Colonialism and Imperialism

Citation metadata

Editors: John Middleton and Joseph C. Miller
Date: 2008
New Encyclopedia of Africa
From: New Encyclopedia of Africa(Vol. 1. 2nd ed.)
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 18
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1450L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 
Page 467

Colonialism and Imperialism

This entry includes the following articles:


The words “colonialism” and “imperialism” cannot be used without invoking their highly politicized pasts. They did not always have negative connotations: European statesmen once proudly proclaimed their imperial reach, insisting that they brought economic progress to the world and relief from backwardness and despotism to Africa. In the 1930s European nations mounted public exhibitions to display the accomplishments of colonization—vivid demonstrations of power, of good works, and of the ability of the colonizing state to integrate diverse but unequal cultures into a harmonious whole. Yet colonialism was also under attack even before European powers consolidated their rule over most of Africa in the early twentieth century. Europe’s role Page 468  |  Top of Articleas colonizer is often invoked for contradictory purposes: in assertions of Europe’s responsibility for extreme forms of inequality and dehumanization and in forms of colonial nostalgia and apology.

Imperialism—the exercise of power by a state beyond its borders—is much older than Europe itself and has taken many forms, from the Romans’ conquest of territory around the Mediterranean, to the imperialism of free trade exercised by Great Britain in the early nineteenth century, to the power of large corporations and industrial nations in the early twenty first century. Colonialism—the erection by a state of an apparatus of administrative control over peoples who are defined as distinct—is a specific form of imperialism, and it too has a long history.

Prior to the late nineteenth century, various imperial countries nibbled at the edges of Africa, but rarely did these conquering nations penetrate inland and more rarely still did they try to alter African societies. Before this time, the effects of Europe’s economic power—demonstrated through trade in slaves, ivory, gold, and other commodities— were widely though unevenly felt in Africa, influencing but not determining the political and economic structures of coastal and inland communities. Colonialism in the late nineteenth century was selfconsciously interventionist. After the Industrial Revolution, the advancement of military technologies and the self-confidence of bourgeois culture gave European elites a sense that their ways of organizing life stood not only for might but also for progress. Africa became an object of reformist imperialism because it could be portrayed as a slavery-ridden continent that was held in check by tyrants and isolated from the beneficial effects of commerce.

This kind of European imperialism soon became the object of critique, for a contradiction lay at its heart. Bourgeois ideology in nineteenth-century Europe derived its power from its claims to universality—to the superiority of the free market, the rationalist heritage of the Enlightenment, the orderly structures of states, and the rightness of self-rule—but colonization necessarily implied the rule of one particular people over another. The late-nineteenth-century conquest of Africa brought forth critics of imperialist violence and exploitation—and some doubts about the wisdom of intervention itself—and by the middle of the twentieth century, imperialism was being challenged ever more strongly from within and without.

The questioning of imperialism in twentieth-century Europe was sparked in part by Marxism, but Karl Marx himself had a profoundly ambiguous role in this process. He was committed to the idea of progress and saw capitalism as a step toward an eventual socialist world. In his writings on India, he portrayed the British conquest as both a horrific reflection of greed and inhumanity and as an unintentionally progressive step that quashed the backwardness of Hindu culture and opened up the possibility of a capitalist, and later a socialist, future.

The issue of imperialism confronted political theorists with important questions about Europe itself. J. A. Hobson, a British liberal, viewed imperialism as a consequence of underconsumption in metropolitan economies: he argued that by keeping workers’ wages as low as possible but investing profits in increased production, capitalists created domestic markets that could not sufficiently absorb their ever-expanding capacity. Capitalists therefore turned to their respective governments to find and protect new markets and maintain privileged access to resources, resulting in competition over the control of foreign territory. Hobson’s argument was a plea for improving the standard of living of the English working class in order to stave off deadly wars among rival colonizers.

Vladimir Lenin brought much of Hobson’s argument and data back into the Marxist fold, insisting that imperialism did not reflect a remediable flaw of European society but rather an inherent characteristic of a stage of capitalism. He directed much of his polemic against social democratic theories about reform in Europe, which he regarded as part of an imperialist effort to buy off members of the working class with the sweat and blood of conquered peoples abroad. Capitalism in colonies, for Lenin, was not a progressive but a parasitic force. Attached to the Soviet project, Lenin’s arguments had a mixed impact, for they were later both mobilized and contradicted by the Soviet Union’s shifting foreign policy.

Lenin’s argument resonated among—and to a significant extent was radicalized by—many colonial intellectuals in Africa, for it made sense of the exploi-tion they perceived in colonial economies in the early and mid-twentieth century. For them, colonization Page 469  |  Top of Articlewas an extractive process, producing superprofits for capitalists in remote wealthy métropoles, misery for local workers, and stagnation for colonial economies. But opponents to colonial rule could also be found in local communities, in regional networks of religious shrines, and in Islamic polities that had consolidated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Especially in coastal West Africa, Christian, Western-educated elites were marginalized by a European intrusion that claimed to represent values of Christianity and liberal politics. Such elites sometimes tried to find their ways within niches in the colonial system, while merchants and farmers often tried to turn colonial structures to their own interests.

Most people, however, were thwarted by the contradictions of colonial rule itself: the hypocrisy of a politics that professed rationality and individuality but discriminated against individuals on the grounds of race; that spoke in the name of the free market, but acted through arbitrary regulation and monopolies; and that claimed Christian virtues but stunted the development of Af rican personality. African critics of colonialism, like James Africanus Beale Horton and Edward Wilmot Blyden, emerged even while African states and communities were still trying to stave off or come to grips with the colonizing onslaught. Colonization never went uncontested: it was challenged in a multiplicity of idioms in Europe and in Africa, through different forms of mobilization, via efforts at selective appropriation as well as outright resistance.

Until roughly the 1980s, scholarly writing on colonialism took colonial projects as a given framework, whether evaluated positively or negatively. Colonial enterprises have been praised as innovative, condemned as exploitative, or written off as contributing little to the development of African economies or to capital accumulation in Europe— as a mere “episode” in African history. Much African history written after 1960 was constructed against the traditions of imperial history, both its critical and apologetic strands. Africanists on and off the continent wanted to help build a past usable for an Africa weakened by colonialism, one that would give integrity to Africa’s own institutions and cultures and put the contemporary task of nation-building in the context of a longer African history of innovation and adaptation. Precolonial Africa and resistance were worthy subjects for this nationalist historiography, but what Africans resisted was often treated as obvious—as oppression incarnate—and not worthy of the same kind of culturally attuned analysis received by other aspects of African society.

The fact that economic dependence outlived colonialism’s end in the 1960s gave new life to theories of imperialism. In the early 1970s, a West Indian scholar and activist, Walter Rodney, placed colonial rule in the wider context of European economic power, arguing that the “underdevelop-ment” of Africa began with the slave trade and that the African states and elites that participated in it became addicted to forms of commerce that distorted local economic growth and tied African leaders to a subordinate position in the world economy. Economic dependence had preceded as well as survived colonization.

Rodney’s argument remained within the tradition of seeing imperialism in economic terms. Some scholars argue, however, that both the economic causes and effects of imperialism in Africa have been overstated. Far from being a necessary focus of European commercial interests, Africa received very little capital investment from its colonizers, and investors concentrated on just a few places and commodities. Scholars have also explained British involvement in Africa as a necessary side effect of its strategic interests in India, in the Suez Canal, and in Egypt—the vital communications line of the Empire. Britain’s attitude, in this analysis, was strictly defensive: to keep other colonizers away from the Nile and retain trading areas established earlier. Even so, Britain did end up with some of the choicest territory.

If Great Britain consolidated its advantages from an earlier imperialism of free trade by claiming territory in Africa, other European states regarded Africa as a resource useful for catching up to the British. France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and Portugal may have followed fantasies of future economic potential—and fears of being preempted by others—more than current interests. Portugal, relatively poor among European countries, was perhaps the most economic of imperialists; achieving state control over resources in African colonies was the only way for its firms to compete. Several historians have added that the causes of imperialism should not be sought exclusively in Europe but Page 470  |  Top of Articlealso in Africa itself, since the conflicts between Africans and Europeans gave rise to tensions and insecurities that limited advancing trade frontiers and brought about a radical European intervention to redefine the terms of interaction in the colonizers’ favor.

Economic interests, from another perspective, were mediated by the perceptions of publics and elites. In Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, governments were beginning to face the social dislocations of industrialization; consequently, organizing the seemingly chaotic communities— abroad as well as at home—now made political sense. Crucial to making intervention plausible was imperial propaganda, especially after reports of David Livingstone’s voyages of the early 1860s contrasted commerce, Christianity, and civilization in Europe with slavery, tyranny, and insecurity in Africa.

As soon as any European power moved into a part of Africa, others were likely to follow for fear of losing future opportunities. In that way, tentative, low-cost initiatives in the 1870s evolved into the “scramble” for Africa. Yet in spite of the rivalries, a collective cultural arrogance shared by European colonizers asserted itself. At the Berlin Conference of 1884 and again at the Brussels Conference of 1889-1890, these European powers set out rules for claiming territory in Africa and agreed on the duties of a colonizing power: preventing Africans from trading in slaves, arms, or liquor. Africans were perceived as disorderly and incapable of self-control or economic progress, and Europeans were viewed as responsible and disciplined.

But if European states arrogated to themselves the right to alter the economic and political lives of Africans, the extent to which the colonizers could actually determine the direction of change was much less clear. Despite its lesser power, wealth, and global influence, Africa had a critical role in shaping its encounter with Europe. Africa, in fact, remains one of the most important examples worldwide of the limits of the forced imposition of European culture and capitalism. Studies of both western and eastern Africa, for instance, show the failure of early British efforts to implement anti-slavery ideology in order to turn African slaveowners into capitalist landlords and slaves into workers. The colonial state was unable to produce the social or economic forms it sought. Instead, slaves and slaveowners forged new forms of production by reconstituting less oppressive but still unequal relationships. Some ex-slaves also found niches for themselves in the colonial cash economy, where they could minimize dependence on both their employers and their former masters.

The most successful effort at forcing Africans into a subordinate role in a capitalist economy occurred in South Africa. Oppression there depended not only on the program of racial engineering of the 1890s and 1900s, but also on the presence of a settler population from an earlier period—before the discovery of diamonds in the 1860s and gold in the 1880s gave a new impetus to British involvement. White Europeans’ presence in the country allowed them to form a class of capitalists and managers who were conscious of their racial distinctiveness, as well as a bureaucracy that could control the movement of Africans between wage-labor jobs and increasingly miserable lives in rural “reserves.” Colonialism became internalized, and a white-run Union of South Africa became independent in 1910. Although the Rhodesias, Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, and Mozambique also had European settler communities, these nations did not achieve South Africa’s version of white domination and capitalist development. In nineteenth-century Algeria, France built a colonial society similar to South Africa on a territory considered an integral part of France itself. European immigrants from around the Mediterranean as well as from France were defined as French citizens, in contrast to the majority Muslim resident population of Algeria, who were deemed “subjects” and denied the rights of citizens.

Some of the economic successes of colonial regimes in Africa came about more through African than European agency. For example, the vast expansion of cocoa production in the Gold Coast at the turn of the twentieth century, in Nigeria starting in the 1920s, and in Côte d’Ivoire beginning in the 1940s took place in the absence of colonial initiatives to develop this natural resource. Colonizers generally had difficulty inducing Africans to produce cash crops. Africans also were reluctant to sell their labor except in small units of time, a tactic designed to straddle a village economy with few cash resources and a wage-labor economy that offered minimal wages and security. This reluctance was probably more important than colonial strategies in forcing wage labor into a largely migrant mold. Most Page 471  |  Top of ArticleAfricans worked for European employers for only a year or two. Rural resources not only kept urban and industrial wages low, but also made recruitment insecure and reduced employers’ control over the production process.

The geography of economic colonialism was therefore highly uneven. Islands of cash-crop production, wage-labor agriculture, and mining were surrounded by vast labor catchment areas in which coercion and lack of economic alternatives were necessary if Europeans were to recruit any laborers at all. These spatial limitations of colonial rule also held true politically. The conquerors could concentrate military force to defeat African armies or “pacify” villages, but the routinization of power often demanded alliances with local authority figures, be they lineage heads or recently defeated kings. Any supposed distinction between British “indirect rule” and French “association” was less significant than the political realities on the ground, in which sparse colonial personnel relied consistently on collaborators among their supposed African “subjects.”

In recent years, the study of colonialism has largely moved away from the questions of political economy that were raised in the 1970s toward a focus on European projects of cultural transformation and their complex effects: the “colonization of the mind,” as it is sometimes termed. Literary as well as historical scholarship has pointed out that European national or continental self-representations depended on ascribing “otherness” to non-European populations. An Africa of tribes and tradition was set against a Europe of technology and progress that was coupled with a version of Christianity linked to the individual seeking salvation and its earthly benefits. European missionaries played a profoundly influential role in education, especially when compared to the feeble efforts of colonial states until near the end of the colonial era, even in the case of the secular Republican French government.

Such analyses demonstrate how deeply colonialism was woven into what it meant to be European and help to explain competing visions and tensions among colonizers. From the European side, it was not always clear whether the idea of civilization was meant to be a project for raising Africans in a European image or a standard that Africans could never truly meet and which therefore legitimated the colonial hierarchy. From the African side, the question is what Africans actually thought about the symbolic structure of colonial power or European civilization. The cultural edifice of the West could be taken apart brick by brick by Africans and parts of it could be used to shape quite different cultural visions of their own. The growth of messianic Christian cults, which turned the missionaries’ message of deliverance upside down, was only one example of this process. For young people, education and wage labor could be used as a means to subvert patriarchal authority within African communities and maneuver among different secular and religious institutions in colonial society. Literacy in a European language could be a means to record and pass on indigenous conceptions of history and a tool to make claims on European and African authorities. As studies of cultural and social change have deepened, a scholarly trend that began with the duality of European modernity and African tradition has had to confront the artificiality of such dichotomies and acknowledge the complex bricolages that Africans actually assembled out of various practices and beliefs.

An historical perspective on the colonial experience that focuses on the interaction of Africans and Europeans points to a schematic but useful period-ization. The early colonial period, around 1900, witnessed attempts at systematically imposed change as well as crude and violent forms of appropriation— most notoriously in King Léopold’s Congo and Portuguese Angola—but both methods underestimated the ability of Africans to flee, resist, or selectively assimilate. By World War I, European powers had served notice on one another that their worst excesses were giving imperialism a bad name around the world and endangering order in the colonies, but they had also discovered that African society was not going to be remade easily. In the interwar period, Great Britain, most notably, had the temerity to assert that its failures were actually a deliberate strategy of indirect rule—to conserve African social and cultural forms while slowly purging them of their unacceptable features (such as witchcraft) and adapting them to export economies. The Africa being conserved, of course, was more the product of the previous two decades than that of timeless tradition.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the mediocrity of Africa’s colonial transformation Page 472  |  Top of Articleallowed officials to diffuse the problems of lowered earnings and reduced employment in the cities into the surrounding countryside. The midcentury colonial crisis began with a partial economic recovery in the late 1930s and it exploded during and after World War II. By then, France and Great Britain, especially, saw a heightened need for the resources of their empires to rebuild their domestic economies. They faced challenges, however, not only from opposition movements within Africa and the West Indies but also from their war allies, who saw “self-determination” as a primary aim of the war: to demonstrate that colonized people could find progress under a European aegis.

In response to this imperative, Great Britain and France began “development” drives in 1940 and 1946, respectively. These drives also countered mounting protests from African wage laborers, who found that development within the confines of the narrow colonial infrastructure resulted in escalating prices and little prospect for improvement in their lives. A wave of strikes, beginning in 1935 in British Africa and in 1946 in French Africa, was countered by government attempts to move from migrancy to “stabilization” and to invoke the experience of managing class conflict in Europe to incorporate Africans into the social order in a more controllable way. Doing so meant making a discursive as well as an economic break with the past, starting to think of Africans as potentially modern people. Meanwhile, the attempts to impose a scientific and dynamic vision of agriculture—such as projects to reduce soil erosion—through characteristically coercive colonial methods mobilized opposition in many rural areas. Only after World War II did images of backward Africa and progressive Europe became a program for action rather than a representation of hierarchy—and such a conception soon proved to be costly.

Once again, colonial intervention generated conflict without leading to the breakthrough in economic structure promised by the top-down conception of development. Whether nationalist efforts were strong enough to overthrow colonial rule by themselves is unclear, but social movements of a variety of sorts—from labor unions to anti-conservation movements to consumer revolts— were escalating and coalescing into coherent anti-colonial forces, sometimes in conflict with one another. Unable to gain control of Africa, European powers began to think more seriously about the Africa that actually existed. Its potential had to be compared with the alternative possibilities of making additional investments in a Europe that was moving toward closer commercial integration. By the mid-1950s, as France and Great Britain calculated that the costs of colonial rule outweighed the benefits, the possibility of negotiating a disengagement and a positive postcolonial relationship with African elites began to seem more attractive than the political risks and socioeconomic uncertainties of continued colonial rule.

Decolonization meant both a devolution of political power and an abdication of responsibility for the consequences of what Europe had unleashed. Belgium joined the exodus in 1960, leaving the Congo to an ill-prepared future that proved predictably traumatic. Portugal intensified its efforts to extract resources from its empire, exacerbating local resistance and inviting international opprobrium throughout the 1960s. Settler colonists in Zimbabwe held out even longer, until 1980, while white-ruled South Africa became a public pariah (although often a private partner) of Western states until its ability to maintain order at home and connections abroad collapsed in the 1980s and early 1990s.

What followed colonial rule, some scholars say, was not true independence but neocolonialism. The trouble with this concept is that it offers a simple answer where a good question is in order: how is power exercised over formally sovereign states? Relatively weak African states confronted this question in a changing world: the “advanced” as well as the “postcolonial” state was at issue, as was the significance in international politics of multinational corporations and international organizations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But in Africa sovereignty changed the way in which states articulated their missions and the way in which leaders defined their relationship to followers. The once-colonial idea of development became a concept adopted by newly independent nations, with financial and investment policies directed toward national ends.

In African countries, social groups linked to those in power obtained privileged access to resources, often international investments. Colonial and Page 473  |  Top of Articlepostcolonial development shared a statist orientation and a tendency to claim superior knowledge to be used for the benefit of a peasantry whose ideas were not solicited. Both versions initially achieved positive results, in the form of longer life spans, improved literacy, and the opening up of opportunities to a larger portion of the population, but the development process did not provide the economic strength or autonomy to help Africa through the world economic crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, when much of the former gains were erased. But the burst of citizen activism in colonial Africa in the 1940s and 1950s (and in the 1970s through 1990s in southern Africa), combined with the longer-term ability of Africans to refashion or hold at arms length the changes imposed on them, should continue to serve as reminders that structures of power can indeed be pried apart.


Aveneri, Schlomo, ed. Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968.

Boahen, A. Adu, ed. UNESCO General History of Africa: Africa under Colonial Domination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Cain, P. J., and A. G. Hopkins. British Imperialism, 1688-2000, 2nd edition. London: Longman, 2003.

Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff. From Revelation to Revolution. 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Conklin, Alice. A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Cooper, Frederick. Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Cooper, Frederick. Africa since 1940: The Past of the Present. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Hobson, J. A. Imperialism: A Study. New York: Garden Press, 1975.

Lenin, V. I. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. New York: International Publishers, 1969.

Marseille, Jacques. Empire colonial et capitalisme français: Histoire d’un divorce. Paris: Albin Michel, 1984.

Mazrui, Ali, ed. UNESCO General History of Africa: Africa since 1935. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

McKittrick, Meredith. To Dwell Secure: Generation, Christianity, and Colonialism in Ovamboland. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002.

Robinson, Ronald, and John Gallagher. Africa and the Victorians: The Climax of Imperialism in the Dark Continent. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1961.

Rodney, Walter. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. London: Bogle-L’Ouverture, 1972.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Stora, Benjamin. Algeria 1830-2000: A Short History. Trans, by Jane Marie Todd. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Thomas, Lynn. Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.



Colonial rule in Africa was a culmination of the late-nineteenth-century European invasion, partition, and conquest of the continent. The manner in which these imperialist aggressions unfolded, and the experience of African societies under the system instituted by the conquerors for the consummation of their objectives, are the concern of this essay.


Shorn of its Hobsonian and Marxist-Leninist theo-rizings, imperialism is essentially about the establishment of dominion or rule (imperium), usually, but not necessarily, by an alien power over peoples of another stock, for the purposes of expanding the commerce and other economic interests of the imperial power; for the promotion of its political and strategic interests; or sometimes solely for the sake of prestige. Imperialism is thus generally exploitative and aggressive. Ancient imperial powers like Egypt, Assyria, and Rome not only erected boastful memorials to their conquests, they paraded the loot and imposts exacted from subject peoples. The deeds of European empire builders and proconsuls in Africa were little different, no matter the claims of the “civilizing mission” myth.

European imperialism in Africa evolved in two major phases. The first, more aggressive and Page 474  |  Top of Articleviolent, began with the European “scramble” for African territory and ended with the continent’s partition and conquest. The second phase saw the institution of imperialism into a system—colonialism—by which the continent was organized and administered for maximum economic exploitation. It is significant that these events occurred before Africa had had time to recover from the ravages of what was arguably the most tragic episode in human history, the slave trade. For Africa, colonialism was thus, in a sense, a continuation of the slave trade in other ways—the exploitation of the black peoples in situ.

Imperialism in the colonial phase was, however, not entirely without some benefits, such as new infrastructures or, in some localities, new economic opportunities. But it would be an exaggeration to conclude that these palliatives transformed an essentially economic venture into a philanthropic enterprise. In this regard, it is instructive to note that a century or so prior to the 1880s, Africa had witnessed a genuine European philanthropic initiative directed at repairing the ravages of the slave trade. Under the inspiration and leadership of the British antislavery and evangelical movements, and with substantial support from government circles, it was decided to bring Christian civilization to Africa. A colony for freed slaves was founded in Sierra Leone in 1787, and in 1841 an elaborate expedition sponsored by the British government was dispatched to establish a Christian agricultural community on the Niger (in modern Nigeria). Meanwhile, a crusade of sorts by Christian missionaries from all over Europe was making its way to different parts of the African continent to convert the people and propagate Western culture.

The potentials of these humanitarian projects for meaningful change in Africa can be gauged from the results that were becoming manifest along the western African coast by the 1850s. A Western-educated elite was gradually emerging, its members assuming positions of responsibility and eminence in the church, in business, in the professions, and from the 1880s, in the governance of European colonies like the Gold Coast and Lagos. It was at this point, when Africans were starting to adopt and adapt European civilization, and to play a role in the “civilizing” programs designed by the West, that a change in European policy began. Where Africans had hitherto been accepted as human beings—“benighted” but capable of being civilized—they were now regarded as subhuman, fit only to be conquered and despoiled. This new attitude soon infected even the European missionaries, who henceforth, quite unjustly and on account of racial arrogance, denied otherwise qualified Africans leadership positions in the church. By and large, humanitarianism thereafter became a cover for predatory aggression.


Four major factors influenced the pattern of European expansion in Africa before the “scramble”: European traders, Christian missionaries, British antislavery patrols off the coasts of Africa, and the situation within the African states. Following the late-fifteenth-century initial Portuguese contact, the first European settlements in Africa were established by traders. These included Saint-Louis in Senegal, Bathurst (Banjul) in present-day Gambia, and the famous Gold Coast forts of Cape Coast and Elmina. The relationship between the traders and their African hosts was regulated by treaties, and in the course of time the Europeans, like the Muslim traders in the medieval Sudan, began to exert some measure of cultural influence on neighboring communities. This was particularly marked in the Gold Coast, where in 1844 Governor George Maclean negotiated a number of “bonds” empowering the British to participate in the administration of justice in the Fante states.

The traders generally preferred to be independent of their home governments. Nevertheless, they naturally turned to the latter whenever their security was threatened. Hence there was the occasional gunboat to overawe menacing African neighbors. This practice, as well as the conclusion of treaties of “commerce and friendship,” sometimes with extraterritorial clauses, became common from the 1820s. Similarly, with the commencement of British antislavery naval patrols, a new phase in Afro-European relations came into being. Britain, followed by France and Germany, appointed consuls at strategic points along the coast, or wherever, as in Zanzibar and the bights of Bénin and Biafra, commercial interests or political considerations dictated such a course. The “informal empire” of the trader was thus being reinforced by the influence of Page 475  |  Top of Articlethe consul supported by military muscle. It was this combination that brought about the deposition of King Kosoko of Lagos in 1851. Across the continent in the Sultanate of Zanzibar, British consuls and political agents had similarly succeeded in converting that state into a quasi-protectorate of their government by the 1860s.

Although European settlement in coastal Africa was pioneered by traders, it was Christian missions that extended imperial influence inland before the “scramble.” As outposts of European civilization the mission stations were, according to Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston, a British imperialist agent, “essay[s] in colonization.” The missionaries mediated the disputes of host communities and acted as intermediates between them and the advancing imperialist agencies. Yet neither this nor Christian charity prevented them from sometimes communicating vital intelligence to the invading European armies or inviting military expeditions against states that resisted Christian proselytizing. The Christian missions were, above all, a disruptive force, partly because of their iconoclastic attitude to African culture and partly because their converts usually renounced the authority of their chiefs while advocating the institution of European rule, which they expected to advance the spread of the Gospel and facilitate the development of commerce and Western civilization.

Remarkably, African rulers developed no common policy toward European incursion, even though many of them had a network of diplomatic ties. While empires like Asante and Bénin tried to regulate or ban contact with Europeans, most coastal states had become too dependent on overseas trade to contemplate this course. Moreover, interstate and local tensions enabled the Europeans to recruit African allies.

Thus, until the late 1870s, the trader, the consul, and the missionary were the main agencies of European expansion. It is important to add that for the most part, their activities lacked the brazen aggressiveness that characterized the advent of the “scramble.” It is not easy to explain the change, but in addition to traders and missionaries, Africa was now attracting other kinds of Europeans: merchant adventurers, railway engineers, entrepreneurs, and soldiers—ruthless and, for the most part, unscrupulous men who had little sympathy with the earlier humanitarian dream of re-creating European culture in Africa. Convinced that the era of free trade was at the end, they urged their governments to secure colonies that would serve as sources of raw materials as well as markets for manufactured goods. Meanwhile, the policy makers in Europe, who had hitherto been reluctant to commit themselves to imperial expansion, were now becoming more responsive to the advocates of colonial possessions at home as well as apostles of empire in Africa itself.

The international European rivalry that heralded the “scramble” started in western Africa as a duel between the French and the British, first for control of the Niger Basin and subsequently for the acquisition of the coastal territories between present-day Sierra Leone and Bénin. By 1882 France had succeeded in linking its bases in the Senegal and Upper Niger Valleys, and George Taubman Goldie, the British proprietor of the Royal Niger Company, had in 1884 bought out his French rivals and secured the Lower Niger for Britain.

Almost simultaneously, a four-way conflict involving King Léopold of Belgium, France, Britain, and Portugal was raging over the Congo Basin. While King Léopold and France established posts on opposite banks of the river, Britain and Portugal struck a pact in 1884 reasserting the latter’s historic claim to the mouth of the river. Meanwhile Otto von Bismarck, the German chancellor, had joined the race for African colonies by staking claims to territories in eastern Africa, southwestern Africa, Togo, and Cameroon.

The “scramble” was now in full swing. Apart from the diplomatic wrangles, alliances, and intrigues which it generated among the European powers, Africa was invaded by adventurers of all sorts intent on inducing rulers to sign treaties purporting to cede their countries to this or that European power. The Berlin Conference of November 1884 to February 1885 eventually drew up rules regulating the procedure for annexing the territories covered by the treaties and other claims while avoiding intra-European conflict. Except for the recognition by the powers of a new and “sovereign” state (albeit under King Léopold II of Belgium), in the Congo Basin, the actual partitioning began after the conference, through bilateral agreements which took several Page 476  |  Top of Articleyears to negotiate. Only Emperor Menilek II of Ethiopia, of all African rulers, participated in the partitioning even though he was not invited to the congress. He won this signal distinction by his defeat of the invading Italian forces at Adwa in 1896, thereby saving his country and thereafter embarking on expansionist moves of his own, on the basis of which he concluded boundary agreements with Britain, France, and Italy between 1897 and 1908. In western Africa, the British and the French settled the boundaries of their respective colonies in two phases: 1887 to 1889, and 1892 to 1895. And in eastern Africa, the sultan of Zanzibar’s dominions along with the other polities were partitioned between Britain and Germany in the years 1886 to 1890.

Meanwhile, from the late 1870s, the tempo of advancing European imperialism had begun to cause disquiet among African peoples. From the Senegal to the Upper and Lower Niger Basins, as well as in the Congo and east-central Africa, there were apprehensions that the Europeans were out to seize the land. The local conflicts and armed skirmishes that thus developed were subsequently transformed into full-scale wars as European armies invaded Africa to make good their territorial claims in conformity with the Berlin Conference principle of “effective occupation.” Although the African forces enjoyed numerical advantage, the outcome of the protracted wars was generally decided by the piecemeal nature of the campaigns; the fact that interstate rivalries enabled European armies to secure African allies; and the superiority of European weapons such as the Gatling and Maxim guns. That African armies gave good accounts of themselves is evident from victories by the Zulu (1879), the Hehe (1891), and the Ethiopians (1896) over European forces. But the ferocity and heroism of the resistance were no match for the ruthlessness and brutality of the invading forces. By the eve of World War I the whole of the continent except Ethiopia and Liberia had been overrun. But even as the conquest was in progress, European imperialism was moving into its next phase—colonialism.


Pro-imperialism treatises usually represent colonialism as a crusade armed with a blueprint for the development of Africa. In reality the system was designed to promote imperial interests and maintain a level of colonial law and order conducive to maximum economic exploitation. But partly as an afterthought, and by way of rationalizing their activities, the imperial rulers began to advertise colonialism as a humanitarian mission. Yet, the main instrument for securing African acquiescence in the new order was force. Colonial armies and constabularies were organized, into which such Africans as the Zulu, the Somali, and the Hausa (martial races, according to colonial myth) were recruited.

The new order was anchored on two institutions: the colonial economy and the colonial state. The latter was often an amalgam of two or more indigenous polities, its borders sometimes splitting peoples who had hitherto been political and cultural units between different European colonial administrations. Thus, whereas the traditional African state was more or less a community with reciprocal interests, the colonial state at its inception was usually an artificial entity put together for administrative convenience. An important feature of the new state was the urban center, which, for peoples with dispersed settlement patterns like the Igbo (Ibo) and the Gikuyu, was an innovation. The towns eventually became administrative as well as business headquarters.

The administration of the colonial state consisted of two tiers of government, central and local. The former was composed of white officials who exercised somewhat summary legislative, executive, and judicial functions without any real division of powers. Thus the governor was the chief executive as well as the principal lawmaker who could issue decrees and proclamations. Outside the urban centers political officers in fact functioned as magistrates and judges besides their administrative functions, and professional law officers in the judiciary acted more or less as civil servants. The local governments, which supposedly were controlled by traditional authorities, were in reality an expedient device for solving the problems of expense and personnel. Whereas the French and, to a lesser extent, the Belgians virtually reduced African kings and chiefs to petty officials, the British usually increased their powers under a system known as indirect rule, by which the chiefs were made responsible to British officials in the exercise of “traditional” powers defined by the British Page 477  |  Top of Articleoverlords. Far from strengthening traditional institutions, indirect rule led to their perversion by freeing chiefs from customary restraints and making them instruments of colonial autocracy.

The system of dual administration—the colonial overlying the neotraditional—might have been expected to lead to mutual interaction and the adaptation from this of a modern African system of government. But such interaction could not take place. The colonial administrations were dominated by white officials, and it was only reluctantly that educated Africans, after World War II, were nominated, and later elected, to serve in them. But the same educated elite was, by and large, deliberately excluded from participation in the neotraditional councils and other institutions of indirect rule. The colonial system succeeded in maintaining a modicum of stability without promoting the development of indigenous political institutions or providing any real training for Africans in the Western system. Predictably, when at independence the educated elite had to assume power, it chose to take over the colonial states in preference to both the precolonial political institutions and their neotraditional versions.

The colonial economy was another pivotal institution and, in many ways, the raison d’être of European imperialism in Africa. Well before the nineteenth century, Africa had developed a system of regional trading networks based on products from local industries and agriculture, as well as foreign goods. The European economy became increasingly buoyant, thanks to the scientific and industrial revolutions, plus centuries of overseas trade.

Nevertheless, until colonialism, Africa was Europe’s trading partner, not its economic appendage. The colonial economic institution was designed to change all that. The first step was to wrest the control of trade from middlemen, like the Swahili states of the eastern African coast, and powerful magnates, like Ja Ja, king of the Niger Delta state of Opobo. Many of the wars resisting European penetration in the Lower Niger, in eastern Africa, and in the Congo Basin were precipitated by European measures to take control of trade.

A fundamental point in the emergent colonial economy was its export-import reorientation. The decline of regional trading networks, which was facilitated by the new colonial boundaries, as well as the smothering of local industries through the flooding of African markets with European goods, contributed to this development. Encouragement was, however, given to the growth of cash crops like cocoa, peanuts, coffee, tea, and cotton, organized so as to ensure that a colony specialized in one major crop, such as cocoa in the Gold Coast and Côte d’Ivoire, peanuts in Senegal and the Gambia, and cotton in Uganda. Even in those areas, there were European firms or prosperous merchants and produce buyers who stood between the African producer and the world market, and skimmed off most of the profit.

The preferential treatment reserved for white farmers in settler colonies like Kenya and Southern Rhodesia, not to mention South Africa, is another feature of colonial economic policy. On the excuse that settlers were expected to become the base of economic life in these colonies, the best lands were alienated to them at giveaway prices, while special laws were enacted and taxes instituted to force Africans to leave their plots and seek wage labor on white farms. Paradoxically, even where, as in Kenya, peasant production was doing well in terms of export promotion, the colonial authorities used administrative measures to impose restrictions on African farmers so as to boost white production. In the Belgian Congo, African produce was purchased by white farmers and resold at handsome profits.

A notable feature of the colonial economic system was that its development strategies served, particularly in retrospect, to consolidate imperial rule, to subordinate the African economy to that of the imperial power, and to make European businesses, rather than African communities, the main beneficiaries of the exploitation of African resources. Thus, with the introduction of money and the establishment of banking institutions, these banks’ funds, including savings deposited by Africans, were invested in the colonizing countries. Banking laws often discouraged the granting of loans to African entrepreneurs. Similarly, the development of transport infrastructures (railways, ports, and road networks) was geared to the exploitation of minerals and the movement of cash crops for export. In this regard, in places like western Africa, where individual entrepreneurs and motor transport companies were able to participate in road transport, trucks became more effective than Page 478  |  Top of Articlerailways in stimulating African production and economic activities generally.

Although the new economic dispensation and the colonial state represented the most obvious manifestations of colonialism, Christianity and Western education were also important cultural components of European imperialism in Africa. Of course, neither evangelization nor the spread of education per se was the concern of the imperial rulers. But the advance of European power stimulated a rapid expansion of Christianity after an initial cultural resistance. Christianity, in turn, promoted the educational program (usually with some support from the colonial authorities) which nurtured a new class of Africans—Christian ministers, teachers, and clerks—who sought accommodation with colonial rule. Although it was from this same class that the grave diggers of colonialism later emerged, some of its members, especially Christian ministers, believed that Europe was executing a divine mission to free the African continent from “paganism” and “darkness.” In the French, Belgian, and Portuguese colonies, ambitious educated Africans assiduously pursued the qualifications laid down for “assimilation,” while their counterparts in the British colonies celebrated Empire Day (24 May) by singing “Rule, Brittania.”

By the 1930s the colonial state had achieved a measure of stability except for occasional insurrections against official abuses. The economic infrastructures, whatever their limitations for transforming the age-old system of production in Africa, had secured to the colonial powers’ industries a regular supply of raw materials as well as a stable market. Above all, Africans had come to accept colonial rule as a fact of life, such that the most fervent nationalists merely pleaded for a role for Africans within colonial administrations. The traditional rulers, descendants of the intrepid kings who had led their people in resistance against colonial conquest, were now loyal subjects of their imperial masters. Certainly the European powers had every cause to be elated at the success and prospects of the imperial venture in Africa.


In spite of this euphoria of the imperial conqueror, the impact of colonialism on Africa, in terms of what development it generated and the extent to which it was a landmark in the continent’s history, remains a widely debated issue. Scholarly attention has been devoted to the strategies or initiatives by which African peoples survived imperial rule, and the fact that many African institutions managed, in spite of colonial constraints, to survive until independence and after. There is no gainsaying the fact that these studies have enabled scholars to have a better understanding of the colonial situation as well as the nature of the impact of imperial rule on African societies. Nevertheless, it is necessary to look more closely at the context in which African strategies and initiatives for surviving colonialism operated and the extent to which these somewhat circumscribed circumstances influenced the nature and quality of the initiatives.

Similarly, while it is true that African institutions survived European rule, greater attention needs to be paid to the form in which they have done so. In other words, if Africa had been free (as Japan was at the time it chose to borrow certain aspects of Western civilization), what would it have opted for in such areas as ethos, material production, and sociopolitical institutions? Issues like these can illuminate the limitations of the choices open to African societies under colonialism, as well as the gravity of the problems arising from the foisting on African peoples of institutions not designed for their best interests.

The economy is one important area in which the validity of the above views can be tested. The main problems of production before the colonial era were labor, technology in the form of tools and techniques, land, and transport and related infrastructure. The problems of land and labor were interrelated. Because land was accessible to all, there was no labor market outside of the slave system. At the same time, there was little incentive for innovations in land use, not to mention developments in crafts, techniques, and tools. African peoples were all too conscious of these problems, hence such appeals as that of the Mani Kongo to the Portuguese in the early sixteenth century and that of the chiefs of Old Calabar to Captain William Owen of the British Navy in 1828 for artisans, tools, and machines.

The solutions prescribed by colonialism for these problems are implicit in the economic system instituted by the imperial rulers. The interrelated problem of land and labor was tackled by depriving Page 479  |  Top of Articlethe peoples of eastern, central, and southern Africa of much of their land, which was alienated to European settlers. Where this was not enough to guarantee cheap labor for white farms, company plantations, and the mines, taxes were instituted as an incentive to wage labor or, whenever necessary, labor was conscripted.

It must be conceded that conditions in other parts of the continent, and indeed in certain areas of the settler colonies, were not as bleak for the average African as described above. In addition, mention ought to be made of signal innovations within the economy, such as the introduction of cash-crop farming, the development of transport facilities, and the promotion of Western education, albeit largely through the efforts of the Christian missions. In other words, the colonial economic system created new opportunities that produced some affluent individuals who, especially in the cash-crop areas, could afford modern tin-roofed buildings or become owners of trucks. There was also a new class of businessmen with some basic education who became agents of the commenricai companies owned by Europeans. Nevertheless, living conditions for the new class of wage earners were often hard. They were even worse for the mass of the people tilling the land with the same old tools, who were obliged to pay colonial tributes euphemistically referred to as taxes.

The overall economy was characterized by the concentration of “development” in a few urban centers at the expense of the rural areas, which, in addition, lost their many promising sons and daughters to the cities and towns through migration in search of education or better opportunities. Many traditional local industries became moribund, and no amount of African initiative could change the orientation and structure of an economy dependent on outside forces or arrest the extraction of the wealth of the African continent by the giant European companies. Indeed, the legacy of the colonial economy is one of the major factors in the late-twentieth-century predicament in Africa.

As pointed out earlier, there was considerable disruption of sociopolitical institutions during the colonial era. For example, many of the polities and kingdoms were destroyed, split up, or merged in the process of creating the colonial states. Owing to the divide-and-rule policy of colonial administrations, there was little desire to integrate the often disparate ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups in these states into coherent units. Nor was there much enthusiasm, since colonial rule was expected to endure almost indefinitely, to provide training in the running of Western political institutions. African societies responded to the disruption of their sociopolitical institutions in different ways. For example, even in the French and Belgian colonies, where the kingdoms were destroyed or split into convenient administrative units, the people kept some of the institutions going by continuing to provide for the maintenance of their kings and chiefs. Similarly, organizations designed for the vitality of social units like clans, lineages, age groups, and the like continued to thrive, especially outside the new urban areas. But perhaps the most crucial impact of colonialism in this area is that it progressively destroyed the social control and judicial functions of esoteric societies and cults, without establishing viable Western alternatives. By the same token, wherever indirect rule was instituted, colonialism served to reinforce existing autocratic tendencies in governance and to introduce them even where they were alien to the indigenous political culture. The manipulations to which the chieftaincy institution was subjected in the colonial period thus began a trend in which traditional rulers became a reactionary and corruptive force in society rather than guardians of communal morality and values.

The nature of the overall cultural impact of colonialism may be evaluated in the field of Western education. By the time colonial rule officially came to an end, Western culture was barely skin deep. In the early twenty-first century basic values derived from Western ideas of individual rights, accountability, and the responsibility of rulers to the governed remain remote from realization in political life. Moreover, the African worldview continues to be defined by the magical and preternatural ethos of African science. Hence diviners and soothsayers enjoy the patronage of the educated elite, and African gods, in spite of revivalist Christianity and Islam, continue to attract followers. Nevertheless, these survivals of authentic African culture do not prevent African models of development from being based on the pattern established by colonialism. Hence, educational policies are often divorced from African values, and Page 480  |  Top of Articleresearch is seldom undertaken in areas such as traditional medicine or the African approach to the mastery of natural forces.

It is in the area of ethos that colonialism may have exerted the greatest negative impact on African societies. Most Africans tended to see the colonial state as an institution for exploitation and plunder. Unlike the traditional polities and communities, it conferred no benefits, rendered no services, and therefore deserved no loyalty. People were therefore not expected to expend much energy in its service, since, according to a Yoruba saying, “a kii se ise oba Iaagùn” (one need not dissipate sweat in the service of the king [i.e., the imperial government]). The state was fair game for looters and cheats. And since people today see little distinction between the colonial state and its rulers, on the one hand, and the emergent nation-state and its African overlords, on the other, the attitudes to the former have been transferred to the latter. This is perhaps one important explanation of the incidence of corruption in public life in contemporary Africa, where private morality does not apply in the domain of public office.

In sum, in assessing the overall impact of colonialism, it is vital to see beyond its superstructures, which were created for its own sustenance. After all, Europe went into Africa in pursuit of its own interests, even if the apologists of imperialism maintain that a continent could be invaded, subjugated, and exploited for its own good, or that foreign powers could have a “mandate,” as Frederick Lugard claims, to take possession of the resources of other people’s land, on the pretext of making them available to humanity. The much-vaunted claim that European rule established peace in Africa has proved rather exaggerated—this much has become obvious with the collapse, since independence, of the fragile structures bequeathed by colonialism. As for the advances Africa is supposed to have made under colonial tutelage, one might observe, with perhaps no more than a touch of overstatement, that the African went into colonialism with the hoe and the machete of his own manufacture, and came out using the same tools, which he now had to import.


Ajayi, J. F. Ade. “The Continuity of African Institutions under Colonialism.” In Emerging Themes of African History, ed. Terence O. Ranger. London: Heinemann Educational, 1968.

Ajayi, J. F Ade. “Colonialism: An Episode in African History.” In Colonialism in Africa, 1870-1960, Vol. 1, ed. Lewis H. Gann and Peter Duignan. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Boahen, A. Adu, ed. Africa under Colonial Domination, 1880-1935. UNESCO General History of Africa, Vol. 7. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Crowder, Michael. Colonial West Africa. London: K Cass, 1978.

Gann, Lewis H., and Peter Duignan. Burden of Empire: An Appraisal of Western Colonialism in Africa South of the Sahara. New York: Praeger, 1967.

Gann, Lewis H., and Peter Duignan. Colonialism in Africa, 1870-1960. 5 vols. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969-1975. See Vol. 1: The History and Politics of Colonialism, 1870-1914, and Vol. 4: The Economics of Colonialism.

Hargreaves, J. D. Prelude to the Partition of West Africa. London: Macmillan, 1963.

Hargreaves, J. D. West Africa Partitioned, Vol. 1: The Loaded Pause, 1885-1889. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974.

Lugard, Frederick Dealtry. The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, 5th edition. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1965.

Owen, Roger, and Bob Sutcliffe, eds. Studies in the Theory of Imperialism. London: Longman, 1972.

Pakenham, Thomas. The Scramble for Africa, 1876-1912. New York: Longman, 1991.

Perham, Margery. The Colonial Reckoning. New York: Knopf, 1962.

Roberts, Andrew, ed. The Colonial Moment in Africa: Essays on the Movement of Minds and Materials, 1900-1940. Cambridge, U.K. Cambridge University Press, 1990.



During the three centuries from the foundation of the Compagnie des Indes m 1664 to the demise of the Mozambique Company (1941), the European Page 481  |  Top of Articlepresence in Africa underwent major changes. So did the companies that were granted concessions on that continent.

Before the colonial era, European states relied on private companies for the organization of trade, mainly the slave trade. This system was in itself a continuation of the economic structure prevailing within Europe and between Europe and other parts of the world. The concession, or permission to trade, was given for a fixed quantity of products or for a defined spatial zone over which large powers were granted.

When the legal slave trade ended following the Congress of Vienna in 1815, most companies could not find lucrative products to maintain their profits, and they disappeared. But with the renewed interest in Africa in the second half of the nineteenth century, the concessionary company gained a second life in another form.


Reluctant to take charge of large areas, some countries resorted to the old system of chartered companies to assert their presence by delegating to private companies administrative powers such as collecting taxes or customs dues, organizing labor, repressing potential uprisings by military means, and creating trading monopolies.

This was specifically but briefly the case for Germany under Wilhelm I (1797-1888). Placing the emphasis on building national unity, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) did not want to embark on colonial adventures. In the mid-1870s, industrialization and economic growth led some entrepreneurs to look for foreign markets. Private firms developed commercial relationships with Africa, mainly the southwestern part of the continent and the mainland of the Zanzibar sultanate. Later, these firms sought official recognition. At the moment that Germany and France were organizing the Berlin Conference, the explorer Gustav Nachtigal (1834-1885) was given the power by Bismarck to grant concessionary status to two German trading companies: Karl Peters’s (1856-1918) German East Africa Company (1885-1890) and Adolf Lüderitz’s (1834-1886) German Colonization Company for southwest Africa (1885-1889). However, lack of capital, disappointment over mineral discoveries, and the resistance of the populations quickly pushed the German government to take over, as early as 1889 for southwest Africa and in 1890 for East Africa. In both cases, German colonization started with the use of repression, especially against the Herero and Nama in present-day Namibia.

In Togo and Cameroon, no trading company was ready to offer a substitute for colonization, but private capital played an active role through the foundation of plantations. This constituted another form of revived chartered companies, such as the South-Kamerun Association (27,792 square miles) or the Nord-West Kamerun Association (30,880 square miles).

Great Britain also provided leading trading entrepreneurs whose chartered companies enforced British presence on the coveted continent. This was the case of George Taubman Goldie (1846-1925), who was granted a charter in 1886. Trading along the Niger River from the 1870s, Goldie absorbed rival firms to form the United African Company in 1879, which became the National African Company in 1882, later known as the Royal Niger Company, which was officially responsible for controlling trade and navigation on the Niger. It had to face both the resistance of several African states and the ambition of France. This made it impossible to organize efficient commercial networks. In 1900 Great Britain took over, giving substantial financial compensation to the company. This territory became the Northern Nigeria Protectorate, whose first high commissioner was Frederick Lugard.

Southern Africa experienced the same process, motivated there by mining interests. In 1889 Cecil Rhodes, who had already built a huge fortune on diamond and gold mining in South Africa, obtained a charter for the British South Africa Company (BSA) over a vast territory, stretching from Transvaal to Congo and from Angola to Mozambique. In reality, though, he had to limit his actual authority to a more realistic zone, centered on Matabeleland and Mashonaland. Competition between white settlers and local peasants, whose economy was based on cattle breeding, quickly led to violence. The revolt of the Ndebele in 1895, temporarily united with the Shona, was followed by the creation of reservations. This region became the heart of Cecil Rhodes’s empire.

Page 482  |  Top of Article

Even confined to a smaller territory, the BSA represented an important financial interest.

The company retained its administrative powers until the 1920s when they were considered a severe burden. The company was anxious to give them up and be compensated for them, and the settlers were eager to acquire political rights. In 1923 the European population of Southern Rhodesia obtained internal self-government and Northern Rhodesia came under the Colonial Office in 1924. The company’s mineral rights were confirmed in Northern Rhodesia. The BSA was by far the most successful chartered company in Africa, thanks mainly to a flourishing mining industry (copper, gold, asbestos) and a prosperous settler community.

To the northeast, William Mackinnon (1823-1893) obtained a charter for his Imperial British East Africa Company in 1888. This company, ill-organized and without much capital, had little commercial success but secured British sovereignty over Uganda and what became Kenya Colony and Protectorate. It disappeared in 1895, and the whole territory became a British protectorate.

These companies had shortcomings and ultimately failed. However, they served as a convenient transition stage between old colonial methods and the modernized version of imperialism.


Granting vast concessions of land to a few companies would have incurred the opposition of trading firms already active in western Africa. But Central Africa was still little exploited. Faced with large territories and limited financial and administrative means, Léopold II of Belgium (1865-1909) was the first to resort to private companies to help exploit the resources of his vast Congo Free State.

Léopold II was officially given authority over an ill-defined but large territory at the Berlin Conference. As early as 1887 he recognized the Compagnie du Congo pour le Commerce et l’Industrie that was given large pieces of land in return for the construction of the Matadi-Leopoldville Railway (1890-1898). Wild rubber and mining prospects (first discovered in 1892) led to the creation of several other companies such as the Katanga Company (1891) and the Société Anversoise. Léopold II himself invested much capital in these ventures; his financial difficulties led to a cession of his personal holdings to Belgium in 1908. With the Congo Reform Association and the stubbornness of Edmund D. Morel (1873-1924), a campaign was launched in 1907 against red rubber; exposing the brutal conditions under which this product was extorted from local producers. As a result, freedom of trade was reestablished, forced labor was officially forbidden, and a monetary tax was imposed.

The economic system was still based on the same big private companies in the Belgian Congo, but their administrative powers were strictly limited to the mining zone. The most successful company was the Union Minière du Haut-Katanga, which had a paternalist policy providing for most of the needs of its employees.

The example of the apparently successful policy chosen by Léopold II greatly influenced France, which had to deal with a similar ecological and economic environment. Laborious discussions took place in the Chamber of Deputies from 1887 to 1895 on the policies of delegating administrative powers to big companies versus direct takeover. The former was adopted for Central Africa. Relying on private companies was a way of trying to solve the problem of low density, scarce customs duties, and vast territories while attracting capital in a hostile region. About 270,200 (out of 347,400) square miles were divided in 1899 among forty concession companies: For a limited investment and with few constraints, they could exploit the resources of a large area, mainly rubber, while being responsible for collecting the taxes and building the minimal equipment. The companies quickly abused their rights and escaped any kind of control. The main problem was manpower, so they used any means to extort rubber: taxes in goods, forced labor, and imprisonment of women and children. This resulted in a true looting economy, of which Ubangi-Chari is the best example.

Although Pierre P. F. C. Savorgnan de Brazza was initially in favor of this system as a means to develop the country, he was appalled by the way the companies misused their power; in 1905 he was sent on an inspection mission, following a campaign of protest in France. He denounced the brutality and inefficiency, but his death on the way home and the official hushing up of the scandal did not result in a reform of the concession system. It more or less died or evolved because of its own Page 483  |  Top of Articleshortcomings: Although some companies had high profit rates before World War I (25 to 35% for some from 1905 to 1911), their lack of investment and the end of wild rubber put a stop to this system. Except for a few companies that could rely on other products, either ores or wood—such as the Compagnie Forestière Sangha-Oubangi as late as 1935—most of them disappeared. Central African societies had meanwhile greatly suffered through famines, high mortality rates, social and economic disorganization, displaced people, and diffusion of severe and new illnesses.

The remaining companies, in French Equatorial Africa (a federation instituted in 1910) and in the Belgian Congo, lost their administrative prerogatives and became mere capitalist enterprises. They took advantage of the colonial system that gave them a monopoly situation, a profitable tariff system, and easy access to labor.


As a heritage of the first colonial era, Portugal exerted nominal control over large territories without having the means to exploit them. Therefore, it relied on foreign capital (mainly British) and companies to build railways, organize plantations, and exploit mines. Six companies concentrated more than half the capital invested mainly in Mozambique: the Niassa, Mozambique, and Zambesia Companies; the Moçamedes Company; the Benguela Railway; and the Mozambique Sugar Company (which later became the Sena Sugar Estates). They lasted much longer without having proved more efficient than in German or British colonies, where they had long disappeared. The Niassa Company, founded in 1894, was abolished in 1928 without having fulfilled its contract to build the railway. The Mozambique Company (1891) was the most successful and also the last to dissolve in 1941: Its large administrative authority was effectively a state within a state, preventing Mozambique from acting as a single colony, but except for the railway, the company invested little money.

Two kinds of concessions can be distinguished. Some were granted for a specific commercial investment (public works, industrial, or agricultural enterprises). These companies had quasi-governmental functions: They could control labor supplies, organize white settlers, or even be responsible for health measures. Left with almost no external control, they formed autonomous enclaves.

The other type of concession was defined in terms of a certain area of land, over which the company exercised administrative tasks while receiving wide economic privileges. Companies could vary greatly in size and economic importance, but the main purpose when they were granted (1888 to 1894) was to provide a façade of occupation and give Portugal nominal claims over large territories.

The Moçamedes Company was the only one in Angola to be granted a charter with limited powers: no control over taxation or customs dues, and no authority over coastal ports. First French-owned, then taken over by Rhodes, and finally French again, it lasted from 1894 to 1923, having succeeded only in establishing cotton plantations and cattle ranches.

Some enterprises, not given a charter, exercised similar powers. The best example is the Companhia de Diamantes de Angola (DIAMANG), whose zone first covered two-thirds of Angola. Though not officially responsible for administration, it acted as the government of the Lunda district where diamonds were found. Its large profits were partially invested in building a communications network and industrial infrastructures related to mining in this remote part of Angola. The company also became the main banker for the Angolan government in the 1920s and 1930s, and received official help for recruiting its annual ten thousand laborers.

The concession system drew more and more criticism: It submitted Portuguese Africa to the rule of foreign capital and showed little results, except for the Sena Sugar Company and DIAMANG, and deprived the administration of its legitimate sources of revenue. Most of the profits made by the companies came from taxation and the sale of contract laborers.

Though the last of the concession companies disappeared in 1941, it was clear at the end of the nineteenth century that they were not the proper instruments to exploit efficiently, and ultimately to develop, African colonies. They nevertheless served their initial purpose: to give the means to lay claim to vast territories not yet controlled, in response to the rules established by the Berlin Conference. In time, they all gave way to purely capitalist enterprises, although strict separation between private Page 484  |  Top of Articleinterests and public legal procedures was not established at once, for example, for labor supply.


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

Clarence-Smith, William G. Slaves, Peasants, and Capitalists in Southern Angola, 1840-1926. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Cooper, Frederick. Decolonization and African Society: The Labor Question in French and British Africa. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine. Le Congo au temps des grandes compagnies concessionnaires, 1898-1930, 2 vols. Paris: Editions de l’EHESS, 2001.

Flint, John E. Sir George Goldie and the Making of Nigeria. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Galbraith, John S. Mackinnon and East Africa, 1878-1895; A Study in the “New Imperialism.” Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Gründer, Horst. Geschichte der deutschen Kolonien. Paderborn, Germany: Schóningh, 1985.

Hochschild, Adam King. Léopold’s Ghost. Boston and New York: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Merlier, Michel. Le Congo, de la colonisation belge à l’independence. Paris: F. Maspero, 1962.

Newitt, Malyn D. D. Portugal in Africa: The Last Hundred Tears. London: Longman, 1981.

Rotberg, Robert I. The Founder: Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.


Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Colonialism and Imperialism." New Encyclopedia of Africa, edited by John Middleton and Joseph C. Miller, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2008, pp. 467-484. Gale Ebooks, Accessed 18 Oct. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3049000150

View other articles linked to these index terms:

Page locators that refer to this article are not hyper-linked.

  • Algeria,
    • French colonialism,
      • society compared to South Africa,
        • 1: 470
  • antislavery
    • British naval patrols,
  • Banjul (the Gambia),
    • early European settlement,
      • 1: 474
  • banking,
    • in colonial states,
      • 1: 477
  • Belgium.
    • colonial policies and practices,
      • administration,
        • 1: 476
    • decolonization by,
  • Berlin Conference (1884-1885),
  • Bismarck, Otto von,
    • and chartered companies,
      • 1: 481
  • Blyden, Edward Wilmot,
    • criticism of colonialism,
      • 1: 469
  • boundaries, colonial and modern,
    • setting of,
      • 1: 476
  • Brazza, Pierre Paul François Camille Savorgnan de,
    • on concessionary companies,
      • 1: 482
  • British South Africa Company,
  • Brussels Conference (1889-1890),
  • Cameroon,
    • agriculture,
  • Cape Coast (Ghana),
  • cash crops
  • central Africa
    • concessionary companies in,
      • 1: 482
  • chartered companies,
    • 1: 481-482
  • chiefs,
  • Christianity,
    • component of Western imperialism,
      • 1: 478
  • cities.
    • in colonial state,
      • 1: 476
      • 1: 479
  • cocoa
    • in the Gold Coast,
      • 1: 470
  • colonial economy,
    • 1: 477
  • colonialism and imperialism,
    • African experience,
      • 1: 473-480
  • communications,
    • 1: 484-487
    • electronic,
      • 1: 484-485
  • Compagnie du Congo pour le Commerce et l’Industrie,
    • 1: 482
  • Compagnie Forestière Sangha-Oubangi,
    • 1: 483
  • Companhia de Diamantes de Angola (DIAMANG),
  • concessionary companies,
    • 1: 480-484
  • Congo Basin
    • European conflict over,
      • 1: 475
  • Congo Independent State,
  • Congo Reform Association,
    • 1: 482
  • consuls,
    • 1: 474-475
  • corruption
    • in postcolonial Africa,
      • 1: 480
  • Côte d’Ivoire,
    • cocoa plantations,
  • cults
    • effect of colonialism on,
      • 1: 479
  • decolonization,
  • divination and oracles,
    • contemporary,
      • 1: 479
  • education.
    • component of Western imperialism,
      • 1: 478
      • 1: 479
  • missionaries and,
  • Elmina (Ghana),
    • founding by traders,
      • 1: 474
  • entrepreneurs
    • European,
      • 1: 475
  • Ethiopia, modern,
    • victory in 1896 over European forces,
      • 1: 476
  • ethos, impact of colonialism on,
    • 1: 480
  • France
    • colonial policies and practices
      • administration,
        • 1: 476
      • development drive in 1946,
        • 1: 472
    • and concessionary companies,
    • decolonization by,
  • German Colonization Company,
    • 1: 481
  • German East Africa Company,
  • Gold Coast.
    • cocoa production,
      • 1: 470
  • Goldie, George Taubman,
  • Great Britain
    • and chartered companies,
      • 1: 481
    • colonial policies and practices
      • administration,
        • 1: 476-477
      • development drive in 1940,
        • 1: 472
    • decolonization by,
  • Hehe
    • victory in 1891 over European forces,
      • 1: 476
  • Hobson, J. A.,
    • 1: 468
  • Horton, James Africanus Beale,
    • criticism of colonialism,
      • 1: 469
  • Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC),
  • imperialism.
    • definition,
      • 1: 473
    • economic,
      • 1: 469
    • before the scramble for Africa,
      • 1: 474-475
  • indirect rule,
    • 1: 476-477
  • information communications technology,
    • 1: 484-485
  • infrastructure.
  • Internet,
  • Johnston, Harry,
  • Katanga Company,
    • 1: 482
  • Kosoko, King of Lagos,
    • 1: 475
  • labor migration,
    • due to Africans’ attitude toward full time wage-labor,
      • 1: 470-471
  • Lenin, Vladimir,
    • 1: 468
  • Léopold II of Belgium,
    • and concessionary companies,
      • 1: 482
  • Livingstone, David,
    • reports of voyages of,
      • 1: 470
  • Lüderitz, Adolf,
    • 1: 481
  • Lugard, Frederick,
  • MacKinnon, William,
  • Maclean, George,
  • Marx, Karl,
  • Marxism-Leninism
    • and questionaing of imperialism,
      • 1: 468
  • Menelik II (emperor of Ethiopia),
  • merchant adventurers,
    • 1: 475
  • messianic movements
    • growth of Christian cults,
      • 1: 471
  • military organizations,
    • colonial armies,
    • early African armies,
      • 1: 476
  • Millennium Development Goals,
    • on information communications technology,
      • 1: 484
  • mind, colonization of the,
    • 1: 471
  • missionary enterprise,
    • education,
    • extension of imperial influence inland,
      • 1: 475
  • Moçamedes Company,
    • 1: 483
  • Morel, Edmund D.,
  • Mozambique Company,
  • Mozambique Sugar Company (Sena Sugar Estates),
    • 1: 483
  • Nachtigal, Gustav,
  • Ndebele,
    • rebellion
  • Niassa Company,
    • 1: 483
  • Nigeria,
    • agriculture
      • cocoa,
        • 1: 470
  • Nord-West Kamerun Association,
    • 1: 481
  • patriarchal authority
    • effect of education and wage labor on,
      • 1: 471
  • Peters, Karl,
  • Portugal
    • colonial policies and practices,
    • and concessionary companies,
  • racism
    • missionaries and,
      • 1: 474
  • railways,
    • Benguela Railway,
      • 1: 483
    • engineers,
      • 1: 475
    • Matadi-Léopoldville Railway,
  • Rhodes, Cecil John,
    • and British South Africa Company,
      • 1: 481
  • Rhodesia, Northern,
    • under Colonial Office,
      • 1: 482
  • Rhodesia, Southern,
    • internal self-government,
      • 1: 482
  • Rodney, Walter,
  • Royal Niger Company,
  • rubber
  • Saint-Louis (Senegal),
  • scramble for Africa,
  • settler economies,
    • 1: 477
  • Sierra Leone,
    • foundation,
      • 1: 474
  • slave trades,
    • private companies and,
      • 1: 481
  • Société Anversoise,
    • 1: 482
  • society
    • impact of colonialism on,
      • 1: 478-479
  • South Africa, Republic of,
    • subordinate role of Africans in capitalist economy,
      • 1: 470
  • South-Kamerun Association,
    • 1: 481
  • territorial claims.
    • rules for,
      • 1: 470
  • Togo,
    • plantations,
      • 1: 481
  • traders and trading
    • and European immigration,
  • transportation,
  • Union Minière du Haut-Katanga,
  • United African Company,
  • Zambesia Company,
    • 1: 483
  • Zanzibar Sultanate,
  • Zimbabwe,
    • European settlers
      • resistance to independence,
        • 1: 472
  • Zulu
    • victory in 1879 over European forces,
      • 1: 476