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African Imperialism 2 Essay, Research Paper

African Imperialism

Books related to African Imperialism

History of Imperialism in Africa

Imperialism is defined as the extension or rule or influence by one government, nation, or society over the political, economic, or cultural life of another ( Imperialism ). Since it always involves the use of power whether military force or some subtler form, imperialism has often been considered morally reprehensible. African imperialism was no different. European nations decided they wanted land in the mostly unexplored continent, and they took it, without the consent of the African people (Pakenham 34).

Evidence of the existence of imperialistic empires dates back to the dawn of written history, when local rulers extended their realms by conquering other states. Ancient imperialism reached its climax under the Roman Empire in Europe, but it never extended elsewhere (Pakenham 46). In the West, imperialism was reborn with the emergence of the modern nation-state and the Age of Exploration and discovery. During this Age of Exploration, Europeans had built a few trading posts on the coasts of Africa, but for centuries they had little direct influences on the lives of most Africans. In the late 1800 s a dramatic change took place. The Industrial Revolution began and the growth of nationalism strengthened European nations. As the nations of Europe industrialized, they started looking overseas for new markets and resources. Africa, which had been largely unknown to Europeans, now became the focus of their attention (Beers 560).

Until the 1870 s, the Europeans had little interest in Africa. In the 1600 s and 1700 s, the Portuguese and Dutch had established forts and trading posts along the African coast. The British and French had also acquired outposts. However, they used these posts only for trade, not as bases for conquest (Beers 563).

Between 1870 and 1914, a dramatic development occurred. The entire African continent came under European rule, with the exception of Liberia and Ethiopia. First, King Leopold II of Belgium acquired the Congo, today called Zaire. Then the French moved into West Africa, while the British took control of much of the rest of the continent. Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Italy also entered the race for African territory (Pakenham 58 ).

The scramble for colonies in west and Central Africa began in the 1870 s. In that period, King Leopold II of Belgium, with the help of Henry Staley, carved out an empire along the Congo River. Stanley who had previously explored the Congo River basin in great detail had hoped that Britain would send settlers to the Congo, but Britain was not interested. So Stanley turned to Leopold II, who was eager to set up Belgian settlements there. At the king s request, Stanley negotiated treaties with local rulers for the right to exploit mineral wealth of the region. The king thereby gained control of the enormous area, which became known as the Congo Free State (Lemarchand 78).

The brutal treatment of the local people in the Congo Free State has come to symbolize the worst aspects of European imperialism. Leopold II ruled the Congo Free State as his own private possession. The area was rich in ivory as well as rubber, copper, and other minerals. Leopold granted monopolies to European companies to exploit these resources and earned huge profits for himself (Forbath 25).

The European companies ruthlessly exploited both the land and the people in the Congo Free State. To ensure maximum profits, company managers forced Africans to work long hours. If workers failed to produce enough rubber or copper, labor bosses felt free to cut off their hands or ears. They also imprisoned African women to force their husbands to work harder (Conrad 81). This brutal system took a huge toll in human lives. Between 1885 and 1908, the population of the Congo fell from about 20 million to 10 million ( Forbath 43).

When Christian missionaries in the Congo revealed these atrocities, the Belgian government investigated. Eventually, in 1908, the government took over administration of the Congo Free State, which then became known as the Belgian Congo (Lemarchand 105).

Europeans used persuasion, force, and bribery to make individual African rulers sign agreements giving them economic and political rights. Once they had a foothold, Europeans often ignored the agreements and simply took what they wanted. If African rulers resisted, well-armed troops were sent to crush them. Still, many African rulers vigorously opposed European expansion ( Beers 572).

Samori Tour , ruler of an empire in what is today Senegal, signed an agreement with the French in the 1890 s. When the French broke the agreement and tried to seize control of his land, Tour fought back. For seven years, he led his army against the French. Finally, in 1898, the French captured Tour and exiled him to Algeria ( Beers 573).

The scramble for Africa brought European powers to the brink of war. To settle their disagreements, they held a conference in Berlin in 1883-1885. Without consulting the African people, the European nations drew boundary lines on a map of Africa, dividing the continent among themselves (Pakenham 81).

Once European nations carved up Africa, they faced the question of how to rule their new colonies. They developed two types of colonial government: direct rule, practiced by France, Germany, Belgium, and Portugal; and indirect rule, used by Great Britain. Through direct rule, a European nation controlled government at all level in the colony. It appointed its own officials to replace African leaders and cast aside traditional ways of governing. Britain believed that the Africans were capable of governing themselves, they just need supervision. A British governor and council of advisors made laws for each colony, but local African rulers loyal to the governor kept some of their traditional authority (Beers 590).

During this Age of Imperialism, many African economic and social traditions were destroyed. As colonial cities grew, some families moved to the cities, hoping to improve their positions. Others were forced to take jobs in European-owned factories in order to pay taxes. As a result, the close-knit village, once the center of African life declined. People no longer had the same concern for helping one another as they had in the past ( Imperialism ).

The history of imperialism in Africa began and ended with the greedy desires of the Europeans. The Europeans thoughtlessly tore into the African continent and succeeded in destroying the African way of life. Thousands of people were tortured, for no reason other that resources. Europeans wanted the rich minerals and natural resources that were found in Africa, and they did not want to share them with anyone else, including the African people (Pakenham 106).

Work Cited

Beers, Burton F. World History: Patterns of Civilization. Needham, MA, Prentice Hall. 1993. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Doubleday and Co., New York, 1910.

Forbath, Peter. The River Congo. New York, Harper and Row Publishers. 1977.

Imperialism. The Interactive Concise Columbia Encyclopedia. CD-ROM. Columbia

University Press, 1995.

Lemarchand, Rene. Political Awakening in the Belgian Congo. New York, Greenwood.


Pakenham, Thomas. The Scramble for Africa. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

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