Original item held by Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. Library.

EARLY European expeditions focused on colonising previously uninhabited islands or establishing coastal forts as bases for trade.  

These forts often developed areas of influence along coastal strips, but the vast interior of Africa was not colonised and was little-known to Europeans until the late 19th Century when three broad reasons interrelated for European exploration of Africa increased; namely to ‘increase knowledge’, to ‘spread Christianity’ (but they were aware that Africans knew God as acknowledged by King Leopold 11 of Belgium ) and to increase national esteem some European States felt at possessing territory, usually many times larger than their own.

Two centuries of trade with Asia, the Americas and Africa (including the Atlantic Slave Trade) brought great profits to European traders that then provided the necessary capital to finance the Industrial Revolution experienced in Europe in the 19th Century.  

Since most of Europe had deficient resources, European industries were greatly dependent on raw materials from Asia, the Americas and Africa.  

As industrialisation grew and spread throughout Europe, competition for raw materials increased. 

Consequently, some European industrialists encouraged their governments to colonise other countries as a method of guaranteeing sources of raw materials.

By the late 19th Century, the industries in Europe were producing more industrial goods than Europeans could consume, so industrialists sought markets around the world for their goods.  

As competition for markets grew, industrialists encouraged their governments to undertake colonisation of Africa in order to protect markets for their industrial goods.

One of the most important economic reasons for colonisation was the belief held by some Europeans, particularly missionaries, that the development of trade and commerce in Africa was an essential component to the ‘civilisation’ in Africa.  

They believed that trade and commerce, along with the introduction of Christianity, were key to development in Africa. 

Christian mission societies and other advocates pushed European governments to colonise Africa and, in so doing, provided a supportive environment for the expansion of their commerce. 

Some have argued, however, that economic motives did not constitute the driving force behind colonial occupation, contending that Africa did not have much economic and commercial potential to attract the interest of British manufacturers, merchants and investors.  

Colonialism, according to them, was more of “…a philanthropic and humanitarian intervention aimed at salvaging an atomistic continent from self-extinction through outlawry and perennial conflict.”

The justification of colonial rule as a philanthropic and humanitarian gesture was not new. 

In 1896, an article in The Times titled ‘The Commercial Value of Africa’ endorsed the commercial motives of colonialism thus: “The fact is that up to within the past few years, Africa has hardly been needed by the rest of the world except as a slave market. 

But her turn has come, and the need for her co-operation in the general economy of the world will become greater and greater as population increases, as industry expands, as commerce develops, as States grow ambitious as civilisation spreads: it is discreditable anomaly that at this advanced stage in the progress of the race, nearly a whole continent should still be given over to savagery….”

The predetermined objective of European colonial enterprise in Africa was again defined point-blank in the Pall Mall Gazette, in 1899, thus:  “Nor have we gone to the equatorial regions from religious or humanitarian motives… still less have we sought out the African in order to endow him with the virtues (and vices) of Western civilisation… the dominating force which has taken us to Equatorial Africa is the desire for trade. We are in these tropical countries for our own advantage and only incidentally for the good of the African….”

Another debatable dimension to the argument to justify the humanitarian and civilising mission of the Europeans was opened by a Portuguese historian who contended that it was through colonisation that the African was elevated to the status of a human being… that: “Colonisation practised by the Portuguese, raised the Negro to the status of human being, to the extent that they considered him to be their equal.”

Besides technological superiority, there was also a concomitant feeling of moral and racial superiority. 

The whiteman was theoretically placed at the top of the hierarchy, while the blackman, deemed irredeemably inferior and senseless, was placed at the bottom. 

Thus, the conquest of Africa and the subsequent scramble and partition of the entire continent were carried out allegedly in the interest of Africans who required many years of tutelage to become ‘normal’ human beings. 

This was exemplified at a dinner in honour of the Governor of Nigeria, Sir Hugh Clifford Lord Leverhulme, who said: “I am certain that West African races have to be treated very much as one would treat children when they are immature and under-developed… Now the organising ability is the particular trait and characteristic of the whiteman… I say this with my little experience, that the African nature will be happier, produce the best and live under conditions of prosperity when his labour is directed and organised by his white brother who has all these million years’ start ahead of him….” 

If Africa was indeed economically worthless, why then, did the European powers persevere in partitioning and conquering it?

In a perceptive analysis of colonialism, the first President of independent Kenya, the late Jomo Kenyatta, faulted the idea that colonialism enhanced the economic fortunes of the Africans: “…They speak as if it were somehow beneficial to an African to work for them instead of for himself, and to make sure that he will receive this benefit they do their best to take away his land and leave him no alternative.  Along with his land, they rob him of his government, condemn his religious ideas and ignore his fundamental conceptions of justice and morals, all under the name of civilisation and progress.”

In the early years of colonialism, establishing political control or sovereignty over their colonies was the colonial powers’ primary objective for which they required the collaboration and support of missionaries. 

The colonial powers used a combination of warfare, threat of force and treaty-making with African rulers in their efforts to gain political control of African colonies. 

Once political control was realised and institutions of governance were in place, economics became the main concern of the colonial governments. 

The colonial powers paid significant attention to the economics of colonisation. 

This included the acquisition of land, enforced labour and taxes, introduction of cash crops, sometimes to the neglect of food crops, changing pre-colonial inter-African trading patterns, the introduction of foreign labourers – from India, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe as well as the continuous exploitation of Africa as a source of raw materials for European industry.

The 19th Century European Christian missionary enterprise and colonial occupation began simultaneously at the start of colonial conquest and domination of Africa. 

The conquest of Africa was simple and was carried out with ease.  

While the missionaries preached submission, the colonisers began by sending mounted expeditions of military patrols through the areas as a way of demonstrating their military power, and gradually increased pressure for peaceful subjugation.

But, backed by a unified and determined people, African resistance was strong and, led by military commanders of superb intelligence, undertook various types of resistance ranging from primary resistance (bow and arrow) through religious to gun confrontation.   

Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field.  For comments e-mail: linamanucci@gmail.com


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