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Unlike India and China, and to a certain degree Japan, Africa held little interest for most Europeans prior to the Industrial Revolution. To be sure, north of the Sahara, in Egypt and along the Mediterranean, Europeans had historical interest and impact. But the vast interior of the continent remained unknown to the outside world. During the Age of Exploration, coastal regions of Africa became important to Europeans for limited trade, and also for strategic positioning, as stopping-off points for merchant ships en route to India or China. Most significantly, of course, Africa became the center of the slave trade.

The Slave Trade Finally Ends

As Enlightenment principles took root in Europe, larger and larger numbers of people grew outraged at the idea of slavery. Between 1807 and 1820, most European nations abolished the slave trade, although slavery itself was not abolished until a few decades later. In other words, no new slaves were legally imported from Africa, but those already in Europe or the New World continued to be enslaved until emancipation in the mid-nineteenth century. In some cases, former slaves returned to Africa. Groups of former American slaves, for example, emigrated to Liberia, where they established an independent nation.

It’s a terrible irony that as the slave trade ended in the nineteenth century, Europeans turned their greedy eyes to the continent of Africa itself. Within 50 years, the Africans were subjugated again, but this time in their own homeland.

South Africa: Gold Rings, a Diamond Necklace, and a British Crown

Prior to the discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa in the 1860s and 1880s, South Africa was valuable to the Europeans only for shipping and military reasons. The Dutch arrived first and settled Cape Town as a stopping point for ships on the way from Europe to India. In 1795, the British seized Cape Town, and the South African Dutch (now known as Boers or Afrikaners) trekked northeast into the interior of South Africa, settling in a region known as the Transvaal. When the Boers later discovered diamonds and gold in the Transvaal, the British quickly followed, fighting a series of wars for the rights to the resources. After years of bloody battles, known as the Boer War (1899–1902), the British reigned supreme, and all of South Africa was annexed as part of the ever-expanding British Empire. Of course, throughout this entire process, Africans were not allowed claims to the gold and diamonds, and were made to work in the mines as their natural resources were sent abroad.

South Africa became a significant British colony, complete with extensive investment in infrastructure and institutions. In 1910, the colony had its own constitution, and it became the Union of South Africa, still part of the British Commonwealth, but exercising a considerable amount of self-rule. Under the constitution, only white men could vote, so the native Africans had few rights. In 1912, educated South Africans organized the African National Congress in an effort to oppose European colonialism and specific South African policies. This organization, of course, was similar to the Indian National Congress, which was established for similar ends.

Egypt: A New Waterway Makes a Splash

In theory, the Ottomans ruled Egypt from 1517 until 1882, although throughout the nineteenth century, Ottoman rule was extremely weak. Local rulers, called beys, had far more influence over developments in Egypt than the rulers in Istanbul. When Napoleon tried to conquer Egypt during his tireless attempt to expand France into a mega-empire at the turn of the nineteenth century, Muhammad Ali defeated the French and the Ottomans, and gained control of Egypt in 1805. Egypt technically remained part of the Ottoman Empire, but as viceroy, Ali wielded almost exclusive control. During the next 30 years, he began the industrialization of Egypt and directed the expansion of agriculture toward cotton production, which was then exported to the textile factories of Britain for substantial profit.

Ali’s westernization attempts were temporarily halted by his grandson, Abbas I, but were reinvigorated under subsequent rulers, who worked with the French to begin construction of the Suez Canal. The canal, when completed in 1869, connected the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean, eliminating the need to go around the Cape of Good Hope. Because Britain had a huge colony in India, the canal became more important to the British than to anyone else. As Egypt’s finances went into a tailspin because of excessive government spending, Egypt started selling stock in its canal to raise money, stock that the British government eagerly gobbled up. By 1882, Britain not only controlled the Suez Canal, but had maneuvered its way into Egypt to such a degree that it declared it a British protectorate, which was essentially a colony except that Egyptians remained in political power.

Pushed out of Egypt, France focused on other parts of North Africa, particularly Nigeria. The Italians, once they had unified as a country, also became interested in North Africa. The race for control of Africa was on.

The Berlin Conference: Carving Up the Continent

In 1884, Otto von Bismarck hosted the major European powers at a conference in Berlin intended to resolve some differences over various European claims to lands in the African Congo. By the end of the conference, the delegates had set up rules for how future colonization rights and boundaries would be determined on that continent. With rules in hand, the Europeans left the conference in haste. Each country wanted to be the first to establish possession in the various parts of Africa. Within three decades, almost the entire continent of Africa was colonized by Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Belgium. Only Ethiopia and Liberia remained independent of European rule by 1914.

While the Europeans added substantial infrastructure to the continent by building railroads, dams, and roads, they stripped Africa of its resources for profit and treated the natives harshly. Every colonial power except Britain exercised direct rule over its colonies, meaning Europeans were put in positions of authority and the colonies were remade according to European customs. The British, having their hands full with the huge colony in India and massive spheres of influence in China and elsewhere, permitted the native populations to rule themselves more directly and to more freely practice their traditional customs (similar to how the Roman Empire handled its far-flung territories).

Because the Berlin Conference of 1884 encouraged colonialism solely based on bargaining for political and economic advantage, the boundary lines that eventually separated colonial territories were based on European concerns, not on African history or culture. Therefore, in some situations, tribal lands were cut in half between two colonies controlled by two different European nations, while in other situations two rival tribes were unwillingly brought together under the same colonial rule. For a time, the disruption of traditional tribal boundary lines worked to the Europeans’ advantage because it was difficult for the native Africans to organize an opposition within each colony. But it did much more than thwart opposition; it disrupted the culture. Add in European schools, Christian missionaries, and western business practices, and traditional African culture, as elsewhere in the global colonial swirl, started breaking apart.

Compare Them: European Colonialism in Africa and in Latin America

Colonialism in Africa was similar to that in the Americas in that boundary lines were determined by European agreements from abroad. In other words, there was total disregard for the societies that existed beforehand. Colonialism in Africa was similar to colonialism in America because multiple countries held claims to the land. Except for the colonies controlled by the British, the African colonies were governed by direct rule, similar to European rule of colonies in the Americas. This meant they sent European officials to occupy all positions of authority. Native traditions were overcome, not tolerated, and certainly not developed. This, of course, was in contrast to spheres of influence in China, for example, in which Europeans were generally more interested in making money rather than changing the entire culture.

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