World History 2 138 - 9.3.1 Africa

The industrialized nations of Europe saw Africa, with its rich natural resources, as the great prize, and they moved quickly to seize it. At the beginning of the Second Industrial Revolution, Europeans controlled about 10 percent of the African continent. By the end of the century, after the “Scramble for Africa”—the competition among European countries to establish African colonies—they controlled 90 percent, with the largest portions ruled by Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany. Portugal and Spain still claimed colonies acquired in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (Figure 9.16).

Two maps of Africa are shown. The map on the left is labeled “1880” and shows portions of the African coast highlighted with different colors. A small area on the northern coast and two small areas on the western coast are highlighted green indicating “France.” Two large areas in the north, extending inland, and a small area in the horn of Africa are highlighted orange indicating “Ottoman.” Four very small violet areas are highlighted in the west and one large area in the south indicate “Great Britain.” One very small gray area in the southwest and a long thin area in the southeast indicate “Portugal.” A purple-pink area is highlighted in the inland south and indicates “Boer.” The map on the right is labeled “1913” and shows all of African highlighted with different colors. A large area in the south, a large area in the northeast, and several areas in the west are highlighted violet throughout Africa to indicate control by “Great Britain.” Most of west Africa and the island of Madagascar are highlighted green indicating “France.” One large area in the middle of Africa is highlighted pink to indicate “Belgium.” Three areas are highlighted light pink in the southern half of Africa to indicate “Germany.” Two gray areas in the south, one on the west coast and one of the east coast, indicate “Portugal.” Three yellow highlighted areas in the northern portions of Africa and the horn of Africa indicate “Italy.” Three small areas in the northwest and one small portion on the west coast are highlighted beige indicating “Spain.” Two light blue areas in the northern portion of Africa, one on the west coast and one on the horn of Africa are highlighted light blue to indicate “independent.”
Figure 9.16 The 1880 map shows how much territory was controlled by Europeans at the beginning of the Second Industrial Revolution. The 1913 map shows Africa approximately thirty years later. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

European nations aimed to colonize the continent to get access to raw materials and new markets for their goods, to boost international prestige and national pride, and to achieve military dominance over rivals. The “Scramble for Africa” reached its height during the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 when, without input from Africans, European nations simply allotted different parts of the continent to one another. Some agreements were formal recognitions of existing colonies and territories, while others recognized new claims. Colonization continued throughout the 1880s–1910s.


France had been reluctant to claim colonies in Africa. It controlled the island of Gorée off the coast of Senegal and had a few trading posts in the interior. Beyond expanding into the interior of Senegal in the 1850s, however, it did little until the end of the nineteenth century, when the European powers met at the 1878 Congress of Berlin to decide the fate of the defeated Ottoman Empire’s possessions in North Africa. France received Tunisia.

Tunisia had borrowed heavily from European powers to fund development and modernize its army. When it declared bankruptcy in 1869, Britain, France, and Italy established a commission to manage its finances and ensure repayment. At the Congress of Berlin, Italy hoped to gain Tunisia since a number of its citizens now lived there. Britain, however, did not wish Italy to control both sides of the Strait of Sicily, endangering British access to the eastern Mediterranean, but it did want French support for its claims to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Germany wished France to focus on North Africa rather than continental Europe, where Germany hoped to increase its own influence. Thus, France was given Tunisia, and Italy received the city of Tripoli in Libya instead.

Britain and Germany were content to allow France to claim Tunisia, but the Tunisians refused to acknowledge this grant of power. A Tunisian attack on the French colony of Algeria in 1881 gave France an excuse to invade Tunisia and establish a protectorate over it, a form of control that allowed the Tunisian government under Muhammad III as-Sadiq to manage domestic affairs while France oversaw its defense and its relations with other nations.

After realizing Belgium desired neighboring regions in Central Africa, France moved speedily to acquire more colonial holdings. As a result, from 1880 to 1900 many parts of West Africa came under French control as the Italian-born French naval officer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza traveled the region, negotiating with local rulers and signing treaties on behalf of France. Areas that are now nations (or parts of nations) quickly became French possessions: the Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Burkina Faso, and Chad. Besides providing markets for manufactured goods, these colonies also produced abundant palm oil, used for lubricating industrial machinery. France also took control of French Somaliland (Djibouti) in East Africa and the island of Madagascar off the East African coast.

The French takeover of its African colonies was sometimes peaceful, as when Brazza signed a treaty with the Bateke ruler King Illoh Makoko in today’s Republic of the Congo and Democratic Republic of the Congo. At other times it consisted of brutal conquest. For example, Captain Paul Voulet earned a reputation for cruelty as he marched through French Sudan (modern Niger) on his way to Lake Chad. Voulet’s troops looted villages already under French control and raped and killed their inhabitants.

Great Britain

South Africa was Britain’s first toehold on the continent. In 1806, Britain took formal control over the Dutch Cape Colony, established by Dutch traders in the seventeenth century. South Africa was intended as a settler colony, and as British immigrants arrived, the Dutch who lived there, called Afrikaners or Boers, were forced ever further inland, north and east, in the Great Trek of 1836. They established two independent republics, the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State, and left the Cape Colony to the British.

Britain’s second area of interest in Africa was Egypt, an excellent source of cotton for its textile mills. The possibility of building a canal across the Isthmus of Suez, which divided Asia from Africa, had intrigued Europeans since the fifteenth century. Linking the Mediterranean and Red Seas would allow ships to reach the Indian and Pacific Oceans without sailing around the tip of Africa, greatly easing trade with South and East Asia. Now seemed the time to make this dream a reality. In 1854, the French diplomat and business owner Ferdinand de Lesseps approached Sa’id Pasha, the son of Muhammad Ali, who became ruler of Egypt and Sudan in 1854, for permission to build a canal through Egyptian territory. Lesseps received it, and in 1858 he organized a team from seven countries to engineer a canal that ships of any nations could use. Construction began in 1859, and the Suez Canal opened to shipping in 1869 (Figure 9.17).

A drawing shows the Mediterranean Sea at the top with small ships drawn in its lower portion at Port Said. A small opening leads from Port Said to Lake Mensalem where more boats are drawn in the water. The water is shown running down the middle of the drawing past the city of Ismailia on the left and Lake Timsah on the right and into Bitter Lake, passing Cairo on the left and going down. The city of Suez is on the left, then the water spills out into the Red Sea at the bottom where more ships are shown in the water. Land with hills and farmland is drawn on either side of the waterway throughout the drawing.
Figure 9.17 This 1881 illustration from the Young Persons’ Cyclopedia of Persons and Places shows the route of the Suez Canal from Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. (credit: modification of work “Suez Canal in the year 1881” by Young Persons' Cyclopedia of Persons and Places/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Britain had initially opposed the canal. It threatened British domination over the main water route to Asia, which passed the British Cape Colony, and it made its prized colony of India more accessible—and more vulnerable. Britain’s attitude changed, however, when Ismail Pasha, who became khedive or viceroy of Egypt and Sudan following the death of his uncle Sa’id Pasha in 1863, found himself deeply in debt to European creditors, which made it possible for European interests to manipulate him. For example, he was forced to establish a dual court system in which accused Europeans were tried by European judges, not Egyptian ones. In 1875, unable to pay his debts, Ismail Pasha sold Egypt’s shares in the Suez Canal to Britain. He was also forced to allow British and French officials to manage Egypt’s financial affairs.

In 1879, an anti-European uprising began in Egypt under the leadership of Colonel Ahmed Urabi. When Ismail Pasha gave in to Urabi’s demands to remove the British and French from governmental positions, Britain and France requested that the Ottoman sultan remove Pasha from power, which the sultan did, replacing him with his more agreeable son, Tawfiq Pasha. Equally unwilling to accept Tawfiq as their ruler, however, Urabi’s forces continued to fight until 1882, when they were defeated by the British (Figure 9.18). With the conclusion of this Anglo-Egyptian War, Britain assumed control of Egypt and Sudan to protect its financial interests in the region, and Urabi was sent into exile.

The image shows a crowd of men of various races, all holding guns, swords, rifles, or other weapons, looking angry, with some fighting. Most wear white military uniforms with a red hat, but two men at the top right of the drawing wear a brown combat uniform and helmet. In the middle, a man riding a horse has his back to the viewer. He is dressed in a white military uniform and red hat, sword in his right hand. One man at the top left stands above the crowd wearing a white military coat with buttons running in rows on his chest, pale blue pants, and a red hat. He holds a sword in his raised right hand. A man in the bottom right of the painting is dressed in black clothes, wears a red hat, and points a small gun with his right hand. A white horse and three palm trees are in the brown background.
Figure 9.18 From 1879 to 1882, Egyptian forces, depicted in this 1882 image from The Illustrated London News, fought to rid their country of European domination and unseat rulers who acceded to European demands. (credit: “Anglo-Egyptian War” by The Illustrated London News/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

As hostilities between Britain and Urabi’s forces were coming to a close, a new threat arose in Sudan, where British control had been weak. In 1881, a religious leader named Muhammad Ahmad called upon the Sudanese to free themselves from Ottoman rule, which meant, in effect, freeing themselves of British-guided Egyptian rule. Muhammad Ahmad began to refer to himself as the Mahdi, a messiah or savior who will appear on earth to revive the practice of “true” Islam and usher in a period of justice that will last for a few years before the end of the world. Muhammad Ahmad proclaimed a religious crusade against the ruler of Egypt and gathered followers. British efforts to maintain control over Sudan failed, and the Mahdi’s followers continued to enforce their control over the region, even after his death in 1885.


Belgium was one of the smallest industrialized nations, and its legislators did not believe it had the money or force to acquire and maintain colonial possessions. However, Belgium’s second king, the constitutional monarch Leopold II, dreamed of establishing an empire in the Congo Basin of Central Africa and was not to be dissuaded. The region was relatively unexplored by Europeans and rich in resources like ivory and rubber, and no other European powers claimed it. In 1876, Leopold established the International African Association. Its goal, he claimed, was to “civilize” the natives of Africa and dispense humanitarian aid.

Leopold’s noble-sounding statements were lies, however. Although Britain and France were leery of his interest in the Congo, at the Berlin Conference in 1884 he promised he would impose no tariffs on the colony’s imports and had in mind only the benefit of the Congolese natives. Control of the Congo thus was given to him. He named it the Congo Free State and ruled it entirely as his own private colony; it did not belong to the nation of Belgium. Although Leopold kept his promise to make it a free-trade zone, Europeans there were free to exploit and abuse African laborers in the pursuit of profit.


Germany came late to the scramble for colonies, delayed by a number of factors. Until 1871, it consisted of a variety of German-speaking states and kingdoms in northern and central Europe, none wealthy or powerful enough to establish colonies. Once unified as a country in 1871, it still did not possess the ocean-going navy needed to trade with and defend colonies, and its first chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, in office from 1871 until 1890, initially had no interest in an overseas empire.

Bismarck originally believed empire building was a foolish venture that cost more than it returned. But by the 1880s he had changed his mind, perhaps influenced by German merchants who sought trade and investment opportunities overseas, or by public clamor to increase German prestige through the claiming of colonies. In Africa, Germany staked its claim to regions scattered across the continent that had not already been colonized by France and England, from Togoland (today Togo and part of Ghana) and German Cameroon (now parts of Cameroon, Chad, the Central African Republic, and Gabon) in the west to German South-West Africa (now Namibia) and German East Africa (today Rwanda, Burundi, and parts of Tanzania).


Italy was the last European power to establish colonies in Africa. In 1884, an Italian shipping company bought Assab Bay, a port city on the Red Sea, from a local sultan. In 1886, Italy took control of the Egyptian Red Sea port of Massawa at Britain’s urging to prevent France from acquiring more territory in the region.

In 1889, Italy claimed Eritrea as a colony. It also signed the Treaty of Wuchale with Menelik II, who became emperor of Ethiopia that same year. In the Italian-language version of the treaty, Menelik was promised military and financial aid in exchange for control over Eritrea and its foreign affairs. In the Ethiopian-language version, the emperor had the choice of accepting or rejecting Italian control. When, in 1895, Italy insisted on enforcing the terms of the Italian-language treaty, war began.

The conflict ended ignominiously for Italy at the 1896 Battle of Adwa, when its troops encountered a much larger Ethiopian force. Six thousand Italians were killed, three thousand were captured, and others fled the battlefield, leaving eleven thousand rifles that the Ethiopians seized. As night fell, Ethiopian peasants fell upon stragglers in the retreat and killed them. Riots broke out in Rome and Naples at the news, and Italians demanded the return of all soldiers and tried to block the troop trains. Adwa largely marked the end of Italy’s expansion in Africa. Menelik II allowed Italy to retain control of Eritrea, but the treaty ending the war reaffirmed Ethiopia’s independence (Figure 9.19).

A very detailed map of the Horn of Africa is shown, with names for countries, cities, rivers, and other locations labelled. Across the top of the map in red letters, it is labelled “Carta Dei Possedimenti E Zona D’Influenze Dell’ Italia in Africa.” An “L” shaped inset at the top right shows a close up of the Mediterranean Sea and some of the countries surrounding it, also labeled intricately. The bottom left of the map displays a rectangular white box with nine men’s pictures in two rows. All are African except for the middle man in the top row, who is European. The men are all shown in richly decorated shirts with most wearing hats with feathers and jewels. One man is dressed in a plain white shirt and plain white hat. The European man has a moustache and wears a blue military jacket with many colorful medals pinned on his left chest. Names are written underneath their pictures.
Figure 9.19 Italy grasped the parts of Africa that lay unclaimed by other European powers. This 1896 map of the Horn of Africa shows Italy’s possessions of Italian Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. (credit: “Possessions italiennes en Afrique-1896” by Bibliothèque nationale de France/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax