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.

7 thoughts on “HOW TO DEFEAT COLONIALISM in two easy lessons

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  1. This is definitely food for thought, but it is probably the most unsatisfactory thus far. Many African kingdoms did similar things—sent their children to western schools, some as far away as London e.g. in Bonny and other coastal city states. They tried to learn as much as people from the West, but this did not prevent their defeat. The Northern Emirates also tried to acquire as much knowledge as possible from the East, and that did not prevent their quick defeat. The Northern Emirates in Nigeria where very much in touch with the Caliph in Constantinople and were well aware of changes in Europe. So, no, I do not agree that Africans were easily colonized because they refused to acquire knowledge from the outside.

    The issue of unity is interesting and probably more relevant, but surely Africa is not a country and neither is it an ethnicity. Comparing Japan to Africa is not good form. Beside, we can easily come up with examples of states in Africa that were united against colonialism…this again did not help their cause. Every state has internal divisions, as your example of Japan shows during the civil war that preceded the Meiji Restoration and more uprisings after that. Another counterexample is that Europeans did show some form of disunity even in Africa, French vs British, or Catholic vs Protestant missions, and many African groups took very good advantage.

    I tend to agree with those who cite military might as the deciding factor, Japan and Russia actually prove this point contrary to the claim of the post. Your writeup does not give that argument enough credit but it is only a blog post.


    1. Thanks Dozie for your thoughtful comments. Yes indeed, for centuries Africans had been sending not just children to Europe, but diplomats and merchants. I discussed this in the earlier posts on “Blind Tours in the White Man’s Country.”

      However, no African polity was as systematic and as thoroughgoing as either the Japanese or the Russians in their efforts to transform their societies and make them capable of resisting invasion from any quarter. Please tell me if you are aware of any African societies or kingdoms that sent out a version of the Iwakura Commission to systematically study the West and figure out what made them so powerful. Please tell me if there are any African societies that engaged in a fundamental overthrow of the old order to make way for a more modern society capable of resisting Europe.

      The Japanese quite early figured out that they were militarily weak, and sought to solve that problem in a fundamental way, i.e., by transforming their societies and creating the heavy industrial foundation to become a major military power. What African polity strove to manufacture the sort of heavy weapons–warships, artillery and machine guns–that would have deterred the Europeans? How many struggled to master the military organization necessary to use such equipment effectively and efficiently? No African society or kingdom even considered doing that.

      The military argument begs the question: What did African societies do to remedy their military weakness? The answer is nothing because many leaders and elites thought they did not need to. They had resisted Europeans for centuries, and were not aware things had changed.

      I am not sure how the Northern Emirates acquisition of knowledge from the relatively backward East equates with the systematic steps the Japanese took to learn from the dominant West, and industrialize rapidly. Nor is learning what you can from the West in a haphazard and desultory fashion the same as rapidly industrializing in a few short decades as the Japanese did.

      I did not compare Japan to Africa. I gave Japan as an example of where elites acted in a determined, vigorous and farsighted manner to forestall colonization. In the post, I did point out that it is simplistic to make a direct comparison between Japan or Russia and any African polity.


  2. Thanks for the response but I think it misses the core of my post. The idea that African states were unsystematic begs the question. The argument is almost circular. Are you calling the Japanese and Russian approaches “systematic and thoroughgoing” because it succeeded? Were the Chinese unsystematic in their approach to the opium wars?

    I think it is best to define what you mean by systematic and thoroughgoing in order to avoid a circular argument. The “Iwakura Commission” cannot be the “definition” of a systematic approach to resist invasion, and is at best an example. If we focus on learning, acquiring modern weapons, and so on, there are definitely African societies that were attempting to modernize and reform prior to colonial invasion. I have given you example of Bonny/Opobo and their attempts to learn English, arithmetic, and send the sons of chiefs to schools in England.

    The fundamental issue with the comparisons is that you are talking about processes but military might is an outcome of a process. For the argument to make sense, there is a need to focus on the process of modernization and reform. Bonny/Opobo, for example, were going through this process but were at a different stage when compared to Japan. Bonny’s attempts at modernization will not necessarily lead to the same outcomes as Japan’s after 20 years, even if they both adopted the same process of learning. Japan already had some manufacturing base on which to build weapons, which is something Bonny did not have (the society was largely illiterate). They had to become literate first in order to manufacture weapons. Is this unsystematic? Or is it your contention that Bonny is unsystematic because they should have modernized 100 years earlier?

    The Sokoto Emirs put in an honest effort in improving their military strategies/capabilities. Did they succeed? No. Did they match Japan’s successes? No. However, that is not to say that they did not attempt to improve. There is also the instance of Rabih, the Sudanese warlord who ended up in Borno. Rabih attempted to modernize his army, but was unsuccessful in the end. Does that mean he did not try? No.

    We could also mention the Ashanti and their attempts to forestall British advances, and then Boer wars. Were the Boers unsystematic because they lost the war and had their States annexed?

    What makes these attempts “unsystematic and thoroughgoing”? This is the crux of the argument but it is never defined beyond referring back to successful States.

    The claim that African kingdoms “did nothing” is incorrect, unless by “doing nothing” you mean doing exactly what Japan did. The problem is how do we know Japan’s approach was the only correct approach? See the circularity again. This also shows up in the claim that the Northern emirates’ attempts to learn from the East, the Ottomans, were misguided. We know this now, but did they know this back in 1810? You call the approach the wrong approach because it failed, and not based on any objective criteria.

    The fact remains that military might was the deciding factor, and not the fact that African states “did nothing.”


  3. I also forgot to mention Samory Touré who did build alliances, modern weapons, and worked to play the British against the French. Did he succeed? No, but he definitely did something.


    1. Yes, Dozie, many people did something. Some sent out their warriors to confront the Europeans, shouting war whoops and running at the enemy with their bows and arrows and spears and Dane guns. Others sacrificed cows and goats to the gods, as I mentioned in an earlier post. Still others sent delegations to Queen Victoria begging for her support. These were all somethings, and if you want to add them to the somethings that matter, that is your prerogative. I chose to show examples of people who made effective changes through an accurate reading of the situation, and SUSTAINED EFFORTS at transformation.


  4. Dozie, thanks again for continuing the discussion. We Africans need to work out these issues for a better understanding of what happened and what we need to do. I truly appreciate your efforts.

    You asked:”Are you calling the Japanese and Russian approaches ‘systematic and thoroughgoing’ because it succeeded?”

    No. They were systematic and thoroughgoing because

    1) They asked the hard and painful questions in the beginning. Why are we backward and they not? Is it magic? Is it something we can do too? What would it take to do it? Can we, and are we willing to pay the price of transformation?

    2) Then they intentionally went to find out AS MUCH AS THEY COULD ABOUT THE WEST in the case of the Japanese, and studied and debated ferociously about what they needed to do in the case of the Bolsheviks. (I really cannot speak about the Russians in my answers because they are the topic of my next post.) They did not just send their children to learn arithmetic and visit the West like you say the Bonny people did. Many African kingdoms sent their children to learn arithmetic and religion in the West, just like Africans do today, and I wrote about this in past posts. It meant nothing then, and it means nothing now. It is not the same as saying “We need to find out what makes these people tick, and we need to do it in as systematic an information gathering manner as possible, as fast as we can because we don’t have time.” Do you know where an African kingdom did anything like this? Did they spend a year engaged in intense study of the West like the Iwakura Commission, visiting factories, farms, and all manner of business enterprises, asking all kinds of questions of business magnates, politicians and professors, and gathering copious amounts of information about technology and Western development? Please tell me what African kingdom or polity did any of this? By the way, the Iwakura Commission is only the most famous of dozens that were sent out by the Japanese. Tell me what African kingdom sent out people, returned and published 27 volumes detailing what they found out like the Iwakura Commission did? That’s what I mean when I say “systematic and thoroughgoing.” To put it in salty language, they weren’t fucking around.

    3) The Japanese quickly recognized that they had to reform and even throw out significant elements of their culture and traditions if they were going to make the transition from a backward, poor peasant society into an industrial one capable of matching the West. It was not an easy choice to make, and many did not make such a choice. And those who did not suffered for it. You ask about the Chinese and the opium war. Well, the Stanford historian Ian Morris says that in China, “In the 1860s, a ‘Self-Strenghthening’ movement argued that Chinese traditions were fundamentally sound; China just needed to build a few steamships and buy some foreign guns. This, it turned out, was mistaken.”

    4) The young samurai who led the Meiji revolution–because revolution it was–overthrew those resistant to change, AND THEN ABOLISHED THEIR OWN PRIVILEGES in their sustained effort to make the changes as thoroughgoing as possible. Then they essentially force-marched their people into the modern age. Industrialization from almost nothing is never easy. We seem not to understand the enormity of the effort it takes, and the fundamental truth that a terrible price has to be paid to achieve it. My next post on Russian transformation will make this very evident.

    I hope I have explained what I mean in the short space I have. I am not writing a book on how the Japanese achieved their transformation.

    You write as if all attempts at modernization are the same–assuming that Bonny and the Emirates were actually making an effort at modernization, something that is extremely debatable. What exactly did they do? Do we have any records anywhere indicating that they were attempting to modernize to be able to resist Europe? Was it buying guns from the people who were going to invade them? Well then the Europeans made a quantum leap in the development of their weaponry, and stopped selling to the Africans. So what next?

    Furthermore, buying guns from Europe was nothing new, nothing different from what the Africans had been doing for four hundred years. So if you have any information that shows that Africans were doing something fundamentally different from what they had been doing since contact, I would like to hear it.

    Doing nothing means doing exactly what you were doing before and hoping it will work.


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