Scramble for Africa - driven by private or public interests?

To What Extent Was The Scramble Advanced By Private Rather Than National Interests In Africa?

The Nineteenth century saw very little official European involvement in Africa before the 1880s. The British had become involved to an extent through the campaign against the slave trade, including the colony of Sierra Leone, and they had developed their colony at the Cape. The French increased their official control in the North through the century. However, in the vastness of Africa, this made little impact and was mainly done for reasons other than a move to colonise Africa - such as the pursuit of the slave trade and protection of the route to India. This is not to say there were no Europeans in Africa - many had gone to Africa as missionaries and traders, driven by an urge to ‘civilise’ the African peoples by making them more European. Besides revealing information about the interior of Africa, these had little impact, but this situation was to change as the century progressed. Improvements in medicine, especially the introduction of quinine in 1857, drastically reduced the very high death rates of European expeditions in Africa. Improvements in steam ships, rail, weaponry and communications all made Africa more easily accessible, breaking down the natural barriers which had kept Europeans at bay for so long.

However, technology was not the only reason for the increased involvement of Europeans in Africa from the middle of the century. Business became seriously interested in Africa for the first time, and this started the process that was to become the Partition of Africa. Investment spread from centres of existing settlement, especially the Cape and Egypt. This drive came from Britain's powerful and wealthy trading companies, which could afford to run steamships, build infrastructure and finance settlement, and they saw great opportunities in the unknown, untapped resources of the gigantic African continent. European governments had been unwilling to spend valuable resources on sending pioneers to Africa, but once the private companies were established there governments found that national interests dictated they should be protected - and so began the Partition, with countries dividing up Africa to protect the advances made by their subjects.

This is of course only one of many possible interpretations of what occurred in Africa in the 1880s and 1890s. There is no doubt that certain individuals involved in private enterprise in Africa, as well as many smaller traders, had a very important role in advancing the partition. The important question, however, is to what extent these initiated the Partition, with governments becoming involved once national interest was established, and to what extent private interests were used by governments to achieve their objectives without the risks and costs of colonisation.

A classic example of the businessmen who went to capture the potential of Africa in the late Nineteenth Century is Sir George Goldie. He had been one of many traders who set up around the River Niger. These had developed the region to an extent and built up their companies, trading local raw materials. However, prices had fallen and the European Depression was making their position difficult. There was also the problem of the French, whose traders were active in the region and whose government showed signs of interest. Goldie, the leading of these traders by the mid 1880s, suggested to the British government an extension of control could be in the national interest. He exaggerated the value of the area to a great extent, and as many in his business he had influential contacts in Britain to help to pressure the government to support him. In 1886 his Royal Niger Company was offered a Charter to administer the region. He therefore advanced European involvement in the area - building up a presence there and receiving a Charter which would guarantee the protection of the British. However, his success was due in no small part to an assessment that an operation in the Niger region would be self-supporting financially - had it not been for this supposed potential the Charter might not have been possible. But the British government might have had reasons other than being assured little financial risk for granting Goldie what he wanted - the region was coming increasingly to the attention of other powers, especially the very competitive French. The government was under pressure to keep the area open to British trade, and so they used the willing Goldie to safeguard the region against French encroachment. Of course without men such as Goldie in the area, there might have been little reason for the British to be interested at all, but there is no doubt he was allowed to take the area over simply because this achieved Britain's objectives without unnecessary risks and expenditure.

On the other side of the continent William Mackinnon was active in a similar endeavour to Goldie. A dynamic businessman, he had quickly built a wealthy trading company in India and wanted to expand his interests. As the Suez Canal opened, he saw that East Africa was ripe for development, especially as relations were long established with the Sultan of Zanzibar, a very important power in the region. After starting a steamship service there he negotiated with the Sultan a concession in 1879 allowing his company to take over a very large part of the mainland of East Africa, administering and developing it for profit. Yet the Foreign Office in London would not allow this to take place. Unlike on the Niger several years later, there was no foreign power poised to dominate the region, and Whitehall simply feared Mackinnon’s company would fail and leave the British government forced to take the area as a colony. After showing how it could ignore the wishes of commercial interests in Africa if it chose, the British government then showed how it viewed them as effectively tools for government objectives. Several years later the Germans suddenly became interested in East Africa and took over a large portion of the interior. Fearing that they could lose all their access to the area, the British then allowed Mackinnon his Charter for a substantial region - a decade after his original attempt. Here at least we can see that private interests had very little influence in advancing the partition - they were simply used to fulfil government plans at the lowest possible cost.

Cecil Rhodes, however, is a different case. Of all the ‘private interests’ in Africa in the late nineteenth century he was without a doubt the greatest and most important. His companies figured more prominently on the stock market than any other, his personal reputation was far more widespread. He even had a country named after him, something all the more remarkable because he died before he was 50. Of any of the major players in European private enterprise in Africa in the 1800s he seems in character the least likely to have been manipulated by government. He had a reputation for being cunning and astute - for example he secretly bought the press of South Africa before embarking on his political career to ensure their support. He enlisted the support of many influential people in London, including the Queen’s son-in-law and the well known Earl Grey. He formed a connection with the Irish Nationalists, financing their activities in return for the support of their 70 seats in the British Parliament. He was the managing director of the British South Africa Company, acting almost without control by its Board in London, and was the Prime Minister of the Cape for 8 years.

Therefore, if anyone was in a position to advance the Partition of Africa independently of national control, it was Rhodes. He was shrewd and intelligent enough to build a tremendous position of power, and was helped greatly by the passivity of those who should have limited his freedom of action - the Colonial Office and the Company’s London Board - as long as he remained successful. He could, however, be seen in a similar way to Goldie, acting independently to further the Partition, but being allowed to succeed because his actions tied up with the aims of the government. For example, as Rhodes moved North from the Cape in search of new areas of gold deposits to rival the Rand, he was allowed to take control of territory because it reserved the land, protecting it from being taken by the Germans, French, or one of the other European nations involved in Africa.

However, even if the companies involved in administering territory under Charter in Africa were being used to fulfil their objectives by government, they still had a great role because of their willingness to establish centres and infrastructure for European expansion in Africa. Why were these companies so suddenly interested in the ‘opportunities’ presented by Africa? Some have suggested that in Europe there was surplus capital available for investment - rates of return on investment in Europe were falling and so companies looked elsewhere, including Africa. As an ‘undeveloped’ region with little recognised authority controlling the land, its resources were an obvious target for exploitation. Industrialised trading nations such as Britain were also experiencing increasing competition from each other and finding it harder to get markets for their goods. Many would look to the less developed regions of the world to be the new markets for cheap mass-produced goods, and private interests in international trade would support and try to further government official control because this could mean the new markets were protected.

The vast improvements in technology and medicine also made a great contribution to the ability of investing companies to carve out an existence for themselves in Africa, and famous success stories such as the many fortunes created in the mines of South Africa ignited people’s interest. In the financial and trading slumps of the mid 1870s advancing into such areas must have been attractive.

The depression of the 1870s also had the effect of forcing many people in Europe from rural areas to the cities in search of work. The expansion of European cities increased demand for food as well as raw materials for industry as it pulled out of the Depression, meaning commodity prices rose sharply. Africa was becoming an increasingly important source for several commodities, such as rubber, vegetable oil, ivory, cocoa, copper and gold. These had been extracted for many years with no formal control but companies felt that colonial or chartered company control could make this easier and protect against competition. This was supported by economists who saw the new success of America and Germany being founded it part on having access to huge resources behind protective barriers , and government became more pressured to support private demands for increased official involvement in Africa. Changing views of authority and society in Africa, reports of waste and brutality, created a feeling that the potential productivity in Africa could only be realised with more direct control.

In some areas companies were pressuring government to intervene because they faced competition from foreign companies. For example, in West Africa British and French companies started on the coast, but bean to move inland in the 1870s to expand their operations. They quickly became suspicious about the other’s intentions and both wanted their governments to help them reserve the area. They also found the need for government intervention where the local populations had become destabilised. This happened in Lagos in the early 1890s, where the end of the slave trade had taken much revenue away from the traditional African rulers, who were then forced to depend on the static income from Palm Oil. The resulting collapse of social cohesion when the price fell made the traders involved there put pressure on the London government, who then reluctantly pacified the interior and made it a protectorate in the early 1890s.

Therefore private companies had many reasons to pressure government for action in Africa. They were often able to exert this pressure very effectively - the more successful companies would ensure they had influential support in Britain, such as the aristocrats controlled by Rhodes. There was still some antagonism between government and private interests in Africa; companies disliked the dislocation and cost of wars, especially when they had to foot some of the bill, and they also resented the tariffs and taxes government could erect in an area they controlled. Yet by the late Nineteenth Century private companies were also worried by the increasing activity of foreign powers - and if they were wary of control by the British government they were positively fearful of what foreign governments would do.

It could be said that before the 1870s both commerce and government in Britain did have ambitions for Africa, but they did not see the need for colonial rule as there was little outside interest in the continent. Where they could they would work with the existing rulers, building states that would resist the slave trade and engage in commerce - and the companies were not anxious to involve government more than this. Besides, Britain's commercial and industrial dominance was such that the protection of colonies was unnecessary. Therefore, an important consideration has to be the effect of increased foreign competition from the 1870s, increasing both private and official backing behind securing British interests in Africa.

Before the 1870s Europe had been quite unstable, and so had little interest in places such as Africa. However, the 1870s saw a new stability which changed this very suddenly. Germany and Italy completed their unifications, in France the regime of Napoleon III was crushedand Germany under Bismark became the dominant diplomatic power of Europe. Figures in Europe such as Leopold of the Belgians started to press for a more rigorous colonial policy. The increasing activity of other European countries meant people saw themselves as living in an era of delimitation, something Rosebury called "a partition of the world", a phrase also used by the German Carl Peters and the French minister √Čtienne. As early as January 1885 the Morning Post diagnosed a "scramble for Africa and Oceania". This was made worse by events such as the British suppression of the 1882 nationalist uprising in Egypt led Ahmed Urabiand subsequent occupation of Egypt - something highly resented in France and leading to a strong Anglo-French rivalry in Africa.

This atmosphere had a profound effect on British politicians. That Britain's industrial and commercial dominance had slipped was increasingly clear: her share of world trade was 23% in 1876, but this fell to 19% in only 9 years.Her rivals developed more efficient industry and erected protectionist barriers while Britain stuck to free trade. Obviously in this situation, with Britain economically outpaced and now colonially threatened as well, there were many calls for an extension of the Empire by British businesses - including export industries at home as well as those involved directly in Africa.

Therefore the changing world economic situation and the expansionistic behaviour of France, Leopold of the Belgians, Germany and even countries such as Portugal meant Britain had to participate in what it saw as already having started - the Partition. Between 1874 and 1902 Britain acquired 4,750,000 square miles of land into the Empire, containing almost 90 million people.This was not just for prestige - it was an economic need to defend interests. It was in this period that men such as Goldie, Mackinnon and Rhodes were allowed to bring territory under British protection and administer it, something they all wanted to do and usually initiated, but something which might not have been allowed under different circumstances. If Britain's objective was to defend her oversees interests then she did well - she secured control of India, her chief concern, and also large swathes of African territory in which she had real or potential interests.

Britain was a very long established world-wide trader. She had subjects, bases, colonies and trading interests in most parts of the world, and this had long included Africa, at least its coasts. She sent out many missionaries as well, spreading her civilisation through conversion and commerce. From all directions her influence was spreading slowly through the century into Africa - from the Cape in the South, from Egypt in the North, from Zanzibar in the East and her colonies, such as Lagos and Sierra Leone in the West. She had naval bases on the coast, often for the anti-slave trade squadrons. This cultural and economic penetration into Africa without political rule was successful for a long time, but it had two pre-requisites if it was to continue. First, the societies they had contact with had to withstand the strains this contact put on their economy and culture. Secondly, the poorly defended areas of influence had to be free from outside interference.

The first of these conditions had already showed signs of cracking before the 1880s. There were many destabilising elements in the affairs of Africa - the withdrawal of the power of the Ottoman Empire in the North, population shifting and warfare in the interior, the effects of the destruction of the slave trade, especially on ruling elites who had depended on it for their income, and therefore their authority. By the 1880s the second condition had also started to fall and European countries started to become interested in areas formerly assumed by Britain to be under their influence. In these circumstances both business and government wanted to protect the gains Britain had made, seen as especially important in a period of lost pre-eminence.

British colonial policy has been described as "Imperialism on the cheap". Long before the partition of Africa the British had tried to extend their Empire and get the peoples they ruled over to pay for it. This had been long true of the Indian possessions. It was an attempt to force the Thirteen Colonies to pay for their own Imperial protection that helped cause the American Revolution. The experience of America taught the British a lesson in managing their Empire, and they sought a different way to keep colonial expenses low than simply taxing the people in the Empire. They shifted to the more enlightened policy of allowing the countries to rule themselves at their own expense, and success in India meant there were companies willing to administrate in this way. The charters that were handed out all over Africa at the end of the Nineteenth Century were a product of the desire to retain areas for Britain at the same time as not having the risk and expenditure of formal colonies.

This is not to say that the private interests did not have any influence on the direction and nature of the Partition. They were essential in keeping Africa high on the government agenda and crucial for establishing British interest in areas they otherwise would not have been involved in. They often had direct influence over government and public opinion. In many instances, especially in West Africa, traders do seem to have independently advanced the partition, making demands that were met - but this only happened when fiscal and diplomatic sense agreed with them; they were sometimes refused, such as William Mackinnon in 1879. Private interests were influential, especially in building up the potential of Africa in the minds of officials and politicians - but broadly speaking, government followed its policies in Africa for its own reasons and effectively controlled the ambitions of its companies and entrepreneurs, rather than the other way round.


P. J. Cain, Economic Foundations of British Oversees Expansion 1815-1914, 1980 Macmillan

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

J. E. Flint, "Chartered Companies And The Scramble For Africa." in Joseph C. Anene & Godfrey N. Brown (eds.) Africa In The Nineteenth And Twentieth Centuries, Ibadan University Press, 1970

John S. Galbraith, Crown and Charter - The Early Years of the British South Africa Company, University of California Press, 1974

Ronald Hyam, Britain's Imperial Century - 1815-1914 - A Study of Empire and expansion, B. T. Batsford, London, 1976

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

Roland Oliver & G. N. Sanderson (eds.), The Cambridge History of Africa. Volume 6 - from 1870 to 1905, Cambridge University Press, 1985

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