The Good Ol’ Days During the Colonization of Africa
As we look back to see how we got here, it becomes obvious that a few Africans were not taught what the colonization of Africa was like and why almost all African territories were handed back self-rule. To solve problems like poverty, misrule, dictatorships, corruption and slow development, some (I will assume ill-informed) Africans have suggested a return to colonization would be a sensible idea, or attributed to racist stereotypes the cause of the below-expectations progress of some African countries. This is worrying!
Clearly, we need to remind some of us what happened during the colonization of Africa and why it needed to end. We will start with more recent history before going back to the Scramble for Africa, which refers to the period of Colonization of Africa.
The Design of the Post-World War 2 World
When Britain requested that the United States join the second World War during the 20th century, Franklin D Roosevelt gave careful thought to how to prevent another World War and how the USA could gain a global advantage from entering the war. At the time Britain was running out of money and needed to also buy supplies from the USA. Britain still owed the USA money it had borrowed to fight the First World War.
Crucially, as concerns Africa, we need to remember that when violent conflicts erupted between Great Britain, France, Germany and their allies on both sides, all their colonies became theatres of war. African became engulfed in wars it did not initiate and which it would not benefit from.
On the ground, African combatants and porters were conscripted into the war. Some were volunteers. The general terms of service meant they were under-paid, under-fed, under-clothed and travelled obscene long distances either wearing cheap footwear or without shoes. Those who returned from the war uninjured faced the risk of not receiving their military pension entitlements in full or in part. Those who returned injured had to face loss of income, mobility issues and almost no mental care support from the governments of the colonial masters.
During World War 1 and World War 2, civilians faced increased hunger and diseases in civilian areas turned into war zones. After the war, civilians faced the loss of bread winners and the loss of loved ones in respect of casualties. There were food and goods price inflation due to products ring-fenced for the war effort, creating artificial market shortages. Some Africans were asked to also voluntarily contribute their savings towards the war effort.
The terms drafted between the USA and Britain are captured in the United Nations Atlantic charter, which started as a non-binding policy statement issued in August 14, 1941. What were the terms?
- No territorial gains were to be sought by the United States or the United Kingdom;
- Territorial adjustments must be in accord with the wishes of the peoples concerned;
- All people had a right to self-determination;
- Trade barriers were to be lowered;
- There was to be global economic cooperation and advancement of social welfare;
- The participants would work for a world free of want and fear;
- The participants would work for freedom of the seas;
- There was to be disarmament of aggressor nations, and a post-war common disarmament.
Point 3 meant that all colonial masters had to set a timetable to return self-determination to the colonies and prepare Africa, Asia and the parts of Americas for self-rule.
An additional requirement not captured in the Atlantic charter is that Britain had to give up its ports around the globe to the USA in exchange for armaments, money, ships and other supplies. This simultaneously weakened Britain and France post World War, and set the stage for the USA to emerge as the leading world superpower, only temporarily rivalled by the Soviet Union, post WW2.
Result #1: Direct colonization ended to prevent future world wars. That’s the first reason it is stupid to say some African countries should have remained under colonial rule. Consider the question, how many Africans and Asians would like to fight more world wars? Effectively, out of self-interest, the USA was signalling to Europe, “You don’t know what you are doing. Stop leading other nations astray into destruction and frequent large-scale wars. We won’t give black people equality in 1940s United States but we trust black people in Africa and Asia to govern themselves better than we trust Europe to rule the colonised territories of Africa or Asia.”
We know it was self-interest because the USA had Jim Crow at home in the 1940s, and fought the world worst tyranny at the time, an existential threat, with a segregated army.
Re-cap of how colonization happened
Europe colonized Asia first before invading Africa. Its presence in Asia secured plunder, future wealth, resources, trade routes and manpower, prior to the colonization of Africa.
During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries Europe also made breakthroughs in science, medicine and technology, both independently and using slave labour, which gave it additional advantages once (later) the decision was reached in 1884 to invade Africa.
For instance, in 1820, quinine a drug for treating malaria was first isolated from the bark of the cinchona tree, from Peru. Earlier, Jesuit missionaries were taught for free by Native Americans in the 17th century to use the bark of the cinchona tree to treat malaria.
In 1851, Belgian Army captain Fafschamps invented a volley gun – the mitrailleuse – which could fire a ludicrously deadly shotgun shell configuration in one round. Later, more deadly volley guns were invented such as the Mitrailleuse de Reffye.
In 1859, the first ironclad steam-powered battleship was launched by France. Between 1859 and 1862, Great Britain and the United States also started to build armed battleships as the core vessels of their Navies, abandoning unarmed war vessels.
In 1867, Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, a blasting explosive.
In 1874, William Gardner, a former captain of the Union Army during the Americal Civil War, invented the Gardner gun, a crank operated gun which could fire 360 rounds per minute. This was used in the Mahdist War, by the British in Sudan.
The Gatlin Gun, which could fire 400-900 rounds/min
The Maxim gun, which could fire 550-600 rounds/min
The Maxim gun was a commercial success. It was purchased by 33 countries including 8 of the 14 countries that attended the Berlin conference – Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, Spain, and the United States. It was used in 23 wars, including many in Africa and Asia:
None of these modern rapid-fire guns, which could fire 360 to 900 rounds per minute, were sold to Africans or African pre-colonial countries.
Also, the colonization of Africa was preceded by exploration by European geographers during the 18th Century to map the interior, locate natural resources and understand the traditional enemies of each African state.
Colonial troops from Asia were brought to Africa to assist in the invasion effort. The standing armies from coastal African states that were the first to face defeat were re-deployed as colonial troops – called ‘Askari’ – for conquering the interior of Africa. For instance, the Fante who had been the tributaries of the Ashanti were used by the British as auxiliaries to the Lagos Constabulary (Glover’s Hausas) to defeat the Ashanti. In Madagascar, the Senegalese Tirailleurs were used to conquer the kingdom of Imerina. Africans therefore participated in colonization as either resisters or facilitators.
According R.J. Rummel, a University of Hawaii academic who spent his life collecting data on state-perpetrated atrocities, the death toll directly caused by colonialism during the 20th century was close to 50 million lives.
Estimates by RJ Rummel, of University of Hawaii scholar. RJ Rummel defined democide as murder by governments.
In general, through their treatment of Africans during colonial rule, the colonial invaders of the 19th and 20th century AD expressed a sense of racial superiority, zero accountability to Africans, a sense of entitlement to extract value from Africa, and knowingly created unequal power relations. There is an baseless belief by many that colonial countries were taught democracy during colonial rule, when in fact the colonial administration mainly tried to suppress participation by Africans in self-determination and government.
Consequences of defeat:
- Merger of defeated states into a super-regional administration. For instance, eight regions were combined to form French West Africa: a federation of Mauritania, Senegal, French Sudan (now Mali), French Guinea (now Guinea), Ivory Coast, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Dahomey (now Benin) and Niger. In Nigeria the Northern protectorates and southern protectorates, together containing about 100 pre-colonial kingdoms, were merged to create Nigeria in 1914 (containing 24 million people out of the 30 million people in Britain’s 4 West African colonies).
- Troublesome monarchs were eliminated. The sultan of Sokoto, the ruler of the Sokoto caliphate, was killed in northern Nigeria by the British. The king of Lagos (eko) was deposed and a puppet monarch installed. The Queen of the kingdom of Imerina, Madagascar was deported.
- Some palaces were destroyed or occupied by European forces. The Ashanti palace was large and had “rows of books in many languages.”
The 1874 burning of Kumasi
- Self-serving infrastructure and military camps were built with coerced labour supervised by Europeans, using local materials and equipment brought from Europe.
- Land redistribution & native resettlements. New laws were imposed stealing ridiculous amounts of land from native Africans without meaningful compensation, turning natives into tenants on their ancestral lands and re-allocating seized land to the colonial government and European settlers. The ideal land for theft had the best water-fed lands, least exposure to malaria such as the South African Coast or the Central uplands of Kenya, and the best farm lands. In Tanzania (German East Africa), 1.3 million acres was stolen by foreign settlers. In Kenya, 2million acres was stolen, and then resold to European settlers. In Tanzania, an imperial decree in 1895 declared all land whether occupied or not “unowned” crown land, vested in the German Empire. Only land belonging to private owners or chiefs could be proved. In academic literature this theft is obscured and called “alienation” by academics and lawyers. The traditional legal systems, interests of indigens, the rights of the previous owners and needs of the land uses were disregarded. There was token lip service paid to traditional law, by allowing customary law in some areas, but laws of African origin were sub-ordinated to colonial laws. Today, academics in universities still obscure these events as “the introduction of common law” in British colonies or “the introduction of civil law” in French colonies. Prior to Germany losing its African colonies at the end of World War I, it used imperial decrees. This kind of military strategy is called “lawfare”. For implementation of rule changes, two strategies were used. In areas with low Europeans to Africans ratio such as West Africa, peasants were allowed to keep their land but the price for produce exported was set at very low prices and the tax on customs of goods leaving the coast were set high. Also, the priority in West Africa was to gain access to resources and to prevent other competing European countries from controlling routes to resources. In southern Africa and eastern Africa where the ratio of Europeans to Africans was higher, the white-minority settler introduced new laws to steal the land from Africans and make them either tenants, squatters or illegal occupiers of “private” land and “state” land. Squatters owed the new land owners 260 to 270 days of labour. In the 17th century this would have been called slavery. The detail referred to these ‘land grabs’ as the alienation of land. Similar acts took place in Belgian, German, Spanish and Portuguese colonies. European invaders planned out the future land use into agricultural land, commercial land, indigenous land, roads, bridges etc.
|Southern Africa||Year||% of land “alienated” / converted to European owned private land||African land (%)||Other land (%) *|
* Other land includes a variety of types including state land, game reserves, forestry land, national parks, etc. In Botswana most of this was the very dry western areas and most outside national parks remained available to indigenous farmers.
- New laws sub-ordinated the role and authority of African monarchs to being puppets of the colonial government. Courts were created which handled disputes mostly focussing on protecting the European settlers, protecting either no pay, bad pay, or legitimising bad working conditions. This later created the environment for Africans in various countries to organise into labour unions for self-preservation since most Africans were not capital owners, law-makers or large-scale business owners in their own country.
- “Stolen” land. We used the term “stolen” rather than “alienation” as the idea that unowned land existed is ridiculous. The Yoruba people of Nigeria for instance have the saying, “Oba ni o ni ile” (meaning “the king owns the land”). Most Africans find the idea of “free, unowned or uncultivated land” available to grab upon a foreigner issuing new laws unbelievable. Today, in the United Kingdom, only 5% of British land is occupied by homes and gardens, out of a total 244,000 square kilometres. Imagine if a random foreign invader arrived and declared the remaining 95% of British land foreign owned, tomorrow. That was the unjustifiable African experience of the colonization of Africa.
- Indirect rule and direct rule. In general France, German, Spain, Belgium and Portugal used direct rule. Britain favoured indirect rule. African monarchs were retained as representatives of the people, tools for rounding up conscripts for labour projects or military recruitment (sometimes referred to as “levies”) and the face of colonial muscle, to minimise revolts.
- Forms of domination. African territories were controlled either as spheres of influence, protectorates, colonies or free-trade areas.
- Armed force was used to dispossess Africans of their financial assets, political assets and to suppress revolts. National armies and local police were replaced by colonial regiments run and supervised by officers of the European armed forces. In general, the European administration brought cheap manpower and forced labour from other African ethnicities (precolonial kingdoms) to the conquered regions (such as the Glover’s Hausas to police the Yoruba, the Royal West Indian Regiment to conquer the Ashanti, the British Indian Army to fight in the Mahdist War).
- Currency replacement. Where Africans were wealthy enough or had sufficient income to avoid working in colonial businesses or projects as labourers, the combination of currency replacement and taxes reduced a large part of the African population to wage servitude. Suddenly some of them needed to work to earn new currencies, which became the only legal form of money, in order to pay taxes or buy things. For instance, in Yorubaland cowry shells were replaced with the British West African pound.
- Horrific violence and human rights abuses. Africans were killed, imprisoned, and tortured to set an example to activists using ring leaders. In the Belgian Congo, mutilation and intimidation by the Force Publique was used to extract super-normal performance from forced labour. If that wasn’t enough colonial troops were willing commit mass-murder such as the murder of 10 million Congolese people by Belgium and genocide such as in the case of the Herero and Namaqua genocide, the killing of 24,000 to 100,000 people belonging to an already small tribe in German South West Africa (present day Namibia). About 1 million Kikuyu people were kept in concentration camps by British forces during the Mau Mau riots, and various individuals experienced castration, rape, beatings and death. In an article written by Richard Leigh on behalf of Reuters, titled “Britain agrees compensation deal for Kenya torture victims”, on 5 June 2013, retrieved on 20 March 2021, he writes:
Britain has agreed on a multi-million-dollar compensation settlement for thousands of Kenyans tortured by colonial forces during an uprising at the tail end of the British Empire, a lawyer and expert witness said on Wednesday.
Negotiations began after a London court ruled in October that three elderly Kenyans, who suffered castration, rape and beatings while in detention during a crackdown by British forces and their Kenyan allies in the 1950s, could sue Britain.
The torture took place during the so-called Kenyan “Emergency” of 1952-60, when fighters from the Mau Mau movement attacked British targets, causing panic among white settlers and alarming the government in London.
“We have agreed on an out-of-court settlement,” Kenyan lawyer Paul Muite, an advisor to the Mau Mau veterans seeking compensation, told Reuters.
“(The negotiations) have included everybody with sufficient evidence of torture. And that number is about 5,200,” he said, declining to comment on the size of the payout.
A formal announcement on the settlement is expected as early as Thursday.
Britain’s foreign office declined to comment on reports that the settlement would total 14 million pounds sterling.
This would work out at about 2,600 pounds sterling – or 339,560 Kenyan shillings – per claimant in a country where average national income per capita is around 70,000 shillings.
The Mau Mau nationalist movement originated in the 1950s among the Kikuyu people of Kenya. Its loyalists advocated violent resistance to British domination of the country.
The Kenya Human Rights Commission has estimated 90,000 Kenyans were killed or maimed and 160,000 detained during the uprising.
London tried for three years to block the Mau Mau veterans’ legal action in the courts, drawing condemnation from the elderly torture victims who accused Kenya’s former colonial master of using legal technicalities to fight the case.
Caroline Elkins, a Harvard history professor who acted as an expert witness in the case launched in 2009, said the settlement would be the first of its kind for the former British Empire.
In another source, the Guardian Editorial of 11 April 2011, this was written about the Mau Mau uprising:
[T]here is something peculiarly chilling about the way colonial officials behaved, most notoriously but not only in Kenya, within a decade of the liberation of the [Nazi] concentration camps and the return of thousands of emaciated British prisoners of war from the Pacific. One courageous judge in Nairobi explicitly drew the parallel: Kenya’s Belsen, he called one camp.
When France invaded Algeria, during the first three decades of French occupation (from 1830 to 1860), between 500,000 to 1 million Algerians out of a total population of 3 million were killed by France owing to war, massacres, diseases and famine. Afterwards, the atrocities continued until independence, such as the 1869 famine of Algeria and the Sétif and Guelma massacre of 1945.
Legal Structure of Colonial Administration
|Colonial powers||Designated ruler||Colonial regiments||Colonization Special Purpose Vehicle|
|Britain||Governor||Kings African Rifles
Northern Rhodesia regiment
|Imperial British East African Company
Royal Niger Company
British South African Company
|Germany||Governor||German askari (80,000 troops and 200 camels):||German West African Company|
|Belgium||Governor||Force Publique||The Abir Congo Company|
Representation of natives in government
Below is a sample of colonial systems that were in operations:
Social inequality and racial discrimination
For instance, in the Belgian Congo there was “implicit apartheid” in most areas. There were no go areas for blacks. Whites had their areas in city centers and black Africans had their black neighbourhoods. Various amenities were reserved for whites only – the best hospitals, schools, department stores, restaurants. In the Force Publique a black person could not rise about the rank of non-commissioned officer. During the world wars, there were limitations on the awards or military honours a black member of the armed forces could get. Black Africans couldn’t live their homes before 4am or after 9pm. The colonial positions of oppression were state officials, missionaries and white owned or white run private companies labelled KCC (King-Church-Capital).
In colonial Lagos, Nigeria, a black African colonial official of Sierra Leonean English descent arrived at the Bristol Hotel to stay for the night. The black official was accompanied by a white colleague called Keith. Upon discovering Ivor Cummings wasn’t white, the Greek owner left the reception and had a clerk handle what happened next:
“‘Pray have you got the name Ivor Cummings on your reservation list?’ Cummings asked.
‘Oh yes, of course, his name is here,’ said the hotel manager but now addressing his question to Keith, ‘and when is he coming?’
‘I am Ivor Cummings,’ retorted the black official. ‘This is Ivor Cummings,’ Keith said simultaneously, and exasperated. The Greek blushed and it was very noticeable. He quickly vacated the reception counter, leaving behind the untidy business to be concluded by the African clerk behind the desk.
The poor clerk stammered as he tried to explain that black people were not admitted into the hotel.
“You mean as guests? For you are black yourself,” said Ivor Cummings angrily and stormed out of the hotel.”
Excerpt from The Mystery Gunman, by Kayode Eso.
Panoramic view of Lagos racecourse (left), a government house (centre) and a view of the creek (right). From the collection of: The Centenary Project
The Secretariat, Lagos Nigeria. From the collection of: The Centenary Project
The Supreme Court, Tinubu Square, Lagos. It was built in 1906 and demolished in 1960
The Colonial Hospital, Lagos Nigeria. From the collection of: The Centenary Project
Europeans enjoying recreation, Lagos Nigeria. From the collection of: The Centenary Project
Messrs. G.B. Ollivant, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
Layout of Colonial Lagos
When Lagos was annexed, the beach was cleared of natives. Buildings owned by Africans were destroyed and their land stolen to create a town and street plan according the wishes of the new colonial settlers. There was large scale destruction of property and dispossession of land.
After clearing space for themselves, the colonial settlers then labelled the areas occupied by the internally displaced native persons of Lagos overcrowded and insanitary. Some natives were forced to resettle even further away to areas deemed less populated. A series of laws were enacted to force natives of Lagos (Eko in Yoruba) to comply, of which the following are a sample of laws: the Swamp Improvement Act of 1877; General Sanitary Board (1899); Native Authority Ordinance (1901); Lagos Municipal Health Board (1908); Lagos Township Ordinance of 1917; and the Lagos Town Planning Ordinance of 1927. Natives of Lagos were deported to less habitable areas such as Alakoro, Anikantamo, Elegbata, Oko-Awo and Sangrouse on Lagos Island.
Ideas explored to shift the assigned location of markets, government buildings, commercial buildings and residential areas included new laws, slum clearing, reclamation, resettlement, the use of force, and the sale of expropriated land as freeholds and leaseholds to settlers.
The five phases of land re-allocation were: (1) reclamation or site clearing; (2) drafting a town plan and street layouts; (3) the sale of freeholds and leaseholds; (4) planning applications, building on land and either residential or commercial occupation; and (5) the preservation of sites of cultural or historical significance. The colonial government didn’t put effort into preserving sites of an African origin.
The insanitary living conditions of displaced natives led to various public health problems such as the bubonic plague outbreak of 1924 at Oko-Awo, the spread of tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses problems.
In general, the government kept clearing “Nigerians” off land and re-settling them from 1863 to the 1950s. It’s easy to imagine that the Nigerians lost money were their homes were demolished, when their homes were labelled “slums” or “dangerous structures”. The displacement of Nigerians attributable to the colonial government or colonial settlers reduced due to independence.
In 1930, the Eleko of Lagos and his chiefs submitted a formal complaint to the colonial government about the ‘rampant demolition of houses under the pretence of anti-plague measures which had rendered many souls homeless’. Nigerians and nationalist also used the press to educate Nigerians about the injustices of the colonial government. Some of the place names in Lagos reflect the history and actions of the colonial government such as Obalende, which in Yoruba means “the king drove me here”.
Stolen land was offered back to Africans as ninety-nine year leaseholds. Having initially lost their possessions, many families could not raise money to buy back their land, or afterwards to rebuild on it. Under such leasehold agreements, those who could afford to buy a leasehold found that the colonial government retained the right to sell the freehold and kept substantial powers over land. Many natives of Lagos refused to buy back land through leaseholds. Land was something to pass on to children and grandchildren. That was the precolonial right and way of African land owners in the Lagos area. Elsewhere, where the colonial government sold land as freeholds in Surulere and Olu-Elegba, Africans and settlers bought up land while passing up the chance to by 99-year leases in Yaba.
Antecedents of the colonial administration
19th and 20th century European administrators learnt to dispossess the vulnerable from earlier projects of colonization and oppression carried out by the Romans, Spanish conquistadors, Portuguese colonizers, English Enclosures and USSR collectivism. Most colonial administrators came from fee paying schools – public schools – and received a classical training.
The systems of dispossession and exploitation were the latifundia system of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire, the Haciendas system of the Spanish colonies in America, Fazendas system of the Portuguese colonies, the British colonies of South Asia (modern day India-Pakistan) and the Dutch colonies of East Indies (Indonesia).
The typical features of these systems of large-scale “land grabs” and social control over mechanisms of wealth production were:
- It benefited the few, whether it was foreign invaders (such as the Roman senators and equestrians, the Spanish hacendados, the Portuguese fazendeiros), or indigenous elites (such as English landlords and tenant farmers or Soviet hierarchs)
- It spelled disaster for previous rights holders and users of the lands, who became the able-bodied impoverished, slaves, serfs or labourers of the land owners.
- The agricultural produce grown was decided by the elite, not popular or domestic demand, and sometimes the profit motives resulted in famines. The Roman elite grew wheat, wine and olive oil for the state and the army; The European colonies mined raw materials, grew sugar, cotton, rice, meat, hides, coffee, cocoa beans, tobacco and indigo for cities and industries in Europe; and collectivisation produced food and raw materials for the Soviet cities and industries.
- The dispossessors gained disproportionate advantages – cheap land and cheap labour
- Weak alliances coupled with use of force between the dispossessed left the balance of power in the hands of the dispossessors.
- Armed force was to used obtain and retain the land grabs: the Romans, Spanish and Portuguese used their armies, the English landlords used private militia to implement Enclosures in the fifteenth century forced by the police force from the eighteenth century onwards, and in Russia the party militia, police and military.
- The beneficiaries created narratives to justify their actions: Rome undertook “preventative conquests” to mitigate the risk of attack (Castignani 2012); Spain and Portugal brought “civilization” and “Christianity”; the Enclosures improved “productivity”; and the USSR implemented “socialism”.
- Dispossession was legitimised by creating laws and regulations that kept inequality “unchangeable”, kept workers’ rights minimal and made revolts illegal.
This article was a quick crash course in the African experience of the colonization of Africa which directly led to acts of resistance and nationalist movements throughout Africa. Outside Africa, if the experience of world war 1 and world war 2 was rosy, the United States which was a structurally racist country in the 1940s would not have demanded that France and the United Kingdom hand back self-rule to their colonies. Injustice and insecurity were two key reasons Africans including multi-cultural countries like Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Tanzania and Kenya came together to demand self-rule through their various independence movements. It is a disservice to the independence movements to fail to learn these facts and to fail to seek from within Africa the solutions to its problems. I hope to retire permanently any notions that “colonization was a civilizing mission”. Even when ending slavery was the pretext for invasion, we have today clear evidence that many colonial powers didn’t end slavery, but rather focussed on wealth generation and resource extraction, until they were forced to leave or hand back self-rule. Some of the conscription methods used by colonial governments had similarities to slavery.
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- While the Daily Service opposed the slum clearance, the West African Pilot and the Daily Times supported the scheme. ↑