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African Resistance to European Imperialism: Conflicts & Impact

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  • 0:00 European Colonialism in Africa
  • 1:40 The Mandinka Resistance
  • 2:52 The Zimbabwe Resistance
  • 3:34 The Ethiopian Resistance
  • 4:32 The Nigerian Resistance
  • 5:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries in Africa were defined by constant European imperial invasions. In this lesson, we'll explore some of the ways that various African groups resisted European colonialism.

European Colonialism in Africa

Europeans come from Europe. Africans come from Africa. That's human geography 101. So, how did Europeans end up in Africa? There's actually a complex history here. From the 15th through 20th centuries, European nations measured their success in terms of the number of places they colonized. It was a pretty competitive political environment, as each nation raced to expand their empire.

By the late 19th century, only one inhabited continent remained that had not seen substantial colonial presence: Africa. In 1884-1885, European nations met at the Berlin Conference to divide Africa amongst themselves and lay claims to various parts. The result was roughly 30 years of intense colonial invasion called the Scramble for Africa. Europeans were now in Africa, but the African peoples weren't about to just let that happen.

Overview

When talking about European colonialism in Africa, it's important to remember that we're talking about a number of European nations and literally hundreds of African kingdoms, empires, and ethnic groups. Colonialism was never a simple matter of Europeans versus Africans, and we need to keep in mind that Africans at the time had no sense of pan-African identity. Rivalries between Europeans and rivalries between Africans played a large role in this. The experiences of colonialism are as diverse and varied as the countless people impacted by it. Still, with that in mind, we can look at a few major trends through some exemplary case studies.

The Mandinka Resistance

Let's start by looking at a group with some of the longest interactions with Europeans. In West Africa, around what is now Mali, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast, was the Mandinka Empire. The Mandinka people were descendants of one of the greatest African trading empires of the medieval era, and had been in contact with Europeans since the Portuguese arrived in West Africa in the 15th-16th centuries.

They had dealt with Europeans before, but in the late 19th century the French arrived with a new tenacity. The Mandinka ruler at the time, Samory Touré, conducted himself like an emperor and fought the French through both military and diplomacy. Not only did he negotiate with the French, he also struck tentative alliances with the British to fight the French together. Touré is remembered for the range of methods he used to fight French colonialism, from manufacturing his own firearms to using European colonialism as an opportunity to expand his own empire. However, the French allied with rivals of the Mandinka, attacking Mandinka trade routes and towns. The Mandinka fought back successfully for a long time, but Touré was captured in 1898, ending the resistance.

The Zimbabwe Resistance

Next, let's head on down to what is now Zimbabwe in southeastern Africa. The British started moving into the area in the 1880s, and encountered fierce resistance from the African military empires of the region, particularly the Ndebele people. So, the British devised a tactic of divide-and-conquer. By exploiting existing rivalries between the Ndebele and the rival Shona, the British secured a position in the region. They gained access to some land and mineral rights through treaties with each group, and then used wars between the Ndebele and Shona as an opportunity to launch a full invasion. The Ndebele fought the British to great success, but were eventually defeated by superior British military technology.

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