In the centuries before colonial rule, Europe increased its economic capacity by leaps and bounds, while Africa appeared to have been almost static. Africa in the late 19th century could still be described as part communal and part feudal, although Western Europe had moved completely from feudalism to capitalism. To elucidate the main thesis of this study, it is necessary to follow not only the development of Europe and the underdevelopment of Africa, but also to understand how those two combined in a single system — that of capitalist imperialism.
The European economy was producing far more goods by making use of their own resources and labour, as well as the resources and labour of the rest of the world. There were many qualitative changes in the European economy, which accompanied and made possible the increase in the quantity of goods. For example, machines and factories rather than and provided the main source of wealth; and labour had long since ceased to be organised on a restricted family basis. The peasantry had been brutally destroyed and the labour of men, women and children was ruthlessly exploited. Those were the great social evils of the capitalist system, which must not be forgotten; but, on the issue of comparative economics, the relevant fact is that what was a slight difference when the Portuguese sailed to West Africa in 1444 was a huge gap by the time that European robber statesmen sat down in Berlin 440 years later to decide who should steal which parts of Africa. It was that gap which provided both the necessity and the opportunity for Europe to move into the imperialist epoch, and to colonise and further underdevelop Africa.
The growing technological and economic gap between Western Europe and Africa was part of the trend within capitalism to concentrate or polarise wealth and poverty at two opposite extremes.
Inside of Western Europe itself, some nations grew rich at the expense of others. Britain, France and Germany were the most prosperous nations. Poverty prevailed in Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Southern Italy. Inside of the British, French and German economies, the polarisation of wealth was between the capitalists on the one hand and the workers and a few peasants on the other. The big capitalists got bigger and the little ones were eliminated. In many important fields, such as iron and steel manufacture, textiles and particularly banking, it was noticeable that two or three firms monopolised most of the business. The banks were also in a commanding position within the economy as a whole, providing capital to the big monopoly industrial firms.
European monopoly firms operated by constantly fighting gain control over raw materials, markets and means of communications. They also fought to be the first to invest in new profitable undertakings related to their line of business — whether it be inside or outside their countries. Indeed, after the scope for expansion became limited inside of their national economies, their main attention was turned to those countries whose economies were less developed and who would therefore offer little or no opposition to the penetration of foreign capitalism. That penetration of foreign capitalism on a world-wide scale from the late 19th century onwards is what we call ‘imperialism’.
Imperialism meant capitalist expansion. It meant that European (and North American and Japanese) capitalists were forced by the internal logic of their competitive system to seek abroad in less developed countries opportunities to control raw material supplies, to find markets, and to find profitable fields of investment. The centuries of trade with Africa contributed greatly to that state of affairs where European capitalists were faced with the necessity to expand in a big way outside of their national economies.
There were certain areas of Africa in which European investment was meant to get immediate super-profits. The mines of South Africa, the loans to North African governments, and the building of the Suez Canal were in that category. The Suez Canal also ensured the greater profitability of European investment in and trade with India. However, Africa’s greatest value to Europe at the beginning of the imperialist era was as a source of raw materials such as palm products, groundnuts, cotton and rubber. The need for those materials arose out of Europe’s expanded economic capacity, its new and larger machines and its increasing wage-earning population in towns. All of those things had developed over the previous four centuries; and again it needs to be repeated that one of the important factors in that process was the unequal trade with Africa.
Imperialism is essentially an economic phenomena, and it does not necessarily lead to direct political control or colonisation. However, Africa was the victim of colonisation. In the period of the notorious Scramble for Africa’, Europeans made a grab for whatever they thought spelt profits in Africa, and they even consciously acquired many areas not for immediate exploitation but with an eye to the future. Each European nation that had these short-term and long-term economic interests ran up its own flag in different parts of Africa and established colonial rule. The gap that had arisen during the period of pre-colonial trade gave Europe the power to impose political domination on Africa.
Pre-colonial trade in slaves, ivory, gold, etc., was conducted from the coasts of Africa. On the coasts, European ships could dominate the scene, and if necessary forts could be built. Before the 19th century, Europe was incapable of penetrating the African continent, because the balance of force c their disposal was inadequate. But the same technological changes which created the need to penetrate Africa also created the power to conquer Africa. The firearms of the imperialist epoch marked a qualitative leap forward. Breech-loading rifles and machine guns were a far cry from the smooth-bored muzzle loaders and flintlocks of the previous era. European imperialists in Africa boasted that what counted was the fact that they had the Maxim machine gun and Africans did not.
Curiously, Europeans often derived the moral justification for imperialism and colonialism from features of the international trade as conducted up to the eve of colonial rule in Africa. The British were the chief spokesmen for the view that the desire to colonise was largely based on their good intentions in wanting to put a stop to the slave trade. True enough, the British in the 19th century were as opposed to slave trading as they were once in favour of it. Many changes inside Britain had transformed the 17th century necessity for slaves into the 19th century necessity to clear the remnants of slaving from Africa so as to organise the local exploitation of land and labour. Therefore, slaving was rejected in so far as it had become a fetter on further capitalist development; and it was particularly true of East Africa, where Arab slaving persisted until late in the 19th century. The British took special self-righteous delight in putting an end to Arab slave trading, and in deposing rulers on the grounds that they were slave traders. However, in those very years, the British were crushing political leaders in Nigeria, like Jaja and Nana who had by then ceased the export of slaves, and were concentrating instead on products like palm oil and rubber. Similarly, the Germans in East Africa made a pretence of being most opposed to rulers like Bushiri who were engaged in slave trading, but the Germans were equally hostile to African rulers with little interest in slaving. The common factor underlying the overthrow of African rulers in West, Central, North and South Africa was that they stood in the way of Europe’s imperial needs. It was the only factor that mattered, with anti-slaving sentiments being at best superfluous and at worst calculated hypocrisy.
King Leopold of Belgium also used the anti-slavery excuse to introduce into Congo forced labour and modern slavery. Besides, all Europeans had derived ideas of racial and cultural superiority between the 15th and 19th centuries, while engaged in genocide and the enslavement of non-white peoples. Even Portugal, an impoverished and backward European nation in the imperialist era, could still presume that it had a destiny to civilise the natives in Africa!
There is a curious interpretation of the Scramble and African partition which virtually amounts to saying that colonialism came about because of Africa’s needs rather than those of Europe. Africa, they say, required European colonisation if it were to advance beyond the stage it had reached the late 19th century. Clearly, they do not appreciate that such a line of reasoning was suggesting that Africa would develop if it were given bigger doses of the European concoction that had already started its underdevelopment — that it would develop if it lost the last remnants of its freedom of choice, which had clearly been seriously undermined by the pre-colonial trade — that it would develop if its economy became more integrated with Europe’s on terms that were entirely dictated by Europe. Those implications and their fallacies would be plain to anyone who tries to understand the development process before making pronouncements on any particular epoch of human development in Africa.
Throughout the 14th century, African rulers were displaying great initiative in pursuit of the broadest forms of cultural contact with Europe. In the case of West Africa, that meant seeking substitutes for trade in slaves. Dahomey, one of the most embroiled in slave trading, was among those states that used many of the last years of its independence to find a healthy basis for cultural exchange with Europeans.
In 1850, the reigning Dahomean king, Ghezo, proclaimed an edict whereby all-young oil-palms were to be freed from parasites surrounding them, and severe penalties were to be imposed for cutting palm trees. Ghezo who ruled from 1818 to 1857 was a reformer, and he made sincere efforts to meet criticisms of his policies by groups such as missionaries and anti-slavery campaigners; but it soon became clear that Europeans were not bent on seeing Dahomey re-emerge as a strong state, but were rather creating excuses and the subjective conditions to justify their proposed colonisation of the people of Dahomey. Under those circumstances, the last Dahomean monarch, Glele, fell back on his capital at Abomey, and pursued the policies which he considered most consistent with the dignity and independence of Dahomey. Glele raided Abeokuta, which contained converts who were already ‘British protected persons'; he told the French to get the hell out of Porto Novo; and he generally resisted until defeated militarily by the French in 1889.
African groups who had little or nothing to do with slave exports also intensified their efforts to integrate into a wider world in the 19th century. Gungunhana, the Nguni ruler of Gaza in Mozambique, asked for a Swiss missionary doctor and maintained him at his court for several years until the Portuguese conquered his kingdom in 1895. After the Portuguese imposed colonial rule, it was a long time before Africans saw another doctor!
It is particularly instructive to turn to the example of Egypt under Muhammad Ali, who ruled from 1805 to 1849. Capitalist Europe had left feudal North Africa behind over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. Muhammad Ali was aware of that, and consciously aimed at catching up with Europe. He instituted a series of reforms, the most important of which were of an economic nature. Egypt grew and manufactured its own cotton, and it made glass, paper, and other industrial goods. Egypt was not to be used as a dumping ground for European goods which would undermine local industry, so that protective tariff walls were set up around Egypt’s ‘infant industries’. That did not mean that Egypt became isolated from the rest of the world. On the contrary, Muhammad Ali borrowed experts from Europe, and he increased Egypt’s foreign trade.
The ideals of Muhammad Ali could be related in the idiom of modern social science as being the creation of a viable, self-propelling economy to provide the basis for national independence. Such ideals were diametrically opposed to the needs of European capitalism. British and French industrialists wanted to see Egypt not as a textile manufacturer but as a producer of raw cotton for export, and an importer
European manufactures. European financiers wanted Egypt to be a source of investment, and in the second half of the 18th century they turned the Sultan of Egypt into an international beggar, who mortgaged the whole of Egypt to international monopoly financiers. Finally, European statesmen wanted Egyptian soil to serve as a base for exploiting India and Arabia. Therefore, the Suez Canal was dug out of Egyptian soil by Egyptians, but it was owned by Britain and France, who then extended political domination over Egypt and Sudan.
Education is undeniably one of the facets of European life which had grown most appreciably during the capitalist epoch. Through education and extensive use of the written word, Europeans were in a position to pass on to the others the scientific principles of the material world which they had discovered, as well as a body of varied philosophical reflections on man and society. Africans were quick to appreciate advantages deriving from a literate education. In Madagascar, the Merina kingdom did a great deal to sponsor reading and writing. They used their own language and an Arabic script, and they welcomed the aid of European missionaries. That conscious borrowing from all relevant sources was only possible when they had the freedom to choose. Colonisation, far from springing from Malagasy needs, actually erected a barrier to the attainment of the ‘modernisation’ initiated by the Merina kings in the 1860s and 1870s. A similar example can be found in the history of Tunisia before the axe of Partition fell.
In many parts of the world, capitalism in its imperialist form accepted that some measure of political sovereignty should be left in the hands of the local population. This was so in Eastern Europe, in Latin America, and to a more limited extent in China. However, European capitalists came to the decision that Africa should be directly colonised. There is evidence to suggest that such a course of action was
not entirely planned. Britain and France up to the 1850s and 1860s would have preferred to divide Africa into informal ‘spheres of influence’. That means that there would have been a gentlemen’s agreement that (say) Nigeria would be exploited by the British merchants while Senegal would be exploited by Frenchmen. At the same time both Englishmen and Frenchmen would trade in a minor way in each other’s informal empire. But, firstly, there was disagreement over who should suck which pieces of Africa (especially since Germany wanted to join the grabbing); and, secondly, the moment that one European power declared an area of Africa as a Protectorate or a colony, it put up tariffs against European traders of other nationalities, and in turn forced their rivals to have colonies and discriminatory tariffs. One thing led to another, and soon six European capitalist nations were falling over each other to establish direct political rule over particular sections of Africa. Make no mistake about it, gentlemen like Karl Peters, Livingstone, Stanley, Harry Johnston, de Brazza, General Gordon and their masters in Europe were literally scrambling for Africa. They barely avoided a major military conflagration.
In addition to the factors that caused the chain-reaction of the Scramble as described above, Europeans were also racially motivated to seek political domination over Africa. Thee 19th century was one in which white racism was most violently and openly expressed in capitalist societies, with the U.S.A. as a focal point, and with Britain taking the lead among the Western European capitalist nations. Britain accepted granting dominion status to its old colonies of white settlers in Canada, Australia and New Zealand; but it withdrew self-government from the West Indies when the white planters were ousted from the legislative assemblies by black (or brown) people. As far as Africa is concerned, Englishmen violently opposed black self-government such as the Fante Confederation on the Gold Coast in the 1860s. They also tried to erode the authority of black Creoles in Sierra Leone. In 1874, when Fourah Bay College sought and obtained affiliation with Durham University, the Times newspaper declared that Durham should next affiliate with the London Zoo! Pervasive and vicious racism was present in imperialism as a variant independent of the economic rationality that initially gave birth to racism. It was economics that determined that Europe should invest in Africa and control the continent’s raw materials and labour. It was racism which confirmed the decision that the form of control should be direct colonial rule.
Africans everywhere fought against alien political rule, and had to be subdued by superior force. But a sizeable minority did insist that their trade connections with Europe should remain unbroken, for that was a measure of the extent to which they were already dependent on Europe. The most dramatic illustration of that dependence was the determination with which some Africans fought the end of the European slave trade.
For most European capitalist states, the enslavement of Africans had served its purpose by the middle of the 19th century; but for those Africans who dealt in captives the abrupt termination of the trade at any given point was a crisis of the greatest magnitude. In many areas, major social changes had taken place to bring the particular regions effectively into the service of the European slave trade — one of the most significant being the rise of ‘domestic slavery’ and various forms of class and caste subjugation. African rulers and traders who found their social existence threatened by the earliest legal edicts such as the 1807 British Act against the trade in slaves found ways of making contact with Europeans who still wanted slaves.
In sub-Saharan Africa and especially in West Africa, the export of slaves declined most rapidly where Europeans were prepared to buy other commodities. As soon as inhabitants of any region found that they had a product which Europeans were accepting in place of the former slave trade, those inhabitants put tremendous effort into organising the alternatives: namely, ivory, rubber, palm products, groundnuts, etc. Once more, those efforts demonstrated the determination of a small but decisive proportion of Africans. It was a determination based on the desire to obtain European trade goods, many of which had ceased to be mere curiosities or luxuries, and were regarded instead as necessities.
The first four centuries of Afro/European trade in a very real sense represent the roots of African underdevelopment. Colonialism flourished rapidly from a European viewpoint, because several of its features were already rooted in Africa in the preceding period. One of the most decisive features of the colonial system was the presence of Africans serving as economic, political and cultural agents of the European colonialists. Those agents or ‘compradors’ were already serving European interests in the pre-colonial period. The impact of trade with Europe had reduced many African rulers to the status of middlemen for European trade; it had raised ordinary Africans to that same middleman commercial role; and it had created a new trading group of mixed blood-the children of European or Arab fathers. Those types can all be referred to as ‘compradors’, and they played a key role in extending European activity from the coast into the hinterland, as soon as Europeans thought of taking over political power. One outstanding example of the above is the way that the French colonialists used Africans and mulattoes on the Senegalese coast as agents for the spread of French control for thousands of miles into areas now covered by Senegal, Mali, Chad, Upper Volta and Niger. Those particular blacks and mulattoes were living in the trading ports of Gorée, Dakar, St. Louis and Rufisque; and they had had long-standing links with Atlantic trade.
Africans conducting trade on behalf of Europeans were not merely commercial agents, but also cultural agents, since inevitably they were heavily influenced by European thought and values. The search for European education began in Africa before the colonial period. Coastal rulers and traders recognised the necessity to penetrate more deeply into the way of life of the white man who came across the sea. The mulatto sons of white traders and the sons of African rulers were the ones who made the greatest effort to learn the white ways. This helped them to conduct business more effectively. One Sierra Leone ruler in the 18th century explained that he wished ‘to learn book to be rogue as good as white man'; and there were many others who saw the practical advantages of literacy. However, the educational process also meant imbibing values which led to further African subjugation. One West African educated in this early period wrote a Ph.D. thesis in Latin justifying slavery. That was not surprising.: The Rev. Thomas Thompson was the first European educator on the ‘Gold Coast’, and he wrote in 1778 a pamphlet entitled, The African Trade for Negro Slaves Shown to be Consistent with the Principles of Humanity and the Laws of Revealed Religion.
One of the most striking features of 19th century West ‘African history is the manner in which Africans returned from slavery under European masters and helped in the establishment of colonial rule. This was especially true of Africans who returned from the West Indies and North America to Sierra Leone or who were released from slave ships and landed in Sierra Leone. To a lesser extent, it also applied to Africans who were once in Brazil. Such individuals had assimilated capitalist values, and like most European missionaries, promoted the kinds of activity that went along with colonial rule. In a rather different context, it can be argued that the Arabs of Zanzibar and the East African ere also transformed into agents of European colonialism. At first, they resisted because European colonialism affected their own expansionist ambitions on the East African but they soon came to an arrangement which gave Europeans the ultimate powers. The Europeans reduced the small Arab clique into political and economic instruments of imperialism.
European superiority over the Arabs in East and North : and in the Middle East demonstrates conclusively modern imperialism is inseparable from capitalism, and the role of slavery in the context of capitalism. The Arabs had acquired Africans as slaves for centuries, but they were exploited in a feudal context. African slaves in Arab hands became domestics, soldiers, and agricultural serfs. Whatever surplus they produced was not for reinvestment and multiplication of capital, as in the West Indian or North American slave systems but for’ consumption by the feudal elite. Indeed, slaves were often maintained more for social prestige than for economic benefit.
The major exceptions to that rule were 19th century Zanzibar and Egypt under Muhammed Ali. In both those instances, African labour was being exploited to produce profit on a plantation basis; and this may also have applied to date palm production in Arabia. But, Europe had already been exploiting African labour to maximise surplus for three centuries previously, and the contribution which the plantation system made to the European capitalist development was so great that Western Europe in the 19th century had engulfed the lesser exploitation of Zanzibar and Arabia, and it secured a firm grasp on Egypt’s economy after the death of Muhammed Ali in 1849. In other words, the cloves, cotton and dates produced in Zanzibar, Egypt and Arabia, respectively, previous to colonisation were already going to strengthen European trade and production. Eventually, it was no problem for the capitalist slave traders of Europe to extend political domination over the feudalist Arab slave traders and to use the latter as agents of colonialism in East Africa.
Returning to the question of indigenous African agents of European colonial rule in Africa, it should be recognised that Europeans recruited Africans to serve in the armies that actually conquered Africa in the bloody period from the 1880’s through to the first Great War started by Europeans in 1914. It is a widespread characteristic of colonialism to find agents of repression from among the colonial victims themselves. Yet, without the previous centuries of trade between Africa and Europe, it would have been impossible for Europeans to have so easily recruited the askaris, porters, etc., who made their colonial conquest possible.
African residents of the Senegalese ports already referred to were the ones who were put in French army uniform and fought to establish French rule in the interior and other parts of the coast such as Dahomey. When the British defeated Asante in 1874, they had in their forces African troops from the coastal towns around the ‘Gold Coast’ forts. Those Africans had been in contact with Europeans ‘for so long that ever since the 17th century they identified themselves as ‘Dutch’, ‘Danish’, or ‘English’, depending upon whose fort gave them employment. They had fought battles for one European nation against another; and by the late 19th century it was an easy matter to get them to fight against fellow Africans on behalf of the conquering colonial power of Britain.
In the Portuguese territories, the origins of the black colonial police and army also went back into the ‘pre-colonial’ trade period. Around the forts of Luanda and Benguela in Angola and Lourenço Marques and Beira in Mozambique, there grew up communities of Africans, mulattoes and even Indians who helped ‘pacify’ large areas for the Portuguese after the Berlin Conference. Traders in Mozambique and in the rest of East, West and Central Africa who had experience with Europeans previous to colonialism were the ones to provide porters to carry the heavy machine guns, cannons and the support equipment; they were the ones who provided the would-be European colonialist with the information and military intelligence that facilitated conquest; and they were the interpreters who were the voice of the Europeans on African soil.
Of course, it is true that many Africans who had little ‘ nothing to do with pre-colonial trade also allied themselves with European newcomers. In that respect, the gap in levels of political organisation between Europe and Africa was very crucial. The development of political unity in the form of large states was proceeding steadily in Africa. But even so, at the time of the Berlin Conference, Africa was still a continent of a large number of socio-political groupings who had not arrived at a common purpose. Therefore, it was easy for the European intruder to play the classic game of divide and conquer. In that way, certain Africans became unwitting allies of Europe.
Many African rulers sought a European ‘alliance’ to deal with their own African neighbour, with whom they were in conflict. Few of those rulers appreciated the implications of their actions. They could not know that Europeans had come to stay permanently; they could not know that Europeans were out to conquer not some but all Africans. This partial inadequate view of the world was itself a testimony of African underdevelopment relative to Europe, which in the late 19th century was self-confidently seeking dominion in part of the globe.
Political divisions in Africa were no evidence of innate inferiority or backwardness. That was the state in which the continent then found itself — a point along a long road that others had traversed and along which Africa was moving. Commercial impact of Europe slowed down the process of political amalgamation and expansion; in contrast to the way trade with Africa strengthened Europe’s nation states. When European capitalism took the form of imperialism and started to subjugate Africa politically, the normal political conflicts of the pre-capitalist African situation were transformed into weakness which allowed the Europeans to set up their colonial domination.
Altogether, it is very clear that to understand the coming of colonialism into Africa, one has to consider the previous historical evolution of both Africa and Europe and in particular one has to consider ways in which their trade contacts influence the two continents mutually, so that what was called ‘pre-colonial’ trade proved to be a preparatory stage for the era of colonial rule.
It is widely accepted that Africa was colonised because of its weakness. The concept of weakness should be understood to embrace military weakness and inadequate economic capacity, as well as certain political weaknesses namely, the incompleteness of the establishment of nation states which left the continent divided and the low level of consciousness concerning the world at large which had already been transformed into a single system by the expansion of capitalist relations.