Colonisation of Africa

ancient and modern colonialism in Africa

The history of external colonisation of Africa can be dated back from ancient, medieval, or modern history, depending on how the term colonisation is defined.


  • If you know the history of this town, a momentary sweep of the eye will bring back to memory signs of a former strife; for overlooking the Bay, there stands the old Fort, a symbol of the strife between the Dutch and the English in pre-locomotive days. The struggle, in name, was between two European nations, in reality between two aboriginal factions, who, for aught one knows to the contrary, might have otherwise lived in peace. The Dutch or the English flag was the standard which drew the natives in thousands into opposing camps, and for which they shed their blood freely, only that the white man might obtain freer scope to barter spurious drinks for the precious metal which the torrential rains washed to the very doors of the aborigines.
  • It is a sad reflection, but a legitimate one, that in the present day the successors of the leaders, who bore the heat and the burden of the day in order that British commerce might gain a footing on these shores, are not remembered as they should be by the British Government. But it is true that they are protected; it is feared very much protected. To be accurate, they are remembered sometimes in the partitioning of their territories, the minimising of their authority, and, worse than all, in some cases, in the sowing of those seeds of discord, calculated to destroy the integrity of a people.
  • The work of destruction, speaking generally, goes on not in the light of day, but, metaphorically, in the dark hours of night. The mighty Titan does not knock down his victim and deprive him of life outright. Oh no! that would be too crude a way. With the gin bottle in the one hand, and the Bible in the other, he urges moral excellence, which, in his heart of hearts, he knows to be impossible of attainment by the African under the circumstances; and when the latter fails, his benevolent protector makes such failure a cause for dismembering his tribe, alienating his lands, appropriating his goods, and sapping the foundations of his authority and institutions. To apply Tennyson’s simile, the Titan only knows what the Titan wants, or what he means. And all the while the eternal verity remains that the natural line of development for the aborigines is racial and national, and that this is the only way to successful European intercourse and enterprise.
  • Imperialism is essentially an economic phenomenon, and it does not necessarily lead to direct political control or colonization. However, Africa was the victim of colonization. In the period of the notorious “Scramble for Africa,” Europeans made a grab for whatever they thought spelled profits in Africa, and they even consciously acquired many areas not for immediate exploitation but with an eye to the future. Each European nation that had these short-term and long-term economic interests ran up its own flag in different parts of Africa and established colonial rule. The gap that had arisen during the period of pre-colonial trade gave Europe the power to impose political domination on Africa.
  • Colonial Africa fell within that part of the international capitalist economy from which surplus was drawn to feed the metropolitan sector. As seen earlier, exploitation of land and labor is essential for human social advance, but only on the assumption that the product is made available within the area where the exploitation takes place. Colonialism was not merely a system of exploitation, but one whose essential purpose was to repatriate the profits to the so-called mother country. From an African viewpoint, that amounted to consistent expatriation of surplus produced by African labor out of African resources. It meant the development of Europe as part of the same dialectical process in which Africa was underdeveloped.
  • The unequal nature of the trade between the metropole and the colonies was emphasised by the concept of the “protected market,” which meant even an inefficient metropolitan producer could find a guaranteed market in the colony where his class had political control. Furthermore, as in the preceding era of pre-colonial trade, European manufacturers built up useful sidelines of goods which would have been substandard in their own markets, especially in textiles. The European farmer also gained in the same way by selling cheap butter, while the Scandinavian fisherman came into his own through the export of salted cod. Africa was not a large market for European products, compared to other continents, but both buying-prices and selling-prices were set by European capitalists. That certainly allowed their manufacturers and traders more easy access to the surplus of wealth produced in Africa than they would have had if Africans were in a position to raise the price of their own exports.
  • One of the main purposes of the colonial taxation system was to provide requisite funds for administering the colony as a field of exploitation. European colonizers insured that Africans paid for the upkeep of the governors and police who oppressed them and served as watchdogs for private capitalists. Indeed, taxes and customs duties were levied in the nineteenth century with the aim of allowing the colonial powers to recover the costs of the armed forces which they dispatched to conquer Africa. In effect, therefore, the colonial governments never put a penny into the colonies. All expenses were met by exploiting the labor and natural resources of the continent; and for all practical purposes the expense of maintaining the colonial government machinery was a form of alienation of the products of African labor.
  • One major problem in Africa from a capitalist viewpoint was how to induce Africans to become laborers or cash-crop farmers. In some areas, such as West Africa, Africans had become so attached to European manufactures during the early period of trade that, on their own initiative, they were prepared to go to great lengths to participate in the colonial money economy. But that was not the universal response. In many instances, Africans did not consider the monetary incentives great enough to justify changing their way of life so as to become laborer or cash-crop farmers. In such cases, the colonial state intervened to use law, taxation, and outright force to make Africans pursue a line favorable to capitalist profits. When colonial governments seized African lands, they achieved two things simultaneously. They satisfied their own citizens (who wanted mining concessions or farming land) and they created the conditions whereby landless Africans had to work not just to pay taxes but also to survive. In settler areas such as Kenya and Rhodesia the colonial government also prevented Africans from growing cash crops so that their labor would be available directly for the whites. One of the Kenya white settlers, Colonel Grogan, put it bluntly when he said of the Kikuyu: “We have stolen his land. Now we must steal his limbs. Compulsory labor is the corollary of our occupation of the country.”
  • It would be extremely simple-minded to say that colonialism in Africa or anywhere else caused Europe to develop its science and technology. The tendency towards technological innovation and renovation was inherent in capitalism itself, because of the drive for profits. However, it would be entirely accurate to say that the colonization of Africa and other parts of the world formed an indispensable link in a chain of events which made possible the technological transformation of the base of European capitalism. Without that link, European capitalism would not have been producing goods and services at the level attained in 1960. In other words, our very yardsticks for measuring developed and underdeveloped nations would have been different.
  • Few areas of the national life of those Western European countries failed to benefit from the decades of parasitic exploitation of the colonies. One Nigerian, after visiting Brussels in 1960, wrote: “I saw for myself the massive palaces, museums and other public buildings paid for by Congo ivory and rubber.” In recent times, African writers and researchers have also been amazed to find the amount of looted African treasure stacked away in the British Museum; and there are comparable if somewhat smaller collections of African art in Paris, Berlin, and New York. Those are some of the things which, in addition to monetary wealth, help to define the metropoles as developed and “civilized.”
  • The whole existence and development of capitalism in Britain and France between 1885 and 1960 was bound up with colonization, and Africa played a major role. African colonies meant surplus appropriated on a grand scale; they led to innovations and forward leaps in technology and the organization of capitalist enterprise; and they buttressed the capitalist system at home and abroad with fighting men. Sometimes, it appeared that these two principal colonial powers reaped so many colonial benefits that they suffered from “too much of a good thing.”
  • To fully understand the colonial period, it is necessary to think in terms of the economic partition of Africa. Unlike the political partition of the nineteenth century, the economic partition had no fixed or visible boundaries. It consisted of the proportions in which capitalist powers divided up among themselves the monetary and non-monetary gains from colonial Africa. For instance, Portugal had two large political colonies in Southern Africa, but economically Mozambique and Angola were divided among several capitalist powers, which were invited by the Portuguese government, because Portuguese capitalists were too weak to handle those vast territories.
  • Over the last few decades of colonialism, colonial possessions served capitalism as a safety valve in times of crisis. The first major occasion when this was displayed was during the great economic depression of 1929–34. During that period, forced labor was increased in Africa and the prices paid to Africans for their crops were reduced. Workers were paid less and imported goods cost a great deal more. That was a time when workers in the metropolitan countries also suffered terribly; but the colonialists did the best they could to transfer the burdens of the depression away from Europe and on to the colonies.
  • Africans had nothing to do with the inherent shortcomings of capitalism; but, when Europeans were in a mess, they had no scruples about intensifying the exploitation of Africa. The economic depression was not a situation from which Britain could benefit at the expense of Sweden or where Belgium could gain at the expense of the U.S.A. They were all drowning, and that was why the benefits of the colonies saved not only the colonizing powers but all capitalist nations.
  • For the first three decades of colonialism, hardly anything was done that could remotely be termed a service to the African people. It was in fact only after the last war that social services were built as a matter of policy. How little they amounted to does not really need illustrating. After all, the statistics which show that Africa today is underdeveloped are the statistics representing the state of affairs at the end of colonialism.
  • During the centuries of pre-colonial trade, some control over social, political, and economic life was retained in Africa, in spite of the disadvantageous commerce with Europeans. That little control over internal matters disappeared under colonialism. Colonialism went much further than trade. It meant a tendency towards direct appropriation by Europeans of the social institutions within Africa. Africans ceased to set indigenous cultural goals and standards, and lost full command of training young members of the society. Those were undoubtedly major steps backward.
  • The removal from history follows logically from the loss of power which colonialism represented. The power to act independently is the guarantee to participate actively and consciously in history. To be colonized is to be removed from history, except in the most passive sense. A striking illustration of the fact that colonial Africa was a passive object is seen in its attraction for white anthropologists, who came to study "primitive society." Colonialism determined that Africans were no more makers of history than were beetles—objects to be looked at under a microscope and examined for unusual features.
  • From a capitalist viewpoint, monocultures commended themselves most because they made colonial economies entirely dependent on the metropolitan buyers of their produce. At the end of the European slave trade, only a minority of Africans were sufficiently committed to capitalist exchange and sufficiently dependent upon European imports to wish to continue the relationship with Europe at all costs. Colonialism increased the dependence of Africa on Europe in terms of the numbers of persons brought into the money economy and in terms of the number of aspects of socio-economic life in Africa which derived their existence from the connection with the metropole. The ridiculous situation arose by which European trading firms, mining companies, shipping lines, banks, insurance houses, and plantations all exploited Africa and at the same time caused Africans to feel that without those capitalist services no money or European goods would be forthcoming, and therefore Africa was in debt to its exploiters! The factor of dependency made its impact felt in every aspect of the life of the colonies, and it can be regarded as the crowning vice among the negative social, political, and economic consequences of colonialism in Africa, being primarily responsible for the perpetuation of the colonial relationship into the epoch that is called neo-colonialism.
  • Finally, attention must be drawn to one of the most important consequences of colonialism on African development, and that is the stunting effect on Africans as a physical species. Colonialism created conditions which led not just to periodic famine but to chronic undernourishment, malnutrition, and deterioration in the physique of the African people. If such a statement sounds wildly extravagant, it is only because bourgeois propaganda has conditioned even Africans to believe that malnutrition and starvation were the natural lot of Africans from time immemorial. A black child with a transparent rib cage, huge head, bloated stomach, protruding eyes, and twigs as arms and legs was the favorite poster of the large British charitable operation known as Oxfam. The poster represented a case of kwashiorkor—extreme malignant malnutrition. Oxfam called upon the people of Europe to save starving African and Asian children from kwashiorkor and such ills. Oxfam never bothered their consciences by telling them that capitalism and colonialism created the starvation, suffering, and misery of the child in the first place. There is an excellent study of the phenomenon of hunger on a world scale by a Brazilian scientist, Josue de Castro. It incorporates considerable data on the food and health conditions among Africans in their independent pre-colonial state or in societies untouched by capitalist pressures; and it then makes comparisons with colonial conditions. The study convincingly indicates that African diet was previously more varied, being based on a more diversified agriculture than was possible under colonialism. In terms of specific nutritional deficiencies, those Africans who suffered most under colonialism were those who were brought most fully into the colonial economy: namely, the urban workers.
  • Early educational commissions also accorded high priority to religious and moral flavoring of instruction—something that was disappearing in Europe itself. The role of the Christian church in the educational process obviously needs special attention. The Christian missionaries were as much part of the colonizing forces as were the explorers, traders, and soldiers. There may be room for arguing whether in a given colony the missionaries brought the other colonialist forces or vice versa, but there is no doubting the fact that missionaries were agents of colonialism in the practical sense, whether or not they saw themselves in that light. The imperialist adventurer Sir Henry Johnston disliked missionaries, but he conceded in praise of them that "each mission station is an exercise in colonisation." In Europe, the church had long held a monopoly over schooling from feudal times right into the capitalist era. By the late nineteenth century, that situation was changing in Europe; but, as far as the European colonizers were concerned, the church was free to handle the colonial educational system in Africa. The strengths and weaknesses of that schooling were very much to be attributed to the church.
  • The church's role was primarily to preserve the social relations of colonialism, as an extension of the role it played in preserving the social relations of capitalism in Europe. Therefore, the Christian church stressed humility, docility, and acceptance. Ever since the days of slavery in the West Indies, the church had been brought in on condition that it should not excite the African slaves with doctrines of equality before God. In those days, they taught slaves to sing that all things were bright and beautiful, and that the slavemaster in his castle was to be accepted as God's work just like the slave living in a miserable hovel and working twenty hours per day under the whip. Similarly, in colonial Africa, churches could be relied upon to preach turning the other cheek in the face of exploitation, and they drove home the message that everything would be right in the next world. Only the Dutch Reformed church of South Africa was openly racist, but all others were racist in so far as their European personnel were no different from other whites who had imbibed racism and cultural imperialism as a consequence of the previous centuries of contact between Europeans and the rest of the world.
  • By 1885, when European kings, princes and presidents sat in Berlin to slice up the African continent with their geometrical instruments, the African people had already been devastated by the ravages of the West Atlantic slave trade. In West and Central Africa, the indigenous civilisations lay in ruins, from the sophisticated Saharan trade routes with Timbuktu at their centre, to the empires of Angola. On the Eastern seaboard, the European invasion, led by the Portuguese, defeated and destroyed the city states of Swahili civilisation. All in all, some 40,000,000 souls are estimated to have perished in the triangular slave trade, which lasted for roughly four centuries, 1450–1850. The development of the European and North American industrial revolution and the global lead this gave to Europe and America was in no small measure built on the back of Africans. The colonial episode was thus the tail end of long and destructive contact between Europe and Africa. The slave trade tore apart the very social fabric of African societies, destroying their internal processes of change. It imposed on the continent a European worldview in which the peoples of Africa were at the lowest rung of the so-called civilised order. No other continent, including those that suffered formal European colonisation, had their social, cultural and moral order destroyed on this scale.
  • Right from inception, the most important feature of colonialism was the division of the continent into countries and states cutting across ‘natural’ geographic, cultural ethnic and economic ties that had evolved historically. The consequences were thus. Boundaries were artificially drawn, with rulers literally reflecting the balance of strength and power among the imperial states. The boundaries divided up peoples, cultures, natural resources and historical affinities. Moreover, these newly created countries became subjects of different European powers with their own traditions of political rule, public administration, cultural outlooks, languages and systems of education. Africa was never Africa: it was Anglo-phone, Franco-phone, or Luso-phone.
  • The underlying economic logic of the colonial economy was the exploitation of natural and human resources. Colonies became sites for generating surplus while the metropoles were sites of accumulation. The result was the development of the centres and the underdevelopment of the peripheries. Production processes relied heavily on coercion rather than on contractual consensus for reproduction: forced labour, forced peasant production, enforced cash-crop sales, restrictions on organisation and association and the criminalisation of ‘civil relations’.
  • The colonial state was an implant, an alien apparatus imposed on the colonised society. It was an excrescence of the metropolitan state without the latter’s liberal institutions or politics. It was a despotic state.

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