Chapter 21   The Imperial World Order, 1757-1914

Section 2 Empire Building in Africa

In the 1700s and 1800s, imperialism in Africa flourished. While certain African peoples were building empires in the interior, Europeans remained confined to the coasts for decades. After about 1870, however, European imperialists began to challenge the African states of the interior. By 1900 almost all of Africa had come under the most successful empire-builders of all—the Europeans.  

Early European Settlement in Africa

Apart from a few missionaries and explorers, most European contacts with Africa before about 1870 were largely confined to the coasts. The Portuguese had long been involved in the Congo, Angola[17] and along the east African coast.[18] Their contacts with the interior had stimulated the growth of African societies, particularly in trade, but the interior remained firmly under African control.[19]  Along the West African coast too, European slave-trading posts had been confined to the coast, while African middlemen controlled the interior.

            In the north, the French occupied Algeria in 1830,[20] partly to redeem their sense of honor and glory after the defeats of the Napoleonic years, and partly to put an end to the piracy and slave-raiding of the Muslim rulers of North Africa. Over the next 16 years the French waged a constant war against the Muslim Berbers and Arabs led by Abd al-Qadir, a local chieftain.

            Only in southern Africa did Europeans penetrate the African interior before the last quarter of the 1800s. There the original Dutch settlers had become largely Africanized. Even their language had changed—borrowing African, French, and English words, the original Dutch had become Afrikaans. Fiercely independent, the Boers practiced much the same kind of farming and herding as the surrounding African peoples. At the same time, as devout Calvinist Protestants surrounded by African “pagans,” the Boers came to think of themselves as a kind of “chosen people” destined by God to rule South Africa.

            In 1815,[21] however, the British took control of the Cape of Good Hope to protect the sea route to India. The British and the Boers clashed over many things, particularly the British insistence on abolishing slavery. The Boers believed that black Africans were fit only to become their servants or slaves. In 1837, hostile to British rule, thousands of Boers began a migration, known as the Great Trek, into the interior.[22] There, they established their own independent republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.[23] As they did so, they discovered that Europeans were not the only imperialists in Africa.

African Empire-Builders

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, famine and competition for resources led to a series of wars among various African peoples in southern Africa. In the early 1880s the ama-Zulu clan emerged under their leader Shaka to establish a vast empire in southern Africa.

Zulu imperialism. A military genius, Shaka transformed the nature of African warfare. Adopting a short stabbing spear instead of the more common throwing spear, [24] he reorganized the Zulu people into military regiments and embarked on a period of imperial expansion.[25] Combined with other factors, such as the advance of Portuguese slave-traders and ivory hunters, Zulu imperialism forced peoples all across southern Africa on the move[26] in what became known as the mfecane, or “crushing.” It was this massive migration of peoples that the Boers encountered as they moved inland. Eventually, the effects of the mfecane reached as far north as the central African lake region and south to the Cape of Good Hope.[27] 

Jihads in West Africa. Meanwhile, a similar upheaval was also occuring in West Africa under the stimulus of an Islamic revival. This revival began among the Fulani, a pastoral, nomadic West African people who had spread from the Senegal region east toward the Hausa states near Lake Chad. In 1804 a learned and devout Muslim named Uthman dan Fodio called for a jihad against all unbelievers.[28] By 1811 the Fulani had emerged as the leaders of Hausaland.[29]

            Uthman dan Fodio’s success inspired others. In the western Sudan, al-Hajj Umar, a Muslim who had married one of Usman dan Fodio’s daughters, established a center of learning and missionary activity in Futa Jallon.[30] From there, he inspired his followers to launch attacks against non-Muslim states in the 1850s.[31] Umar established an empire that absorbed other Islamic as well as non-Islamic territories from the upper Senegal to Timbuktu.[32] 

Egyptian imperialism. Meanwhile in the east, a renewed imperial spirit in Egypt reflected the impact of European technology and organization. In the aftermath of Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt, an Albanian lieutenant in the Ottoman army named Muhammad Ali took control of Egypt.[33]

            Modernizing the Egyptian army along European lines, Muhammad Ali soon expanded his control down the Red Sea, into western Arabia and parts of the Sudan.[34] Eventually, he even marched into Palestine and Syria,[35] in an apparent effort to recreate the old Egyptian empire of the Mamluks. Although stopped by European intervention, Muhammad Ali obtained Ottoman recognition for the right of his family to be hereditary rulers of Egypt.[36] Eventually this new dynasty was granted the title of khedive[37] or viceroy—almost the equivalent of an independent monarch.[38]

            Muhammad Ali’s successors were also ambitious. Borrowing money from European banks they modernized Egypt and continued their imperial expansion into Africa.[39] In the 1860s they allowed a French company to build the Suez Canal connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea.[40] However, such schemes, as well as the khedives’ extravagant life-styles, brought Egypt to the verge of bankruptcy and made it more vulnerable to European intervention.[41]

The Occupation of Egypt

As Egypt plunged into bankruptcy, the European powers took control of Egyptian finances in the 1870s and established an international debt commission, the Caisse de la Dette, to pay off the country’s debts.[42] Such blatant interference in Egypt’s internal affairs, however, angered many Egyptians.

            In 1882, an army leader named ‘Urabi Pasha[43] emerged in Egypt, proclaiming that he wanted to put an end to European domination.[44] At first he thought he might appeal to the European sense of fairness. He wrote to one sympathetic Englishman, 

“Without doubt it will please every free man to see free men . . . truthful in their sayings and doings, and determined to carry out their high projects for the benefit of mankind generally and their own country in particular.”[45] 

When ‘Urabi became war minister in the Egyptian Government,[46] he seemed to threaten European control of the new Suez Canal. William Gladstone, the British prime minister, authorized the British invasion of Egypt.[47] Quickly defeating ‘Urabi, the British sent him into exile.[48] Although Gladstone intended only a temporary occupation of Egypt, British troops remained in Egypt for the next 70 years to protect British access to the Canal, which was now the shortest route to their empire in India.[49]  

The Scramble for Africa

Britain’s occupation of Egypt brought a reaction from the other western powers—especially the French. Combined with commercial and strategic rivalries elsewhere in the world, the occupation helped to trigger a global scramble for empire among the European powers. As the competition for colonial territory proceeded, the intensity of the rivalries threatened to bring the European nations to the brink of war.[50] 

The Berlin Conference. In an effort to prevent such a disaster, the great powers met in Berlin in 1885 to establish ground rules for partitioning the world among themselves. At the conference they agreed that no European colonies would be recognized unless they were occupied. This meant that the spheres of informal influence that had been carved out by merchants and missionaries now required the intervention of European governments to remain secure.[51] On this basis, and with other provisions requiring them to suppress the slave trade, the Europeans agreed to extend their dominion over Africa. 

The partition of Africa. Under the rules laid down by the Berlin Conference, all of Africa except Liberia and Ethiopia came under direct European rule between 1885 and 1900. In Central Africa, King Leopold II of Belgium established the Congo Free State along the watershed of the Congo River and its tributaries. Leopold initially ruled the Free State as a personal fief. During the early 1900s, however, stories about the brutality with which his agents were extracting wealth from the local African peoples raised a furor in Europe. Eventually the Belgian government took control of the colony, renaming it the Belgian Congo.

             The Germans also entered the African scramble. With Bismarck’s approval, German colonization societies led the way in taking control of Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia), German East Africa (in present-day Tanzania), and several smaller colonies such as Togo and Cameroon along the West African coast.[52] 

The Fashoda Crisis. The scramble for Africa drew Europeans into local wars and into conflict with each other. Growing European intervention also contributed to the disintegration of many non-Western states. In the Egyptian province of Sudan, for example, a Muslim leader named Muhammad Ahmad called for a jihad in 1881 to overthrow Egyptian rule – partly because of his outrage at the growing extent of Western, i.e. “Christian,” domination of Egypt itself.[53]

            Claiming to be the Mahdi (or “expected one”), whom many Muslims believed would be sent by God to restore the purity of Islam in anticipation of the coming Day of Judgment, by 1883 Muhammad Ahmad had gained control of most of the Sudan and inspired his followers, the Mahdists, to crush the armies of the Egyptian khedive.[54] Two years later, his troops took Khartoum, the Egyptian capital of the Sudan.[55] In the process, they killed General Charles Gordon,[56] who had been sent by the British to evacuate all Egyptians from the rebellious province.[57] Although Egyptian leaders wanted to retake the Sudan, the British vetoed such a course on the grounds of expense.[58]

            In the 1890s, however, news reached London that the French were sending a military expedition to claim the upper Nile valley.[59] The possibility of a European rival establishing control over the upper Nile—which British politicians believed was the strategic key to controlling Egypt—alarmed the British.[60] They quickly decided to retake the Sudan to forestall the French.

            In 1898 a pivotal battle took place outside the Mahdist capital of Omdurman, across the river from Khartoum. Anglo-Egyptian forces under Sir Herbert Kitchener fought the Mahdists to retake the Sudan[61] and to avenge the death of General Gordon 13 years earlier.[62] A young lieutenant, Winston Churchill, described the attack of the Madhists: 

“They are advancing, and they are advancing fast. A tide is coming in. But what is this sound we hear: a deadened roar coming up to us in waves? They are cheering for God, his Prophet, and his holy Khalifa. They think they are going to win. We shall see about that presently.”[63] 

The British victory was complete. Kitchener not only destroyed the Mahdist army, but also lost only 48 men out of a total force of 26,000.[64] Moving immediately upriver, Kitchener found that the French captain Jean-Baptiste Marchand[65] held the town of Fashoda and claimed the region for France.[66] Kitchener and Marchand agreed to let their governments determine who would control Fashoda.[67] For months Britain and France stood on the brink of war in what became known as the Fashoda Crisis.[68] Eventually the French backed down, however, and Britain consolidated its hold over the Sudan by establishing a condominium—a joint Anglo-Egyptian administration,[69] headed by a British Governor-General appointed by the Egyptian khedive. 

British strategic imperialism. Protection of the upper Nile also led Britain to establish a protectorate over east Africa in present-day Kenya, as well as to take control of the African kingdoms of present-day Uganda. Meanwhile, Britain also moved further inland from the Cape of Good Hope. Led by the private British South Africa Company, owned by Cecil Rhodes, the British laid claim to Central Africa in what became the two colonies of Northern and Southern Rhodesia.

            [BIO] Born in England in 1853,[70] Rhodes had been sent by his family to South Africa for his health in 1870.[71] Soon thereafter, he moved to Kimberley, the center of diamond mining.[72] Using his considerable genius for business, by 1891 Rhodes had gained control of 90% of the world’s diamond production.[73]  He hoped to do the same thing in the gold fields that had been discovered in the Transvaal in 1885,[74] but was thwarted by the Boer President Paul Kruger.

            Rhodes’s pursuit of wealth, however, was only part of a larger ambition – nothing less than a new imperial “world order” under the auspices of what he termed “Anglo-Saxon” civilization (a cultural rather than an ethnic term, which included not only the settlement colonies of the British Empire, like Canada and Australia, but also its spin-offs, like the United States, as well as related “Anglo-Saxon” peoples like the Germans who might embrace the ideals of British constitutional government). As part of his grand design, Rhodes hoped to establish a British-controlled railway from the Cape of Good Hope to Cairo.[75] This Cape-to-Cairo Railway, he believed, would open up the African continent to British imperial control, bringing both the benefits of British civilization to the African peoples and wealth from trade with the interior to British entrepreneurs like himself.

            By the mid-1890s Rhodes was convinced that Britain must annex the Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State to ensure that southern Africa would remain firmly within the British Empire. In 1895 he financed an attempt to overthrow the Transvaal government in what became known as the Jameson Raid.[76] The raid failed, however, and Rhodes was forced to resign as prime minister of Cape Colony.[77]

            Rhodes next turned his attention to financing the private colonization of the far interior, beyond the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers. In the late 1890s Rhodes founded a British colony north of the Transvaal that he named Rhodesia.[78] Still drawn by the Cape-to-Cairo dream, Rhodes began building railways to connect the new colonies to South Africa and the east African coast.

            In 1902[79] Rhodes died, and was buried on a great hill he called the “View of the World”[80] in the heart of Rhodesia. In his will, he left his vast fortune to the endowment of the Rhodes scholarships which allowed the brightest students from British colonies, the United States, and Germany to study at Oxford University – a manifest remnant of his hopes to produce a cadre of leaders who might yet achieve his ideal of a beneficent world order built on “Anglo-Saxon” values of justice, constitutionalism, and the rule of law for all peoples.[81] 

The Boer War. Meanwhile, Rhodes’s policies at the Cape were soon pursued by the British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain and the new British governor-general of the Cape Sir Alfred Milner.[82] By 1899 these two men had engineered another war with the Boer republics as a means of finally annexing them to the British Empire.

            In spite of British expectations, the Boers resisted fiercely for four years. Eventually it took about 450,000 British imperial troops to defeat the Boer forces of scarcely 60,000 men. The Boers practiced a highly effective form of guerrilla warfare.[83] Although the British eventually won in 1902, the conflict was so bitter it turned many in Britain against further imperial expansion.

            The British extended an extremely liberal peace, requiring only British sovereignty over the South African colonies.[84] By 1910 all South Africa had been unified into a single British Dominion—but one in which the Boers, or Afrikaners as they now called themselves, largely dominated all other groups, including the vast majority of Africans. Although the British had allowed all “civilized” Africans to vote in the Cape Colony, the Boers soon moved to remove the franchise from Africans throughout the new dominion.

African Resistance

However powerful their technology, most of the European powers could not have made their claims to African territory effective without some sort of cooperation from local inhabitants. Many Africans sought to use the powerful Europeans for their own advantage. In 1892, for example, the King of Daboya in northern Ghana signed a treaty of friendship and free trade with Britain. Afterwards he sent a message to his new friends: 

“Tell my friend the Governor of Accra, I like his friendship, I like a man who is not a foolish man. I like a man who is truthful . . . . I want to keep off all my enemies and none to be able to stand before me . . . . Let plenty [of] guns, flint, powder, and cloth, and every kind of cost goods be sent here for sale . . . . Tell him also to send for sale here those short small guns firing many times.”[85] 

The Governor’s response was to absorb Daboya into the new British colony of Gold Coast.

            When the truth about European intentions became known, many African peoples resisted fiercely. In Ethiopia, for example, the Italians negotiated a treaty with the Emperor Menelik in 1889.[86] When he discovered that the wording of the treaty in Italian was different from his copy in Amharic, the Ethiopian language,[87] he wrote to King Umberto I of Italy: 

“When I made that treaty of friendship with Italy . . . I said that . . . our affairs might be carried on with the aid of the Sovereign of Italy, but I have not made any treaty which obliges me to do so . . . . That one independent power does not seek the aid of another to carry on its affairs your Majesty understands very well.”[88] 

The Empress Taytu, Menelik’s wife, was even more blunt: “As you we also ought to respect our dignity. You wish Ethiopia to be represented before the other Powers as your protectorate, but this shall never be.”[89] In 1896, using modern weapons, rifles and cannon obtained from Russia and France, Menelik’s army resoundingly defeated an Italian invasion force at the famous Battle of Adowa.[90] Other African peoples were not so successful.

            Military resistance was often fierce and persistent—as in the case of the Ashanti’s bitter wars against the British, and Dahomey’s struggle against the French in West Africa. Perhaps the greatest example of such armed resistance came in South Africa. In 1879 the British in the Cape Colony decided to put an end to the Zulu “menace.” Their first invasion of Zululand, however, resulted in a great Zulu victory at the Battle of Isandhlwana.[91] Nevertheless, the British quickly regrouped and put an end to the Zulu Empire.

            Often, African religious symbolism played an important role in rallying African resistance. Many African peoples called on their gods and ancestors for spiritual guidance. Among the Mashona and the Ndebele, for example, religious leaders led uprisings against the British who settled in Southern Rhodesia in the 1890s. In German East Africa, during the Maji Maji revolt of 1905-1906, Africans believed that they had special religious magic that made them immune to bullets[92]—at least until thousands of them died under German gunfire.[93] Muslims also found in their religion a great ideology to resist and rebel, as in the many cases of resistance in north Africa or the northern parts of West Africa.

            In spite of the strong resistance put up by Africans, however, most could not hope to overcome the Europeans’ superior military technology. Commenting on the European guns, an African journalist remarked in the 1890s: “The Maxim-gun inspires the most respect.”[94] To Africans, the loss of sovereignty was a humiliating experience. As one West African journalist lamented in 1891, “a forcible possession of our land has taken the place of a forcible possession of our persons.”[95]


IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:


Great Trek

Berlin conference

Fashoda Crisis

Cecil Rhodes

Boer War

Battle of Adowa

Battle of Isandhlwana

LOCATE and explain the importance of the following:

Cape of Good Hope




1.      Main Idea  How extensive was European imperialism in Africa before 1870?

2.      Main Idea   What were the consequences of the Berlin Conference?

3.      Cross-Cultural Interaction  In what ways did Africans respond to European imperialism?

4.      Writing to Explain  In a short essay, explain why there was conflict between the Boers and the British in southern Africa.

5.      Synthesizing  How was African imperialism in Africa similar to and different than European imperialism in Africa?