VI. The World Wars and the Interwar Period, 1914–1945 > J. Africa, 1914–1945
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See Overview)
J. Africa, 1914–1945
1. Overview
The 30 years between World War I and the end of World War II represented simultaneously the high-water mark of colonialism in Africa and its dissolution. Even though formal decolonization did not begin until 1956, the roots of African independence were planted during this period.  1
Looking back at the period from military conquest to 1914, European colonial officials could point to significant but limited accomplishments. Colonial regimes had defeated their African political opponents, suppressed the armed resistance movements, installed rudimentary administrations, and constructed railways and harbors. Despite the promises of tropical bounty awaiting colonial entrepreneurs, metropolitan countries could point to few clear economic advantages their colonies provided. Nor did Africans unequivocally embrace European cultural institutions, including missionary Christianity. Islam seemed to be making more progress in northeastern and West Africa than Christianity. The outbreak of World War I arrested the development of colonial administrations even as African manpower, mineral, and agricultural resources became crucial to metropolitan war economies. The war made clear just how important colonies actually were.  2
Military campaigns took place where Germany had colonies (See The War in the Colonies, 1914–1918): in Togo, Cameroon, Southwest Africa, and East Africa. The Germans in Togo and Cameroon were quickly defeated. The Germans in Southwest Africa surrendered to a British imperial army commanded by the South African general Smuts. Fighting in East Africa was longer and bloodier, although relatively few European troops were killed in the fighting. Many more were incapacitated and slain by disease.  3
Few Africans actually fought. Most Africans in East Africa were recruited into the carrier corps. Without adequate roads, it fell upon Africans to carry the vast military and logistical arsenal for the troops. Officially, the British reported that 44,991 recruits in the carrier corps died, compared with 3,500 imperial troops who died from battlefield wounds and 6,500 from disease. The mortality rate for Africans in the carrier corps was roughly 2 percent per month; an additional 15 percent were incapacitated by disease and poor nutrition each month. At least one historian of East Africa estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 Africans died directly or indirectly because of the military campaigns in East Africa as their crops and herds were requisitioned and as their male kinsmen were forcibly recruited. Knowing what was in store for them, it is not surprising that as European military recruiters approached their villages, Africans raced off to the bush to hide.  4
Fighting was limited in West Africa, but recruitment was widespread, especially by the French. All able-bodied men were liable for recruitment into the French military service. In 1915 and 1916, recruitment revolts broke out in many French West African colonies. The black Senegalese representative to the French National Assembly, Blaise Diagne, helped recruit Africans for the war effort, but only in exchange for symbolic gains (he rode in the same railway car as the governor-general) and legal ones (specific voting and religious rights were clarified). Although the Germans were defeated and the recruitment revolts suppressed, the experience unleashed significant social, political, and cultural changes.  5
For those who survived, the experience of World War I was important and lasting. Africans saw that Europeans were not invincible. Recruitment brought Africans from a great number of different ethnic groups and backgrounds together; they turned to English, French, Portuguese, Lingala, and Swahili as common languages. Africans participated in new organizations, which provided models for future nationalist mobilization. Moreover, the defeat of Germany and the subsequent mandating of German colonies to European victors provided opportunities for Africans with Western literacy to fill administrative positions left vacant. And finally, the politics surrounding the Treaty of Versailles introduced two important ideas into the language of emergent African nationalism. The first was derived from President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points and spoke of “self-determination.” Although the idea was not intended for colonized Africans, Africans and Pan-Africanists would use it as a lever against colonial rule. The second came from the League of Nations mandate terms, which provided for “trusteeship,” not colonial dominion. Africans would see this term as providing them with important political and economic rights, as well as underscoring the temporary nature of the colonial rule.  6
The role of African manpower and natural resources during the war demonstrated the importance of African colonies. During the interwar years, most European colonies embarked on ambitious economic development programs, which were fueled by rapidly rising commodity prices. During this period, the de facto division of African colonies into four main economic clusters became clear: colonies where African peasants were predominant (mostly West Africa), colonies where agricultural concession companies predominated (mostly Central Africa), colonies where mining capital dominated (mostly southern Africa), and colonies of white settlement (mostly East, Central, and southern Africa). Several colonies shared two or more of these economic orientations, but the impact of colonialism on African societies was shaped more by these broad economic orientations than by differences in colonial administrative policy.  7
The practical differences between direct rule, where European colonial officials ruled over administrative districts, and indirect rule, where “indigenous authorities” were empowered to rule with European officials gently modernizing “traditions,” have been exaggerated. Direct rule has been associated with the French and indirect rule with the British, although all colonial powers employed both methods and all relied on African collaboration in order to administer as cheaply as possible.  8
There were, nonetheless, important outcomes to these different styles of colonial rule. Elevated to the level of formal colonial policy by Frederick Lugard and applied vigorously to Nigeria, indirect rule heightened ethnic differences, since indigenous authorities were to emerge from identifiable communities. If, as in the case of the Igbo, there were no identifiable indigenous rulers, the British simply appointed willing collaborators and gave them a “warrant” to rule. Customs were invented to demonstrate the age-old practices of these indigenous authorities. Empowering indigenous authorities led to significant abuses of power, as chiefs used their positions to accumulate wealth and power. Because even those practicing direct administration needed African collaborators, the French, Belgians, and Portuguese appointed provincial chiefs to assist them. Provincial chiefs also used their positions to enhance their power to accumulate wealth. The invention of tradition in colonial Africa helped undergird the power of African chiefs to determine access to agricultural resources and to increase the power of older men over both women and younger men.  9
Younger men and women often resisted the power of chiefs and elderly men. Young men migrated to cities, to the mines, and to other agricultural regions. Many went in search of an independent income in order to establish their own households. If women could not escape their “arranged” first marriages, divorce and subsequent marriages, especially among Muslims, often provided women with more choice regarding their spouses. Some women also fled to the emerging urban centers and became prostitutes. Others fled to the mission communities, where marriage among Christian converts occasionally provided greater choice.  10
Some women responded collectively to what they considered the erosion of their customary rights. In 1929, Igbo women in southeastern Nigeria rose up against the appointed warrant chiefs and against British colonial officials in protest against the erosion of women's secret societies (the British banned all secret societies, although many were indeed the “indigenous authorities”) and the proposed tax on women's property. The women of Aba (See 1929) used well-established techniques to express their anger, including bawdy songs and dances. When they sang and danced before the British headquarters, officials panicked, troops were brought in, and many African women were martyred. In response to these events, the British held an inquiry and appointed anthropologists to study Nigerian societies more thoroughly.  11
Among the most significant social and cultural changes to occur during this period were the development of African nationalism and Pan-Africanism, the expansion of Western education, and the growth of cities. Pan-Africanism was a movement born in the African diaspora of the New World. As a political movement, it was a coalition of a wide variety of African-American and later African nationalist groups. They shared a vision of a great African homeland, but little else. Nonetheless, Pan-Africanist political agitation influenced a variety of nationalist groups in colonial Africa, ranging from youth associations, protonationalist associations (such as the South African Native Peoples Congress), labor unions, and literary self-help societies, which drew from Pan-Africanist rhetorical models for the empowerment of colonized African peoples. These groups sought gradual, political reforms within the context of colonialism. Others, such as the influential Négritude movement formed in Paris by French-speaking African and Afro-Caribbean intellectuals, sought cultural recognition and presented only vague political goals.  12
Collective action by railway workers and dock workers, who engaged in a series of strikes in the 1920s and 1930s, had an important impact in the continent. Influenced by the Comintern (See 1919, March 2) and by metropolitan socialist parties, African workers began to understand and exercise their power. Strikes along the major rail arteries and at the harbors had the potential to strangle colonial economies. So too did the African cocoa planters of Ghana, whose supply holdups in 1937 caused a crisis in the Gold Coast economy and led to colonial reassessment of commodity markets. In response, the British colonies established commodity marketing boards, which acted as sole buyers of commodities, in an effort to even out the wide fluctuations in commodity prices. Although intended to serve the interests of producers, these commodity boards evolved into powerful bureaucracies controlling vast sums of money. Other Africans turned to African independent churches as a means of expressing their religious and nationalist sentiments. Cities expanded dramatically during this period; the urban areas provided fertile ground for the establishment of new forms of community.  13
The expansion of African nationalism coincided with the consolidation of white settler domination in South Africa, Southern Rhodesia, Kenya, Angola, and Mozambique. In the 1920s and 1930s white settlers exerted increasing control over the affairs of their colonies through the grant of “responsible government” to British settlers. British settlers used their power to impose harsh economic and political restrictions on Africans, which in turn only fueled African nationalist sentiments. In the Portuguese colonies, changes in metropolitan politics were felt as a second colonial occupation under a much more interventionist colonial development policy.  14
The Great Depression profoundly affected world commodity markets and African social life. The continent's role as a producer of primary agricultural and mineral resources made Africans especially vulnerable to economic deceleration. Misery stalked the cities and rural villages alike. In the late 1930s, mobilization for another war stimulated African commodity markets and ushered in a sustained period of economic growth. As before, Africa continued to produce agricultural and mineral resources that were largely processed in Europe. The only exception was in South Africa, where manufacturing and secondary processing helped create a wide industrial base.  15
In contrast with World War I, when fighting occurred in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, fighting during World War II was limited to the Horn of Africa. Most Africans participated in the war effort through their agricultural and mining labor. Africans were also recruited for the war overseas. In West Africa, Charles de Gaulle rewarded Africans for their support of the Free French by introducing a series of political reforms agreed upon at the 1944 Brazzaville meeting. In British West Africa, efforts were made to introduce constitutional changes permitting greater representation of Africans in the legislative councils. However, colonial governments controlled by white settlers imposed ever harsher laws to prevent the expression of African political grievances and to hinder African economic progress. (See Overview)  16
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.