Britain in India and the scramble for Africa

How Significant Was The British Concern For India In Their Anxieties About The East African Coast?

I cannot but think that even if our National resources were far more potent than they at present are, it would be very bad policy to employ in Africa that part of them which is available for Colonisation. In North America and Australia we have vacant continents to occupy, and every shilling well expended there may be made to yield a large and secure return. But in Africa we cannot colonise at all without coming into contact with numerous warlike tribes, and involving ourselves in their disputes, wars and relations with each other. If we could acquire the Dominion of the whole of that continent it would be but a worthless possession.

- James Stephen, Colonial Office

This comment from the British government many years before the British formally took control of a portion of East Africa illustrates the point that is at the heart of the question of whether Britain became involved in East Africa because of concern for India - for a very long time it was generally accepted that East Africa was of little value for itself. It was not seen as an attractive place for colonisation, as dominions such as Australia and Canada might have been, and there were few expectations of enormous mineral wealth. However, as the Nineteenth Century came to an end Britain was becoming more and more involved in East Africa; having dominated there for a long time she finally took over a portion of the area as a protectorate, something considered unthinkable a few years earlier. In examining the reasons for this change in policy in East Africa it is necessary to examine the wider forces at the time, as events there were part of much larger process.

Britain had contacts in East Africa long before the Scramble occurred. Links had been established to Muscat and Oman from 1798 because of their importance to the Levant-Gulf route to India, which Napoleon had seemed to threaten. When the Sultan there moved to his more wealthy domain at the East African island of Zanzibar, the British consul followed. The Sultan of Zanzibar was the agent of British influence in East Africa for a long time. He was bound by treaties which forced him to reduce the slave trade which much of Zanzibar’s economy was built on, and with time he became increasingly dependant on British aid and military power to maintain his position. The island became economically dependant because British India controlled much of the island’s trade, and many Indians settled there. The British used the Sultan as an instrument of influence over much of the East African coast, gaining this influence with relatively little expenditure or risk. Therefore, the British had reasons to become concerned about outside interest in the East African coast. They had built a neat system of influence which gave them sway over many miles of the African coastline and allowed them to pursue the slave trade in one of its few remaining havens; but this relied greatly on other European countries ignoring the area.

Much of the argument for British concerns for India being the prime reason behind their involvement in East Africa revolves around the Suez Canal in Egypt. When the British occupied Egypt in 1882 they took what many see as the first decisive step in the European Partition of Africa - indeed some have seen the events in Egypt as being an important trigger for the whole process. This argument is most associated with the influential Africa and the Victorians, written by Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher. They claim the British involvement in Egypt was caused by the proto-nationalist revolt there against European influence and the resulting breakdown of law and order, which was threatening strategic interests in the Suez Canal, a vital route to India. This event was important in the Partition because it changed fundamentally the relations between the European powers. The informal understandings between the powers were lost in the unilateral actions of the British. The French resented what the British had done and sought territorial compensations in West Africa. British strategic concerns for the safety of Egypt led logically to their attempt to control the whole of the Nile region and therefore East Africa. Control of the East Africa coast was only a part of this process, vital for control of the Nile region in the interior.

Of course, though there can be links established between British involvement in Egypt from 1882 and the later renewal of interest in the East African coast, it does not necessarily follow that the events in Egypt were cauesd by concern for India, revolving around the Suez Canal. Another reason why the British would have been so interested in the security of Egypt was the economic investment and development British had established there. Economic ties dated back from the Napoleonic Wars, with a sizeable industry being established around the export of cotton and import of manufactured cotton goods. Later in the century Egypt had become dependant on loans from Europe, especially Britain, increasing the ties - indeed by 1873 Britain held a majority of the Egyptian public debt. By 1880 Britain took 80% of Egypt’s exports and supplied 44% of her imports. Britain also purchased the Egyptian shares in the Suez Canal in 1875, increasing still further her stake in the country.

Therefore Britain had powerful reasons in Egypt, other than concerns for keeping the trade routes to India open, to be very concerned for the country’s security. Gladstone himself had no less than 37% of his portfolio invested in Egyptian stock in 1882, meaning he was very aware of the interests of investors. It could be the case that the Canal was not even seen at the time as being in danger from the revolt in 1882. Also, crucially, the Admiralty did not start to plan their strategy for keeping the links to India open around the security of the Suez Canal until the 1890s - in the 1880s the route around the Cape, far removed from both East Africa and Egypt, remained the dominant and most protected route. Therefore, if British interest in East Africa is to be seen as connected largely with Egypt, then the route to India was very possibly not the prime cause of British involvement there, as the British had more pressing reasons for their action in Egypt in 1882. After all, British involvement in East Africa predated the construction of the Suez Canal by many years, and the construction of the Canal, an entirely French project, was something initially scoffed at by the British. British involvement in East Africa also the instability of Egypt, so it was not initially involved in to secure Egypt and the Nile. Therefore, we must look for other reasons why the British seemed so concerned about the East African coast in the Nineteenth Century.

The idea that East Africa was a land of opportunity and wealth which the British wanted to control for its own economic value can be fairly easily dismissed. This may have been believed by some in the 1880s and 1890s, when a general overestimation of potential in Africa seems to have gripped many people, fired up by extravagant claims from businessmen with interests in Africa and fears of foreign domination. However, earlier in the century when European competition for control of Africa was not a factor, East Africa was seen as of little inherent use. That at least the British government had little concern for Africa for its own worth was seen by the importance attached to it in the Foreign Office. Until the 1880s the filing clerks there had a problem - there were no titles under which to archive correspondence relating to Africa. 90% of the continent had no sections at all, such was the lack of interest government had in the area. West Africa continued to filed under "slave trade", and East African correspondence was filed under or sent to Bombay. Despite the long standing involvement with the Sultan of Zanzibar, Britain still considered Zanzibar a small outpost of her Indian interests or a part of her fight against the slave trade.

Economically, East Africa was of little importance, indeed the only trade in East Africa which was really noticable revolved around the slave trade. As the British forced the end of slavery with a naval blockade and threats, the basis of the East African economy fell away. The three main exports of Zanzibar were cloves, ivory and slaves, and of these the third was banned and the first two relied for profitability on slave labour. Economically, East Africa had little to offer and had lost much of what little it had. Therefore, British ministers put imperial rule over the coast out of the question, even disowning an attempt by a Captain Owen to declare a protectorate over Mombassa (which had requested this itself) despite the increased control of the coast this may have created. British enterprise remained unwilling to provide the people or capital, East Africa seemed unlikely to provide useful labour or resources.

In contrast to the lack of interest displayed by the British in most parts of Africa, the concern for India was very great indeed. Many saw Victorian power as being based on the twin centres of the British Isles and India. Britain’s strength came through her trading prowess and the maintenance of this was of great importance. Her trade with the Americas needed little assistance from military force, but the trade with the Orient and Australasia was dependant on naval and political power in the area. British power in the East, whether on the seas or on land, rested very greatly on India. In this situation keeping trade and communication routes between Britain and India was essential, and became a very great concern of British traders and politicians alike. Much of British diplomatic and military policy revolved around this very aim. Robinson and Gallagher sum up the Victorian attitude towards Africa in comparison to the importance of their Indian possessions when they refer to the African continent as the "huge, unopened land mass interposed between Britain and the East". What concern there was for Africa itself by the British government was usually that she should remain free from external domination, which might jeopardise future settlement or trade there. Her economic importance was limited mainly to her importance for ships travelling elsewhere stopping off for supplies. What few settlements there were stagnating by the middle of the century and contact even diminished as the slave trade ended.

The lack of British control of African coastline does not indicate that they were not concerned for the protection of the sea routes to India, but rather that the influence they established over coastal settlements, and the small colonies they established at key point themselves, provided enough protection to the routes. Later in the century, these arrangements were to be threatened by other European countries seeking lands in Africa, and this is no more true than in East Africa where the Germans threatened to take the whole area and leave the British with no influence at all. The British did give some advise to the Sultan of Zanzibar to secure his authority over the interior, but only threw their diplomatic weight behind keeping the coast of East Africa free from German control. Earl Granville, the Foreign Secretary, said
Its annexation by France or Germany, and the seizure of a port would be ruinous to British ... influence on the East Coast. The proceedings of the French in Madagascar make it all the more necessary to guard ... our sea route to India.

Kimberly of the Indian Office agreed: "From an Indian point of view I regard it as of very serious importance that no Foreign Power should oust us from the coast." They had little choice but to allow the Germans to take the interior, as Bismark had rightly seen the Sultan of Zanzibar had little claim there, and because the British needed German support at the International Debt Commission on her actions in Egypt. However, they insisted that the coast should remain under the control of the Sultan.

This unusual interest in the Coast indicates it had some importance to them. They did not safeguard the East African Coast simply through loyalty to the Sultan of Zanzibar - they showed on several occasions, not least when they allowed the Germans to take the Sultan’s lands, that they were not willing to risk relations with another European power simply because of an informal arrangement with the leader of a minor African Muslim state. They were also unwilling to keep worthless territories simply for their own sake, though they might sometimes over-estimate the importance of an area. The British signalled willingness to allow territory in West Africa, with whom they had a more long-standing relationship, to be left to the French. Though there were some British traders in East Africa the development this was no greater than anywhere else and cannot explain British interest there. Even the mineral rich territories in the South and West took second place to the undeveloped uplands of East Africa, and this can really only be because of Indian considerations. British ministers were well aware of humanitarian arguments for direct involvement in East Africa and would even use them to justify their actions, but these arguments applied in a great deal of places the British had no interest or involvement in. Whether East Africa was an economically important place can be debated, but what is important is that it was not perceived to be at the time. Rather, it was a part of a belt of informal and direct influence throughout the coast of the Indian Ocean, which existed to protect India and the seas around her from domination by any other power. To allow a European country to control the East African coast would be to lose a strip of coastline along an increasingly important trade route, and gift-wrap naval bases to a potentially hostile competitor.

Britain was unique in Europe in that she had two power bases: one in Europe, the other in India, and this factor greatly influenced British policy throughout the world.The prosperity of Britain was seen as resting on India, with the Nineteenth Century being a period of enormous growth in her economic importance. Between 1834 and 1910 Indian exports increased from less than £8 million p.a. to £137 million, and imports increased from £4½ million to £86 million. Britain's international prestige was also to a great extent built on her control of and access to India, a factor increasingly important in the international game of power politics created by such men as Bismark. As a part of the Indian Ocean coastline the East African coast was already involved in this equasion, and the Suez Canal greatly enhnced its importance later in the century. The Canal also explains at least partially why Britain was unable to pull out once she had gone into Egypt.

Britain’s foreign policy, built around the concept of protecting the Indian possessions, was becoming more complicated by the late Nineteenth Century. The crumbling of the Ottoman Empire, whose possessions had included such places as North Africa and Egypt, made vital areas unstable. The rise of a very assertive Germany also complicated matters for Britain. Where before informal influence had sufficed, colonial intervention became necessary to safeguard British interests. Men such as Bismark and Arabi Pasha, the leader of the nationalist revolt in Egypt, rendered Britain’s old policies ineffective, and they were forced to change. Therefore Britain's part in the Scramble for Africa was one of response rather than initiation, and this was true in East Africa. Britain did what was necessary to protect what it saw as valuable and allowed what was not useful to be lost, and this judgement was made primarily on the main British colonial interest - India. The mentality of this policy was shown well when Sir George Grey, the governor of Cape Colony, said in the 1850s "Beyond the very limited extent of territory required for the security of the Cape of Good Hope as a naval station, the British Crown and nation have no interest whatsoever in maintaining any territorial dominion in South Africa.". As a major trading power with global interests Britain would naturally have been concerned to keep the East African coast free from foreign domination. It would also have some humanitarian interests because of the slave economy of East Africa. Yet it remains that India was the only important reason Britain had for serious commitment to the area, and though it may not be the only factor, it remains by far the most important.


M. E. Chamberlain, Britain And India: The Interaction Of Two Peoples, David & Charles (Holdings) Limited, 1974

David Holden, "Takeover in East Africa" in The British Empire, Vol 4, part 39, 1971

P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion 1688-1914, Longman, 1993

J. M. MacKenzie, The Partition of Africa, Methuen, 1983

Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher, Africa and the Victorians, Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1963

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