Colonialism in Africa Directions

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Colonialism in Africa

Directions: Reading the following sections below on colonial rule in Africa and answer the questions at the end of the reading. Answer in complete sentences.
The Scramble for Africa, the rushed imperial conquest of the continent of Africa by the major powers of Europe, began with King Leopold II of Belgium. After reading a report in early 1876 that the rich mineral resources of the Congo Basin (the modern-day Republic of the Congo) could return a substantial profit, the Belgian king ordered the creation of the International African Association, under his personal direction, to assume control over the Congo Basin region. This led to a race between European powers to grab as much of Africa as they could get. In 1884-1885 these European nations gathered at the Berlin Conference, called to settle disputes on imperial claims. At the conference, it was decided how territory would be divided among the different European nations, new lines were drawn on a map and the majority of Africa fell under colonial rule.

Colonial Life in the Belgian Congo

King Léopold II (1835 - 1909) occupied the Belgium throne from 1865 until his death in 1909. Léopold fervently believed that overseas colonies were the key to a country's greatness, and worked tirelessly to acquire colonial territory for Belgium. However, neither the Belgian people nor the Belgian government were interested, and Léopold eventually began trying to acquire a colony in his private capacity as an ordinary citizen. Léopold’s dream was realized in 1885 with the creation of the Congo Free State following the Berlin Conference. It was the world's only major colony owned by one man. King Léopold II would ultimately be responsible for the death of possibly tens of millions of Africans.

In the early 1890s, however, a large source of wealth suddenly loomed. The invention of the inflatable bicycle tire, followed soon by that of the automobile tire, triggered an enormous boom in rubber. Throughout the world's tropics people rushed to establish rubber plantations. But new rubber trees often require fifteen years of growth before they can be tapped. During that window of time those who profited were the people who owned land where rubber grew wild. No one owned more land like this than King Leopold II, for equatorial rain forest, dotted with wild rubber vines, comprised half of his Congo state. The king's colonial officials quickly set up a brutal but effective system for harvesting wild rubber. A detachment of soldiers would march into an African village and seize the women as hostages. To secure their wives' release, the men would have to disperse into the rain forest to collect the sap of wild rubber vines. As the vines near a village were often drained dry, the men would sometimes have to walk for days to find areas where they could gather their monthly quota of rubber. As rubber prices soared, so did the quotas. Discipline was harsh; villagers who failed to gather enough rubber all fell victim to the notorious chicotte, a whip made of sun-dried hippopotamus hide with razor-sharp edges. A hundred lashes of the chicotte, a not infrequent punishment, could be fatal. Army officers and colonial officials earned bonuses based on the amount of rubber collected in areas under their control. These were an incentive for ruthless, devastating plunder. Many women hostages were raped and a significant number starved to death. Male rubber gatherers often died from exhaustion. And under such circumstances people tended to stop having children, so the birthrate plummeted as a result. With most able-bodied adults were prisoners or forced laborers for several weeks out of each month, villages had few people who could plant and harvest food, or go hunting or fishing, and famine soon spread. An even greater toll was taken by disease.
Ethnic Rivalries are Born
British colonialism in Africa stressed the use of violence to pacify the colonial subjects and to maintain order. There was no input from the colonized in the way that they were governed: The British Colonial Office in London made all the decisions concerning the colonies. Ethnic rivalries were not serious in pre-colonial Africa but this changed as the British tended to choose one ethnic group over all the others in the countries that they colonized. These preferred groups, usually a conservative minority within the country, were supported to the extent that they worked against the interests of their fellow Africans. For example, the British chose the Arab minority to rule over the majority Africans in the Sudan and favored the Fulani in Nigeria.

The British ruled their African colonies using two distinct styles; indirect rule and settler rule. Under indirect rule, the British used African rulers, usually from one particular ethnic group, to work on their behalf and rule over their fellow Africans, although all decisions were made by British colonial officers. The main reason for this type of rule was to minimize the cost of running the colonies while at the same time maximizing the exploitation of the resources. This type of rule led to greater tension among ethnic groups and has resulted in genocides which have continued into the twenty first century. Another system of British colonial administration was the settler rule system that occurred where Britain had large populations of European immigrants that planned to make Africa their home. These immigrants settled and established direct rule over the colonies in Africa. These settlers, who came to Africa to exploit the natural resources, made sure that laws were enacted or forces created that allowed them to dominate the larger African populations, economically, socially, and politically. In colonies with settler rule, there was harsher treatment of native Africans than in the colonies with the indirect rule system. Settlers regarded themselves to be naturally superior to the “natives,” as the British called their African colonial subjects. They saw the Africans as people who were good only for being domestics to the white settlers. The British settlers excluded Africans from all the good and arable land in the African colonies.


1) What led to the “Scramble for Africa”?

2) Describe the system that was put in place to harvest rubber in the Congo.

3) What possible punishments did Africans face for failing to meet quotas during the Belgian colonial period?

4) List and explain the two different styles of rule that the British used to control their African colonies.

5) What were the positives of each style of rule? What were the negatives?

6) What theories/ideas that we have talked about in class do you think the Europeans used to justify their actions and treatment of the African people?

7) After completing the readings, what do you think could be the long lasting effects of colonialism on the continent of Africa and its people?

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