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When technological advances made Africa’s interior readily accessible in the late nineteenth century, the nations of Europe raced to colonize the continent. Colonial administrations enticed or coerced Africans into producing goods for export, until native conscripts brought home the concept of “freedom” from World War II. The late twentieth century saw the end of colonial rule in Africa, yet its effects remain.
The colonial era in African history was relatively brief, but it was decisive in shaping Africa’s relationship with the twentieth-century world. The legacies of colonialism are still felt broadly and deeply across the continent.
Creating a Colonial Order, 1880 to 1914
Until late in the nineteenth century, almost all European interaction with Africa took place along the coasts. An exception to this was the area around the Dutch settlement of Cape Town, where a frontier of European settlements developed in the late seventeenth century. By the late nineteenth century it was an array of technologies that made European conquest possible: medical technologies (such as the discovery of quinine as a prophylactic against malaria), transportation technologies (such as steamships and railroads to penetrate the interior), and military technologies (such as the rapid-repeating Maxim gun).
Several factors drove the European scramble for Africa. In the industrial era, competition for the resources of the tropical world, such as rubber and cotton, intensified. The rise of the powerful new German state added a political and strategic dimension: the British now had to work to defend the global trade dominance they had earlier taken for granted, and the French sought new territories in Africa partially as compensation for their losses in European wars. New nations like Italy and Germany pursued empire as a form of national self-assertion. Christian missionaries were another constituency promoting empire, explaining it as a means of bringing “civilization” to what Europeans came to regard as a “dark continent.” Similar factors were at play in other world regions that had heretofore escaped European colonization, such as Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands.
Alarmed by the aggressive imperialism of King Leopold II of Belgium, other European nations sent delegates to the Berlin Conference in 1884 to create ground rules for their “effective occupation” of African lands. Leopold’s huge fiefdom in Central Africa, the “Kongo Free State,” was a brutal military-economic empire. As many as 10 million Africans died as the region’s rubber was plundered to feed industrial and consumer markets in the West.
African responses to the challenge of European imperialism were complex, conditioned by the rapidity with which the colonialist enterprise unfolded. Diplomacy was a common approach. Particular rulers and societies might benefit from allying themselves with the Europeans, as did the kings of Buganda, north of Lake Victoria, who expanded their territory at the expense of traditional rivals by allying themselves with the British. But the Europeans were organized on a scale that African states could not match, and one by one African societies lost their sovereignty.
African wars of resistance to colonial occupation were common in the period from 1890 to 1910, but successful only in Ethiopia. King Menelik II (1844– 1913) built a professional standing army, equipped it with the latest rifles, and played European powers off one another. Victory over the Italians in 1896 allowed Ethiopia to retain its status as an indigenous kingdom. But like independent Siam (Thailand) in Southeast Asia, it was but a modest exception to the rule of direct imperial control being imposed by Europe. For Africa as a whole, the period from the Berlin Conference (1894) through World War I (1914–1918) was a period of instability, violence, and population loss.
Colonial Political Economy, 1914 to 1940
During the period from 1914 to 1940, the European powers devised a number of strategies to allow them to govern colonies and benefit from them economically. The British grafted the colonial state onto existing African institutions through a system known as “indirect rule.” Traditional “chiefs” of African “tribes” administered “customary law” under the guidance of British officials. Meanwhile the French cultivated an elite of Africans who associated themselves with French values. As in Vietnam, these indigenes evolues (evolved natives) could even aspire to French citizenship. However, for most Africans such opportunities meant nothing, and forced labor and authoritarian colonial directives were the norm.
Belgian administration was even more paternalistic than the others, with the Catholic Church and mining companies leaving little room for African participation in state institutions. Portugal, a poor country with few resources to invest, did even less to prepare Africans for participation in a modern state. A crucial distinction was whether the Europeans came to settle. In French Algeria, Portuguese Angola, British Kenya and Rhodesia, and in South Africa, it was the settler factor that dominated all other aspects of political and economic life. Here Africans were dominated by aggressive European immigrants who came not just to govern them, but to take their land.
Settler-dominated farming in these regions was one form of what the economic historian Ralph Austen has called “regimes of competitive exploitation.” To provide labor for settler farms, mining enterprises, and commercial plantations, Africans were often restricted to crowded “native reserves” (to use the South African term) where, unable to meet demands for tax payments to the state, they were forced into a cycle of migrant labor. With the loss of labor and the overuse of inadequate land in the reserves, African agricultural productivity declined. Women were usually left to shoulder the burdens of rural poverty.
The second economic pattern identified by Austen is the peasant-etatiste regime. Here basic factors of production—land, labor, and cattle—remained in African hands. But peasant life was greatly altered by the mandate to produce goods for the global economy: colonial taxes had to be paid in cash, and that meant growing commercial crops. In some cases African initiative was evident, as in the Gold Coast (today’s Ghana), where African farmers responded to market incentives by making the colony the world’s largest producer of cocoa. In many cases, however, market incentives were so weak that colonial officials used coercion to force African production. Such was the case with cotton, which apart from bringing little revenue to African farmers required significant labor and exhausted the soil. Forced cotton growing was the cause of several revolts against European authority.
Colonial economics led to regional differentiation. The transportation infrastructure, geared toward the export of raw materials and the importation of manufactured goods, concentrated investment and development in certain areas while draining labor from others. In West Africa, the coastal regions were developed at the expense of the more arid savannas of the interior. In South Africa, the “white” areas of the country—the settler farming regions and the increasingly industrial cities and mine compounds—were developed at the expense of “native reserves.”
Africa and the Twentieth Century, 1914 to 1994
While colonial Africa had distinctive traits, it is best understood in the context of twentieth-century world history. During World War I (1914–1918) the Europeans mobilized the human and natural resources of their empires. While Indian soldiers fought for Britain in its fight with Germany’s Ottoman allies, the famous Senegalese Sharpshooters, young men from West African villages, served in the trenches of Europe. East and Southwest Africa were theaters of war as the Germans defended their colonies from British and South African attack. Most of the soldiers were African, with European officers in command. Great civilian suffering resulted from forced conscription and the spread of disease and hunger that accompanied the fighting.
Representatives of Africa’s fledgling nationalist movements went to Paris in 1919, but like their Asian colleagues their voices were ignored by the great powers. The war had set in motion a process that would undercut the viability of European colonial empires—for example, by forcing the British to cash in many of their global financial assets to finance their struggle with Germany. Rather than recognizing and acting on that historical shift, however, the British and French augmented their existing empires through the “mandate system,” which reallocated former German colonies (and Ottoman provinces) to the victorious allies.
In the 1920s, colonial administrative and economic systems developed in a context of rising prices on world commodity markets. Soaring African production of coffee and cocoa led to increased tax revenues. But the Great Depression brought an end to that period of relative prosperity. Commodity prices plunged, with no significant recovery until the 1950s. A logical peasant response was to return to subsistence production, but that was not be allowed by colonial states dependent on cash crop production for their revenues, and state coercion in African agriculture increased. Colonial taxation had enmeshed African producers in the cash nexus of the global market.
World War II (1939–1945) also had profound implications for Africa. The British mobilized large numbers of African conscripts; many Kenyan and Nigerian soldiers saw action in Burma (defending British India from Japanese assault) while white South African soldiers fought to liberate Ethiopia from the Italians who had occupied the African kingdom in 1935. North Africa was a major theater of war. Most French colonial governors, in Africa as in Southeast Asia, allied themselves with the collaborationist Vichy regime. But the governor of French Equatorial Africa, Felix Eboue (1884–1944), a descendent of slaves from French Guiana, declared his support for the Free French forces, making the city of Brazzaville an important center of French resistance to fascism.
The war was a watershed in African history. Returning soldiers brought greater knowledge of the world back to Africa’s towns and villages. Allied wartime propaganda had asked Africans to sacrifice in the interests of “freedom,” a term that now fully entered the vocabulary of African politics. Before the war only a tiny elite of Western-educated Africans had imagined the possibility of self-governing or independent African states. Now there was a much wider social constituency for that idea, especially among young Africans who were anxious to escape the confines of colonialism and play a larger role in the world.
Leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Leopold Senghor of Senegal, and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya returned to Africa from sojourns to Europe and the United States to lead new movements of mass nationalism. In doing so, they were following the example of nationalists in India, which had gained full independence from Britain in 1947. Conflict and occasional violence marked the independence struggle in most colonies, but independence was frequently achieved through peaceful negotiation. Such was the case in the Gold Coast. In 1957 Kwame Nkrumah became its prime minister, changed the name of the country to Ghana, and set a precedent for the continent as a whole.
In settler colonies, however, colonialism could not be overthrown without significant violence. In Kenya the settlers refused to compromise with Jomo Kenyatta’s Kenya African National Union. The ensuing Mau Mau Revolt (1954–1960) led to thousands of deaths, mostly African, before independence was achieved in 1964. The violence was even greater in Algeria, where independence from France followed a bitter eight-year war (1954–1962) and cost a million lives.
The Cold War (1945–1991) often played a major role in regions where violence accompanied decolonization. The Kongo became a Cold War battlefield as independence led to civil war, with the United States successfully backing an authoritarian, anticommunist dictator named Mobutu Sese Seko. Portugal refused to give up its colonies without a fight, and its NATO-backed government fought a long war with Soviet-supported insurgents before the independence of Angola and Mozambique in 1974. Similarly, Marxist guerrillas fought the white settler regime in Rhodesia, finally securing majority rule in 1980 and renaming their country Zimbabwe.
In South Africa, the struggle was even more prolonged. Even after the fight against German fascism had discredited racism as a political ideology, white South African voters supported the creation of an apartheid state after 1948. Under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress used nonviolent civil disobedience to oppose apartheid, but the response was increased repression. In 1964, Mandela and his colleagues were sentenced to life in prison after they turned to sabotage as a means of resistance. In a Cold War context, the United States and Great Britain were reluctant to put too much pressure on the apartheid regime, given the significant Western investment in South Africa’s profitable mining and industrial sectors and the strongly anticommunist stance of its leaders. But major uprisings throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, in which African students played a major role, kept pressure on the regime. In 1994 Nelson Mandela became the first president of a democratic South Africa. The colonial era in African history was finally at an end.
The Legacies of Colonialism
Political geography is perhaps the most obvious legacy of colonialism. With a map created by Europeans for their own purposes, Africans have struggled to create viable nations within the borders bequeathed to them. The problem of creating strong nation-states has been compounded by other political legacies of colonialism. Ethnic politics is one example. As elsewhere in the world, when mass politics developed in Africa there was a tendency for ethnic and/or religious identifications to be heightened. The development of such ethnic identities was often encouraged by colonial powers as part of a divide-and-rule strategy. Since such identities rarely corresponded with national boundaries, ethnic subnationalism became a major challenge to national cohesion in new African states. The legacy of authoritarian rule inherited from colonialism, with weak structures of civil society to counterbalance state power, has also had unfortunate effects across the continent.
The economic legacies of colonialism have been equally problematic. The inherited transportation infrastructure, geared toward the export of agricultural goods and raw materials, has made it difficult to integrate African economies within and between nations. Even while Africa’s manufacturing sector has grown, problems of economic underdevelopment remain. Africans still often produce what they do not consume, and consume what they do not produce, remaining dependent on the vagaries of international commodity prices.
Africans have had difficulty making positive use of the political and economic legacies of colonialism. But the same is not true in cultural and intellectual life, where African encounters with global cultural influences over the past century have been remarkably fruitful. In music and in the visual arts, for example, Africans have absorbed European and other cultural influences without sacrificing a distinctly African aesthetic. Similarly, as Africans have accepted new religions, most notably Christianity and Islam, they have infused them with beliefs and practices rooted in their own cultural traditions. It is in these cultural, intellectual, and spiritual domains that hope resides for the African continent to surmount the challenges remaining from the colonial period.
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