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WhyDidEuropeColonizeAfrica?

The1880smarkthebeginningofthecolonialperiodinAfricanhistory.While

EuropeansandAfricanshadestablishedrelationshipsinavarietyofsettingsfor

centuries,the1880smarkamajorturningpointinEuropeanattitudestowardAfrica.

ThreeprimarydevelopmentsexplainincreasedEuropeaninvolvementinAfrica.You

haveexploredthesedevelopmentsinpreviousmaterial.Here,wewillreconsidersome

ofthisinformationandexpandourunderstandingoftherationaleforEuropes

colonizationofAfrica.Fordecades,scholarshavescouredthroughvarioushistorical

documentationattemptingtofindadefinitiveanswertothequestionposedabove:Why

didEuropecolonizeAfrica?Wewillfindthatinallprobabilitythereisnoonedefinitive

answertothisquestion.Rather,wecanpresumethatacombinationoffactorsfeatured

prominentlyinthedecisionmakingprocessesofthoseEuropeansresponsibleforthe

colonizationofthecontinent.Whileoneortwofactorsmighthavebeendominantin

thosedecisionmakingprocesses,itwouldbeunwisetodiscountotherpossible

explanations.This is the html version of the file http://www.saylor.org/site/wp-


content/uploads/2011/12/HIST252-Subunit-2.3.2-Why-Did-Europe-Colonize-FINAL.pdf.
Google automatically generates html versions of documents as we crawl the web.

Page 1
TheSaylorFoundation1

WhyDidEuropeColonizeAfrica?

The1880smarkthebeginningofthecolonialperiodinAfricanhistory.While

EuropeansandAfricanshadestablishedrelationshipsinavarietyofsettingsfor

centuries,the1880smarkamajorturningpointinEuropeanattitudestowardAfrica.
ThreeprimarydevelopmentsexplainincreasedEuropeaninvolvementinAfrica.You

haveexploredthesedevelopmentsinpreviousmaterial.Here,wewillreconsidersome

ofthisinformationandexpandourunderstandingoftherationaleforEuropes

colonizationofAfrica.Fordecades,scholarshavescouredthroughvarioushistorical

documentationattemptingtofindadefinitiveanswertothequestionposedabove:Why

didEuropecolonizeAfrica?Wewillfindthatinallprobabilitythereisnoonedefinitive

answertothisquestion.Rather,wecanpresumethatacombinationoffactorsfeatured

prominentlyinthedecisionmakingprocessesofthoseEuropeansresponsibleforthe

colonizationofthecontinent.Whileoneortwofactorsmighthavebeendominantin

thosedecisionmakingprocesses,itwouldbeunwisetodiscountotherpossible

explanations.

TorecapturetheprimarydevelopmentsthataccountforEuropesincreased

involvementinAfrica,wereviewtheroleofChristianity,medicinalandtechnological

advances,andthelureofcapitalistgains.First,EuropeexperiencedaChristianrevival

inthe19thcentury.Missionariesbegantofocusonthelargeworkingclasswiththegoal

ofbringingspiritualsalvationtotheworkersandtheirfamilies.Thebiblewasmade

availabletoworkers.Duetotheirlargesuccesses,missionariesbegantolookbeyond

Europe.MissionswereestablishedalloverAfrica.Missionariesdidnotserveasdirect

agentsofEuropeanimperialism,yettheydrewEuropeangovernmentsdeeperinto

Africa.IntheireffortstopreachChristianity,tobringwesternstyleeducationtoAfrica

andtoingrainmonogamyinAfricansocieties,missionariesoftenfeltthreatenedby

warfarewithinAfrica.Hence,missionariescalledonEuropeangovernmentsfor

protectionandintervention.InMalawi,forexample,missionariesencouragedthe

Britishgovernment,throughaseriesofletters,toputdowntheslavetrade.TheBritish

governmentintervenedinthe1880s.YetthemotivationforGreatBritaintosendtroops
andbecomeinvolvedintheregionwasnotreallythelingeringslavetradeinMalawi.

GreatBritainwasconcernedwiththepresenceofthePortugueseinMozambique.The

lettersofthemissionariesmerelyservedasaconvenientexcusetoentertheregionand

establishBritishinterests.

Second,Europeanmedicinaldiscoveriesandtechnologicaladvancespavedthewayfor

EuropeanstopenetratetheAfricancontinentmuchmoredeeplyandeffectively.The

discoveryofquinineasaprophylacticdrasticallyreducedthenumberofEuropeans

succumbingtomalariainAfrica.Forcenturies,malaria,andtoalesserdegreeyellow

fever,hadthwartedEuropeanattemptsatexploringthecontinentandestablishinga

firmerfootholdinAfrica.WithquinineasanexplicitpartofeachEuropeanstravelkit,

considerationsoflifeanddeathduetodiseasenolongerimpededEuropeanintentions

visvisAfrica.Suchmedicinaldevelopmentswerecomplementedbytechnological

advances.Specifically,advancesinmetallurgyandweaponstechnologyprovided

Page 2
TheSaylorFoundation2

EuropewithadvantagesthatprovedcrucialinEuropeanimperialventuresinAfricaand

Asia.Superiorweaponstechnologycertainlydidnotforestallopposition,butitclearly

providedEuropewithanedgethatfacilitatedtherealizationofEuropesobjectives.

Bothmedicinaldiscoveriesandtechnologicaladvancesreflectthenoveltiesin

manufacturingandengineeringsocharacteristicoftheindustrialrevolution.

Third,therelationshipbetweenexpeditionsofexplorationandcapitalismcannotbe

overlooked.Forcenturies,EuropeanexplorershavetraveledthroughouttheAfrican

continentintheirattemptstodiscovernewthingsandtocharttheAfricancontinent.

ExplorersofnoteincludeDavidLivingstone,MungoPark,RichardFrancisBurton,and

HenryMorganStanley.TofindthesourceoftheNileriverwasfordecadesthegoalof
manyadventurers;JohnHenningSpekebecamethefirstEuropeantocorrectlyidentify

LakeVictoriaasthesourceoftheNile.From1788to1877,anexplosionofsuch

explorationtourstookplace.GreatBritainsRoyalGeographicSocietysponsoredmany

expeditionsandbecameafocalpointfordiscussingthefindingsoftheexplorers

throughdiscourse,publications,andlectures.UpontheexplorersreturntoEurope,

theydescribedtoEuropeanaudienceswhattheysawandexperiencedand,most

importantly,talkedofgreatriches.Itisimportanttorealizethattheseexplorershad

immensefreedominrelatingtheirtravelaccounts.Afterall,theywerethefirsttotravel

throughAfrica.Theirtravelaccounts,consequently,tendedtostretchthetruthand

exaggerate.Nonetheless,theirstoriesgreatlystimulatedEuropeaninterestinAfricaas

theyimpliedgreattradeopportunities.

Thesethreedevelopmentsareclearlysignificantforanyattempttoanswerthe

overarchingquestionofwhyEuropecolonizedAfrica.Butthesedevelopmentsalone

arelackingintheirabilitytoprovidesatisfactoryanswers.Missionarieszealfor

spreadingtheChristianfaithaccountsfortheactivitiesofmissionariesinAfricabutdoes

nothavemuchexplanatorycloutwithrespecttoEuropeanstatesconquestofAfrica.

Likewise,simplybecauseEuropeanscouldnowtravelthroughoutAfricawithouteasily

succumbingtomalariadoesnotexplainthecolonialintentionsofEuropeanpowers.

Possessingsuperiorweaponsalsodoesnotaccountfortheiractualuseincolonial

conquests.BeingfascinatedbythetravelnarrativesofEuropeanexplorerswho

traveledthroughAfrica,indubitably,doesnotleadtothecolonizationofanentire

continent.Wheretogofromhere?Variousscholarshaveputforwardtheirtheories

attemptingtoexplainwhyEuropeconqueredAfrica.Here,wewillconsiderasmall

samplingofsuchattempts.

Somescholars(forexample,V.I.Lenin1in1917)arguethateconomicswasthesole
determiningfactor.TheycontendthatthecapitalistsystemswithinEuropeproduced

morethanwhatwasconsumedbyEuropeans.Consumergoodsremainedonthe

shelvesastheworkingmassescouldnotaffordtobuythem.Insteadofreducing

productionintheindustrialsector(orreducingpricesorpayinghigherwagestothe

workingclass),industrialistsandbankerstriedtofindnewmarkets.Theypressured

governmentstoturntoAfricasothatEuropeanmanufacturerscouldavailthemselvesof

therawmaterialsfromAfricaandsimultaneouslyopenupnewmarketsfortheir

VladimirIlyichLenin,1917,Imperialism,TheHighestStageofCapitalism,firstpublishedinpamphletformin
1

Petrograd,Russia.

Page 3
TheSaylorFoundation3

manufacturedproducts.Or,assomehavepointedout,suchcapitalistsventuredinto

Africa,engagedinvariousenterprises,andcalledonEuropeangovernmentsto

interveneinordertocreateamoreEuropeanfriendlybusinessenvironmentortosimply

bailouttheEuropeanbusinesspeoplefromtheirfailedventures.Economic

explanationscontinuetoplayanimportantroleinAfricanhistorysattemptatfinding

answers.However,therearedistinctproblemsassociatedwiththisapproach.

Colonies,afterall,wereveryexpensivetoestablishandmaintain.Simplybecause

Europeanpowersweredevelopingtheeconomicpotentialsoftheircoloniesdoesnot

meanthatthecolonieswereestablishedforthatpurpose.Theeconomicexploitationof

thecoloniesmighthaveoccurredinordertocovertheexpenseofmaintainingthe

coloniesinthefirstplaceandtomeetdebtobligationsincurredbyEuropeanstates

duringtheworldwars.Whatemergesisanunclearpictureofcausation.

Otherscholars(forexample,RobinsonandGallagher2in1961)consideredgeopolitical

strategyamoredecisivefactor.GreatBritainwasinterestedinpreservingitsstatusas
theeconomicgiant.FreetradewasinstrumentaltoGreatBritainseconomicstatus.A

seriesofevents(e.g.crisisinSouthAfrica18771881,crisisinEgypt1882,French

effortstocreatecolonies)causedworriesfortheBritishgovernment.Accordingto

RobinsonandGallagher,theBritishfeltcompelledtoseekcoloniesandtocreate

tradingmonopoliesinordertomaintaintheirstatus.Inshort,thecreationofcolonies

wasadirectconsequenceofpriorarrangementsintherealmofcommercecollapsingor

beingthreatenedandtherebyjeopardizingGreatBritainsstatus.

AnothertheorywasadvancedbyBrunschwig3in1964.Whilehisexplanationalsois

geopoliticalinnature,heemphasizedprestigeovereconomicreasons.Heestimated

thatFrancehadnocompellingreasonswhatsoevertohavecolonies.UnlikeGreat

BritainorGermany,nodiscernibleeconomicbenefitwastobegainedfromAfrican

coloniesforFrance.Hence,BrunschwigbelievedthatFrancewasmostconcernedwith

prestige.Itwantedtobeseenasabigplayerontheglobalscene,thereforetheneed

forcolonies.

YetotherscholarsarguethattheimpetusforEuropeanimperialisminAfricadidnot

stemfromfactorswithinEurope.KanyaForstner4(1969),forexample,contendedthat

theimpetuscamefromthemenonthespot.Hearguedthatweshouldfocuson

EuropeansalreadyinAfricatoexplainwhyEuropecolonizedAfrica.Theprime

exampleistheactionsofasmallFrenchmilitaryregimentinSenegalinthemid19th

century.Thetroopsstaffedoutpostswhichwereleftoverfromtheslavetradeera.

WithoutfrequentcommunicationfromFranceandwithoutaclearmissionthetroops

grewmoreandmoreanxiousandrestless.Eventuallytheybeganlaunchingattackson

Africanvillagesandconqueredlandontheirownaccord.TheFrenchgovernmentwas

initiallyunawareoftheseundertakings.Yetthesetypesofactionsmadeitpossiblefor

Europeangovernmentstorecognizethepotentialeasewithwhichtheirempirescould
RonaldRobinsonandJohnGallagher,1961,AfricaandtheVictorians,London:Macmillan.
2

HenriBrunschwig,1964,FrenchColonialism,18711914:MythsandRealities,NewYork:Praeger.
3

A.S.KanyaForstner,1969,TheConquestoftheWesternSudan:AStudyinFrenchMilitaryImperialism,London:
4

CambridgeUniversityPress.

Page 4
TheSaylorFoundation4

beextended.

TheexplanationsforEuropescolonizationofAfrica,then,areasdiverseandmanifold

astheconjecturesofhistorywillallow.Itislikelythateachsuppositioncontainssome

elementsofrealityandholdssomeexplanatorypower.However,itisprobablythe

combinationofseveralsuppositionsthatisbestsuitedtocapturethemotivatingfactors.

ItbecomesustobearinmindthattheconquestofAfricawasnotcarriedoutbya

monolithicentitywithasinglesetofobjectives.Consequently,thequestionWhydid

EuropecolonizeAfrica?demandsathoroughexplorationofallfactors,domesticand

foreign,influencingaparticularstatesconquestinaparticularpartoftheAfrican

continent.

TorecapturetheprimarydevelopmentsthataccountforEuropesincreased

involvementinAfrica,wereviewtheroleofChristianity,medicinalandtechnological

advances,andthelureofcapitalistgains.First,EuropeexperiencedaChristianrevival

inthe19thcentury.Missionariesbegantofocusonthelargeworkingclasswiththegoal

ofbringingspiritualsalvationtotheworkersandtheirfamilies.Thebiblewasmade

availabletoworkers.Duetotheirlargesuccesses,missionariesbegantolookbeyond

Europe.MissionswereestablishedalloverAfrica.Missionariesdidnotserveasdirect

agentsofEuropeanimperialism,yettheydrewEuropeangovernmentsdeeperinto
Africa.IntheireffortstopreachChristianity,tobringwesternstyleeducationtoAfrica

andtoingrainmonogamyinAfricansocieties,missionariesoftenfeltthreatenedby

warfarewithinAfrica.Hence,missionariescalledonEuropeangovernmentsfor

protectionandintervention.InMalawi,forexample,missionariesencouragedthe

Britishgovernment,throughaseriesofletters,toputdowntheslavetrade.TheBritish

governmentintervenedinthe1880s.YetthemotivationforGreatBritaintosendtroops

andbecomeinvolvedintheregionwasnotreallythelingeringslavetradeinMalawi.

GreatBritainwasconcernedwiththepresenceofthePortugueseinMozambique.The

lettersofthemissionariesmerelyservedasaconvenientexcusetoentertheregionand

establishBritishinterests.

Second,Europeanmedicinaldiscoveriesandtechnologicaladvancespavedthewayfor

EuropeanstopenetratetheAfricancontinentmuchmoredeeplyandeffectively.The

discoveryofquinineasaprophylacticdrasticallyreducedthenumberofEuropeans

succumbingtomalariainAfrica.Forcenturies,malaria,andtoalesserdegreeyellow

fever,hadthwartedEuropeanattemptsatexploringthecontinentandestablishinga

firmerfootholdinAfrica.WithquinineasanexplicitpartofeachEuropeanstravelkit,

considerationsoflifeanddeathduetodiseasenolongerimpededEuropeanintentions

visvisAfrica.Suchmedicinaldevelopmentswerecomplementedbytechnological

advances.Specifically,advancesinmetallurgyandweaponstechnologyprovided

Page 2
TheSaylorFoundation2

EuropewithadvantagesthatprovedcrucialinEuropeanimperialventuresinAfricaand

Asia.Superiorweaponstechnologycertainlydidnotforestallopposition,butitclearly

providedEuropewithanedgethatfacilitatedtherealizationofEuropesobjectives.

Bothmedicinaldiscoveriesandtechnologicaladvancesreflectthenoveltiesin
manufacturingandengineeringsocharacteristicoftheindustrialrevolution.

Third,therelationshipbetweenexpeditionsofexplorationandcapitalismcannotbe

overlooked.Forcenturies,EuropeanexplorershavetraveledthroughouttheAfrican

continentintheirattemptstodiscovernewthingsandtocharttheAfricancontinent.

ExplorersofnoteincludeDavidLivingstone,MungoPark,RichardFrancisBurton,and

HenryMorganStanley.TofindthesourceoftheNileriverwasfordecadesthegoalof

manyadventurers;JohnHenningSpekebecamethefirstEuropeantocorrectlyidentify

LakeVictoriaasthesourceoftheNile.From1788to1877,anexplosionofsuch

explorationtourstookplace.GreatBritainsRoyalGeographicSocietysponsoredmany

expeditionsandbecameafocalpointfordiscussingthefindingsoftheexplorers

throughdiscourse,publications,andlectures.UpontheexplorersreturntoEurope,

theydescribedtoEuropeanaudienceswhattheysawandexperiencedand,most

importantly,talkedofgreatriches.Itisimportanttorealizethattheseexplorershad

immensefreedominrelatingtheirtravelaccounts.Afterall,theywerethefirsttotravel

throughAfrica.Theirtravelaccounts,consequently,tendedtostretchthetruthand

exaggerate.Nonetheless,theirstoriesgreatlystimulatedEuropeaninterestinAfricaas

theyimpliedgreattradeopportunities.

Thesethreedevelopmentsareclearlysignificantforanyattempttoanswerthe

overarchingquestionofwhyEuropecolonizedAfrica.Butthesedevelopmentsalone

arelackingintheirabilitytoprovidesatisfactoryanswers.Missionarieszealfor

spreadingtheChristianfaithaccountsfortheactivitiesofmissionariesinAfricabutdoes

nothavemuchexplanatorycloutwithrespecttoEuropeanstatesconquestofAfrica.

Likewise,simplybecauseEuropeanscouldnowtravelthroughoutAfricawithouteasily

succumbingtomalariadoesnotexplainthecolonialintentionsofEuropeanpowers.

Possessingsuperiorweaponsalsodoesnotaccountfortheiractualuseincolonial
conquests.BeingfascinatedbythetravelnarrativesofEuropeanexplorerswho

traveledthroughAfrica,indubitably,doesnotleadtothecolonizationofanentire

continent.Wheretogofromhere?Variousscholarshaveputforwardtheirtheories

attemptingtoexplainwhyEuropeconqueredAfrica.Here,wewillconsiderasmall

samplingofsuchattempts.

Somescholars(forexample,V.I.Lenin1in1917)arguethateconomicswasthesole

determiningfactor.TheycontendthatthecapitalistsystemswithinEuropeproduced

morethanwhatwasconsumedbyEuropeans.Consumergoodsremainedonthe

shelvesastheworkingmassescouldnotaffordtobuythem.Insteadofreducing

productionintheindustrialsector(orreducingpricesorpayinghigherwagestothe

workingclass),industrialistsandbankerstriedtofindnewmarkets.Theypressured

governmentstoturntoAfricasothatEuropeanmanufacturerscouldavailthemselvesof

therawmaterialsfromAfricaandsimultaneouslyopenupnewmarketsfortheir

VladimirIlyichLenin,1917,Imperialism,TheHighestStageofCapitalism,firstpublishedinpamphletformin
1

Petrograd,Russia.

Page 3
TheSaylorFoundation3

manufacturedproducts.Or,assomehavepointedout,suchcapitalistsventuredinto

Africa,engagedinvariousenterprises,andcalledonEuropeangovernmentsto

interveneinordertocreateamoreEuropeanfriendlybusinessenvironmentortosimply

bailouttheEuropeanbusinesspeoplefromtheirfailedventures.Economic

explanationscontinuetoplayanimportantroleinAfricanhistorysattemptatfinding

answers.However,therearedistinctproblemsassociatedwiththisapproach.

Colonies,afterall,wereveryexpensivetoestablishandmaintain.Simplybecause

Europeanpowersweredevelopingtheeconomicpotentialsoftheircoloniesdoesnot
meanthatthecolonieswereestablishedforthatpurpose.Theeconomicexploitationof

thecoloniesmighthaveoccurredinordertocovertheexpenseofmaintainingthe

coloniesinthefirstplaceandtomeetdebtobligationsincurredbyEuropeanstates

duringtheworldwars.Whatemergesisanunclearpictureofcausation.

Otherscholars(forexample,RobinsonandGallagher2in1961)consideredgeopolitical

strategyamoredecisivefactor.GreatBritainwasinterestedinpreservingitsstatusas

theeconomicgiant.FreetradewasinstrumentaltoGreatBritainseconomicstatus.A

seriesofevents(e.g.crisisinSouthAfrica18771881,crisisinEgypt1882,French

effortstocreatecolonies)causedworriesfortheBritishgovernment.Accordingto

RobinsonandGallagher,theBritishfeltcompelledtoseekcoloniesandtocreate

tradingmonopoliesinordertomaintaintheirstatus.Inshort,thecreationofcolonies

wasadirectconsequenceofpriorarrangementsintherealmofcommercecollapsingor

beingthreatenedandtherebyjeopardizingGreatBritainsstatus.

AnothertheorywasadvancedbyBrunschwig3in1964.Whilehisexplanationalsois

geopoliticalinnature,heemphasizedprestigeovereconomicreasons.Heestimated

thatFrancehadnocompellingreasonswhatsoevertohavecolonies.UnlikeGreat

BritainorGermany,nodiscernibleeconomicbenefitwastobegainedfromAfrican

coloniesforFrance.Hence,BrunschwigbelievedthatFrancewasmostconcernedwith

prestige.Itwantedtobeseenasabigplayerontheglobalscene,thereforetheneed

forcolonies.

YetotherscholarsarguethattheimpetusforEuropeanimperialisminAfricadidnot

stemfromfactorswithinEurope.KanyaForstner4(1969),forexample,contendedthat

theimpetuscamefromthemenonthespot.Hearguedthatweshouldfocuson

EuropeansalreadyinAfricatoexplainwhyEuropecolonizedAfrica.Theprime

exampleistheactionsofasmallFrenchmilitaryregimentinSenegalinthemid19th
century.Thetroopsstaffedoutpostswhichwereleftoverfromtheslavetradeera.

WithoutfrequentcommunicationfromFranceandwithoutaclearmissionthetroops

grewmoreandmoreanxiousandrestless.Eventuallytheybeganlaunchingattackson

Africanvillagesandconqueredlandontheirownaccord.TheFrenchgovernmentwas

initiallyunawareoftheseundertakings.Yetthesetypesofactionsmadeitpossiblefor

Europeangovernmentstorecognizethepotentialeasewithwhichtheirempirescould

RonaldRobinsonandJohnGallagher,1961,AfricaandtheVictorians,London:Macmillan.
2

HenriBrunschwig,1964,FrenchColonialism,18711914:MythsandRealities,NewYork:Praeger.
3

A.S.KanyaForstner,1969,TheConquestoftheWesternSudan:AStudyinFrenchMilitaryImperialism,London:
4

CambridgeUniversityPress.

Page 4
TheSaylorFoundation4

beextended.

TheexplanationsforEuropescolonizationofAfrica,then,areasdiverseandmanifold

astheconjecturesofhistorywillallow.Itislikelythateachsuppositioncontainssome

elementsofrealityandholdssomeexplanatorypower.However,itisprobablythe

combinationofseveralsuppositionsthatisbestsuitedtocapturethemotivatingfactors.

ItbecomesustobearinmindthattheconquestofAfricawasnotcarriedoutbya

monolithicentitywithasinglesetofobjectives.Consequently,thequestionWhydid

EuropecolonizeAfrica?demandsathoroughexplorationofallfactors,domesticand

foreign,influencingaparticularstatesconquestinaparticularpartoftheAfrican

continent.