These days, we’re seeing a lot of debate over colonialism, and particularly about almost all of Africa being carved up by the European colonial powers. In particular, there’s an assumption that Africa was powerless to resist. That’s the myth. The historical reality was a bit different.
The Congress of Berlin in 1884 (there are several with that name) was called by Germany so the powers could work out how best to carve up Africa by agreeing who was to get what African territory, and how trade was to be managed. Africans themselves were not consulted.
European nations already possessing territory were reaffirmed and what was unconquered was assigned. France got most of North Africa and the Sahel. Portugal retained Angola and Mozambique. The Belgian king Leopold II was confirmed in his peculiar (and peculiarly deadly) hold on the Congo. Spain retained its small areas. Italy has its eye on Libya, Somalia and Eritrea. The British held the protectorate in Egypt, got most of West Africa assigned to the British sphere, got overlordship of the South African Boers and other peoples, and much of East Africa. The Germans got Togo, split Cameroon with France, and got Namibia and what is now Tanzania. All that was unassigned was Ethiopia and the informal American colony of Liberia.
Earlier, most of Africa was a killing ground for Europeans, whether missionaries, explorers or soldiers. Malaria was the killer, and the death rate of Europeans stationed in West Africa could be 50% to 90% per year. What enabled the European conquest was the development of medicine to deal with malaria, the development of the river steamboat and the invention of the machine gun. These negated the native African advantages of malaria and courage.
But it wasn’t that easy. It took the British four wars to take over the Gold Coast (now Ghana), mostly because the Ashante (also spelled Asante) people were extremely formidable; the last war was settled by agreement in 1902. The British faced powerful opposition in the Sudan, too. They moved south from Egypt. General Gordon led a mostly Egyptian force into the Sudan to intimidate the Muslim peoples, who had revolted against Egyptian rule. In 1885 Gordon was besieged at Khartoum by forces of the charismatic Muslim leader known as the Madhi, which killed Gordon and annihilated his force. The Madhist state lasted from 1885 to 1898, when strong British forces used machine guns and high explosive artillery to destroy the Mahdist cavalry, armed mostly with spears.
The Italians took over most of Somalia and Eritrea and then targeted Ethiopia. Ethiopia was itself a colonial empire, expanding to the south and west, also conquering tribes unwilling to accept Ethiopian rule. The Italians invaded in 1896 with an army composed of about half Italian and half troops recruited locally. They advanced as far as a place called Adwa, where the Ethiopians destroyed the Italian army. Ethiopia remained free until the days of Mussolini in the 1930s, when poison gas and tanks won the Italians an uneasy and brief colonial regime.
The British had double trouble in South Africa. They fought two wars with the Boers, the Afrikaaners descended from the Dutch colonists (who got there about 1650). The British lost the first war, and the second, perhaps not coincidentally after the Boer republics were found to be rich in diamonds and gold, took hundreds of thousands of British and Empire soldiers to win. The British had also had a large force completely destroyed by the Zulus at the battle if Isandlwana in 1879. The Zulus had been formidable opposition to the Dutch colonists, and fought several wars with the British.
In another part of Africa, France and Spain split Morocco. Spain got a chunk in the north, actually not so far from Spain. The Moroccans in the Rif mountains rebelled against Spanish rule, and the Rif War resulted, lasting 1921 to 1926. The Rif fighters nearly threw Spain into the Mediterranean, and severely mauled Spanish armies. The French intervened and eventually the Rifians made peace. It cost the French and Spanish perhaps 75,000 casualties. Spain used aircraft and may have used poison gas.
There was plenty of other resistance. In Tanganyika (as it was then called) the Germans faced a serious rebellion, and in Namibia they also faced serious rebellion. The Germans put down botwith brutal force. The French faced serious military resistance in the Sahara and in the Sahel.
The idea that European colonial powers carved up a helpless Africa is a myth. The colonial powers won, but resistance was stiff and the Europeans lost tens of thousands of soldiers making the conquests.
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