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European Imperialism in Africa: Invasions, Colonization & Rivalries

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  • 0:04 Background to Imperalism
  • 1:40 The 'Scramble' Begins
  • 3:28 Invasion, Occupations…
  • 6:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about European imperialism in Africa. We will explore the 'Scramble for Africa,' and highlight the key themes and events associated with it.

Background to European Imperialism in Africa

Oftentimes, I try to begin a lesson with a clever joke or scenario, but this time around, I'm having trouble coming up with something fitting, so we're just going to dig right in! This lesson is about the rise of European colonization in Africa.

The colonization of Africa is a little unique because it was colonized so late in history. Don't get me wrong, even in the Middle Ages, certain European powers had built settlements or ports along the African coast, but by and large, the whole of Africa remained uncolonized even into the 1860s and 1870s. For thousands of years, African tribes throughout the interior of the continent were free to go about their lives, often warring with other tribes for expansion. Aside from strategic trading ports, most Europeans simply did not have much interest in Africa.

Of course, there were a few exceptions here and there. One exception was David Livingstone. David Livingstone was a Scottish missionary and explorer who helped map much of Africa. Livingstone's meeting with explorer H. M. Stanley was the basis for the commonly quoted question, 'Mr. Livingstone, I presume?' Livingstone and Stanley's exploration and mapping of Africa helped fuel a European interest in the continent.

The 'Scramble' Begins

Historians use the term 'Scramble for Africa' to describe the period of intense European interest in, colonization, occupation, and annexation of Africa between the 1880s and 1914. Sometimes this is also called the 'Partition of Africa' or the 'Race for Africa.' Basically, all of a sudden, European powers realized the value of African territory and began trying to take over it. This led to tremendous competition among the European powers, particularly Belgium, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain.

The Berlin Conference is often considered the starting point for the 'Scramble for Africa.' The Berlin Conference was held in Berlin, Germany, between 1884-1885 and was attended by numerous European states whose aim was to divide up the continent among themselves. The conference was put together by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

See, in the years before the Berlin Conference, disputes over territory arose among the European powers. France and Portugal, for example, might lay claim to the same tract of land. The Berlin Conference divided up Africa into spheres of influence, whereby each country knew what territory was theirs and what was not. France controlled much of Northwest Africa, while Great Britain controlled parts of Southern Africa and Northeastern Africa. Belgium, Germany, and Portugal also controlled pockets of territory here and there throughout the continent.

Invasions, Occupations, & Rivalries

It's important to remember that during this age of nationalism and imperialism, having a lot of colonies and having a vast worldwide empire was understood as a symbol of power. So, those countries with the most colonies were often perceived as the most powerful. This is why the European powers sought to snatch up regions of Africa for themselves. Also, many European countries engaged in colonization and exploitation under the pretense of 'civilization.' Basically, this means European countries tried to tell themselves humanitarian reasons were the motive for their conquest.

Today, Belgium is a small country that keeps to itself, but during this time, it had dreams of a great empire. A key figure in the 'Scramble for Africa' was King Leopold II of Belgium. King Leopold II set up a private colony called the Congo Free State, whereby he extracted from it a fortune. The Congo Free State was set up under the guise of philanthropic activity, but in fact, it was just a way for King Leopold II to get rich and exploit the area.

Great Britain, one of the most powerful countries in the world, took control of Egypt and what is now South Africa. Colonial uprisings in South Africa resulted in the First and Second Boer Wars (between 1880-1881 and 1899-1902, respectively).

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