What Was the Scramble For Africa?

Fort Christiansborg in present-day Ghana changed hands from multiple European powers.
Fort Christiansborg in present-day Ghana changed hands from multiple European powers.

The "scramble for Africa" is also more accurately called the “Partition of Africa” or the “Conquest of Africa”. It refers to a period between the years 1881 and 1914.

During this time, European countries occupied Africa and attempted to colonize it. By the year 1914, around 90% of Africa was under European rule. Prior to the beginning of the Conquest of Africa, only 10% of the continent was being controlled by Europe. Only three countries were free of colonial rule as of 1914: Ethiopia, Liberia and Somali. A lot of historians have credited the beginning of the scramble to a meeting which has come to be called "The Berlin Conference" held in 1884. The purpose of the conference was to control and regulate how the Europeans would colonize and conduct their trades in Africa.

Before the Scramble

Prior to their colonization attempts, most European powers were not that interested or even knowledgeable about Africa. In fact, it was the Portuguese who were the first to establish any sort of meaningful contact along the coast of West Africa. They established several structures including trading posts, fortifications for war, as well as ports. The Portuguese did all this in the 15th century during a period known as the "Age of Discovery", a good two centuries before the scramble.

Europeans would seriously start the exploration and mapping of Africa towards the end of the 18th century. Several explorers traversed the African interior in an effort to map it. These included people like David Livingstone. The majority of the northwestern part of Africa had already been mapped by 1835. The vastness and magnitude of the raw potential that Africa had would not be entirely known until a remarkable scholarly step was taken. Almost at the end of the 19th century, a map charting the entire course of the River Nile and other rivers was made.

The Role of the Berlin Conference

Otto Von Bismarck, the German chancellor at the time, called for a meeting in Berlin in 1884. The purpose of the convocation was to deliberate on colonizing Africa. Most of the history agrees that the delegates who were present went there under the facade of assisting Africa. In fact some of them condemned some activities like the rampant slave trade. Other issues that came up were rules that governed the sale of firearms as well as alcohol.

What these diplomats went to do was to lay the groundwork for the scramble to begin. First, they all agreed on the regulations that would govern the superpowers who wanted to look for colonies in Africa. In addition to this, they also came to a mutual agreement that the neutrality of the Congo River had to be preserved. At the time, King Leopold II of Belgium was the one who was in control of it. The diplomats elected to leave that region under his control on condition that it would remain neutral to allow for the free trade and the movement of the others. The region close to the water was renamed the Congo Free State.

Further regulations for occupation were also laid out. No country was allowed to occupy a territory in Africa without explicitly stating its intentions to the other powers. Also, for any nation to claim any part of Africa, then that nation must have effectively occupied the territory.

The purpose of the Berlin conference was simply to prevent war among the superpowers. Their rationale was simple. If they did not sit down and agree on how the different nations would occupy this resource-rich region, then they would end up fighting among themselves. This would be counterproductive and derail their efforts to deal with any resistance from the locals. It goes without saying that these resolutions were not upheld most of the time. In fact, the quarrels among the colonizing nation were so many that war almost broke out several times.

Reasons for the Scramble of Africa

Economic Reasons

Sub-Saharan Africa was one of the largest regions of the world that had not been colonized. None of its resources had been tapped by anyone, and it was ripe for development. At the time the "Long Depression" was experienced between the year 1873 and 1896, most countries' economies were crumbling, including that of Britain. The collapse was largely due to a deficit in the balance of trade. As a result, Africa became an opportunity that could not be passed up as it provided an extra market for the struggling economies. In fact, Britain was only able to stay afloat largely because of overseas investments, just like most countries.

Also, these countries realized that to boost revenue, they would need to cut production costs. Many had their eyes on Africa because of the abundance of relatively discounted labor, coupled with very little to non-existent competition topped up with the readily available and cheap raw materials. All these factors made the possibility of even greater profits in Africa even more plausible. Globally, there also arose an influx in the demand for certain things that were not available in Europe. These included copper, gold, tin, tea, among others. As industrialization kept on increasing in Europe, these materials became depleted, and so Europe felt they needed more.

Strategic Positioning of Some Nations

There were some nations in Africa that offered massive strategic advantages that had to be taken lest other countries take them. These advantages included materials such as gold and diamonds. They were found in the northern region, in places like Egypt, as well as in South Africa. Besides these two precious stones, the nations offered strategic access to the world through the sea. Superpowers like Great Britain were under massive pressure to ensure that lucrative and vital markets were under their control. There were many things but crucial among them was the waterway that facilitated movement from the East to the West. The Ismaz of Suez Canal lead to a lot of clashes between the nations who all wanted the canal.

Decolonization of Africa

In the years following the Second World War, many countries in Africa began to assert their right to independent governance. After years of Western European control, areas of Africa had lost control of their natural resource and had experienced the exploitation of their citizens. Many local economies were failing because of this. The Atlantic Charter, signed by U.S President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, called for the decolonization of colonies, particularly those in Africa. The 1950s and 1960s were a time when many African nations began to become the independent states we know them as today.


More in World Facts