British Colonies in Africa: History & Map

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  • 0:04 Early Colonial Efforts…
  • 0:58 19th Century Colonial Britain
  • 1:59 The Scramble for Africa
  • 3:02 Imperial Figures
  • 4:38 British Rule to Commonwealth
  • 5:39 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

In this lesson, you'll learn about the British colonies in Africa. We'll examine how and why the British siezed them and think about the long-term effects colonialism has had on these colonies.

Early Colonial Efforts in Africa

If you want to figure out where and why Britain established colonies in Africa, you just have to follow the money. For a long time, the British were focused on only having a few outposts in West Africa. Why? Well, to get their piece of the slave trade. In 1672, the Royal African Company, a British merchant and trading company of the 17th and 18th centuries, was granted a monopoly on the slave trade. This was a highly profitable trade that sent millions of enslaved Africans to the American colonies and much more to the Caribbean. However, in 1807 British abolitionists succeeded in outlawing the slave trade.

During this time, there had been some explorations into Africa's interior, but Britain didn't get too serious until they realized how profitable their trade route to India was. Ships sailing to and from India needed safe ports along the African coast, so that's where the British turned next.

19th Century Colonial Britain

It wasn't until the latter part of the 19th century that Britain got really serious about colonizing Africa. Britain wanted outposts from Cairo to the Cape, which was a region stretching from Egypt to South Africa. In Egypt, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli became a 44% shareholder in the Suez Canal in 1875.

Meanwhile, the British moved aggressively into South Africa. The Dutch East India Company had established the Cape Colony in South Africa in 1652, and Dutch settlers known as the Boers came to farm the area. The British acquired the Cape Colony in 1806. By 1820, more and more Brits were immigrating to South Africa, pushing out the Boers who had been living there. The Boers established two republics called the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, which sat on mineral-rich territories. The British knew these territories were rich in gold and diamonds, which would lead to big profits. In 1902 after two bloody wars, the British occupied the Cape Colony and the Boer republics.

The Scramble for Africa

In the late 1800s, something strange happened in Europe. Infected by the nationalist bug, every European country wanted to grab a piece of Africa to enrich themselves and prove their power as a nation. Latecomers like Italy and Germany were getting in on it, and Britain responded by aggressively expanding and defending their colonies. The European nations came together at the Berlin Conference in 1884, which was a conference designed to bring some order to the colonial process in Africa. Notably, no African countries were invited.

The Berlin Conference carved up the continent into spheres of influence for each country. Great Britain got southern and northeastern Africa from Berlin. From 1880-1900 Britain gained control over or occupied what are now known as Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Gambia, Sierra Leone, northwestern Somalia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Nigeria, Ghana, and Malawi. That meant that the British ruled 30% of Africa's people at one time.

Imperial Figures

There were a couple of men who became synonymous with British colonization in Africa. One was a Scottish medical missionary named David Livingstone. He explored much of Africa's interior in the 1800s, and his reports got people back home very interested in colonizing Africa. He justified imperialism by saying that Britain had a duty to introduce the three Cs - commerce, Christianity, and civilization - to Africa.

Obviously, this was a highly problematic way of looking at Africans as if they were brutish or childish and in need of European help. In fact, many African lands already had such good leaders and administrative systems, that the British employed indirect rule for governing their African colonies. That meant that they let the preexisting African governments stand as long as they agreed to do whatever Britain said.

Cecil Rhodes was a businessman who embodied the ultimate British imperialist. He was absolutely convinced that British imperialism was right and that Great Britain should occupy a great big vertical chunk of Africa from Egypt to South Africa. He was a major supporter of building a Cape-to-Cairo railroad. He established the British South Africa Company in 1889 and was very interested in mineral mining. Soon, he was putting together his own militias to take control of land that was rich in minerals.

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