V. The Modern Period, 1789–1914 > G. Africa, 1795–1917
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See Overview)
G. Africa, 1795–1917
1. Overview
Given the importance of the transatlantic slave trade for African history during the period 1500–1800, it would seem logical that the abolition of the slave trade, first declared by the Danes in 1792, but enacted by Britain in 1807, would be a major watershed. Indeed it was, but such was the resiliency of African historical process that it took many decades before the abolition of the European slave trade was felt in Africa.  1
The abolition of the European slave trade did not mean the end of slave exports. Britain embarked on aggressive diplomacy to bring the other European nations into the accord. However, as long as there was demand for slaves in the Americas and in the emerging French Indian Ocean plantation islands, African suppliers and European and American carriers would bring slaves to the buyers. Thus, the end of the transatlantic slave trade occurred when Cuba and Brazil began to enforce the prohibition on slave imports in the 1860s. Disguised slave exports persisted well into the 20th century.  2
However, Britain's prohibition of the slave trade to its nationals in 1807 did signal an important change in the organization and nature of the international economy. Increasingly throughout the 19th century, industrial capitalism shaped the demand and supply of goods and service on a world scale. European industries and the mass markets they fed required massive inputs of tropical raw materials, including vegetable oils and cotton. Europeans now wanted Africans to remain in Africa, cultivate the tropical commodities they needed, and consume the products of their industries.  3
European prohibition on the slave trade confronted African political economies in which warfare and enslavement had become deeply embedded. It was not easy to retool the engines of state enterprise. The crisis African states faced was, however, eased by the gradual decline in demand for African slaves in the Americas and by the coincident expansion of demand for slave labor in Africa itself. Slavery was a very old institution in Africa, and it had always been a means of increasing the size of domestic groups. In the face of demand for African agricultural commodities, Africans increasingly turned to slave labor to augment the scale of production. By reducing the price of African slaves, the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade paradoxically encouraged the expansion of slavery in Africa.  4
The African slave market had traditionally favored females. Female slaves added significantly to the reproductive potential of African households, and most African farming systems relied heavily on female labor. It is not at all clear whether this gender division of labor shaped African preferences for female slaves or whether the presence of female slaves encouraged female farming. Politically ambitious men in matrilineal societies, such as the Yao of East Africa, used female slaves as a means of attracting male followers and as a means of developing junior patrilineages in order to gain control over their own offspring. Female slaves further encouraged the development of patriarchy and polygyny. Since most Africans at this time lived in rural settings, additional agricultural labor was always desirable.  5
Between 1800 and 1914, Africans were drawn into a rapidly changing international economy. The new international economy intersected with ongoing processes of change in Africa. The result was a speeding up of conflict and change in Africa, leading increasingly to conflicts between African groups and between Africans and Europeans as Europeans scrambled to claim African territories as colonies. These processes occurred unevenly throughout the continent. By 1914 most of Africa was under European colonial control.  6
In southern Africa, the 19th century opened as Africans pursued their own state-building activities. This was most pronounced among the Nguni-speaking Bantu of southeastern Africa. Increased international commercial activity at Delagoa Bay intersected with human and livestock population growth and led to ecological crisis. In the foothills of the Draksenburg Mountains, Dingiswayo of the Mthwethwa introduced significant organizational innovations that yielded a powerful military machine. Under his successor, Shaka, the Zulu kingdom became a major polity in the region. Its military campaigns unleashed reverberating cycles of warfare, political consolidation, and political dissolution (known as the Mfecane), which reached as far north as Tanzania. White Afrikaner pioneers, called the Trekboers, entered this area in the 1830s after fleeing from British-controlled areas of South Africa. The better armed Afrikaners became only one more state-building group in this region, whose history over the course of the 19th century was characterized by conflicting but fluid frontiers.  7
The discovery of diamonds in 1867 and gold in 1887 profoundly changed both white and black southern African societies and drew them all into an economy dominated by mining enterprises and the need to secure cheap labor. Providing labor for the mines or food for miners initially offered Africans new economic opportunities and introduced a brief period of prosperity. Africans, however, increasingly sought the independence of agriculture in preference to the discipline of the mines. White South Africans and their governments sought to limit Africans' choices and to force them to provide cheap agricul-tural or mining labor. The South African War (1899–1902) eventually yielded a unified South Africa firmly dedicated to white political and economic superiority.  8
East Africa was drawn increasingly into a world in which the European economic system was becoming dominant. Deeper patterns of Indian Ocean commerce persisted, but demand expanded for slaves and ivory, both essentially predatory activities. Slaves were being drawn to supply demand in the Americas, in the Indian Ocean plantations, the trans-Saharan and Red Sea trade, and in the Swahili slave economies of the coast. Africans and Arab plantation owners began to acquire slaves as agricultural labor in order to service international demand for cloves as well as regional demand for food for the slave and ivory caravans. Long-distance caravans organized by African merchants from the interior and by Swahili merchants from the coast crisscrossed East Africa, pushing ever deeper the frontiers of international commerce. These trends coincided with the waves of warfare and state building flowing from the South African Mfecane, yielding increasing cycles of predation and enslavement. In the waning days of the century, rinderpest, jiggers, smallpox, and other epidemics profoundly destabilized African societies. Human and animal populations declined. Rinderpest alone contributed to the loss of up to 90 percent of all large livestock. For cattle-keeping societies, this loss was catastrophic.  9
In the interlacustrine region, the 19th century witnessed the consolidation of larger state systems at the expense of the smaller polities. Buganda emerged preeminent in the region of Lake Victoria, developed a centralized bureaucracy, and began a process of colonization of the outlying regions. The cattle-keeping Tutsi warrior aristocracies emerged successfully in Burundi and Rwanda, structuring the region's economies through their loans of cattle and dependents. In the Sudan, Egyptian forces were trying to impose their authority over the fluid slave-catching frontier, which funneled large numbers of slaves down the river and into the agricultural regions of Egypt. From 1881 to 1885, the Egyptian forces confronted the state-building endeavors of the Mahdi. Intra-European competition for control over the region led to a serious diplomatic crisis in Europe.  10
In West Africa the century opened as the militant Muslim forces were about to embark on the jihad that led to the founding of the Sokoto Caliphate. The waves of Islamic expectancy and militancy reached outward and led to the founding of the Hamdullahi Caliphate in Masina and the Umarian state farther west. Under several of these religious polities, Islamic education and piety made significant advances. The Sokoto Caliphate emerged as one of the strongest states in West Africa.  11
State building and consolidation were not limited to the interior. In the 19th century, the Asante strengthened a powerful empire in the forest region of what is now Ghana and centralized state power through elaborate bureaucracies of state officials. As in the theocratic states of the interior, the forest states were also based upon warfare, conquest, tribute, and the resettlement of captured population.  12
Perhaps the most striking change to occur in West Africa was the rapid expansion of international commerce in bulk vegetable commodities, especially palm oil and peanuts. For example, the peanut exports from the Gambia rose from a mere 47 tons in 1835 to over 11,000 tons in 1851. Similar patterns of expansion occurred throughout the coastal zones of West Africa and demonstrated how rapidly Africans responded to economic incentives. This has been called the West African peasant revolution, and it introduced significant changes in the region's political economy. European merchants established mutually beneficial commercial relations with African middlemen and African producers. Until midcentury, the barter terms of trade favored African commodity producers, who benefited both from rising commodity prices and falling prices for manufactured goods. By midcentury, commodity prices began to fall, and by the onset of the European depression of 1867, the international commerce of West Africa was in turmoil. European and African merchants competed for diminishing shares of the market, which led to bankruptcies, fraud, and commercial conflicts. European merchants petitioned home governments for protection. The pace of European colonialism increased, and by the 1870s, the scramble was on.  13
Until the 1870s, Europeans had neither wanted nor were able to impose themselves on Africans. However, medical and technological innovations—including the discovery that quinine provided prophylaxis against malaria, and the invention of the repeating rifle—provided the means for Europeans to defeat Africans in battle and to survive afterward. This window of military superiority closed rather quickly. In 1896, the African army of Menelik II was armed with modern repeating rifles and resoundingly defeated the invading Italian army at the Battle of Adua (Adowa). The Battle of Adua marked the end of the “scramble phase” of European colonialism.  14
By then, however, Europeans had laid claim to all of Africa except for Liberia, which since 1847 had been an internationally recognized republic under the rule of returned African-American freed slaves, and Ethiopia. Europeans' actual control over the land and peoples of Africa was much more doubtful. Indeed, Europeans and their African allies fought widespread resistance movements in the decades immediately following conquest. Some of these primary resistance movements drew on well-established forms of organization, such as polities. Others, including the Chimurenga in Southern Rhodesia and Maji Maji in Tanganyika, forged new organizations and networks. Resistance organized by polities was more easily suppressed, since Europeans usually maintained decisive military superiority, and there was usually someone who could surrender. Resistance by acephalous societies proved remarkably difficult to suppress, since each community had to be defeated in turn.  15
Other forms of resistance, including migration, tax evasion, disobedience, and disrespect, were much less obvious and much more difficult to control. Such forms of resistance continued throughout the colonial period. Even more difficult for colonial officials to understand and to control were the ways in which Africans turned to Christianity and to Western education as means of resisting the power of colonial rule.  16
The missionary enterprise was an intimate part of European cultural imperialism. Christianity provided Africans with a means of creating a new sense of community. Since the BaKongo prophetess Beatrice Kimpa Vita of the late 17th century, Africans had sought to Africanize European cultural institutions such as the church. Church practices could be shaped to address African concerns more directly. Breakaway African churches, which predated colonialism but proliferated under European colonial rule, demonstrated how Africans used Western cultural institutions to resist European domination. Africans also turned to Islam in increasing numbers during the colonial period. African Muslims joined Sufi brotherhoods as a means of simultaneously creating new communities and maintaining cultural and political distance from European institutions.  17
Even European-dominated mission enterprises provided Africans with new opportunities. Particularly in central, eastern, and southern Africa, mission stations formally linked to European churches became sanctuaries to which runaway slaves and oppressed women could flee. Equally important, missions became the primary medium for the expansion of Western literacy and thus provided the training for a generation of African nationalists. (See Overview)  18
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.