Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Scramble for Africa

I just finished reading The Scramble for Africa: White Man's Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912 by Thomas Pakenham. (Read my posts of January 14th, February 11th, and May 24th.) This is a long book, but a very good one that told me a lot about African history that I should already have known.

The Scramble Was Recent (in Historical Terms)

There were no colonies of the European imperial powers in Africa in 1876 except on the edges of the continent (although the Ottoman empire had a significant holding in North Africa). As the maps in my February 11th post show, by the beginning of World War I, with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia, all of Africa was under the control of these European empires. As a result of World War I, the victors took some of the colonies from the losers, notably the British and French took over the German colonies. Thus the colonization of Africa came after the European empires took Asian territories (e.g. British India, Dutch Indonesia, French Indo-China). Great Britain and France made short work to gobble up a huge area of the African continent. Maps lead us to underestimate how large that territory really is, given that lands at the Equator are foreshortened compared to those at European latitudes.

The Scramble Was Brutal

The European powers had modern weapons and powered, metal boats. During this period they built railroads in parts of Africa and telegraph lines. They used their technological superiority to conquer African tribes that sought to resist being incorporated in empires or sought to rebel against their imperial masters.

African nations were tribal, poorly armed as compared with European technology, and with poor infrastructure. Tribes often had long-standing enemies among neighboring tribes. Thus, African troops were armed to do most of the fighting under European officers as the European empires conquered territories. The book even describes the sometimes use of cannibal troops as part of imperial military units -- cannibals who butchered the enemies that they killed, smoked their body parts and thus solved the logistic problem of providing protein to troops in protein poor environments.

In theory, the colonization of Africa was carried out in part to abolish the Muslim trade that captured African natives and sold them in the Middle East and Asia; however, in practice the Christian, European. colonial administrators and colonists were often racists. The book shows how frequently Africans were forced to work without pay by racist government and corporate bosses. Africans during the scramble might be forced to live where their labor was needed, they might be beaten as part of the "supervision of their labor"; in the Congo Africans were mutilated, and crimes -- including murder -- were committed against them by whites who were not punished.

A slogan of "Commerce, Christianity, and Civilization" was used to justify the colonization to Europen publics, and indeed Protestant and Catholic missionaries vied to convert Africans. However, the Christianity was often sectarian and has left an ugly divide in Africa. (See my reviews of The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam by Eliza Griswold of June 8, 2012 and June 15, 2012.) As far as I can see, there was very little "civilization" that went with colonization, and few Africans were educated to European standards. When Africa was decolonized after World War II, few of the newly empowered African leaders were prepared to run modern nation states.

The European powers were interested in commerce, but mostly to appropriate all the profits from African commerce into their European capitals. Belgian King Leopold seems to have been the embodiment of greed, but businessmen exploiting African resources for their own enrichment lobbied their governments to assure that their greed could continue to work at length. While there were European advocates for the use of African wealth to benefit African peoples, their European governments seems not to attend to those voices during the Scramble.

The Colonization of Africa Was Not the Same for All Imperial Powers

The Portuguese (coastal) colonies predated the Scramble (to the time of the slave trade to Brazil, and are not covered in the book. The German colonization was later than the British and French (and ended as a result of the German loss in World War I). King Leopold's forces colonized the Congo as part of a private land grab, and were not transferred to the Belgian state until 1908. Italian colonization was less successful than British and French efforts, as well as later. The Boer settlers in southern Africa were not British, although the region that the inhabited eventually became part of South Africa, and thus a portion of the British empire. The French colonies tended to be located in the north west of Africa, and included lands of the Sahara Desert and its fringes -- lands that were less productive than the colonies of other countries. Britain appears to have been the most successful in establishing colonies and influence, eventually holding a string of land from the Cape of Good Hope to the Egyptian Mediterranean. And of course, the Ottoman empire lost its African territories to others during the Scramble and its immediate aftermath.

The Book is Very Good on the Complexity of Governance

Author Thomas Pakenham (8th Earl of Longford) is very good on the complexity of governance. Perhaps his aristocratic position provided him with the necessary understanding. In any case, in his hands, the cabinet members of imperial governments differ among themselves on what should be done, and sometimes one will act without the approval or even the knowledge of the others. Governments change, with the new sweeping out the old government's policies. Governments in London or Paris are trying not only to make decisions for African colonies in terms of the impact of those decisions on other African colonies, but also on other regions of the world and on the relationship with other imperial powers. African colonial administrators take actions not approved by their imperial masters, and indeed sometimes in opposition to those governments. the politics are of concern, newspapers count, as do advocacy groups. Business executives bring pressures to bear on governments, sometimes using the press; sometimes the businesses themselves take actions in Africa that affect imperial policies. Decisions are made (in European capitals or by newly assigned colonial administrators) with only poor understanding of the local conditions in Africa, and one assumes often with the most partial exploration of alternative options. Africans are not consulted at all. The financial problems of the day, the competing demands for troops, and changing world markets all come into play. Governance is hard! Africans pay for the errors made.

The Book Helps One Understand World War I

France and Britain negotiated the Entente Cordiale as part of a deal allocating colonies in Africa; since the French also had an Alliance with Russia there also came to be an Anglo-Russian Entente; thus the three key allies of World War I were obligated to support each other in part do to their scramble for African colonies. The German Kaiser was not pleased, but it too was scrambling for African colonies and had thus competed with Great Britain.

Germany was allied with Austria. Belgium, with its dismal colonial record in the Congo, may not have been as innocent as the British and French claimed at the outbreak of the war. (Britain went to war after Germany invaded Belgium on its way to France.) The replacement of the Ottoman Empire by Britain, France and Italy in Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia was at least a signal to Balkan nationalists that they might rise against the Ottomans, and it was the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists that triggered the start of World War I.

Austria declared war on Serbia, the Russians came to the aid of Serbia, and the Germans to the aid of Austria; France was obligated to support Russia, and Germany sought to invade France by marching through Belgium; Great Britain joined with France and Russia against Germany and Austria; Italy joined the the war against Austria, and the Ottoman Empire found itself fighting against Russia, Great Britain and France; Italy joined the allies and went to war against Austria When the dust cleared, the Austrian and Ottoman Empires were gone, Yugoslavia (the nation of the Southern Slaves) was created, Germany had lost its colonies, etc. The War was crucial to the development of world in the 20th century, but it can not fully be understood if one does not recognize some of its roots in the scramble for Africa.

Final Comment

This 670 page book took me a while to read, as I was also obligated to read other history books for the book club to which I belong; however, it was well worth the effort. I think Africa is finally developing rapidly economically, and it is wracked by civil war and insurgencies. Thus we should understand the historical roots of its current situation, and this book seems a very worthwhile means of gaining that understanding.

The graph is from the current edition of The Economist. I quote:
Africa’s economy is growing steadily. Last year average growth was 3.9% and it is set to accelerate this year, according to a report by the African Development Bank. Foreign direct investment (FDI) is helping to spur growth. It is expected to reach $55 billion in 2015, 20% higher than in 2010. Inflows of capital are increasingly focused on less resource-rich countries, as investors target the continent’s booming middle classes. The amount of investment into technology, retail and business services increased by 17 percentage points between 2007 and 2013. 

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