the scramble for africa -- 4/1/15

Today's selection -- from The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor by Martin Meredith. In the scramble for Africa, European powers arbitrarily merged 10,000 different African polities representing highly diverse ethnic and religious groups into just forty colonies, an action that still haunts the countries of Africa today:

"A greedy and devious European monarch, Leopold II of Belgium, set out to amass a personal fortune from ivory, declaring himself 'King-Sovereign' of a million square miles of the Congo Basin. When profits from the ivory trade began to dwindle, Leopold turned to another commodity -- wild rubber -- to make his money. Several million Africans died as a result of the rubber regime that Leopold enforced, but Leopold himself succeeded in becoming one of the richest men in the world.

"In turn, Leopold's ambition to acquire what he called 'a slice of this magnifique gateau africain' was largely responsible for igniting the 'scramble' for African territory among European powers at the end of the nineteenth century. Hitherto, European activity in Africa had been confined mainly to small, isolated enclaves on the coast used for trading purposes. Only along the Mediterranean coast of Algeria and at the foot of southern Africa had European settlement taken root. But now Africa became the target of fierce European competition.

"In the space of twenty years, mainly in the hope of gaining economic benefit and for reasons of national prestige, European powers claimed possession of virtually the entire continent. Europe's occupation precipitated wars of resistance in almost every part of the continent. Scores of African rulers who opposed colonial rule died in battle or were executed or sent into exile after defeat. In the concluding act of partition, Britain, at the height of its imperial power, provoked a war with two Boer republics in southern Africa, determined to get its hands on the richest goldfield ever discovered, leaving a legacy of bitterness and hatred among Afrikaners that lasted for generations.

"By the end of the scramble, European powers had merged some 10,000 African polities into just forty colonies. The new territories were almost all artificial entities, with boundaries that paid scant attention to the myriad of monarchies, chiefdoms and other societies on the ground. Most encompassed scores of diverse groups that shared no common history, culture, language or religion. Some were formed across the great divide between the desert regions of the Sahara and the belt of tropical forests to the south, throwing together Muslim and non-Muslim peoples in latent hostility. But all endured to form the basis of the modern states of Africa. ...

"Colonial rule was expected to last for hundreds of years, but turned out to be only an interlude in Africa's history, lasting for little more than seventy years. Facing a rising tide of anti-colonial protest and insurrection, European governments handed over their African territories to independence movements. The colonial legacy included a framework of schools, medical services and transport infrastructure. Western education and literacy transformed African societies in tropical Africa. But only a few islands of modern economic development emerged, most of them confined to coastal areas or to mining enterprises in areas such as Katanga and the Zambian copper belt. Much of the interior remained undeveloped, remote, cut off from contact with the modern world. Moreover, while European governments departed, European companies retained their hold over business empires built up over half a century. Almost all modern manufacturing, banking, import-export trade, shipping, mining, plantations and timber enterprises remained largely in the hands of foreign corporations. As the end of colonial rule approached, Europeans followed the old adage: 'Give them parliament and keep the banks.' "


Martin Meredith


The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor


PublicAffairs a Member of the Perseus Books Group


Copyright 2014 by Martin Meredith


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