European Imperialism in Africa Essay

The period of nineteenth century Western Imperialism, taken into historical context, was short lived, but its consequences still affect the world we live in today. In the period from 1870, until the eruption of the First World War, European powers spread their economic, political and social influence to the farthest corners of the globe. Africa was no exception and by 1900, 90 of the continent would come under European domain. The reasons for this fast spread expansion into Africa have been the subject of debate for nearly a century. While some theorists hold that expansion was brought on by a purely economic drive to control new markets, others see the virulent nationalism of European powers and the ensuing rivalries as the main cause. The aim of this paper is to show that while economic factors may have been an underlying motive for European incursion into the continent they do not fully explain the unprecedented rate of expansion.

Europe had been colonizing and investing in various parts of the world since the fifteenth century. Most notably during the 1700s trade between nations grew at an accelerated pace and European investment in railroads, ports, mines, factories and a wealth of other opportunities was notable. In some instances this signified European powers taking over the political reigns of power and imposing direct rule on the nations they were trading with, although Africa, other than for purposes of trade, had largely been untouched in this sense. Johnson (1985) claims of imperialism that “economic activity was increased by colonial rule, but the terms were different: now the African produced and worked for the European company, railroad, or office.”

It wasn’t until the onslaught of the period of European Imperialism that Africa would see more direct involvement and would become a pawn in European states drive to create vast political empires. The reasons for the sudden race by Europeans for control of this continent are numerous. Competition for trade, military strategies, nationalist politics and beliefs in ‘the white man’s burden’ are all factors contributing to the sudden onslaught of Western Imperialism. To further complicate matters European nations were not entirely homogenous in the factors that drove them into Africa. While France may have had the expansion of trade and nationalistic politics in mind when it took control of a large part of Africa, Britain, it can be argued, was largely motivated by military strategies and its concern over the protection of other shipping routes when it moved into Egypt. Yet, of all the reason leading to the partitioning of Africa by European powers, the two that have received the most debate are economic factors, which encompass the demand for natural resources and need for new markets and, secondly, competition brought on by European Imperial rivalries.

Was Europe largely driven to carve up Africa amongst them as the result of the search for natural resources and new markets? There is no doubt that economics was a leading cause. The two most well known preponderates of this theory are Hobson and Lenin. Vladimir Lenin (1916), in his pamphlet ‘Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism’, was one of the first theorists to make such a strong connection between economics and Imperialism. He claimed that Imperialism was “a direct continuation of the fundamental properties of capitalism in general.” Hobson (1948) claims that the true impulse behind Imperialism was one of capitalistic greed, despite the higher moral excuses put forth by imperial powers. The need for cheap natural resources and new markets was at the heart of Imperialism, according to Hobson. More specifically he claims that the need for new markets for a surplus of manufactured goods was behind British Imperialism. He states,

These new markets had to lie in hitherto undeveloped countries, chiefly in the tropics,

where vast populations lived capable of growing economic needs which our

manufacturers and merchants could supply. Our rivals were seizing and annexing

territories for similar purposes, and when they had annexed them closed them to our

trade The diplomacy and the arms of Great Britain had to be used in order to compel the

owners of the new markets to deal with us: and experience showed that the safest means

of securing and developing such markets is by establishing ‘protectorates’ or by


Although the need for natural resources and the push to open new markets was significant in the scramble for Africa, additional evidence leads us to re-examine theories which claim it to be the only driving factor behind Imperialism in Africa. Thompson (1966) claims that it is improbable that the explanation for Imperialism in Africa is entirely or even basically economic. In particular, he uses the French experience with Africa to highlight his case. He states,

However important the economic forces were, they cannot explain why France, one of

the least fully industrialized of the northwestern European nations, was the one which

had already set the pace of expansion by more than doubling her colonial possessions

between 1815 and 1870, when she gained firm footholds in Algeria, Senegal, and

Indochina; nor why after 1870 it was the political republican leaders, Jules Ferry and

Leon Gambetta, who took the initiative in further colonial expansion in Tunisia and

Tonnin, despite the great unpopularity of such expansion with public opinion in France.

England once brought into African politics by its concerns over the Suez, found itself caught up in the Imperialistic drive. Denny, Gallagher and Robinson (1961) claim that England never had a particular connection with Africa but that it became involved with its annexation of Egypt. Egypt was of special importance to England because it held the Suez Canal which was essential to trade with other important British colonies. They state of England’s involvement in Egypt that “the occupation of Egypt had increased the tension between the Powers and had dragged Africa into their rivalry. In this way the crisis in Egypt set off the Scramble, and sustained it until the end of the century.” In addition Thomson states that in the case of Britain that they had long had a surplus of goods “but that did not drive her to scramble for colonies during the 1860’s as much as during the 1870’s and after.”

The complete absence of political aims in the economic analysis of Western Imperialism in Africa is another of its weak points. In countries such as Italy and Russia which had a lack of economic motives to expand abroad, the motives can only be claimed to be to largely political. Thompson (1966) claims that it “was normally the coexistence of economic interests with political aims which made a country imperialistic; and in some, such as Italy or Russia, political considerations predominated.” He adds, “There was no irresistible compulsion or determinism, and no country acquired colonies unless at least a very active and influential group of its political leaders wanted to acquire them.”

With respect to England Denny Gallagher and Robinson (1961) believe that the very nature of the British Entrepreneurial spirit drove on British Imperialism in Africa once it was started. They claim that,

Expansion was not simply a necessity without which industrial growth might cease, but

a moral duty to the rest of humanity. In the Utilitarian science of political economy, the

earlier Victorians beheld the rules for improvement everywhere. They were not the first,

nor were they to be the last people, to project their own image as the universal ideal, nor

to mistake fortunate trends of national history for natural laws and bend foreigners to

obey them.

The concerns over internal African politics and the disruption they would cause in their relations with Europe was also an impetuous for greater European involvement on the continent. A trade depression in Africa in the early 1970s resulted in the eruption of local rivalries, which in turn de-stabilized the previously set up trading regimes with European partners. Phimister (2002) claims that it was at this point that “some European traders began calling upon their respective governments to restore ‘law and order’. The smooth operation of trade, they argued, depended on political stability. They were joined by others whose falling profit margins made them want to restructure the market so as to eliminate African middlemen.”

The reasons for Western Imperialism in Africa from 1870 until 1914 are numerous, yet, when trying to account for the scramble for Africa many theorists have a tendency to focus on one decisive cause. The most prominent of these theories claims that either economic or nationalistic rationales lay at the core of the problem. While the demand for natural resources and the necessity of new markets were indeed important factors behind European expansion into Africa during this period, claiming that economics was the only cause or was a more defining one than the others would be simplifying a complex situation that involves a variety of actors with a variety of motives. As we have seen, factors leading to French expansion into Africa differ greatly from those factors leading England into the area. Taking this into consideration we can only come to the conclusion that the separation of economic, political and social factors into different camps of theories results in incomplete conclusions as to the true nature of European Imperialism in Africa.


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Phimister, I (2002) Empire, Imperialism and the Partition of Africa Gentlemanly Capitalism, Imperialism and Global History Shigeru Akita, S (ed) Palgrave Macmillan pp. 65-82

Supan, A. (1906) Die territoriale Entwicklung der Euroaischen Kolonien Gotha, p. 254 Mount Holyoke College Website (accessed 2006, March 31)

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