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6.3: Sub-Saharan African Colonization

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    As the Industrial Revolution was spreading across Europe, colonial empires were seeking to expand their colonial holdings in order to gain mineral resources and expand agricultural production. As Europeans began exploring the interior of Africa, and recognized its resource potential, competition among European empires grew fierce. France, Italy, Britain, Portugal, and Belgium all raced through the interior of Africa trying to expand and strengthen their territories. When Germany entered the race, the colonial empires decided that it was in Europe’s best interest to agree on and clearly demarcate African colonies and to agree on common policy.

    In 1884, 13 European countries, as well as the United States, sent representatives to the Berlin Conference. At this conference, the colonial powers established the procedure for a Western country to formally control African territory and ultimately re-shaped the map of Africa. In a continent that had previously been divided into territories held by tribal groups and some larger kingdoms, the political boundaries were completely changed. By the early 20th century, around 90 percent of Africa was directly controlled by Europeans (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Map of Colonies in Africa, 1913 (Derivative work from original by Eric Gaba, Wikimedia Commons)

    European colonization of Africa completely reshaped the political and ethnic landscape, with lasting effects even today. Colonialism broadly refers to the control of a territory by another group and colonial policies varied across Africa. In the Belgian Congo, what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there was a racist ideology of paternalism where Africans were essentially viewed as children needing a fatherly, or paternal, authority to educate them in the ways of the West. In the far-reaching French colonies, from present-day Madagascar to Morocco, the colonizers emphasized an assimilationist policy, spreading the French culture through language, laws, and education. In the British colonies, like present-day Uganda, Ghana, and Nigeria, settlers partnered with local rulers who were made representatives of the British crown. This was known as indirect rule. The Portuguese, however, continued to be primarily interested in resources rather than local politics or culture. Their policy of exploitation in places like Angola and Mozambique ignored local development and the empire kept rigid control over local economies.

    European colonizers were generally focused on exporting goods, with little attention given to local development or connectivity. These easily sold raw materials or agricultural goods are known as commodities. Local communities which may have previously practiced subsistence agriculture were shifted to export-oriented crops destined for European markets. When rail lines were built in Africa, they were generally constructed to simply take resources from the interior to the coastal ports without concern for developing regional linkages.

    Eventually, the African colonies gained their independence, though the ease with which they were granted independence and the ease of their transition varied widely. Because the British practiced indirect rule, their colonies generally had a gradual transition of power with local rulers who’d been made representatives of Britain now governing over independent territories. Belgium, however, initially opposed the independence movement in its colonies, which were ruled directly by Belgian leaders. Most African countries would gain their independence following World War II. The last European colony to be granted independence was Djibouti in 1977.

    While independence movements successfully broke territories free from European control, many areas were faced with a difficult decision regarding how to politically organize as a state. The European powers had redrawn the map of Africa with no regard for underlying ethnic territories. Some ethnic groups were thus grouped together, sharing colonial territory with groups they had long-standing conflicts with. Other ethnic groups were split apart, divided between two or more colonies. As the new political map of Africa took shape, it generally followed many of the colonial boundaries that had been artificially created.

    Where two or more ethnic groups shared a newly independent territory, how should they decide who should rule? Perhaps the groups could simply share power and live peacefully. But what if one group, because of imposed colonial boundaries, no longer had access to resources? What if another group wanted to have unilateral control and not share it with groups they perceived as “other”? Many of the political and economic challenges facing the countries in contemporary Africa are rooted in its colonial history.


    the control of a territory by another group


    raw materials or agricultural goods that are easily bought and sold

    6.3: Sub-Saharan African Colonization is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Caitlin Finlayson.

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