The “Scramble for Africa” happened in the years between 1881 and 1914. In the simplest of terms, it was a desire of Britain and other European countries to stake their claim and colonize the African continent. Of course, the driving factors that led to this scramble aren’t so simple.
Africa Before the Scramble
For a long time, countries in Europe had no interest in Africa. The first people to establish colonies were the Portuguese, and they were confined to West Africa. They had a few ports, trading posts, and war fortifications, but not much else. They set most of these up in the 15th century, which was long before the scramble was even dreamed of.
In the 18th century, Europeans started their exploration of Africa, mapping the interior to get a better idea of what was out there. Explorer David Livingstone took part in the efforts, and by 1835, most of the northwestern part of the continent had been mapped.
Despite these efforts, most Europeans still did not understand or realize the full potential of Africa, and that wouldn’t be known until close to the end of the 19th century. By then, the resources Africa offered became more clear to European superpowers. It is also around this time that the idea of Africa as a “Dark Continent” becomes prevalent throughout Europe. Africa was painted as a wild, savage, and untamed land. Using this language to dehumanize the continent would help colonizers and missionaries justify their often brutal actions when the Scramble for Africa began.
The Berlin Conference and the Scramble
In 1884, Otto von Bismarck, who was the German chancellor, called a meeting in Berlin with the sole purpose of talking about how to colonize Africa. Publicly, most delegates who attended expressed interest in wanting to assist Africa, a land they saw as primitive and uncivilized. But their true intentions, which was to exploit the land for profit, would become much more clear once the scramble began.
From the Berlin Conference, many rules and regulations were set on how the colonizing superpowers would split up the continent. It was agreed the the Congo River would be preserved as a neutral zone. Countries weren’t allowed to occupy any territory in Africa until they informed the other powers about their intention. And a nation also couldn’t claim any part of Africa without first effectively occupying the territory.
In essence, the Berlin Conference was set up so that the superpowers wouldn’t go to war when heading into Africa to colonize it. By this time, it was apparent how rich in resources the continent was, and for everyone to get their piece, they had to do so in a peaceful manner—at least peaceful to the superpower countries. Europe paid little regard to the livelihood of the people actually living in Africa.
Reasons for the Scramble
The are several reasons why European countries found themselves scrambling for Africa, the largest of which was because of economics. From 1873 to 1896, the “Long Depression” was crippling many of the countries’ economies. This was brought about by a deficit in the balance of trade. Africa was a large continent full of resources that hadn’t been tapped by anyone, so it became an appealing place.
It also became apparent to these countries that to boost revenue, they had to find some way to cut production costs. Africa had an abundance of cheap labor, no competition, and an abundance of raw materials. It was the perfect place for many of these economies to find a way to get back on their feet.
Industrialization also had a huge impact on the desire to colonize Africa, and the advancement depleted a lot of materials that could once be found in Europe. There rose a desire for people to have items that were never available in Europe, including gold, copper, tea, and tin, all of which could be found in Africa.
In addition to the depression, colonizing Africa also gave certain countries strategic advantages. If one country didn’t take that advantage, another one would. These advantages included commodities such as diamonds and gold, but it also offered access to the world via the ocean. If a superpower could control any of these areas, they were incredibly well off.
The Scramble for Africa was a power play by European nations to improve their economies and control commodities and trade routes. The colonization lasted for a long while, up until the years after WWII, when many African countries started asserting their right to govern independently. By the 1950s and 1960s, many African nations formed into the independent states that still exist today.