HOW TO DEFEAT COLONIALISM in two easy lessons

Is there anything Africans could have done to forestall or stop colonization? Many of the educated Africans I meet think not. They feel that the countries of Europe were just too powerful militarily.

There is some truth to this. But there are questions that could be asked about the behavior of the African kingdoms and polities that existed at the time. For example, the Nigerian historian G.N. Uzoigwe points out that, “…the behavior of the African states was not only marked by lack of solidarity, unity or co-operation but some of them did not hesitate to ally with the invading European forces against their neighbors, only to be vanquished later themselves.”   African societies failed to recognize that broad alliances could have made things more difficult for Europeans, and instead, as tribal societies often do, continued to wage wars against neighbors who were traditional enemies.

Consequently, Europeans were able to play off one African tribe or kingdom against another, while the Europeans kept to the terms agreed at the Berlin Conference and did not engage in conflict with one another. The Europeans allied with one African polity to defeat another, and then turned to defeat their erstwhile allies. Furthermore, the foot soldiers they used in the conquest of Africa were Africans drawn from parts of the continent other than the region being invaded. For example, the troops used in the conquest of Ashanti were recruited from the Hausa states.

Hausa soldiers and officer 2
Hausa colonial soldiers with their British officer

Some educated Africans of today like to argue that the African situation in the 19th century was unique and there was nothing like it in the rest of the world. This is a highly debatable position.  There are other parts of the world where preliterate and tribal societies existed in the 19th century such as in Asia and Oceania. But Africa suffered slavery for four hundred years, these educated people argue; this is a disingenuous argument because not all of the continent was involved in the slave trade. And all this is moot given that Africa had four hundred years to figure things out, and possibly learn from the Europeans, a period during which they didn’t.

In this and the next post, I will look at what the Japanese and the Russians did in the face of an imminent threat of colonization from Western Europe. While it would be simplistic to make a direct comparison between the pre-industrial conditions in these two now industrialized countries and the African pre-colonial kingdoms, looking at them can show us how an educated, determined, energetic and visionary elite can face up to and defeat the threat of international predatory behavior. Indeed, it may have been very difficult if not impossible for the tiny educated African elite to do anything about the threats facing the continent in the 1880s.  But is it impossible for the educated elite to transform Africa today?


In the 1630s, fearing the influence of Christianity and foreign ideas, the Tokugawa shoguns that ruled Japan shut the kingdom off from Western influences for two hundred years. The Japanese woke up to their material and military inferiority against the West when Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy showed up in 1853 in his “Black Ships” to negotiate trading agreements. Perry—who regarded the Japanese with some contempt as “semi-barbarous” and “deceitful”—was sent by US President Millard Fillmore to negotiate or force trade with the insular kingdom. He came with warships as a show of force, and sailed his biggest frigate into Tokyo Bay, warning the Japanese that he would use force to get his wish if necessary. Fearing bombardment, the inhabitants of Tokyo carried their valuables out of the city as fast as they could. The ruling elite quickly agreed to his terms.

Commodore Mathew Perry and his “Black Ships” forced Japan to open up to American trade.


One of the gifts Perry brought with him for the emperor and his officials was a model miniature train that ran on a track about 100 meters long. According to the website, dignitaries insisted on riding on top of the train which could barely carry them, their robes flapping in the wind, while ordinary onlookers cheered each time the train blew its whistle. To the ordinary Japanese, and many elites, the train demonstration was clear proof of the technological superiority of the Americans. They were deeply humiliated by the forced concessions and were embarrassed by what they saw as their general backwardness and inferiority.

Miniature train Commodore Perry brought as a gift for the Japanese emperor

These events and others where European warships came by to force other treaties frightened the Japanese and made them worry about what the rapacious Europeans would ultimately make them do. They were very uneasy about what happened in China where, after the first Opium War, the British had forced the Chinese to buy opium supplied by British traders. The Japanese believed that they could be third on the European colonization list after India and China. They were not being paranoid. After the British took over Java, Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore, urged the English East India Company to undertake a colonial project in Japan, and in 1813, two British warships sailed to Nagasaki, some suspect, to look at the colonization possibilities.

The Canadian scholar of Japan, E.H. Norman, writing in 1940, commented that “the modern observer of the Far East is apt to forget that in the middle of the 19th century Japan was as weak as contemporary Burma or Siam [Thailand], facing the most powerful nations of the West without allies, without a fleet or a modern army, with no monies in its treasury, its industry still handicraft, its trade negligible, its poverty profound…”

But they were not going to sit on their hands, and the educated elite in Japan began to call for a program of national defence, and for the kingdom to adopt Western methods of military science and industry to defeat Western invasion when it came.

In 1868 some reformist elites carried out a coup against the ineffectual Tokugawa shogun. The reformers rallied around the boy emperor Mutsuhito who was renamed Meiji or “enlightened rule,” and he became a symbol of national resistance to Western encroachment. That period has entered history as “The Meiji Restoration.”

The young Mutsuhito who became Emperor Meiji, and became the symbol of transforming Japan

The reformers were determined to “learn from the barbarians,” as they called the Westerners. They were very pragmatic and were willing to try everything Western, even going as far as wearing top hats and carrying umbrellas like the Brits, and, most importantly, they adopted anything that worked.

They sent several of their young to the West to study Western methods and skills. They also sent out a series of fact finding and learning missions to the major Western countries, the most important of which was the Iwakura Mission of 1871-73. Led by Ambassador Iwakura Tomomi, the mission included some of the historically famous young drivers of Japanese transformation like Kido Koin and Okubo Toshimichi. The delegation numbered about 108, and their average age was 32.

One of the great Japanese reformers, Kido Koin


Their ostensible mission was to renegotiate the treaty forced on them by Commodore Perry, but they were also expected to find out as much as they could about what made the West successful. In the US, they visited factories, farms, railways and mines. After visiting these places in the daytime, they studied the American constitution and read civics textbooks at night.

In 1872, they traveled to Britain, where they were described as the Britain of Asia because they were an island nation with limited land and few resources. They liked this description so much, they decided that Britain, not the USA, was the country to emulate.

In Germany, the delegates met with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck who told them that they should adopt Western methods selectively. He also told them to disregard international law, and choose their friends wisely, which they are said to have taken to heart in their efforts to become imperialists rather than victims.

On their return to Japan, the secretary of the mission, Kume Kunitake, compiled their findings in a Foreign Ministry report of 27 volumes, which they shared with the nation, and which has been edited and translated into English as “Japan Rising.”

The Meiji authorities began copying and importing Western institutions, technology and machinery. Michael Schuman, author of The Miracle: the epic story of Asia’s quest for Wealth, writes that “The Meiji leadership did not dare trust their nation’s future to the forces of laissez-faire economics. The state was heavily involved in launching Japan’s industrialization from the beginning. Toshimichi Okubo, one of the most powerful Meiji leaders, warned that Japan must move quickly….”

Okubo Toshimichi, one of the young samurai who played a leadership role in Japan’s transformation from a backward feudal state to an industrial powerhouse

They moved very quickly with a focus on exports that made them compete with the products of the best Western countries. This competition forced the Japanese to become efficient and productive very quickly. In a very short space of time, Japan became a major naval power that was able to defeat an European nation, Russia, in 1905.




UNESCO General History of Africa Vol VII edited by A. Adu Boahen

Origins of the Modern Japanese State: Selected writings of E. H. Norman

The Miracle: the epic story of Asia’s quest for wealth by Michael Schuman

Japan Rising: The Iwakura Embassy to the USA and Europe 1871-1873 compiled by Kume Kunitake

The Great Courses: History’s Greatest Voyages of Exploration by Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius

The Economic Development of Japan by William Lockwood.

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