Home / Imperialism and World War 1 1841-1920 / Parceling Out a Continent 1841-1910

Parceling Out a Continent 1841-1910

Africa, the second largest continent in the world, extends south from the Mediterranean Sea four thousand miles. Along its north coast is a strip of land known to Europeans since ancient times. South of this strip lie mountains and deserts. The Sahara, an empty “sea” of sand and rock, crosses the continent in a belt several hundreds of miles wide; it is hot and dry, vast and rugged. Europeans knew very little about the lands beyond it. Almost all they knew of Africa were the coasts, which they could reach by sea. As late as the time of the American Civil War and the unification of Italy and Germany, Africa was still largely unknown – the “Dark Continent.”

The people of North Africa were white — descendants of the early inhabitants and of Arabs who had conquered them for Islam. South of the Sahara lay “Black Africa” a land of Negroes. The Negroes were divided into thousands of tribes, but had no organized states. They spoke hundreds of languages, but had no writing. They lived by hunting, raising cattle and simple farming and worshiped tribal gods. All of Black Africa was Negro except for a few places on the Indian Ocean where Arab traders had settled and the southernmost part of the continent, where some European families had settled.


In the sixteenth century, Portuguese and Spanish ships had begun to stop at points on the Atlantic shore of Africa to trade. Later, traders came from other European countries. The names they gave to stretches of shoreland — the Gold Coast, the Ivory Coast, the Slave Coast — show what they came for. The Europeans found that the sultry coastland was ridden with disease. So many of them died there that West Africa came to be known as “the white man’s graveyard.” After a few disastrous tries, they gave up the idea of establishing white settlements.

When the Europeans sailed further south, however, they found the air fresher and cooler and the coastland free of diseases. The southern end of the continent was particularly inviting. Much of it was open grassland instead of jungle, it was neither too hot nor too cold and it contained few people. In the seventeenth century, Dutch families began to settle at the southernmost tip of Africa. Further north, where the natives were more numerous, the Portuguese set up colonies on both coasts — Angola on the Atlantic and Mozambique on the Indian Ocean, but for another two hundred years the interior of the continent remained a mystery.

Missionaries, explorers and men of action opened up Africa to Europe. In 1841, David Livingstone, a Scottish doctor, went to southeast Africa as a medical missionary. For many years he traveled through a huge area which appeared on maps as a blank, preaching Christianity in African languages and healing the sick. He explored the Zambesi River and discovered, among other natural Wonders, the world‘s most majestic waterfall, Victoria Falls. Safe among his African friends, he only wanted to go on with his work undisturbed.

Then a rumour that Livingstone was lost reached Europe and America. As a stunt to make news, the New York Herald sent Henry M. Stanley to Africa to find Livingstone. When he did find Livingstone at a village called Ujiji, he is supposed to have said: “Doctor Livingstone, I presume.” Soon after their meeting, Livingstone died, lamented by the natives.

Stanley was a very different kind of man from Livingstone. To him, Africa was a land that offered unlimited opportunities for making money. Brimming with ideas, he went to Europe to look for backers and in 1878 he found one in King Leopold of Belgium.

The king was already thinking of developing the basin of the Congo River, in Central Africa, and Stanley’s talk stirred him to action. With a few financiers, the two men founded the International Congo Association. The association had no connection with the Belgian government. It was a private enterprise, set up to get whatever could be gotten out of the Congo for the benefit of King Leopold and his friends.

Returning to the Congo in 1882, Stanley traveled up the great river and through the surrounding jungle. Wherever he went, he persuaded the chief of the local tribe to put his mark on a piece of paper, in return for a few trinkets or bolts of cloth. The paper gave the association the right to use the tribe’s land. Since the chief could not read and had never heard of private property, he of course did not understand what he was agreeing to, but his crude mark and his acceptance of a blue-and-gold association flag were enough. Within a year, Stanley made treaties with more than five hundred chiefs.

Meanwhile, other explorers were doing the same thing elsewhere in Africa for their governments. North of the Congo, a Frenchman named Brazza handed out French flags in every village he visited, until he claimed a territory larger than France. From Zanzibar, on the east coast of Africa, Karl Peters, a German, worked his way inland, making treaties. Further south, the Portuguese took steps to unite Angola and Mozambique in one large colony that stretched coast to coast. Throughout Black Africa there were still no definite boundaries and no one could be sure where one country’s claim ended and another’s began.

In 1885 the German chancellor, Bismarck, invited the imperial powers to send emissaries to Berlin to clear up the confusion. The Berlin conference recognized King Leopold’s holding as the Congo Free State, and set boundaries which gave it an area almost as large as the United States east of the Mississippi River. The powers agreed that everyone should be allowed to do business in the Congo, that no tariff should be levied on goods arriving there and that the slave trade should be stamped out. As the person who owned and governed the country, Leopold was expected to carry out the agreements.

The conference, however, failed to set up effective safeguards and Leopold did as he pleased. His greed for profits led to horrifying cruelties. Europe and America wanted rubber, more and more of it and the Congo was then one of the few places in the world that produced raw rubber. The primitive Congolese, weakened by disease and the damp heat of their lowland equatorial home, could only be made to tap enough rubber trees by force. While overseers, under orders to produce a certain amount of rubber, had their workers whipped and beaten without mercy. A native who shirked or ran away or was caught stealing might have a leg or an arm cut off and tens of thousands of Congolese died in misery.

Leopold’s personal income from the rubber plantations was huge; it enabled him to live in great luxury in Brussels, but even inhuman measures failed to make the Congo profitable; the enterprise as a whole lost money. To pay off its debts, the king borrowed a large sum from the Belgian government. He agreed that Belgium should inherit the Congo if he did not pay the money back. When he died in 1908, the Congo Free State became the Belgian Congo and Belgian administrators did away with the worst abuses of Leopold’s rule.

The Berlin conference of 1885 had also laid down rules for all the powers seeking land in Africa. Colonies and trading posts on the coast gave a power the right to territory inland. To make its claim stick, the power had to station troops and administrators there after informing the other powers of his plans. This led to a wild scramble to occupy Africa. In fifteen years the entire continent was parceled out, except for Ethiopia and little Liberia on the west coast, founded in 1822 as a homeland for freed American slaves.

Between 1885 and 1900 the Portuguese greatly enlarged Angola and Mozambique. Italy took over two barren tracts, Italian Somaliland and Eritrea. From them, troops marched inland to win the richer prize of Ethiopia. In 1896, at Adowa, 80,000 Ethiopians slaughtered 20.000 Italians, the first time Africans had successfully defended themselves against whites. Not for forty years would Italy or any other power invade Ethiopia again.


The chief contenders for African territory were Great Britain, France and Germany. Each was jealous and suspicious of the others and preferred to leave territories in the hands of minor powers rather than see them taken over by one of its rivals. For this reason, Portugal, Italy, Spain and the Congo Free State were able to seize large areas for themselves, as meanwhile, the struggle among the three great powers grew even more intense.

Germany, the last of the three to enter the competition, established colonies in German East Africa, the Cameroons and Togo on the west coast and German Southwest Africa. France too, wanted a trans-African empire. It already controlled most of West Africa — whose coast, thanks to modern medicine, was no longer “the white man’s graveyard” — and tiny French Somaliland, on the Gulf of Aden. The French dreamed of creating a French belt across North Africa from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and to do this they had to have the region south of Egypt, known as the Sudan.

Great Britain also had its dream which was summed up in the slogan: “Africa British from the Cape to Cairo.” The British plan called for a belt of colonies running north and south; this conflicted with the French plan for a belt of colonies running east and west. The British were in a good position to carry out their plan. From the Cape of Good Hope, they had pushed north into Rhodesia. Kenya and Uganda, in East Africa, were already theirs and Egypt had been under their “protection” since 1882. Egypt had long claimed the Sudan, out of which the Nile River flowed and the British had backed its claim. The first British attempt to subdue the wild Sudanese tribesmen had failed. In 1898 a force under General Kitchener pushed south up the Nile, took Omdurman and continued upstream.

At the same time, in small French force led by Captain Marchand was making its way east from Lake Chad. Its orders were to heist the French flag on the upper Nile and claim the Sudan for France. Suddenly, at a place called Fashoda, the French came face to face with the larger British force. The meeting was one of the most awkward moments of modern history. Neither Kitchener nor Marchand know what to do; each sent word to his government and waited for orders.

The dramatic meeting at Fashoda became a showdown between Great Britain and France, a test of the ability of each government to carry out its imperial ambitions. At first, both refused to budge. Then the British threatened to fight. The French, afraid that the Germans might attack them in Europe, decided at last not to take the risk and recalled Captain Marchand from Fashoda.


No sooner had the British won this victory than they became entangled in another struggle at the other end of Africa from the Sudan. This struggle was the Boer War. The Boers were descendants of the Dutchmen who had settled the Cape of Good Hope in the seventeenth century; their name came from the Dutch word for farmer. After 1815, when Great Britain acquired the Cape, the Boers had made a “great trek” inland to escape British rule. There they had eventually set up two small independent republics‚ the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. A simple, old-fashioned people, the Boers saw nothing wrong in keeping Negro slaves and disliked all “Uitlanders,” or outlanders, who sought to invade their privacy.


In 1890 Cecil Rhodes became prime minister of Britain’s Cape Colony. The world’s foremost empire-builder in an age of empire building, he forcefully pushed the “Cape to Cairo” plan, but the two Boer republics stood in his way. When gold and diamonds were discovered in the Transvaal, the British poured in, but the Boers refused to let the Uitlanders dig mines. In 1895, Rhodes sent armed men under a friend named Dr. Jameson into the Transvaal, hoping to start a revolution which would overthrow the government.

The Jameson Raid failed, but many people in Europe were shocked to see the British bullying their small neighbour. The Germans, particularly, were indignant. Their emperor sent a message to Paul Kruger, the president of the Transvaal, congratulating him for driving off the invaders “without having to call for the support of friendly powers.” By “friendly powers” the emperor meant Germany.


Three years later the British went to war with the Boer republics. The Boers were hardy frontiersmen who knew the countryside well and accustomed to hunting from childhood, they were skilled riflemen. At first the British troops were no match for their enemies. In time, however, they learned something of the countryside and adopted the Boer’s methods of guerrilla warfare. They began to push the Boers back and at last, in 1901, the Boer republics surrendered.

On being taken into the British Empire, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State kept their governments and laws. In 1910, they joined Natal and Cape Colony, whose white inhabitants were mostly British, in the Union of South Africa. The Union was a self-governing territory like Canada, that owed allegiance to the British Crown.

Check Also


Dictators in Germany and Italy Challenge Democracies

Dictators came to power in many European countries during the twenty years following World War I. …

Translate »