseudoscientific practices abounded in this era. Herbert Hope Risley,Wikipedia an ethnographer who became a colonial administrator in British India, infamously used the ratio of the width of a person's nose to its height to divide Indians into different races and castes.[20] PolygenismWikipedia became widespread in Europe at this time,[21] and was a theory of human origin which posited that different human races were in fact almost entirely different species. German scientist Karl VogtWikipedia believed that Africans were closely related to (non-human) apes. Scientists, especially Samuel George MortonWikipedia in the United States, used craniometry, or the measurement of skulls, to identify a "diversity of intellectual character" among the races.[22] Colonial powers would often subject non-Europeans to invasive studies to further support pro-colonial scientific ideologies.[23]

Colonial exhibitions and the human zoos[edit]

To boost popular support for New Imperialism, colonial powers hosted exhibition festivals where they could display the riches brought in from the African colonies. These were heavily advertised, as the exhibitions were filled with propaganda. For example, African "natives" were made to pay homage to the German kaiser in 1896.[24] The most infamous displays, however, were the "human zoos," where native Africans and Asians would be paid to act out their ways of life before crowds of curious European tourists.[25] These exhibits were enormously popular, and large cities like Paris, Hamburg, and London, could see crowds of 200,000 people or more.[26]

The displays became even more grotesque when the exhibitions and zoos began to display native skulls, sexual organs, and preserved brains.[27] Sarah BaartmanWikipedia, a Khoikhoi woman who was paraded around Europe in freak shows, had her skeleton and body parts displayed in a Paris museum until 19-freaking-74, and wasn't buried until 2002.[28] Live "performers" also faced harsh conditions, as they were forced to wear native African clothing even during Europe's winters.[29] They also faced diseases and generally poor living conditions.

The human zoos themselves often weren't very accurate. Zookeepers at the Bronx Zoo tossed bones into Ota BengaWikipedia's cage to make him appear more threatening, and a village of native Filipinos was made to eat dog meat daily, which they only did ceremonially.[29]

The "Dark Continent"[edit]

One of the most prevailing myths regarding the affairs of pre-colonial Africa is in regards to the Dark Continent trope, which perpetuates the notion that Sub-Saharan Africa lacked any developed civilizations or complex polities prior to colonialism.[30][31] Many Eurocentrists have reinforced this trope to justify assertions that colonialism was good for the Africans, as it boosted the economies and infrastructures and introduced beneficial innovations such as schools and hospitals.[32] These viewpoints ignore the fact that Africa already had centralized city-states, kingdoms, empires and confederations as well as massive trading networks in addition to the atrocities committed by European colonial powers, and that the poverty and instability suffered by most African countries are attributed to the legacy of colonialism.[33][34] The European colonists destroyed many remnants of existing civilizations during the Scramble for Africa, such as the case with a punitive expedition against the Benin kingdom in 1897, which destroyed its defensive walls that are considered by the Guinness Book of Records to have been longer than the Great Wall of China.[35][36] Another egregious example is when the French banned the Bamum script invented by King Njoya of present-day Cameroon after Germany's defeat in World War I.[37] Several wingnuts such as Simon Webb have also made efforts to preserve the Dark Continent myth in response to the revelation of African civilizations becoming more widely known.[38]

Major events[edit]

Berlin Conference[edit]

Yes, that map in the background was actually there.

By the time the early 1880s rolled around, most of the major colonial powers were already knee-deep in the African continent. The British had built the Suez CanalWikipedia and occupied Egypt after a short war to protect their investment.[39] Leopold II of Belgium already had mercenaries in the Congo, and the Portuguese controlled the coasts of Angola and Mozambique. The French, meanwhile, had sensed Ottoman weakness in the Maghreb and invaded Tunis.[40] This rapid conquest of African land led to tense competition between the imperial powers, especially between the British and French.[41] Portugal and Belgium, however also had competing claims on the Congo coastline (the solution was to give Portugal a floating chunk of land north of the Congo river, which is now an exclave of Angola).[42]

In 1884, and in response to the possibility of a war over Africa, German Chancellor Otto von BismarckWikipedia hosted an international meeting in Berlin, where the colonial powers could peacefully divide Africa between themselves.[41] Somewhat hilariously, the Reich Chancellery had an actual five-meter tall map of the continent on the wall for the diplomats to point at and argue over.[43] Over the course of the conference, diplomats from the various powers eventually managed to formalize and map their claims, all the while drawing lines on a map through territory no European had ever even visited.

The diplomats produced the General Act of the Berlin Conference, which stipulated the following:[44]

  • All participating nations were resolved to end slavery everywhere in Africa.[45] This was largely done only to put a humanitarian face on the whole enterprise, to make it seem like more than just a gross land grab.
  • The Congo Free State was confirmed as the private property of King Leopold II of Belgium. No, not Belgium. Leopold.
  • Freedom of trade and shipping was guaranteed throughout central Africa.
  • No nation could claim land they didn't actually occupy.
  • If any nation took control of further territory in Africa, they would have to announce it to the other signatories.

The Conference succeeded in averting any colonial wars (between European nations), and its formalization of the Scramble for Africa led to a massive increase in the pace of African colonization. It goes without saying that no Africans were invited.

Belgian Congo atrocities[edit]

When it came to managing colonies, the Belgians had a very hands-off approach.
See the main article on this topic: Belgian Congo

Having been confirmed as the sole ruler of the Congo, Leopold II proceeded to turn the entire region into a giant slave plantation. Publicly, Leopold's stated goal was to civilize the Congolese,[46] but in reality, he imposed a brutal regime that sought nothing more than simple economic gain.

Galvanized by the rubber boom, Leopold's mercenaries imposed heavy production quotas on the native population, who were effectively slaves. These quotas were often enforced with death, and to ensure that his soldiers didn't waste bullets on hunting or sport, Leopold infamously mandated that they provide a human hand for each prisoner executed.[47] Naturally, human hands became a commodity, and entire villages were mutilated.[48] For those who resisted, the Belgian authorities authorized beatings with the chicotte whip, hostage taking, rapes, and the razing of entire villages.[49] Yes, the destruction of villages in order to "civilize" them.

Rubber harvesting itself was an evil process. Authorities wanted to keep the rubber vines alive, so hacking them apart wasn't permitted. Workers thus had to journey deep into the jungle, climb trees to reach the rubber vines, slice the vines to allow the latex sap to coat their bodies, and peel the dried mass off their bodies, often taking skin and hair with it.[50] This was, of course, work no one would do willingly, so Leopold imposed sky-high taxes and ordered the population to work off the value. Those who refused were brutalized.

As one would expect, the population of the Congo dropped like a rock due to malnutrition, exhaustion, exposure, and straight-up murder.[48] Current estimates place total population losses at roughly ten to twelve million.[51] Similarly to the situation during early colonization in the New World, Europeans imported numerous deadly diseases like smallpox and dysentery, whose death tolls dwarfed that inflicted by the Belgians.[52]

British journalist E.D. MorelWikipedia noticed during his days working for a shipping firm that Belgian ships departing for the Congo carried suspiciously large amounts of weapons and chains. This sparked a chain of events which led the rest of the world to become aware of Leopold's massive forced labor regime in the Congo. Public outcry would motivate literary works like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness,Wikipedia and Mark Twain's King Leopold's Soliloquy.Wikipedia Eventually, in response to the international PR crisis, the Belgian government would seize the territory from King Leopold and establish the Belgian Congo.[53]

Herero and Nama genocide[edit]

While the Belgians were suffering from the Congo fallout, the Germans also managed to sneak in a little bit of genocide in Deutsch-Südwestafrika (modern NamibiaWikipedia). Between 1903-1904, the increasing number of German settlers in the area were straining the arid landscape's resources and causing discontent among the native tribes.[54] The most significant of these tribes were the Herero, who had managed to get their hands on horses and modern firearms.[54] Although it is uncertain which side initiated combat, the Herero were able to put up a tenacious resistance to the Germans.[54] They were, however, inevitably defeated and forced to retreat into the desert. The Nama people would also rise up, with similar results.

Welcome to the rest of the story.

The whole "driven into the desert" thing gave the Germans an idea. The German commander ordered his troops to drive every Herero man, woman and child out of their towns and shoot the ones who resisted.[55] Many thousands died of hunger and thirst, and the 13,000-or-so survivors were rounded up into concentration camps to be beaten and worked to death.[56] It is estimated that about 80% of the Herero and Nama population were exterminated.[57]

In a chilling foreshadow of the Holocaust, the Germans used skull measurements to justify calling the Africans untermenschen, and experimented on some of the survivors.[58]

Morocco crises[edit]

Wikimedia claims these are French troops. However, given that they don't seem to be surrendering to anyone, they are far more likely to be German.

Unfortunately for the world, the Berlin Conference hadn't made France and Germany hate each other any less. This became a major problem during the Morocco Crises, where Germany would repeatedly attempt to block the French from colonizing Morocco. France had concluded an agreement with Spain in 1904 to partition the country, and in response, the kaiser visited Tangier to pledge support for maintaining Moroccan independence, just to dick with the French.[59] The crisis was defused with an agreement to allow France to police Morocco but protect German trade rights in the region. Unfortunately for the Germans, the real impact of the First Morocco Crisis was to push Britain and France together against Germany, as the kaiser's aggressiveness had raised London's suspicions towards Berlin.[60]

In 1911, an uprising in Morocco provoked a French military response, once again angering the Germans. The Second Morocco Crisis was even more tense than the first, and both sides began to expect a war to break out. The crisis was notable for fully solidifying the teams which would go into WWI: the British and Russians backed the French, and the Germans received soft support from Austria-Hungary.[61] However, with Russia behind France, Germany had no choice but to accept France's offer to resolve the crisis. They accepted French annexation of Morocco in exchange for some extra land in Western Africa. Unfortunately, war had only been postponed, and not for very long.

See also[edit]



  1. Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa: White Man's Conquest of the Dark Continent From 1876 to 1912, New York: Avon Books, 1992, 22.
  3. Brantlinger, Patrick (1985). "Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent". Critical Inquiry. 12 (1): 166–203. JSTOR 1343467. doi:10.1086/448326.
  4. The Portuguese in Africa, 1415–1600 Metropolitan Museum of Art
  5. The Transatlantic Slave Trade Metropolitan Museum of Art
  6. European Exploration of Africa by Angela Thompsell (Updated September 30, 2017) ThoughtCo.
  7. The Forgotten Failures of African Exploration Dane Kennedy, The Public Domain Review
  8. History of Antimalarials Medicines for Malaria Venture
  9. The Nile's Source Discovered History Today
  10. Kevin Shillington, History of Africa. Revised second edition (New York: Macmillian Publishers Limited, 2005), 301.
  11. Lynn Hunt, The Making of the West: volume C, Bedford: St. Martin, 2009.
  12. The Scramble for Africa: A History of Independence Al Jazeera 05 Sep 2010
  13. Gumvines "Lost Crops of Africa: vol III"
  14. Development of the natural rubber industry
  15. Imperial racism BBC
  16. Robert Livingston Schuyler, "The rise of anti-imperialism in England." Political science quarterly 37.3 (1922): 440-471. in JSTOR
  17. The roots of European racism lie in the slave trade, colonialism – and Edward Long Olusoga, David. The Guardian. 8.SEP.15
  18. Arnold, David (March 2000). ""Illusory Riches": Representations of the Tropical World, 1840-1950". Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography. 21 (1): 6–18. doi:10.1111/1467-9493.00060.
  19. The Mission Civilisatrice (1890-1945)
  20. Trautmann, Thomas R. (1997), Aryans and British India, Vistaar
  21. George W. Stocking, Race, Culture and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology, 1968, pp. 38-40
  22. Menand, L. (2001). Morton, Agassiz, and the origins of scientific racism in the United States. Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 110-113.
  23. Fausto-Sterling, Anne (2001). Muriel Lederman and Ingrid Bartsch, ed. Gender, Race, and Nation: The Comparative Anatomy of "Hottentot" women in Europe, 1815–1817. The Gender and Science Reader. Routledge.
  24. An official dramatization: the era of colonial exhibitions (from Amsterdam in 1883 to Lyon in 1914)
  25. Human zoos: When real people were exhibits Schofield, Hugh. BBC
  27. Museums and Colonial Exhibitions
  28. The significance of Sarah Baartman Parkinson, Justin. BBC.
  37. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Yakan, page 207
  39. Egypt 1882. Aftermath. The National Archives.
  40. French Tunisia (1881-1956) University of Central Arkansas
  41. 41.0 41.1 Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 Oxford Reference
  42. Portuguese Congo
  43. 130 years ago: carving up Africa in Berlin Fischer, Hilke. Deutsche Welle
  44. Full Text of the General Act of the Berlin Conference on West Africa
  45. Slavery and the 'Scramble for Africa' David, Saul. BBC.
  46. 1885: Belgian King Establishes Congo Free State National Geographic
  47. Red Rubber: Atrocities in the Congo Free State in Confidential Print: Africa
  48. 48.0 48.1 Renton, David; Seddon, David; Zeilig, Leo (2007). The Congo: Plunder and Resistance. London: Zed Books. ISBN 978-1-84277-485-4.
  49. Stengers, Jean (1969). "The Congo Free State and the Belgian Congo before 1914". In Gann, L. H.; Duignan, Peter. Colonialism in Africa, 1870–1914. I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 261–92.
  51. Britannica
  52. Vansina, Jan (2010). Being Colonized: The Kuba Experience in Rural Congo, 1880–1960. Madison: University of Wisconcin Press. ISBN 978-0-299-23644-1.
  53. Pakenham, Thomas (1992). The Scramble for Africa: the White Man's Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912. London: Abacus. ISBN 978-0-349-10449-2.
  54. 54.0 54.1 54.2 German-Herero conflict of 1904–07 Britannica
  55. Germany moves to atone for 'forgotten genocide' in Namibia Burke, Jason. The Guardian.
  56. The forgotten genocide Akinyemi, Aaron. The Guardian.
  57. Germany Grapples With Its African Genocide Onishi Norimitsu. New York Times
  58. A Brutal Genocide in Colonial Africa Finally Gets its Deserved Recognition Gross, Daniel A. Smithsonian Magazine.
  59. The First Moroccan Crisis
  60. Moroccan crises Britannica
  61. Second Moroccan Crisis