Types of Colonial Rule
As Europeans began colonizing the world, a competitive rush for territory in Africa ensued. This period is sometimes referred to as the "Scramble for Africa." As a result, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Germany initiated a conference in 1884 for European nations to regulate the rush for territory. The conference served several main purposes. First, European nations were interested in being assured access to various important trade routes, particularly along the Niger and Congo river basins. Secondly, a ban was put on importing firearms into Africa, which resulted in Europeans having a monopoly on guns in Africa. And finally, occupation of territories in Africa was discussed. The result of this conference was a treaty called the Treaty of Berlin. Once claims were made and borders were drawn for territories in Africa, European nations had to come up with a plan for how to govern their newly acquired colonies.
1. Direct Rule
One form of colonial administration is called direct rule. The French, Belgians, and Germans are most noted for their use of this model in governing their African colonies. They had centralized administrations, usually in urban centers, that stressed policies of assimilation. This means that the colonialists had the intention of "civilizing" African societies so they would be more like Europe. As part of this strategy, colonialists did not try to negotiate governance with indigenous African rulers and governments. Although indigenous authorities may have had a subordinate place in these governments, European administrators were present at all levels of government – even down to local affairs. Direct rule also used the strategy of "divide and rule" by implementing policies that intentionally weakened indigenous power networks and institutions.
In order to establish direct rule, European powers depended on strategies of "divide and conquer" and then of "divide and rule." In gaining control of African colonies, European powers often played one nation or kingdom against another. This tactic made it easier for the European power to gain control of particular areas, but also accentuated differences between ethnic groups making them suspicious of each other. This tactic of divide and rule helped to establish a political system that promoted division based on ethnicity, rather than unity based on a common national identity.
2. Indirect Rule
Primarily, the British used indirect rule to govern their colonies. This system used indigenous African rulers within the colonial government, although not at the highest levels of administration. Overall, it was a more cooperative model than direct rule. Lord Lugard, a British colonial administrator, used this system of government first in Nigeria. This system of government assumed that all Africans were organized as "tribes" with chiefs. However, this was not always the case. You will remember from earlier studies that people in Africa had diverse types of government ranging from highly centralized states to "stateless societies." As a result, indirect rule increased divisions between ethnic groups and gave power to certain "big men" who had never had it before in pre-colonial history.
In developing a system for using Africans in the colonial government, British administrators often made use of what they considered to be traditional leaders. Remember that most Europeans at this time had the notion that prior to the coming of colonialism, African societies were naturally grouped into "tribes." For colonial governments, the easiest way to bring Africans into the system of government was through the use of traditional or "tribal" structures.
The attempt of incorporating "tribal" structures into the colonial government did not work well in most situations in colonial Africa. Why not? In the process of conquering an area, the traditional rulers were defeated and local systems of governments were seriously disrupted if not destroyed. When the colonizing powers realized that they needed the assistance of traditional leaders to govern, it was very difficult to re-establish the power of these authorities. In societies where colonial governments did bring in traditional authorities to help govern, there was often strong resistance on the part of African citizens who viewed these traditional leaders as collaborators. These practices helped in the creation of social and political system that accentuated ethnic differences. Moreover, such a system has to benefit one group more than it benefits others. The privileged group will naturally do all that they can to politically protect their privilege, while the disadvantaged groups will attempt to change the situation so as to gain their own advantage.
3. Settler Rule
Settler colonies differed from other colonies in Africa in that a significant number of immigrants from Europe settled in these colonies. These immigrants or settlers were not like missionaries or European colonial officials. Just like early European immigrants to the United States and Canada, settlers in Africa planned to make the colonies their permanent home. Settler rule refers to the type of colonialism that settlers demanded in order to thrive in the colonies - special political and economic rights and protection. European settlers imposed a particularly harsh direct rule because they felt their security and prosperity depended on economic exploitation and political oppression of the African population that outnumbered the settlers. In addition to Kenya (British East Africa) and Algeria (French North Africa), settler colonies were found primarily in southern Africa: South Africa (Dutch and British), Southern and Northern Rhodesia (British), Angola and Mozambique (Portugal).
Regardless of the method of rule, colonial governments had limited political capacity. Political capacity is the ability to carry out the tasks and functions that governments are supposed to do. Most governments are tasked with guaranteeing protection, helping stimulate economic growth, providing economic infrastructure (roads, communication networks, ports, railroads), and providing basic social services.
The colonial state was capable of the use of violence and the threat of violence to keep local populations under control. They also had the capacity to force African farmers to grow certain crops, or to leave their homes and become migrant laborers working on distant farms or in mines. However, in spite of this ability to control people, the colonial state did not develop the capacity to fulfill many important tasks of government. Throughout Africa, colonial governments did little to provide basic education and health care for the majority of the populations of their colonies. Most colonial governments did little to promote economic specialization and diversification. Since there was little economic diversification in colonial African countries, colonial governments were not able to collect sufficient revenues necessary to develop economic infrastructures and greater capacity. Consequently, while the colonial state often only developed the capacity of the police force and military, to maintain law and order.
Colonialism Brings New Borders for Africa
The maps below indicate the progression of boundaries and borders in African territories. It is important to notice how borders have shifted as a result of colonialism. The borders of African countries today were imposed from the outside by European nations. Often the people who drew these borders paid no attention to ethno-linguistic groups or existing political organization at the time of colonization. Sometimes they grouped together people who had never been united under the same government before. Sometimes they divided existing systems of government at the time of colonial conquest.
Ethno-linguistic Groups Prior to Colonization
Kingdoms & Empires Prior to Colonization
Colonial Boundaries in 1914
Independent African Nations in 2000
Colonialism in Africa – Questions
What was the purpose of the German conference in 1884?
What similarities and differences existed in African colonies that were directly ruled and those that were indirectly ruled?
What problems do you foresee in Africa from the methods of European rule?
What commonalities and differences do you recognize in the maps provided?
What factors would you consider if you were a European drawing colonial borders in Africa? How would these interests conflict with Africans and other Europeans? What problems might result from European drawn borders?
Use the map on pg. 551 of your textbook to label the French and British territories on the map in your note pack. Then, label each of the settler colonies using the information provided in “Types of Colonial Rule.