The Story of Africa


- Black explorers


- White explorers


- The European scramble


- The African scramble


- Egypt and Sudan


- Religious conversion and resistence


- Royal and political resistence


- Tax and trade wars


- Railways

Religious conversion and resistence


Religious conversion

Celebrants of the Ethopian orthodox church
Christian missionaries were another force against slavery and their presence increased throughout the 19th century. Sometimes they fostered trade, at other times they fell out with trader and government officials alike. The first Catholic missionaries had come to Central Africa from Portugal in 1458. But the first Protestant mission was not established until the 1792 - the Moravian Brethren in the Cape.

Find out more about Christianity

Some missionaries combined conversion with exploration and geography. David Livingstone, a Scottish mill worker, and the first European to cross the continent from East to West, is the obvious example.

As more people became converted to Christianity in Africa, an increasing number became missionaries with broadly the same aims as their European colleagues: of converting people in the interior. African rulers and their people took a pragmatic approach to government emissaries and missionaries.

Kabaka Mutesa I to Colonel Gordon, 24th March 1876:

"To Sir Colonel Gordon, My dear Friend, I wish you good day. It is I, M'tesa, King of Uganda who sends you this letter. I wish to be the friend of the white men. Therefore, hear my words which I say.

I want a priest who will show me the way of God.
I want gold, silver, iron and bronze.
I want clothing for my people and myself to wear.
I want excellent guns and good cannons.
I want to cause to be built good houses for my country.
I want my people to know God."

Missionaries offered some advantages besides salvation and a new faith. They provided a link between African rulers and European rulers, who might have arms or other commodities to sell. And they introduced literacy.

Learning to read was an essential part of Christian conversion, so that the bible could be read in English or in an African language. The skill of reading was to change the status quo for ever. Some African rulers like the King of Rwanda and the Kabaka of Buganda opposed the spread of literacy, because it empowered people and upset the social order.

Islamic resistance

While the British were trying to stamp out the slave trade and spread the word of Christ, Berbers and Fulanis continued to preach the Islamic faith in West Africa.

Already by 1809 all the Hausa states were under Muslim rule and Sokoto was established as the Caliphate for the region. In East Africa, Islam came from the East with the rule of the Omani sultanate; but many coastal people remained Muslim even though the power of the Sultanate began to give way to the British and Germans.

It is estimated that nearly two thirds of Africa would have been converted to Islam had the European powers not embarked on the 'Scramble for Africa' in the 1880's.

Islam, compared to Christianity, had a great deal more to say about the precise nature of political rule and administration. In one sense, the order imposed by Islam impressed the Europeans - the British liked to work though Muslim leaders. On the other hand, Islam also endorsed the idea of sacred war, or jihad, a war launched against nonbelievers in order to spread the word of Islam, something the British saw as a threat to colonial control.

North Africa

In the 1880s Mohammed Ahmed, the Mahdi (The Redeemed one) established himself as a Muslim leader, and set out to establish a new society in Sudan. The British were determined to crush him. When he died he became celebrated as a martyr in many parts of the Muslim world.

In Central Sudan one of the Mahdi's disciples, Rabin ibn Fadl Allah, led a resistance against the French. On his death his son followed in his footsteps and fought the French for 15 years until he died in 1901.

In Libya the Sanussi Brotherhood fought the Italians tenaciously for twenty years until 1932.

West Africa

The Tukuloor Empire, located in what is now modern Mali and Burkina Faso, was founded in the 1860s by the hugely effective and militarily successful Al Haj Umar. His son Ahmadu came under growing pressure from the French in 1880s. He tried to negotiate with them in the face of growing disunity in the Empire. The French were keen to take advantage of this and very late in the day Ahmadu decided to launch a Holy War against them, calling on Muslims throughout the region; the response was weak and he was defeated by the French in 1890.

A far more successful and formidable enemy of the French was Samori Toure who kindled some of the glory of old Mali with his Mandinka Empire, defended by an army 30,000 strong. He kept this force very mobile, constantly surprising the French and had a tremendous sense of military tactics. He used the latest quick loading guns, which his blacksmiths knew how to mend. After his death, his son was defeated by the French in 1901.

Spirit mediums

A number of rebellions against European powers were inspired by spirit mediums. This tradition of fighting off bullets with magic potions and spells goes back hundreds of years. In the 19th century these acts of resistance were common throughout Africa.

Maji Maji

The hated regime of cotton growing provided the impetus for rebellion against German colonial rule in Tanganika. The leader of the Maji Maji movement was Kinjikitile Ngwale, a medium possessed with a snake spirit called Hongo. He encouraged his supporters to sprinkle their bodies with magic water, known as maji maji, which they believed would protect them from bullets.

His movement spread from his base in Ngarambe, some 200 miles south from Dar Es Salaam. Five missionaries were murdered and German reinforcements were sent in. In the end, the magic water which they thought would protect them from the German guns failed.

Thousands were killed in battle. German revenge was terrible; a scorched earth policy wiped out whole villages and all their crops. It's estimated 250,000 died from famine.

Ambuya Nehanda

The Chimurenga wars 1896-7 in Matabeleland and Shonaland (in modern Zimbabwe) were inspired by traditional prophets and priests or svikiro. They blamed the Europeans for all hardship: the hut tax, forced labour, drought, rinderpest. The most famous svikiro was Ambuya Nehanda. Some 8,000 Africans died in these wars. Four hundred and fifty Europeans were killed.

Christian dissent

John Chilembwe was an American trained missionary who returned to his native Nyasaland (now Malawi). He believed in a new African society based on Christian values but independent of Europeans. He attacked tax and recruitment, and led an armed insurrection against the British. He was executed in 1915.

In Nigeria Garrick Braide called himself Elijah II and claimed the British were about to leave Nigeria because of the war - his prophesies contributed to a revolt in Kwale Ibo.
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