Why did the Europeans colonize Africa? The answer is not as simple as many people think. In university, I was certain—as is often the case, without having done any research or read anything that supported my view—that they were driven by a need to control the resources of the continent. A history professor of British origins suggested that there were more complex reasons for the colonization, and I quickly dismissed him as “racist.” Many Africans think like that today. But support for this view is not so clear. Of the European powers, Britain had the largest trade with Africa just before colonization, but African trade represented only 1% of its trade with non-European countries. And after the partition of Africa, up until 1913, it was only 2%. So the quest for greater economic access cannot have been the motive for the partition.

It will surprise some people to know that early ideas for colonization of the continent grew out of the humanitarian ideals of the anti-slavery movement. During slavery, opponents of “the infernal trade” began to argue that if Europe established colonies in Africa, they would help “civilise” the continent, stop the trade, and help to repair the economic damage done by the depredations of slavery. Much of this Utopian thinking was found in Britain, though some other Europeans promoted such ideas.

One of these, the Swedish anti-slavery activist and explorer Carl Bernhard (C.B.) Wadstrom, wrote a book in 1794 promoting African colonization, at a time when the idea was not taken very seriously as a practical idea by any of the European powers. Wadstrom (author of An Essay on Colonization particularly applied to the Western Coast of Africa, with some free thoughts on Cultivation and Commerce) traveled to the African coast because he was “desirous of contemplating human nature in simpler states”, and spent about a year there. He seems to have known about the anti-malarial properties of the cinchona tree, describing “the Peruvian bark” as an “invaluable medicine” and “a means of prevention and cure” of “the diseases of hot climates.”

C.B. Wadstrom, in an image from the times, teaching an African the way to “improvement,”  and European civilization.

In his book he argues that the Slave Trade, “that scourge of the human race,” has kept Africans in a state of anarchy and blood, and saw it as the obstacle to African “improvement and civilization.”  He believed that “the slave trade, as carried out in Africa, not only impedes the progress of the natives in the arts of industry” but also prevents the slave traders from colonizing the continent since such a move would interfere with the products from West Indian plantations.

Wadstrom believed that if “sober” Europeans became settlers in Africa they would teach Africans industry, farming and trade. He spoke before a committee of the British House of Commons where he “offered to produce specimens of [African] manufacturers in iron filigree work, leather, cotton, matting, and basket work some of which equal any articles of the kind fabricated in Europe.” In a short time, the ideas of the humanitarians began to merge with the ideas of commercial people who began to see Africa as a source of “legitimate trade.”

Thomas Foxwell Buxton, who led the anti-slavery fight in the British Parliament after William Wilberforce retired in 1824, brought these sentiments to the British public, at a time when that public saw the African as naturally benevolent and potentially improvable. He believed that the solution to the persistent slave trade lay not in harassing ships running the anti-slavery blockade, but in improving Africans themselves. He argued that Britain should “elevate the minds” of Africans and “call forth the capabilities of her soil.”

T. Buxton
Sir Thomas Foxwell Buxton

Of course, to some Africanist ideologues, this will not be seen as a humanitarian motive at all, but as a commercial proposal to acquire productive territory for the colonial country. Especially since Britain had, since the 1780s, started to consider Africa as a replacement for her lost American colonies, and France similarly saw the continent as a replacement for the loss of Haiti. So ideas about colonization had been floating around for a while in Britain and continental Europe.

However, there were economic reasons that drew Europeans to acquire territory in Africa, but they were not as simple as the need to control resources. Apart from the fact that improvements in medical and firearms technology made conquest of the interior possible, there are two major economic theories about the impulses and forces that drove Europeans to carve up Africa.

The first is that the “Great Depression” in Europe in the early 1870s, in which “existing markets seemed to be satiated,” were a significant impetus for colonization. Prices and profits fell so precipitously, and for such a long time, that it seemed that old markets could no longer sustain the growth rate of European industrial economies.

New markets had to be sought, and the general belief—wrong it turned out—was that they could be found in Sub-Saharan Africa. Some of these beliefs were promoted by explorers who returned from Africa with exaggerated stories of the “economic potential” of the places they visited, and what could be produced and marketed in these societies if only they could be brought under European control and “pacified.”

The second is that the change from “slave to legitimate trade, and the subsequent decline in export and import trade during that period,” and African resistance to European encroachment, led to the physical take-over of these territories. This is a theory espoused by some of the historians of the UNESCO General History of Africa, an Africa-centric theory, which they believe is “more well-rounded.”

It is likely that all these factors contributed to the movement to colonize.



The Cambridge History of Africa, Vol 6: From 1870 to 1905, edited by J.D. Fage and G.N. Sanderson

UNESCO General History of Africa, Vol 7: Africa under colonial Domination, 1880-1935, edited by A. Adu Boahen

Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760—1900, by Kristin Mann.

Disease and Empire: The health of European troops in the conquest of Africa, by Philip D. Curtin

Essay on Colonization by C.B. Wadstrom

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