African History

 

 

The history of Africa begins with the first emergence of Homo sapiens in East Africa, continuing into its modern present as a patchwork of diverse and politically developing nation states.


Africa's written history starts with the rise of Egyptian civilization in the 4th millennium BC, and in succeeding centuries follows the development of the many diverse societies beyond the Nile Valley.  From an early date this has involved critical interactions with non-African civilizations.  These ranged from the Phoenicians, who established the merchant empire of Carthage, to the Romans, who colonized all of North Africa in the first century BC.  Christianity began its spread through large areas of northern Africa at this time, reaching as far south as Kush and Ethiopia.  In the late 7th century, North and East Africa were heavily influenced by the Spread of Islam, which eventually led to the appearance of new cultures such as those of the Swahili people in East Africa, and powerful kingdoms including the Songhai Empire in the sub-Saharan west.  Farther south, Ghana, Oyo, and the Benin Empire developed with little influence from either Islam or Christianity.  The rise of Islam led to an increase in the Arab slave trade that would culminate in the 19th century.  This presaged the forced transport of African people and cultures to the New World in the Atlantic slave trade, and the beginning of the European scramble for Africa.  Africa's colonial period lasted from the late 1800s until the advent of African independence movements in 1951, when Libya became the first former colony to become independent.  Modern African history has been rife with revolutions and wars as well as the growth of modern African economies and democratization across the continent.

obelisk at temple of luxor

Obelisk at temple of Luxor, Egypt c. 1200 BC

 

African history has been a challenge for researchers in the field of African Studies due to the scarcity of written sources in large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Scholarly techniques such as the recording of oral history, historical linguistics, archeology, and genetics have been crucial.
Evolution and Spread of Humans

 

According to paleontological and archaeological evidence, hominids were already in existence at least five million years ago.  Their skull anatomy was similar to their close cousins, the great African apes, but they had adopted a bipedal form of locomotion, giving them a crucial advantage, as this enabled them to live in both forested areas and on the open savanna at a time when Africa was drying up, with savanna encroaching on forested areas.

 

By 3 million years ago several australopithecine hominid species had developed throughout southern, eastern, and central Africa.

 

The next major evolutionary step occurred approximately 2 million years ago, with the advent of Homo habilis, thought to be the first species of hominid capable of making tools.  This enabled Homo habilis to begin eating meat, using stone tools to scavenge kills made by other predators, and harvest carrion for their bones and marrow.  In hunting, Homo habilis was probably not capable of competing with large predators, and was still more prey than hunter, although he/she probably did steal eggs from nests, and may have been able to catch small game, and weakened larger prey (cubs and older animals).

 

Around 1.8 million years ago Homo erectus first appeared in the fossil record in Africa, but nearly simultaneously in the fossil record of the Caucasus region.  Some of the earlier representatives of this species were still fairly small brained and used primitive stone tools, much like Homo habilis.  The brain later grew in size and Homo erectus eventually developed a more complex stone tool technology called the Acheulean.  Possibly the first hunters, Homo erectus mastered the art of making fire, and were the first hominids to leave Africa, colonizing the entire Old World, and perhaps later giving rise to Homo floresiensis.  Although some recent writers suggest that Homo georgicus, a Homo habilis descendant, was the first and most primitive hominid to ever live outside Africa, many scientists consider Homo georgicus to be an early and primitive member of the Homo erectus species.

 

The fossil record shows Homo sapiens living in southern and eastern Africa at least 100,000 and possibly 150,000 years ago.  Around 40,000 years ago, their expansion out of Africa launched the colonization of our planet by modern human-beings.  Their migration is indicated by linguistic, cultural, and (increasingly) computer-analyzed genetic evidence.

 

Emergence of Agriculture

 

Neolithic rock engravings, or 'petroglyphs' and the megaliths in the Sahara desert of Libya attest to early hunter-gatherer culture in the dry grasslands of North Africa during the glacial age. At the end of the Ice Age (perhaps around 10,500 BC), the Sahara had become a green fertile valley again, and its African populations returned from the interior and coastal highlands south of the Sahara.

 

The region of the present Sahara was an early site for the practice of agriculture (in the second stage of the culture characterized by the so-called "wavy-line ceramics" ca. 4000 BCE.)

 

From this time the climate of the Sahara region gradually became drier. The population trekked out of the Sahara region towards the Nile Valley below the Second Cataract where they made permanent or semi-permanent settlements. A major climatic recession occurred, lessening the heavy and persistent rains in Central and Eastern Africa. Since then dry conditions have prevailed in Eastern Africa.

 

After the desertification of the Sahara, settlement in North Africa became concentrated in the valley of the Nile, where the pre-literate Nomes of Egypt laid a base for the culture of ancient Egypt. Archeological findings show that primitive tribes lived along the Nile long before the dynastic history of the pharaohs began. By 6000 B.C., organized agriculture had appeared.

 

People from the Great Lakes Region settled along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea to become the proto-Canaanites who dominated the lowlands between the Jordan River, the Mediterranean, and the Sinai Desert.

 

By 3000 BC agriculture arose independently in Ethiopia, where coffee, teff, finger millet, sorghum, barley, and enset. Donkeys were also independently domesticated somewhere in the region of Ethiopia and Somalia, but most domesticated animals spread there from the Sahel and Nile regions. Agricultural crops were also adopted from other regions around this time as pearl millet, cowpea, groundnut, cotton, watermelon, and bottle gourds began to be grown agriculturally in both West Africa and the Sahel Region while finger millet, peas, lentil, and flax took hold in Ethiopia.

 

Also by 3000 BC agriculture arose independently in both the tropical portions of West Africa, where African yams and oil palms were domesticated. No animals were independently domesticated in these regions, although domestication did spread there from the Sahel and Nile regions. Agricultural crops were also adopted from other regions around this time as pearl millet, cowpea, groundnut, cotton, watermelon, and bottle gourds began to be grown agriculturally in both West Africa and the Sahel Region while finger millet, peas, lentil, and flax took hold in Ethiopia.

 

Metallurgy

The first metal to be smelted in Africa was probably lead, with the oldest artifacts dating from Egypt of the fourth millennium BCE.  Copper was already being used in Egypt during the predynastic period, and bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) came into use not long after 3000 BCE at the latest.  The use of gold and silver in Egypt also dates back to the predynastic period.  By the 1st millennium BC, iron-working had been introduced in Northern Africa and quickly began spreading across the Sahara into regions further south.  By 500 BCE, metalworking began to become commonplace in West Africa, possibly after being introduced by the Carthaginians.  Iron-working was fully established by roughly 500 BCE in areas of East and West Africa, though other regions did not begin iron-working until the early centuries CE.  Some copper objects from Egypt, North Africa, Nubia, and Ethiopia have been excavated in West Africa dating from around 500 BCE time period, suggesting that trade networks had been established by this time.

pyramids at meroe

Pyramids at Meroe, Nubia c. 500 BC

 

Bantu Expansion

 

Central Africa

 

Around 1000 BC, Bantu migrants had reached the Great Lakes of East Africa.  Halfway through that millennium, the Bantu had also settled as far south as the countries of what are now Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  One of the major events that occurred in Central Africa during this period was the establishment of the Kanem Empire in what is now Chad.  The Kanem Empire would flourish in the coming centuries setting the stage for future great states in the Sahel region of Africa.

 

Southern Africa

 

Settlements of Bantu-speaking persons, who were iron-using agriculturists and herdsmen, were already present south of the Limpopo River by the 4th or 5th century displacing and absorbing the original Khoi-San speakers.  They slowly moved south and the earliest ironworks in modern-day KwaZulu-Natal Province are believed to date from around 1050.  The southernmost group was the Xhosa people, whose language incorporates certain linguistic traits from the earlier Khoi-San people, reaching the Fish River, in today's Eastern Cape Province.

 

The three powers of Cyrenaica, Egypt and Carthage were eventually supplanted by the Romans.  After centuries of rivalry with Rome, Carthage finally fell in 146 BC.  Within little more than a century, Egypt and Cyrene had become incorporated in the Roman Empire.  Under Rome the settled portions of the country were very prosperous, and a Latin strain was introduced into the land.  Though Fezzan was occupied by them, the Romans elsewhere found the Sahara an impassable barrier.  Nubia and Ethiopia were reached, but an expedition sent by the emperor Nero to discover the source of the Nile ended in failure.  The utmost extent of Mediterranean geographical knowledge of the continent is shown in the writings of Ptolemy (2nd century), who knew of or guessed the existence of the great lake reservoirs of the Nile, of trading posts along the shores of the Indian Ocean as far south as Rhapta in modern Tanzania, and had heard of the river Niger.

 

Interaction between Asia, Europe, and North Africa during this period was significant, major effects include the spread of classical culture around the shores of the Mediterranean; the continual struggle between Rome and the Berber tribes; the introduction of Christianity throughout the region, and the cultural effects of the churches in Tunisia, Egypt and Ethiopia.  The classical era drew to a close with the invasion and conquest of Rome's African provinces by the Vandals in the 5th century.  Power passed back in the following century to the Byzantine Empire.

 

East Africa

 

Ethiopia had centralized rule for many millennia and the Aksumite Kingdom, which developed there, had created a powerful regional trading empire (with trade routes going as far as India).

 

Historically, the Swahili could be found as far north as the Juba valley in southern Somalia, and as far south as Rovuma River in Mozambique.  Although once believed to be the descendants of Persian colonists, the ancient Swahili are now recognized by most historians, historical linguists, and archaeologists as a Bantu person who had sustained and important interactions with Muslim merchants beginning in the late 7th and early 8th century AD.

 

7th to 16th Century

 

Civilizations before European colonization

 

From the 7th century onward Islamic religious and cultural influence replaced that of Christianity across much of northern Africa.  Only in Egypt under Arab rule, and where independence was maintained in Ethiopia, did Christianity survive in any strength.  In this period Islamic influence spread slowly south toward sub-Saharan kingdoms like the Songhai Empire, and along the Indian Ocean coast, although it never penetrated the Benin Empire or the other civilizations of the forest-belt south of the savannah.

 

Muslim Arabs conquered northern Africa from the Red Sea to the Atlantic and continued into Spain beginning with the invasion of Egypt in the 7th century.  Throughout North Africa Christianity nearly disappeared, except in Egypt where the Coptic Church remained strong partly because of the influence of Ethiopia.  Some argue that when the Arabs had converted Egypt they attempted to wipe out the Copts, Ethiopia, who also practiced Coptic Christianity, warned the Muslims that if they attempted to wipe out the Copts, Ethiopia would decrease the flow of water from Lake Tana into the Blue Nile which flows into the greater Nile.  This is speculated to be one of the reasons that the Coptic minorities still exist today.

civilizations before European Colonizations

Civilizations before European Colonizations

 

The history of Africa begins with the first emergence of Homo sapiens in East Africa, continuing into its modern present as a patchwork of diverse and politically developing nation states.

 

Africa's written history starts with the rise of Egyptian civilization in the 4th millennium BC, and in succeeding centuries follows the development of the many diverse societies beyond the Nile Valley.  From an early date this has involved critical interactions with non-African civilizations.  These ranged from the Phoenicians, who established the merchant empire of Carthage, to the Romans, who colonized all of North Africa in the first century BC.  Christianity began its spread through large areas of northern Africa at this time, reaching as far south as Kush and Ethiopia.  In the late 7th century, North and East Africa were heavily influenced by the spread of Islam, which eventually led to the appearance of new cultures such as those of the Swahili people in East Africa, and powerful kingdoms including the Songhai Empire in the sub-Saharan west.  Farther south, Ghana, Oyo, and the Benin Empire developed with little influence from either Islam or Christianity.  The rise of Islam led to an increase in the Arab slave trade that would culminate in the 19th century.  This presaged the forced transport of African people and cultures to the New World in the Atlantic slave trade, and the beginning of the European scramble for Africa.

 

West Africa

 

By the 9th century AD a string of dynastic states, including the earliest Hausa states, stretched across the sub-Saharan savanna from the western coast to central Sudan.  The most powerful of these states were Ghana, Gao, and the Kanem-Bornu Empire.  Ghana declined in the 11th century but was succeeded by the Mali Empire which consolidated much of western Sudan in the 13th century.  Kanem accepted Islam in the 11th century.  Islam then spread through the interior of West Africa, as the religion of the mansas of the Mali Empire (c. 1235–1400).  Following the fabled 1324 hajj of Kankan Musa I, Timbuktu became renowned as a centre of Islamic scholarship and as the location of sub-Saharan Africa's first university.  That city had been reached in 1352 by the great Arab traveler Ibn Battuta, whose journey to Mombasa and Quiloa (Kilwa) provided the first accurate knowledge of those flourishing Muslim cities of the Swahili on the east African seaboards.

 

The Songhai Empire, c. 1500

 

Following the breakup of Mali a local leader named Sonni Ali (1464 -1492) founded the Songhai Empire in the region of middle Niger and the western Sudan and took control of the trans-Saharan trade.  Sonni Ali seized Timbuktu in 1468 and Jenne in 1473, building his regime on trade revenues and the cooperation of Muslim merchants.  His successor Askiya Mohammad Ture (1493 - 1528) made Islam the official religion, built mosques, and brought Muslim scholars, including al-Maghili (d.1504), the founder of an important tradition of Sudanic African Muslim scholarship, to Gao.  By the 11th century some Hausa states - such as Kano, jigawa, Katsina, and Gobir - had developed into walled towns engaging in trade, servicing caravans, and the manufacture of goods.  Until the 15th century these small states were on the periphery of the major Sudanic empires of the era, paying tribute to Songhai to the west and Kanem-Borno to the east.

 

Arab progress southward was stopped by the broad belt of dense forest, stretching almost across the continent somewhat south of 10° North latitude, which barred their advance much as the Sahara had proved an obstacle to their predecessors.  The rain forest cut them off from knowledge of the Guinea coast and of all Africa beyond.  One of the regions which were the last to come under Arab rule was that of Nubia, which had been controlled by Christians up to the 14th century.


In the forested regions of the West African coast, independent kingdoms grew up with little influence from the Muslim north. Ife, historically the first of these Yoruba city-states, established government under a priestly king, or Oni. Ife was noted as the religious and cultural centre of the region, and for its unique naturalistic tradition of bronze sculpture.  The Ife model of government was adapted at Oyo, where a member of its ruling dynasty controlled several smaller city-states.  By the 15th century the Oyo Empire had cut off the mother city from the savanna.  Yorubaland established a community in the Edo-speaking area east of Ife at the beginning of the 14th century.  This developed into the Benin Empire.  By the 15th century Benin had become an independent trading power, blocking Ife's access to the coastal ports.  Benin, which may have housed 100,000 inhabitants at its height, spread over twenty-five square kilometers, and was enclosed by three concentric rings of earthworks.  By the late 15th century Benin was in contact with Portugal.  At its apogee in the 16th and 17th centuries, Benin encompassed parts of southeastern Yorubaland and the western Igbo.

 

Monomotapa was a medieval kingdom (c. 1250-1629) which used to stretch between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers of Southern Africa in the modern states of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.  It enjoys great fame for the ruins at its old capital of Great Zimbabwe.

 

In 1487, Bartolomeu Dias became the first European to reach the southernmost tip of Africa.

 

European Exploration

 

During the 15th century Prince Henry "the Navigator," son of King John I, planned to acquire African territory for Portugal.  Under his inspiration and direction Portuguese navigators began a series of voyages of exploration which resulted in the circumnavigation of Africa and the establishment of Portuguese sovereignty over large areas of the coastlands.

 

Portuguese ships rounded Cape Bojador in 1434, Cape Verde in 1445, and by 1480 the whole Guinea coast was known to the Portuguese.  In 1482 Diogo Cão reached the mouth of the Congo, the Cape of Good Hope was rounded by Bartolomeu Dias in 1488, and in 1498 Vasco da Gama, after having rounded the Cape, sailed up the east coast, touched at Sofala and Malindi, and went from there to India.  Portugal claimed sovereign rights wherever its navigators landed, but these were not exercised in the extreme south of the continent.

 

The Guinea coast, as the nearest to Europe, was first exploited.  Numerous European forts and trading stations were established, the earliest being São Jorge da Mina (Elmina), begun in 1482.  The chief commodities dealt in were slaves, gold, ivory, and spices.  The European discovery of America (1492) was followed by a great development of the slave trade, which, before the Portuguese era, had been an overland trade almost exclusively confined to Muslim Africa.  The lucrative nature of this trade and the large quantities of alluvial gold obtained by the Portuguese drew other nations to the Guinea coast.  English mariners went there as early as 1553, and they were followed by Spaniards, Dutch, French, Danish, and other adventurers.  Colonial supremacy along the coast passed in the 17th century from Portugal to the Netherlands and from the Dutch in the 18th and 19th centuries to France and Britain.  The whole coast from Senegal to Lagos was dotted with forts and "factories" of rival European powers, and this international patchwork persisted into the 20th century although all the West African hinterland had become either French or British territory.

 

Southward from the mouth of the Congo to the region of Damaraland (in what is present-day Namibia), the Portuguese, from 1491 onward, acquired influence over the inhabitants, and in the early part of the 16th century through their efforts Christianity was largely adopted in the Congo Empire.  An incursion of tribes from the interior later in the same century broke the power of this semi-Christian state, and Portuguese activity was transferred to a great extent farther south, São Paulo de Loanda (present-day Luanda) being founded in 1576.  Before Angolan independence in 1975, the sovereignty of Portugal over this coastal region, except for the mouth of the Congo, had been only once challenged by a European power, the Dutch, from 1640 to 1648 in which Portugal lost control of the seaports.

 

The Slave Trade

 

The earliest external African slave trade was trans-Saharan.  Although there had long been some trading along the Nile River and very limited trading across the western desert, the transportation of large numbers of slaves did not become viable until camels were introduced from Arabia in the 10th century.  At this point, a trans-Saharan trading network came into being to transport slaves north.  Unlike the Americas, slaves in North Africa were mainly servants rather than laborers, and an equal or greater number of females than males were taken, who were often employed as chambermaids to the women of northern harems.  It was also not uncommon to turn male slaves into eunuchs.

 

The Atlantic slave trade was a later development, but would eventually become far greater and have a much bigger impact.  Increasing penetration of the Americas by the Portuguese, Spaniards, English, French, and Dutch (among others) created a huge demand for labor in Brazil, Guiana’s, Caribbean, and North America.  Workers were needed for agriculture, mining, and other tasks.  To meet this new demand, a trans-Atlantic slave trade developed.  Slaves purchased in those West African regions known to Europeans as the Slave Coast, Gold Coast, and Côte d'Ivoire were often the unfortunate by-product of fighting between rival African states.  Powerful African kings on the Bight of Biafra might sell their captives internally or exchange them with European slave traders for trade goods such as firearms, rum, fabrics, and seed grain.  It should be noted that European traders also conducted their own, quite independent, slave raids.

 

European Conquest

 

In 1652, a victual ling station was established at the Cape of Good Hope by Jan van Riebeeck on behalf of the Dutch East India Company.  For most of the 17th and 18th centuries, the slowly-expanding settlement was a Dutch possession.  Great Britain seized the Cape of Good Hope area in 1795 ostensibly to stop it falling into the hands of the French, but also seeking to use Cape Town in particular as a stop on the route to Australia and India.  It was later returned to the Dutch in 1803, but soon afterwards the Dutch East India Company declared bankruptcy, and the British annexed the Cape Colony in 1806.

An 1812 map of Africa

by Arrowsmith and Lewis

 

Although the Napoleonic Wars distracted the attention of Europe from the exploration of Africa, there were nevertheless significant developments.  The invasion of Egypt (1798–1803) first by France and then by Great Britain resulted in an effort by Turkey to regain direct control over that country, followed in 1811 by the establishment under Mehemet Ali of an almost independent state, and the extension of Egyptian rule over the eastern Sudan (from 1820 onward).  In South Africa the struggle with Napoleon led the United Kingdom to seize Dutch settlements at the Cape, and in 1814 Cape Colony, which had been continuously occupied by British troops since 1806, was formally ceded to the British crown.

 

The Zulu Kingdom (1817-1879) was a southern African state in what is now South Africa. The small kingdom gained world fame during and after the Anglo-Zulu War, part of the South African Wars (1879-1915).

 

Considerable changes had meanwhile been made in other parts of the continent, the most notable being the invasion of Algiers by France in 1830.  This action put an end to the independent Barbary States, a major obstacle to Frances Mediterranean strategy.  Egyptian authority continued its southward expansion with consequent additions to European the knowledge of the Nile.  The city of Zanzibar, on the island of that name rapidly attained importance.  Accounts of a vast inland sea, and the "discovery" in 1840–1848, by the missionaries Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johann Rebmann, of the snow-clad mountains of Kilimanjaro and Kenya, stimulated in Europe the desire for further knowledge.

 

Also by 3000 BC agriculture arose independently in both the tropical portions of West Africa, where African yams and oil palms were domesticated. No animals were independently domesticated in these regions, although domestication did spread there from the Sahel and Nile regions. Agricultural crops were also adopted from other regions around this time as pearl millet, cowpea, groundnut, cotton, watermelon, and bottle gourds began to be grown agriculturally in both West Africa and the Sahel Region while finger millet, peas, lentil, and flax took hold in Ethiopia.

 

19th Century European Explorers

 

By the middle of the 19th century, Protestant missions were carrying on active missionary work on the Guinea coast, in South Africa and in the Zanzibar dominions.  It was being conducted among people of whom Europeans knew little.  In many instances missionaries turned explorer or became agents of trade and colonialism.  One of the first to attempt to fill up the remaining blank spaces in the European map was David Livingstone, who had been engaged since 1840 in missionary work north of the Orange.  In 1849 Livingstone crossed the Kalahari Desert from south to north and reached Lake Ngami, and between 1851 and 1856 he traversed the continent from west to east, making known the great waterways of the upper Zambezi.  During these journeys Livingstone "discovered" the famous Victoria Falls in November 1855, so named after the Queen of the United Kingdom.  These falls are called Mosi-oa-Tunya by Africans.  In 1858–1864 the lower Zambezi, the Shire, and Lake Nyasa were explored by Livingstone, Nyasa having been first reached by the confidential slave of Antonio da Silva Porto, a Portuguese trader established at Bihe in Angola, who crossed Africa during 1853–1856 from Benguella to the mouth of the Rovuma.  A prime goal for explorers was to locate the source of the River Nile.  Expeditions by Burton and Speke (1857–1858) and Speke and Grant (1863) located Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria.  It was eventually proved to be the latter from whom the Nile flowed.

 

Henry Morton Stanley, who had in 1871 succeeded in finding and succoring Livingstone, started again for Zanzibar in 1874, and in one of the most memorable of all exploring expeditions in Africa circumnavigated Victoria Nyanza and Tanganyika, and, striking farther inland to the Lualaba, followed that river down to the Atlantic Ocean—reached in August 1877—and proved it to be the Congo.

 

Explorers were also active in other parts of the continent.  Southern Morocco, the Sahara and the Sudan were traversed in many directions between 1860 and 1875 by Gerhard Rohlfs, Georg Schweinfurth and Gustav Nachtigal.  These travelers not only added considerably to geographical knowledge, but obtained invaluable information concerning the people, languages, and natural history of the countries in which they sojourned.  Among the discoveries of Schweinfurth was one that confirmed the Greek legends of the existence beyond Egypt of a "pygmy race".  But the first western discoverer of the pygmies of Central Africa was Paul du Chaillu, who found them in the Ogowe district of the west coast in 1865, five years before Schweinfurt’s first meeting with them; du Chaillu having previously, as the result of journeys in the Gabon region between 1855 and 1859, made popular in Europe the knowledge of the existence of the gorilla, perhaps the gigantic ape seen by Hanno the Carthaginian, and whose existence, up to the middle of the 19th century, was thought to be as legendary as that of the Pygmies of Aristotle.

 

Partition Among European Powers

 

In the last quarter of the 19th century the map of Africa was transformed.  Lines of partition, drawn often through trackless African countryside, marked out the "possessions" of Germany, France, Britain, and the other Great Powers.  Railways penetrated the interior, vast areas were "opened up" to European conquest.

 

The causes which led to the partition of Africa can be found in the economic and political state of Western Europe at the time.  Germany, recently united under Prussian rule as the result of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, was seeking new outlets for her energies, new markets for her growing industries, and with the markets, colonies.

 

Germany was the last country to enter into the race to acquire colonies, and when Bismarck—the German Chancellor —acted, Africa was the only field left to exploit.  South America was widely considered the fiefdom of the United States based on the Monroe Doctrine, while Britain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain had already divided much of Asia and the rest of the world between themselves.

 

Part of the reason Germany began to expand into the colonial sphere at this time, despite Bismarck's lack of enthusiasm for the idea, was a shift in the world view of the Prussian governing elite.  Indeed, European elites as a whole began to view the world as a finite place, one in which only the strong would predominate.  The influence of social Darwinism was deep, encouraging a view of the world as essentially characterized by zero-sum relationships.

 

For different reasons the war of 1870 was also the starting-point for France in the building up of a new colonial empire.  In her endeavor to regain the position lost in that war France had to look beyond Europe.  To the two causes mentioned must be added others.  Britain and Portugal, when they found their interests threatened, bestirred themselves, while Italy also conceived it necessary to become an African power.

 

It was not, however, the action of any of the great powers of Europe which precipitated the struggle.  This was brought about by the projects of Léopold II, king of the Belgians.  The discoveries of Livingstone, Stanley, and others had aroused especial interest among two classes of men in Western Europe, for one, the manufacturing and trading class, which saw in Central Africa possibilities of commercial exploitation, the other the philanthropic and missionary class, which beheld in the newly discovered lands millions of "savages" to Christianize and "civilize".  The possibility of utilizing both these classes in the creation of a vast private estate, of which he should be the head, formed itself in the mind of Léopold II even before Stanley had navigated the Congo.  The king's action proved successful; but no sooner was the nature of his project understood in Europe than it provoked the rivalry of France and Germany, and thus the international struggle was begun.

 

Berlin Conference

 

From 1885 the scramble among the powers went on with renewed vigor, and in the fifteen years that remained of the century the work of partition, so far as international agreements were concerned, was practically completed.

 

Soldiers of King Menelik II fended off the Italians, keeping Ethiopia independent from European colonization.

 

No African countries were consulted during the partitioning of Africa.  An "International treaty" was signed that disregarded the ethnic, social, and economic composition of the people that lived in that area.  This was to resurface years later, as ethnic or "tribal" conflict after the African countries gained their independence.

 

1900 to 1945

 

The early 20th Century

The entire continent was claimed by European powers, except for Ethiopia ("Abyssinia") and Liberia.

 

The European powers set up a variety of different administrations in Africa at this time, with different ambitions and degrees of power.  In some areas, parts of British West Africa for example, colonial control was tenuous and intended for simple economic extraction, strategic power, or as part of a long term development plan.

 

In other areas Europeans were encouraged to settle, creating settler states in which a European minority came to dominate society.  Settlers only came to a few colonies in sufficient numbers to have a strong impact.  British settler colonies included British East Africa, now Kenya, Northern and Southern Rhodesia, later Zambia and Zimbabwe, and South Africa, which already had a significant population of European settlers, the Boers.

map of africa just before world war I

Map of Africa just before World War I

 

 In the Second Boer War, between the British Empire and the two Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic), the Boers unsuccessfully resisted absorption in to the British Empire.

 

France planned to settle Algeria and eventually incorporate it into the French state as an equal to the European provinces.  Its proximity across the Mediterranean allowed plans of this scale.

 

In most areas colonial administrations did not have the manpower or resources to fully administer the territory and had to rely on local power structures to help them.  Various factions and groups within the societies exploited this European requirement for their own purposes, attempting to gain a position of power within their own communities by cooperating with Europeans.  One aspect of this struggle included what Terence Ranger has termed the "invention of tradition."  In order to legitimize their own claims to power in the eyes of the colonial administrators and their own people, people would essentially manufacture "traditional" claims to power, or ceremonies.  As a result many societies were thrown into disarray by the new order.

 

During World War I the British and German Empires battled on several occasions, the most notable being the Battle of Tanga, and a sustained guerrilla campaign by the German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.

 

Interbellum

 

After World War I the formerly German colonies in Africa were taken over by France and the United Kingdom.

 

During this era a sense of local patriotism or nationalism took deeper root among African intellectuals and politicians.  Some of the inspiration for this movement came from the First World War in which European countries had relied on colonial troops for their own defense.  Many in Africa realized their own strength with regard to the colonizer for the first time.  At the same time, some of the mystique of the "invincible" European was shattered by the barbarities of the war.  However, in most areas European control remained relatively strong during this period.

 

Italy, under the government of Benito Mussolini, invaded Ethiopia, the last independent African nation, in 1935 and occupied the country until 1941.

 

1945 to 1993

 

Decolonization

The decolonization of Africa started with Libya in 1951 (although Liberia, South Africa, Egypt and Ethiopia were already independent).  Many countries followed in the 50s and 60s, with a peak in 1960 with independence of a large part of French West Africa.  Most of the remaining countries gained independence throughout the 1960s, although some colonizers (Portugal in particular) were reluctant to relinquish sovereignty, resulting in bitter wars of independence which lasted for a decade or more. The last African countries to gain formal independence were Guinea-Bissau from Portugal in 1974, Mozambique from Portugal in 1975, Angola from Portugal in 1975, Djibouti from France in 1977, Zimbabwe from United Kingdom in 1980, and Namibia from South Africa in 1990. Eritrea later split off from Ethiopia in 1993.

 

Because many cities were founded, enlarged and renamed by the Europeans, after independence many place names (for example Stanleyville, Léopoldville, Rhodesia) were renamed.

Dates of independence of African countries

 

East Africa

 

The Mau Mau Rebellion took place in Kenya from 1952 until 1956, but was put down by British and local forces.  A State of Emergency remained in place until 1960.  Kenya became independent in 1963, and Jomo Kenyatta served as its first president.

 

The early 1990s also signaled the start of major clashes between the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi.  In 1994 this culminated in the Rwandan Genocide, a conflict in which over one million people were murdered.

 

North Africa

 

In 1954 Gamal Abdel Nasser deposed the monarchy on Egypt and came to power.  Muammar al-Gaddafi led a coup in Libya in 1969 and has remained in power.

 

Egypt was involved in several wars against Israel, and was allied with other Arab countries. The first was right after the Israel was founded, in 1947.  Egypt went to war again in 1967 and lost the Sinai Peninsula to Israel.  They went to war yet again in 1973.  In 1979 Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin signed the Camp David Accords, which gave back the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for the recognition of Israel.  The accords are still in effect today.  In 1981 Sadat was assassinated by an Islamist for signing the accords.

 

Southern Africa

 

In 1948 the apartheid laws were started in South Africa by the dominant party, the National Party.  These were largely a continuation of existing policies, e.g. the Land Act of 1913.  The difference was the policy of "separate development;" Where previous policies had only been disparate efforts to economically exploit the African Majority, Apartheid represented an entire philosophy of separate racial goals, leading to both the divisive laws of 'petty apartheid,' and the grander scheme of African Homelands.

 

In 1994 the South African government abolished Apartheid.  South Africans elected Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress in the country's first multiracial presidential election.

 

 

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