Commercial greed, territorial ambition, and political rivalry all fuelled the European race to take over Africa. This culminated in Africa's partition at the Berlin Conference 1884-5. The whole process became known as "The Scramble for Africa".
Until the 19th century the French had played a smaller role in Africa than the British, but their defeat in the Napoleonic War made them look to Africa for compensation. North Africa became a theatre for Anglo-French rivalry, illustrated most dramatically by the Fashoda incident, where troops from both powers marched from opposite directions to meet in the wilderness in southern Sudan, bringing the two European powers to the brink of war.
There were few French explorers but there was growing interest in the idea of using North Africa to play off the Germans against the British. This was what triggered off what became known as the "Scramble for Africa."
"Gentlemen, in Europe such as it is today, in this competition of the many rivals we see rising up around us, some by military or naval improvements, others by the prodigious development of a constantly growing population; in a Europe, or rather in a universe thus constituted, a policy of withdrawal or abstention is simply the high road to decadence! In our time nations are great only through the activity they deploy; it is not by spreading the peaceable light of their institutions...that they are great, in the present day."
- Jules Ferry, Prime Minister of France [1880-1881, 1883-1885].
For centuries Egypt was ruled by the Ottomans based in what is now Turkey. Then in 1811 an Albanian army officer, Mohammed Ali, took power. Under his rule Egypt's economy and infrastructure expanded. Sudan fell under Egyptian control in the 1820s. By the middle of the century Britain grew concerned about Egypt's influence in the region and increasingly intervened in the commercial and political direction of the state.
By the late 1870s a nationalist movement began to take root. Using a Government overspend as an excuse the French and British imposed dual control. Riots and military rebellion then prompted the British to send in an army of occupation in 1882. This provoked a rift between the British and the French.
In 1830 the French occupied Algiers; they subsequently came up against the Berber jihad launched by the Qadiriyya brotherhood under the leadership of Abd al-Kadir. Persistent and tireless in his opposition to the French Abd al-Kadir was not defeated until 1847 when he was sent into exile. But Berber and Arab fighters continued to resist the French until well into the 20th century.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Tunisia had a prosperous economy and cosmopolitan culture. Under Ahmed Bey there was a modest programme of modernisation. As in Egypt, the debts mounted up giving France an excuse to establish a Finance Commission. Tunisia became a French Protectorate in 1881.
Morocco alone in North Africa remained independent in the 19th century. European style modernisation was instituted under Mawlay al-Hasan (1873-94) but plans for secular education and the levying of taxes met with resistance from Muslim clerics. Morocco finally lost independence in 1912 and was partitioned between France and Spain. Ten years later, the nationalist movement in Egypt triumphed and Egypt gained independence in 1922.
In 1911 Italy invaded Libya, then under Ottoman rule. Ottoman resistance collapsed and Libya was accorded nominal independence(without consulting the people of Libya). But Italy continued to occupy Libya. The commander of the fighting force of the Sanussi brotherhood, Umar al Mukhtar, defied the Italians until 1931 when he was executed.
In 1854 Louis Faidherbe began the French conquest of the Senegal valley, and in 1863 Porto Novo (capital of modern Benin) was declared a French protectorate. There followed a series of treaties with rulers in the Ivory Coast.
By the end of the century the French had conceived a type of colonial rule which was highly centralised and made little effort to involve local rulers. This contrasted with the British colonial style, which in northern Nigeria took the form of indirect rule through the local Emirs and chiefs.
New and old players
Despite the missionaries and the search for new trading outlets, Europeans in the first 80 years of the 19th century were not driven by any desire to rule and administer Africa. In 1865 the House of Commons committee in Britain recommended that Britain give up all her concerns on the West coast of Africa except for Sierra Leone.
Elsewhere in West Africa, leading African merchants still worked on equal terms with European traders in the 1860's, and even enjoyed the attention of Queen Victoria.
"We were favoured with sight of the beautiful baptismal present our beloved Queen has made to the infant of Mrs. J.P. L. Davies of Lagos, a lady well known as having enjoyed the high honour of being a protégé of her majesty.
The royal gift consists of a beautiful gold cup and salver, with knife, fork and spoon of the same metal and design, manufactured by J. Turner of New Bond Street, London. The cup and salver are both inscribed as follows: To Victoria Davies."
- Queen Victoria quoted in the Anglo African newsletter, October 3rd 1863, on the occasion of the birth of a baby born to the leading African trader J.P.L. Davies and his wife, who was goddaughter to the Queen.
In the second half of the 19th century the piecemeal patchwork of alliances, trading colonies, protectorates and understandings yielded to sweeping changes imposed by the Europeans. No longer content with improvising as they went along, the British and the French were determined to put things in order and establish a clear administrative hierarchy with Europeans at the top and Africans below. Meanwhile, some of the oldest trading nations in Europe abandoned Africa and new players emerged. The Dutch and Danes left the continent whilst Germany, Italy and Belgium moved in. The Belgian claim to the Congo proved the most disastrous of all.
Elsewhere the mineral wealth of the continent fixated and dazzled European adventurers. But soon casual commercial dealings were replaced by systematic exploitation and control. At the beginning of the 19th century the European grasp of African geography was confined mainly to the coast. But by the end of the century Europeans were straddling the continent with railways and roads. Now it was possible to take control - politically and commercially.
The Scramble for Africa had the effect of defusing and displacing tensions between the European powers in Europe, but eventually the tradeoffs and alliances could not disguise the fact that Imperial Germany was on a collision course with Britain and France. Now for the first time, Africans found themselves dragged into a conflict which had its origins in the war rooms of Berlin and London. The moral posturing of European powers, supposedly representing civilisation, wisdom, reconciliation and order, soon disintegrated into the chaos, death and destruction of World War I.