Africa has long since been encountered by the presence of Europeans and their activities on the continent. Before the nineteenth century, European activities in Africa were restricted along the coast. Trade in slaves and other commodities with the interior states of Africa was conducted through local middlemen. Upon the abolition of the slave trade, legitimate trade was seen as the perfect substitute and the Europeans there scrambled and partitioned Africa for political, social and economic reasons. This also had economic, political and social consequences on the continent. This essay is a re-contextualization of the essence of the partition of Africa and it’s ramification on the continent. It will first deal with the factors that motivated the scramble for territories in Africa by the Europeans and later look at the effects on the continent.
The scramble for territories in Africa and the partition of the continent among the various European powers of late nineteenth century was triggered off mainly by the activities of one individual: King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo Basin. King Leopold hired explorers led by Henry Morton Stanley to explore and navigate the Congo and arrange trade with the local leaders of the area. Publicly, King Leopold of a civilizing mission to carry the light “for millions of men still plunged in barbarism will be dawn of a better era”. Privately, Leopold had the idea of exploitation and profit making at the expense of the Africans. Other European countries such as Britain, France and Portugal became alarmed and as conflict over the Congo Basin seemed eminent, Otto Von Bismarck, the then German chancellor who was a pacifist called for conference in Berlin to discuss issue regarding the annexation of territories in Africa and other issues such as the slave trade in December 1884-1885(January). This conference is famously known as the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885. The causes for the scramble and partition of Africa as discussed below.
Economically, it was the time whereby the industrial revolution in Europe, particularly England had reached its peak. The Europeans therefore wanted a place to serve as a market for their manufactured goods. This would help boost the economy of the European nations and the surplus goods also would have a ready market in Africa. The Europeans therefore saw the need to acquire territories outside Europe to serve as a market for their surplus goods and Africa was their answer since it was a newly found continent by the Europeans. In the Gold Coast for example, the Europeans supplied manufactured products such as gin, tobacco, hardware, gun, gun powder, iron, glassware, European blankets and cotton and silk products. These goods found a ready market since they were new and comfortable for the large African population. The British with Gold Coast as their occupied territory benefitted from this trade as they also obtained products such as gold, ivory, animal skin etc. This new economic enterprise therefore boosted the economy of Britain and they were therefore ready to do whatever is possible to prevent any other European country from benefiting from this trade in the Gold Coast.
Again the European territories in Africa served as a place where raw materials could be easily obtained at relatively low prices to feed European manufacturing industries. Raw materials that were in abundance and obtained by the Europeans in the Gold Coast are gold, ivory, timber, cotton etc. These products which were in great demand in Europe were converted into finished goods and were sold to both Europeans and Africans. This helped in the accumulation of more capital to establish other industries in Europe. So to the Europeans, Africa was very valuable at that time and no European country would allow another European country to establish trade links in the “occupied” territories for trade.
In addition, unemployment and in Europe played important roles in motivating the partition of the continent by the Europeans. During the industrial revolution, machines replaced human energy and this led to unemployment as the labor force required in the industries was reduced. This new situation displaced a lot of people in cities and there was high rate of unemployment in Europe. The European powers therefore started looking for territories where they can establish industries and employ their citizens to curb the issue of high unemployment rate in Europe. In the Gold Coast and other African countries all the European industries employed mostly Europeans while the local employees were few.
Also, as the economy of the various European countries particularly Britain expanded and as more capital was accumulated as a result of the profit from trade with the Africans, there was the need for the investment of surplus capital. Africa served as the suitable place to invest in the exploitation of natural resources of the continent. In the Gold Coast for example, European mining companies and timber firms were established by the Europeans to exploit the natural resources of the area to serve European interest.
Politically, in Europe of the nineteenth century, a country was considered powerful and great when that country has a lot of territories both in Europe and outside Europe. This motivated the European powers to scramble for territories in Africa because of the prestige that come with it. Acquiring more territories also served as a form of national pride and superiority over others. In the Gold Coast for instance where the Bristish had already establish their “control” over the Southern States, they (The British) felt threatened when the French annexed the territory of Lome in 1883. The British therefore quickly moved to annexed Asante and the northern territories of the Gold Coast as British colonies. Such were the tensions between the various European countries over territories in Africa and called for the Berlin Conference.
Another political reason for the scramble and the partition of Africa is some African ethnic groups were hostile to the early European explorers, merchants and traders. The European nations therefore saw the need to annex those territories where they have their explorers and merchants to protect their citizens.
Socially, the Europeans wanted to spread Christianity into Africa in order to check the spread of Islam on the continent especially North Africa and some parts of West Africa. The Europeans saw the growing influence of Islam in North Africa and other parts of West Africa as a threat to the spread of Christianity on the continent and must therefore be stopped with urgency. Even the African religion was considered as pagan so Africans must therefore be introduced to the light of Christianity. A good example is the Gold Coast whereby the Europeans (missionaries) established the Salem system for the African converts.
Another social reason for the scramble and partition of Africa is that the Europeans wanted to extend western civilization, culture and education to Africa. The Europeans considered the Africans as backward and illiterate and saw it as their responsibility to educate and civilize these “backward” people. In fact, this was the intention that King Leopold II of Belgium publicly declared that his main aim of entering the Congo Basin is to spread the light of European culture into Africa. Upon the annexation of African territories, the European established schools to enlighten these “barbaric” people.
Lastly, the issue of overpopulation in certain parts of Europe contributed to the scramble and the partition of Africa. The Europeans therefore wanted a place to resettle “surplus” citizens. This is evident when the British occupied South Africa and some parts of Kenya where the climate and weather was favorable for European settlement. There was therefore mass European settlement in those areas as compared to Gold Coast where the economy was less conducive for Europeans.
The effects of the partition on the continent are many. They range from social, political and to some extent economic effects. In is important to note that the effects are felt strongly in the social and political sectors.
First of all, the partition of Africa laid the foundation for the Europeans to colonize the continent. After the partition of the continent among the various European countries trading in Africa, any territory where a European country had spheres of influence “legally” became a colony for that European country. They therefore started to send their people as governors and officers to govern “their” new colonies in Africa. This meant that any other European country could not trade in that colony without the permission of the governor of that colony. Africans therefore lost their sovereignty in the own land and had to fight for their independence. For instance, the Gold Coast which became a British colony in 1901 had to fight for their independence till 6th March, 1957 when she became independent.
Another political effect of the partition of the continent is that it crippled the indigenous political institutions of the people. After the partition the European countries trading in Africa used subtle means and sometimes force to establish their political control over their newly “acquired” territories. In some cases the Africans resisted. Even those states who were persuaded by the Europeans were deceived to accept European protection and support against their neighboring “aggressive” states. The Asantes for instance had to fight and resist the British for about 50 years until their final defeat in the famous “YaaAsantewaa war” in 1900-1901.
Again, the poor demarcation of the territories in Africa by the Europeans is a contributing factor to the various border disputes between African states which can sometimes degenerate into wars. The conflict between Mali and Burkina Faso over the Agacher strip, where the Bobo resides illustrates the problems caused by the poor demarcation of boarders. Another instance is the conflict between Nigeria and Cameroon over the Bakassi peninsular. All these are proofs of conflicts as a result of the poor demarcation of boarders among the African countries by the Europeans.
Moreover, the bringing together of different ethnic groups to form countries with no sense of national unity is another effect of the partition of Africa. This has led to inter-ethnic wars in many African countries over the years.Cases of inter-ethnic wars among Africans of the same nation such as the war between the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda where thousands of people died and the conflict between the Kokomba’s and the Nanumba’s of the northern part of Ghana serves as evidence. There also another conflict in Ghana between the Alavanyo and the Nkonya of the Volta region of Ghana over lands. All these inter-ethnic wars could have been avoided if Africans were allowed to develop their social and political structures of their own and form nation-states on their own without any external influence from Europe.
Lastly, as the partition of Africa laid the foundation for colonization, colonization further led to the exploitation of the natural resources of Africans. The Europeans at the time of colonization had no interest in developing the colonies but continued to exploit the people’s natural resources to serve as raw materials for European industries whilst the people had little or no benefits from their own natural resources. In the Gold Coast, timber, cocoa, cotton, oil palm and minerals were sent to feed European industries at lower prices and yielded very high prices when converted to finished products and brought to Africa.
In conclusion, the above points clearly demonstrates the causes and the effects of the scramble and the partition of the continent. It further proves that Africa would have reach her own higher level of development naturally had the Europeans not intervened in the affairs of the continent.
www.elateafrica.org “European imperialism in Africa”, 12th March, 2015
Dr. Samuel AduGyamfi. History of Ghana lecture notes, “The Growth of British power and jurisdiction in Ghana”
Stelios Michalopoulos, Elias Papaioannou “The Long-Run Effects of the Scramble for Africa” Pages 5&8
 Settlement established by the European missionaries for newly African converts to separate them from their “pagan” traditional society.
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