Why Was Africa Colonised?

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Why was Africa colonised in the years 1870-1914?

The Colonization of Africa was due to a wide range of factors, not only economic and political but also for social, religious, humanitarian and technological reasons, which differed from country to country. Africa’s diplomatic, strategic and material potential led European Powers to seize the opportunity to exploit a new continent. During a period between 1870 and 1914, where the continent of Africa was completely annexed by the leading European powers: Britain, France, Germany, Portugal and Italy, leaving just two countries with independence: Ethiopia and Liberia. The interest in Africa begun before 1870. Britain and France were the first European powers to show interest in Africa’s dominated the regional partitions. France controlled a large section of western and central Africa, whilst British conquered much of east and southern Africa. Late-comers were left to compete for the rather worthless or utterly insignificant remained territories.

There is much evidence to suggest that the ‘scramble for Africa’ was the result of economic needs. The 1870s witnessed the onset of The Great Depression as seen by contemporaries, and a downturn in the economy and trade. Industrial countries were over-producing, and there was increased competition between industrial powers for existing markets. Furthermore, it was becoming increasingly difficult to trade within Europe as counties like Italy reintroduced protection. This led to Europe looking overseas for new markets to trade with to reduce the surplus goods, and provide a buffer for the mother country to protect it from economic extremes of boom and bust. It can be seen therefore, that the ‘scramble for Africa’ came as a result of European countries competing for ‘potentially rich markets’ in an attempt to restore their economies.

Another economic explanation for the ‘scramble’ is that Africa had the potential to provide Europe with cheap raw materials that could be used in production, such as palm oil or cotton. Pressure came from businesses such as the German Colonial Association for colonisation in Africa. They believed it would provide a source of cheap labour, which combined with cheaper raw materials and an increased market would generate better profits and help the economy. Many of these business groups however, were actually comprised of politicians and aristocrats who used economic benefits to disguise their nationalist desires; nevertheless, they provided a pressure that contributed to governments becoming involved in the ‘scramble’.

Hobson argues that ‘surplus capital in Europe was the driving force behind the expansion into Africa’ and this idea has been taken up by many Marxist writers. In practice however, this argument must be questioned, as most people did not invest their money in African colonies, but rather in countries where they believed it would gain the biggest return. The French for example invested in the Russian railway system, and the Germans in Austria. Also, it does not explain the need for a ‘scramble’.

The belief that Africa may harbour reserves of valuable gold, diamonds and minerals provided further incentive for expansion. No European power wanted to miss out on gaining land that could provide wealth in the future, and this therefore contributed to the ‘scramble’.

These economic reasons alone however, do not explain why European powers became involved in a ‘scramble for Africa’, as comparatively small amounts of money were invested into Africa and trade generated was not significant. In Britain for example, trade mainly occurred with dominion colonies such as Canada, and by 1911 out of 2.8 million square miles and 40 million people, only 3.8% of British overseas trade came from Africa .

Geopolitics was an important factor that led to the ‘scramble for Africa’. Many European countries had imperial colonies and interests in Asia; India for example was Britain’s most prized colony....
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