Colonialism in Africa

Colonialism, which refers to the establishment of political and economic control by one state over another, had an enormous impact on Africa. The colonial experience began in the late 1400s, when Europeans arrived and set up trading posts in Africa. It reached a peak in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when European powers dominated many parts of the continent. Colonialism in Africa created nations and shaped their political, economic, and cultural development. The legacy continues to influence the history of the continent.


Between the 1400s and 1800s, Europeans began to take an interest in Africa, mainly the coastal regions. Sailing along the shores of the continent, they established trading posts and engaged in commerce with local peoples. They made little attempt to explore the interior. During this period, Europeans had very little influence in Africa.

From the mid-1700s to 1880s, Europeans became more involved in the continent. One reason for this increased involvement was growing opposition to the SLAVE TRADE. In 1787 the British founded a colony for freed slaves in SIERRA LEONE. About 30 years later, a group of Americans established LIBERIA for freed slaves and their descendants. Along with efforts to end slavery, Europeans also tried to bring Christianity to Africa. Their missionaries traveled throughout the continent, seeking to convert Africans and spread Western culture.

Colonialism in Africa

By the late 1800s many Africans had begun to accept and adapt various elements of European civilization. At the same time, the nature of European interest in Africa changed dramatically. Impressed by the continent’s abundant supply of natural resources, Europeans sought to exploit the potential wealth. To achieve this goal, they attempted to overpower African peoples and force them to accept foreign rule. In the 1870s rival European nations raced to colonize as much African territory as possible. By the late 1880s, they had divided up most of the continent among themselves, without permission from the African peoples.

Patterns of European Expansion

The first European settlements in Africa were established by traders. Although merchants generally operated independently, from time to time they called on their home governments for help in dealing with hostile Africans. Eventually, European nations negotiated alliances and trading treaties with the coastal peoples. They also appointed officials to protect commercial interests at strategic points along the coasts.

Christian missionaries were the first Europeans to establish outposts in the interior of Africa. The missionaries acted as intermediaries between Africans and Europeans and often helped settle disputes between indigenous communities. However, Christian missionaries also became a disruptive force in African society. After converting to Christianity, many Africans would no longer recognize the authority of their local chiefs. In addition, some missionaries provided essential information to European armies and supported military expeditions against African groups that refused to accept Christianity.

African rulers did not develop a common policy toward the Europeans. Some tried to regulate or prohibit contact with Europeans. Many coastal states, however, had already become too dependent on overseas trade to cut their ties with Europe. Meanwhile, Europeans took advantage of rivalries between African peoples and forged alliances with some groups against others.

By the late 1870s, Africa had begun to attract other kinds of Europeans: adventurers and entrepreneurs. Many of these individuals were interested only in obtaining riches or in recreating European culture in Africa. They urged their governments to establish colonies that would serve as sources of raw materials and as markets for European goods.

The drive to establish colonies and obtain raw materials led to the socalled “scramble” for Africa. At first four nations—Belgium, France, Great Britain, and Portugal—struggled to claim territory and establish colonial outposts. Various individuals tried to get African rulers to sign treaties that would cede control of land.

Between 1884 and 1885, representatives from several European nations met in Berlin, Germany, to discuss ways to avoid conflict over the competition for African colonies. The European powers agreed on a set of rules for annexing territory. In the years that followed, they signed various treaties that resulted in the partitioning, or division, of Africa into colonies with clearly defined borders.

As the pace of European imperialism increased, many African peoples became very concerned. Fears that Europeans would seize all the land led to a number of armed conflicts. Some of these developed into full-scale wars as well-equipped armies from Europe invaded Africa to secure territorial claims. By 1914 Europeans had taken over the entire continent except for ETHIOPIA and Liberia. European imperialism now moved into a new phase—establishing colonial administrations that would maintain order and provide economic benefits for the governing nations.

The Colonial Order

European policy in Africa had two parts: the colonial government and the colonial economy. The colonial government was concerned with the affairs of a colony at the central and local levels. European officials directed the central government, which made and carried out laws and oversaw the judicial system. The local governments were supposedly run by traditional African leaders. In most instances, however, local chiefs and kings were allowed little real authority.

European officials dominated almost all colonial governments until after World War II, when some countries permitted Africans to play a greater role. Although colonialism brought stability to some regions, it did little to promote the development of African political institutions or to provide administrative training for local people.

The colonial economy was perhaps the most important aspect of European policy in Africa. Before the 1800s Africa had developed a system of local and foreign trading networks, and Africans and Europeans were fairly equal trading partners. This situation changed, however, as Europeans took steps to control trade and natural resources in Africa. The colonial powers flooded Africa with European-made goods, causing many African industries to fail because they could not compete.

Europeans also encouraged the growth of cash crops in Africa, with each colony specializing in a different crop. The emphasis on cash crops destroyed many traditional forms of agriculture. In some colonies white farmers received special treatment. They claimed the best land, forcing Africans to work less desirable plots. Some colonial governments imposed taxes on Africans. To pay them, many Africans had to abandon their land and work for wages on white-owned farms and in mines.

Impact of Colonialism on African Societies

Colonial governments brought roads, railroads, ports, new technology, and other benefits to Africa. However, their policies also damaged traditional economies and dramatically changed patterns of land ownership and labor. Although the colonial system provided opportunities—such as education, jobs, and new markets for goods—for some Africans, it left many people poor and landless. In addition, the emphasis on cash crops raised for export made African societies dependent on foreign nations. Little was done to develop trade between colonies. As a result, many African nations still trade more with overseas countries than with neighboring states.

Colonial rule disrupted the traditional political and social institutions that had developed in Africa over centuries. As Europeans carved out empires, they destroyed existing kingdoms and split up or combined many ethnic groups. In time, the colonies they created became African nations consisting of diverse groups with little in common with their fellow citizens. Furthermore, European powers destroyed much of the political and social control of traditional African chiefs and rulers. They failed, however, to establish lasting replacements for these authorities. Finally, European colonialism introduced Africans to various aspects of Western culture. African schools and universities are based on European systems of education and religion. But other parts of Western culture have not taken root as firmly.

The impact of colonialism varied somewhat with each European power. Moreover, some governments used various approaches from one colony to the next. The handful of European nations that dominated Africa—Belgium, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain—developed different sets of policies for their colonial possessions.


In some ways, Belgium became a colonial power by accident. Unlike Britain, France, and Spain, it had no history of conquest and colonization in the Americas or in Asia. The nation’s involvement in Africa came about because of the actions of one individual—King Leopold II of Belgium.

The Congo Free State

In the late 1870s King Leopold hired British adventurer Henry Morton STANLEY to obtain territory for him in Africa. Experienced in exploring central Africa, Stanley traveled to the Congo region and made treaties on Leopold’s behalf with a number of local chiefs.

When European powers agreed on plans for colonizing Africa at the Berlin Conference, Leopold received control of an area around the Congo River basin. The colony became known as the Congo Free State and was owned by the king and not by Belgium. Leopold ruled it with an iron hand, directing all his economic and political policies toward increasing profits. He introduced harsh measures, such as forced labor, and allowed the brutal treatment of workers.

By 1904 other nations began to put pressure on Leopold to end the cruel conditions in the Congo Free State. After investigating the situation there, the Belgian government decided to annex the region in 1908, making it a Belgian colony rather than a personal possession of the king.

The Belgian Congo

Under Belgian rule, the Congo Free State became known as the Belgian Congo. Belgian authorities ended  orced labor and gave greater recognition to traditional chiefs. Furthermore, they made no attempt to impose European culture on the African peoples. At the same time, the Belgian authorities allowed other groups—including missionaries and private companies—a great deal of freedom to pursue their own interests in the region.

Belgian colonial authorities, the Catholic Church, and big business generally worked together, although they sometimes found themselves at odds. The Catholic Church, for example, objected to government attempts to support the authority of traditional African chiefs, which might weaken the influence of missionaries. Both the church and the government criticized Belgian companies for their methods of recruiting workers, which often disrupted rural communities.

In the mid-1950s some Belgians and Africans began calling for decolonization—a gradual ending of colonial rule. By this time Belgian authorities had granted Africans certain limited rights, but no voting privileges. After rioting broke out in 1959, the Belgian government announced that it would grant independence to the Congo in June 1960. This abrupt change from colony to independent state left Africans in the Congo unprepared to govern or manage the economy. As a result, the new nation—later known as Zaire and then as Democratic Republic of Congo or CONGO (KINSHASA)—remained dependent on Europeans for guidance and assistance.


For a time, Belgium also held the territory to the east of the Congo known as Ruanda-Urundi. Ruled by Germany from 1899 to 1917, the region was transferred to Belgium by the League of Nations after World War I. Belgium administered the colony until 1962, when it split into the independent nations of RWANDA and BURUNDI.


Great Britain acquired a huge colonial empire in Africa during the late 1800s through a combination of diplomacy and military force. In ruling this vast territory, Britain’s policies varied according to local conditions and the nature of British settlement. In some areas, colonial authorities favored a form of “indirect rule,” in which local African rulers had some degree of power. In others, British officials took a more direct approach to governing, controlling all aspects of society. Although a few well-educated Africans—mostly lawyers—held high government posts in the late 1800s, they were replaced by British officials after 1900.

West Africa

The British colonies in West Africa were NIGERIA, the Gold Coast (present-day GHANA), Sierra Leone, the GAMBIA, and—after World War I—CAMEROON. Throughout West Africa, Britain tended to exert its power indirectly, often cooperating with African kings. In areas without established rulers, the British generally chose Africans to serve as chiefs.

The British established a system of law and order in these colonies. They also built a network of roads, railways, and ports for the movement of cash crops and other goods. They imposed taxes on Africans, which had to be paid in cash, to increase the labor force. The only ways Africans could make these tax payments were to sell products or work for wages. Colonial authorities sometimes allowed forced labor as well.

The British provided few benefits for Africans. Although the colonial governments established some schools, most educational institutions were run by missionaries. Services such as medical facilities and electricity were concentrated in major cities and, as a result, reached only a small number of Africans.

In the early 1940s, British authorities began to offer more services and to involve Africans in economic planning and government. Ultimately, however, such policies were not enough to satisfy the desire of Africans for self-government. By the mid-1960s Britain had granted independence to all its colonies in West Africa.

East Africa

Britain’s colonies in East Africa were UGANDA, KENYAZANZIBAR, British Somaliland, and Tanganyika, a former German colony known as German East Africa. The British also governed the islands of MAURITIUS and the SEYCHELLES in the Indian Ocean. They began to take control of East Africa in the late 1800s and eventually set up quite different administrations in each colony.

In Uganda the British adopted a policy of indirect rule, giving considerable autonomy to local leaders. They encouraged Africans to produce cash crops, which made Uganda one of the richest colonies in

The British authorities in Uganda gave their political support to the Ganda, one of the country’s many ethnic groups. However, the Ganda became too powerful and other African groups came to resent them. The Ganda tried to prevent the British from interfering in Uganda’s affairs and providing social services, education, and agricultural improvements to the people. During the 1940s, other Ugandan groups organized protests against the Ganda. Eventually opposition to European and Asian control of the cotton industry united the people of Uganda, and Britain granted the country independence in 1962.

In contrast to Uganda, the colonial government of Kenya was dominated by European settlers. The fertile highlands of Kenya attracted many European farmers who established huge plantations, taking the best land and forcing Africans to resettle elsewhere.

For many years, British policies in Kenya benefited the white settlers. As the population grew, Africans began to press for the right to expand onto white-owned lands. This expansion was strongly resisted by the settlers. In the early 1950s, a group known as the MAU MAU, made up of members of the GIKUYU people, began a violent uprising against the settlers. After attempting to put down the rebellion, colonial authorities realized that they would have to agree to some of the Mau Mau’s demands. The government allowed Africans to farm in the highland regions, making some white settlers give up their land. In addition, the British began discussions with Kenyans about independence, which was granted in 1963.

Located south of Kenya, Tanganyika was a German colony until World War I, when Britain took it over. Initially, the colony attracted few British settlers and little investment. In the 1950s, however, Britain became more involved in Tanganyika, encouraging settlement and introducing various political and economic measures. Although the Africans resisted some of the British policies, the move toward independence—granted in 1961—was relatively peaceful.

Zanzibar had been a colony of the Arab state of Oman since the mid-1800s, used mainly as a source of slaves. It had been ruled for years by an Arab upper class. When the British took Zanzibar over, they continued the tradition, appointing Arabs to most government posts. Rivalries between the Arabs and the indigenous population led to conflicts that Britain was unable to resolve. The colony was granted independence in 1963. The following year, Zanzibar and Tanganyika united to become the nation of TANZANIA.

British Somaliland was located in the northern portion of present-day SOMALIA, near DJIBOUTI. Britain established a protectorate there in the 1880s. In 1960, the region joined with Italian Somaliland, farther south, to form the independent Republic of Somalia.

Britain captured the island of Mauritius in 1810 and then formally received control of it under the Treaty of Paris (1814), signed by several European nations at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The same treaty gave Britain the islands of the Seychelles. Mauritius gained its independence in 1968, followed eight years later by the Seychelles.

Central and Southern Africa

Britain’s colonial possessions in central and southern Africa included Southern Rhodesia (present-day ZIMBABWE), Northern Rhodesia (ZAMBIA), Nyasaland (MALAWI), Bechuanaland (BOTSWANA), Basutoland (LESOTHO), and SWAZILAND. Before 1910, when SOUTH AFRICA became independent, Britain also had two colonies in that region—the Cape Colony and Natal.

Involvement in South Africa dated from the early 1800s, when Britain acquired the Cape Colony from the Dutch. British immigrants flooded into southern Africa in the late 1800s. They never gained more than partial control there, however, because of the presence of large numbers of Dutch settlers, known as Afrikaners, or Boers. As British settlement increased, many Afrikaners tried to move north into Bechuanaland. The African rulers of Bechuanaland, fearing an invasion of the Dutch settlers, asked Britain for help in 1885. Britain agreed and Bechuanaland became a British protectorate. Britain maintained a system of indirect rule there until Bechuanaland gained independence in 1966.

A similar situation occurred in Basutoland, a mountainous land that the Afrikaners had originally considered unsuitable for settlement. In the 1850s, however, the Afrikaners began to expand into Basutoland. In response to an appeal from the local people for help, Britain established a protectorate in Basutoland. Originally governed as part of the Cape Colony, Basutoland came directly under British rule in 1884. However, most of the administration of the area was left in the hands of indigenous authorities.

Swaziland also became a British protectorate. In this case, the British stepped in to end warfare between two African peoples, the Swazi and Zulu. Once again, Britain established a system of indirect rule. It granted Swaziland self-government in 1967 and full independence in 1968. In 1889 Britain gave the British South Africa Company, headed by Cecil RHODES, rights to the area that became known as Southern Rhodesia. Attracted by the offer of large tracts of land, white settlers flooded the region. Attempts by Africans to rebel against the settlers were brutally crushed, and Southern Rhodesia became a highly segregated society, dominated by whites. Forced to live on poor farmland in special areas known as reserves, many Africans had to work for the settlers to earn a living.

The British South Africa Company also gained the rights to Northern Rhodesia. At first, the British administered the region mostly through local African authorities, and there was little opposition to colonial rule. As in Southern Rhodesia, however, the settlers took over the best land and gained political and economic control of the colony and its rich copper mines.

The area to the east of Northern Rhodesia became known as Nyasaland. Ruled after 1904 by British colonial officials, it never attracted as many white settlers as the Rhodesias. Nevertheless, the spread of European-owned plantations in the region eventually aroused opposition among Africans, which led to armed rebellion in 1915. For many years, Nyasaland served as a source of labor for other colonies. Whites in Northern and Southern Rhodesia relied on Africans from Nyasaland to work on farms and in mines.

In 1953, in an effort to promote the economic and political development of the region, the two Rhodesias and Nyasaland joined together as the Central African Federation. Meanwhile, African protests against colonial policies grew stronger. By the early 1960s, the colonial administrations of Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia began allowing Africans greater participation in government. Both regions won independence in 1964; Nyasaland took the name Malawi and Northern Rhodesia became Zambia.

In Southern Rhodesia, settlers fiercely resisted any attempts to increase African power. In 1965 the white-dominated government declared independence for the colony. African opposition to the government erupted in guerrilla warfare, and in the 1970s the administration’s power began to crumble. By 1980 a majority black African government ruled the nation, which was renamed Zimbabwe.

North Africa

Britain was involved in governing two large territories in North AfricaEGYPT and the SUDAN. Egypt had been conquered in 1517 by the Ottoman Empire, based in Turkey. Ottoman influence spread to northern Sudan and other parts of North Africa. In the 1800s Britain gained control of Egypt as a result of dealings over the newly built SUEZ CANAL, which provided a shipping route between the Mediterranean and Red seas. Facing a financial crisis in 1876, the Egyptian ruler sold all of Egypt’s shares in the canal to Britain. The sale made Britain the majority shareholder. As Egypt’s finances continued to worsen, British power in the region increased. In 1882 Britain responded to an Egyptian revolt by invading and occupying the country.

At the start of World War I, Britain made Egypt a protectorate. After the war, local opposition arose to the British, who introduced harsh policies to keep the peace. Tensions continued to grow and Britain granted Egypt limited autonomy in 1922. Britain continued to maintain some control until the mid-1930s.

South of Egypt along the Nile River, the Sudan was conquered by British and Egyptian forces in 1898. Britain set up a joint administration with Egypt to govern the region. As in Egypt, the British had to use brutal measures to maintain control in the Sudan during World War I. British and Egyptian rule continued until 1956, when the Sudan gained independence. The new nation faced bitter regional differences between the Muslim-controlled north and the Christians of the south.


The French colonization of Africa took a number of years, beginning in the 1830s in North Africa and extending into Central Africa in the early 1900s. A number of territories began as “military colonies,” conquered and then governed by the French armed forces. Over time, however, civilian administrations replaced military rule.

In principle, France maintained a policy of direct rule in Africa. French officials had full authority for governing and directing the affairs of the colonies. In practice, however, Africans often played important roles in the colonial bureaucracy. The French relied on local rulers to support their administration. Unlike the British, who left local matters pretty much in the hands of African authorities, the French intervened constantly in the affairs of their African subjects.

An important feature of French colonial administration was the distinction between “citizens” and “subjects.” Only citizens had the same rights as French colonists, and very few Africans became citizens. All other inhabitants of the colonies were subjects. Subjects had no political rights, but they had various obligations, such as serving in French armies. France recognized African laws and allowed the people to be judged by them. At the same time, the authorities tried to get Africans to adopt certain aspects of French culture, such as the French language.

As with other European powers in Africa, an important aim of French colonization was economic development. However, France had a difficult time stimulating its colonial economies. Many of its colonies were thinly populated and could not supply many workers. Moreover, for many years private businesses and trading companies controlled the economies of a number of colonies. France exercised little influence over these companies.

North Africa

France’s North African colonies consisted of ALGERIATUNISIA, and MOROCCO. French forces invaded Algeria in 1830 in an effort to stop pirates based there from attacking ships in the Mediterranean. After placing a number of coastal towns under military rule, the French eventually gained control of the rest of the country. In the 1860s and 1870s, French settlers began colonizing many areas of Algeria.

In Tunisia, France competed with Britain and Italy for economic control. When violence broke out in Tunisia in 1881, a French naval force invaded and established a protectorate. Morocco escaped European domination for many years. In 1880, however, the European powers forced the Moroccans to sign a treaty guaranteeing the rights of foreigners in the country. In the 1890s political disorder in Morocco left the country vulnerable. France and Spain took control in 1906, governing jointly for three years until Spain withdrew its claim to the country.

French control of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco was never secure. Throughout the colonial period, the inhabitants of the region were in an almost constant state of rebellion. In some of the more remote areas, the people never came to accept French rule. As early as the 1930s, popular resistance began to fuel movements for independence.

When France was occupied by Germany in World War II, its Vichy government maintained loose control over the North African colonies. American and British forces invaded and took over the region in 1942, but returned it to France when the war ended. In the following years, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco all experienced a surge of nationalism, and local opposition to French rule grew dramatically. Faced with spreading violence, terrorism, and rioting, the French granted the countries independence—Morocco and Tunisia in 1956, and Algeria in 1962.

West and Central Africa

French colonies in West and Central Africa included SENEGAL, GUINEA, IVORY COAST, TOGO, Dahomey (presentday BÉNIN), Cameroon, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC, GABON, and French Congo, (now CONGO, BRAZZAVILLE). Before the mid-1800s, France had little interest in these areas except to establish trading posts and missionary stations along the coasts. During the “scramble” for Africa, however, the nation set its sights on a number of areas in each region, hoping to get territories with valuable resources.

France used military force to take over most of its colonies in West Africa. In some areas—such as Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Dahomey—the French met fierce resistance from the Africans. After establishing control of the coasts, it sometimes took a number of years to move inland and gain possession of the interiors. In 1904 France’s colonies in West Africa, including some in the southern Sahara, were formally organized into a large administrative unit known as FRENCH WEST AFRICA. Eventually, French West Africa included Senegal, French Sudan (present-day MALI), Guinea, Ivory Coast, Dahomey, Upper Volta (present-day BURKINA FASO), NIGER, and MAURITANIA. Some of the people of Senegal were granted French citizenship and a few became members of the French legislature in Paris. After World War I, the former German colony of Togo was divided between France and Britain.

France acquired Cameroon in Central Africa as a result of World War II. Formerly the German colony of Kamerun, it was divided into East Cameroon (or Cameroun, controlled by France) and West Cameroon (or Cameroons, controlled by Britain). France gained Congo, Gabon, and the Central African Republic as the result of treaties with local rulers and military force. In 1910 Gabon, Congo, Central African Republic, and CHAD were combined in an administrative unit known as FRENCH EQUATORIAL AFRICA.

Serious challenges to French colonial rule began after World War II, when Africans began agitating for greater autonomy. Drained financially by the war and by problems with its territories in Southeast Asia, France was unable to put up much resistance to African demands. The Overseas Reform Act in 1956 gave the African colonies autonomy in their internal affairs, while France remained responsible for defense and foreign policy. By 1960 all the French colonies of West and Central Africa had gained full independence.

The Southern Sahara

The French colonies in the southern Sahara, which included the area known as the SAHEL, were Mauritania, Mali, Upper Volta, Niger, and Chad. France colonized this arid region primarily to link its other territories and to prevent other Europeans from claiming it.

Although France gained control of most of the southern Sahara in the 1890s, the nomadic peoples of the area continued to resist foreign rule for many years. The French governed the vast and thinly populated region through local rulers, who had a great deal of autonomy. Most of the colonies were administered as part of French West Africa, with Chad included in French Equatorial Africa.

There were no strong independence movements in the southern Sahara after World War II. In 1958 France created the French Community, an organization that gave internal autonomy to its African colonies. Although created mainly to satisfy independence movements in other parts of Africa, the French Community also benefited the colonies of the southern Sahara. When France granted independence to its West and Central African colonies in 1960, it did the same with its southern Sahara colonies.

East Africa

France’s colonies in East Africa included MADAGASCARRÉUNION, the COMORO ISLANDS, and French Somaliland (present-day Djibouti). During the late 1700s and early 1800s, France competed with Britain for control of the island of Madagascar. For a number of years, France dominated the coastline of Madagascar while Britain held the interior. At the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, Britain agreed to let France establish a protectorate over the island. Resistance to French rule led to a bloody but unsuccessful rebellion in 1916. When Germany occupied France in World War II, the British took charge of Madagascar because of its strategic location along shipping routes between Asia and Europe. After the war France regained control but faced a growing movement for independence, which it granted in 1960.

The island of Réunion came under French control in the early 1700s. An important sugar-growing area, it was dominated by white plantation owners who used slaves to tend the sugar crop. By 1848 the French government had abolished slavery. In 1946 the island became an overseas department of France. The French established a protectorate for the four Comoro Islands in 1885, then made them into a colony in 1912. The islands declared their independence in 1975, but France still claims one of them—Mayotte—as a territory.

France obtained the tiny colony of French Somaliland as a result of treaties signed with local African rulers in 1862. Located at the southern end of the Red Sea, the colony allowed France to guard the shipping lanes leading to the Suez Canal and the railway to Ethiopia. France granted the colony independence in 1977.


German colonialism in Africa lasted only from 1884 to 1914. Germany’s defeat in World War I resulted in the loss of all its colonies. The nation gained little economic benefit from its African possessions, and opposition to colonial policies led to a number of bloody rebellions.

German colonies in Africa included Togo and Kamerun (Cameroon) in West Africa, South-West Africa (present-day NAMIBIA), and German East Africa (present-day Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi). Germany’s policies in these areas differed somewhat, reflecting the history of its involvement in the region.

Germany began establishing commercial and missionary activities in Togo and Kamerun in the mid-1840s. During the “scramble” for Africa in the 1880s, the nation acquired both areas as colonies. Two distinct colonial systems developed under German rule. In Togo, traders and missionary societies worked together to influence colonial policies that would favor their interests in the colony. In Kamerun, plantation owners exerted a great deal of power in the colonial administration. In both colonies, Germany’s primary aim was to exploit the natural resources.

The colonial administration’s policies were often brutal and harsh. German missionaries entered South-West Africa in the 1840s. Settlers soon followed and established farms and towns, and the area became a German colony in 1885. Following the discovery of mineral resources in the late 1800s, a mining industry developed. Resistance from Africans to colonial policies led to a bloody revolt from 1904 to 1908. Germany responded by sending troops into the colony, and afterward the military dominated the colonial administration. South-West Africa became one of the most brutal colonial societies on the continent, and many Africans (mainly members of the Herero people) were killed as part of a strategy of genocide.

German exploration of East Africa began in the 1860s, and Germany’s claim to the region was established at the Berlin Conference. At first, the colony was ruled by a trading company, the German East Africa Company. However, after violent uprisings by Arabs in the coastal regions, the German government took control. As in other German colonies, colonial rule in East Africa tended to be ruthless.

After Germany’s defeat in World War I, Britain and France acquired Togo and Kamerun and divided the territories between themselves. The League of Nations authorized South Africa to administer South-West Africa, and it gave control of most of German East Africa to Britain. The rest of German East Africa, known as Ruanda-Urundi (present-day Rwanda and Burundi), went to Belgium.


Like Germany, Italy’s rule in Africa was relatively short-lived. Also like Germany, Italy lost its colonies in Africa as a result of war—in this case, its defeat in World War II.

Italy had no history of conquest and colonization in other parts of the world. As a result, it had few officials experienced in colonial matters. Moreover, the Italian government and people had little interest in colonization. Consequently, Italian colonial polices were rather haphazard and disorganized, and colonial rule depended largely on local decisions and situations. Because of their inexperience, Italian authorities often had to rely on the military to help administer and control the colonies.

Italy’s first colonies were in the “horn” of Africa, a region wedged between the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. In 1885 Italy signed various treaties with Muslim rulers in that region, obtaining rights to ERITREA and Italian Somaliland (present-day Somalia). Both colonies were hot, dry regions that other European powers had considered worthless. However, because Italy was a weak nation at the time, it could not compete with other countries for more valuable territories.

In 1936 Italian forces based in Eritrea invaded and took control of ETHIOPIA, an ancient African kingdom that had remained independent during the “scramble” for Africa. Italy combined the conquered territory with Eritrea and Somaliland to form the colony of Italian East Africa.

In 1937 an assassination attempt on the Italian governor of Ethiopia led to a reign of terror, in which many Ethiopians were arrested and executed. Unrest in the country continued to grow, and by 1940 Ethiopian resistance groups had gained some power. During World War II, British forces invaded Ethiopia, restored the monarchy, and ended Italian rule. Italy’s other colony was LIBYA, on the coast of North Africa. For many years, Italians had crossed the Mediterranean Sea to settle in Libya.

However, Italy made no attempt to colonize the area until the early 1900s. In 1911 Italian forces invaded Libya and tried to take control from the Ottoman Turks, the Muslim rulers of the country. After occupying a number of coastal areas, the Italians claimed the region as a protectorate. Muslim resistance to Italian rule led to an organized revolt that continued in some places until about 1931. During World War II, Britain, France, and their allies launched extensive campaigns against the Italians in Libya. After the war, the colony was split between the British and the French, but a united Libya gained its independence in 1951.


The Portuguese were the earliest explorers of sub-Saharan Africa, first sailing along its coasts in the 1400s. Their first colony there, the CAPE VERDE islands off the north coast of Africa, was established in the 1440s. Cape Verde settlers pioneered new systems of tropical agriculture and developed a distinctive culture that blended African and Portuguese elements.

Portugal went on to carve out four more colonies in Africa: Portuguese Guinea (present-day GUINEA-BISSAU), SÃO TOMÉ AND PRÍNCIPEANGOLA, and MOZAMBIQUE. Guinea-Bissau, a small administrative post in Portuguese Guinea, became the capital of the Portuguese colonies of West Africa in the 1900s. An international trading zone since the 1400s, Guinea-Bissau over the centuries supplied ivory and gold to Europe and slaves to the Americas.

In the 1600s and 1700s, Angola was also a source for slaves. Portugal established its claim to Angola through treaties with other European powers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In 1914 Portugal gave Angola a degree of autonomy, although white Portuguese still ruled the colony. The African population staged periodic uprisings until Angola gained its independence in 1975.

The tiny island colonies of São Tomé and Príncipe also gained their independence in 1975. Primarily agricultural, these islands had been controlled by Portugal since the 1400s. For many years they served mainly as way stations on the Portuguese slave route from Africa to the Americas.

The Portuguese presence in Mozambique dated from the late 1400s, when explorers established a number of trading posts along the coast. Portuguese claims to the colony were recognized during the European negotiations over Africa in the late 1800s. At that time, a commercial firm, the Mozambique Company, was put in charge of administering the colony. Mozambique gained independence in 1975.

Portuguese colonial rule in Africa focused on trade and economic development. Some Africans in Portugal’s colonies acquired commercial skills, while others received enough education to become clerks and administrators. In general, however, little attempt was made to involve Africans in colonial government. Moreover, colonial economic policies often supported forced labor and other harsh measures.

By the early 1900s, significant numbers of Portuguese began migrating to the African colonies in search of opportunity. This migration increased in the 1930s. The presence of the immigrants, who took jobs and land away from Africans, heightened racial tensions and led to political and social unrest. In some colonies, particularly Angola and Mozambique, this unrest played a major role in the drive toward independence.


From the late 1400s to early 1800s, Spain maintained a large colonial empire in the Americas. However, by the time European nations divided Africa into colonies in the late 1800s, the Spanish had little power. As a result, Spain acquired only a few colonies in Africa: Spanish Sahara (present-day WESTERN SAHARA), Spanish Guinea (EQUATORIAL GUINEA), and a group of tiny territories on the north coast of Morocco.

Spain’s claim to Spanish Sahara—a barren, desert area—dates from 1884, but only in 1934 did Spain gain control of the interior. By the early 1960s, Morocco and Mauritania had begun to claim parts of the region, and this fueled an independence movement in Spanish Sahara. Finding the colony increasingly difficult to govern, Spain withdrew in 1976.

Spain gained control of the small colony known as Spanish Guinea on the west coast of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885. In 1902 Spain formed a special council to administer the colony and oversee its development. Two years later it established basic rules of land ownership, including protection of the landholdings of some of the indigenous peoples.

The Spanish left local affairs largely in the hands of traditional African rulers and groups. In the 1950s Spain’s sub-Saharan territories became “overseas provinces,” which made them integral parts of Spain. Africans in Spanish Guinea were granted Spanish citizenship in 1959, and the region gained autonomy in 1963 and independence in 1968.

Spain’s tiny territories of Ifni, Ceuta, and Melilla along the coast of Morocco were remnants of a time when both Spain and Morocco were controlled by the Moors. During the colonial period, Spain and France jointly ruled Morocco, although France actually governed the colony. When France granted Morocco independence in 1956, Spain gave up all claims to the region except for Ifni, Ceuta, and Melilla. It returned Ifni to Morocco in 1968, but Ceuta and Melilla still remain Spanish territories. (See also Afrikaner Republics; Arabs in Africa; Christianity in Africa; Development, Economic and Social; Economic HistoryHistory of Africa; Independence Movements; Missions and Missionaries; Nationalism; Neocolonialism; Plantation SystemsSouthern Africa, History; West African Trading Settlements; World Wars I and II.)