Prof Rempel lecture: Colonial Africa

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Colonial Africa

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.



I. Background

In 1415, Portuguese soldiers crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to establish small outposts on the Moroccan coast. From this modest beginning a momentous historical process of European subjugation of Africa was initiated. The forces of intrusion gathered momentum over the centuries, reaching their peak with the "scramble for Africa" late in the nineteenth century. Every square inch of Africa fell at least briefly under European rule. After World War II, the tide of colonial domination began to recede rapidly from 1960 on. With the independence of Zimbabwe in 1980, only the original foreign beachheads, Ceuta and Melilla, remained under European rule.

I. Effects of Colonialism

The most historical factor shaping contemporary African politics remains the encounter with imperial rule. Colonialism defined the boundaries of the contemporary political units; dominant political forces and leaders in many countries began as movements of nationalist resistance. The social map was changed beyond recognition, with novel categories of class stratification and transformation of lines of racial, ethnic, and religious differentiation. Economic infrastructure and production patterns were shaped by the interests and needs of the colonial powers.

A. The slave trade

From the sixteenth century to the eighteenth, the main form of European intervention in Africa was the slave trade. Perhaps 12 million Africans were landed in the Western Hemisphere, many others having perished en route. This commerce was carried out from coastal establishments from Senegal to Angola; it began the remaking of African political geography, as its impetus led to mercantile African states formed around the supply of slaves.

Early in the nineteenth century, as the slave trade declined, European powers began to extend their influence into the interior by degrees, this "informal empire" of zones of influence was supplanted by colonial annexation. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, intensifying rivalries between European powers and new military technologies (especially the machine gun) brought rapid partition. Britain, France, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and Spain divided nearly all the continent among them.

Conquest was primarily a military undertaking. In its wake, colonizers were confronted with urgent tasks: structuring and institutionalizing their domination. Britain and France in particular had some experience in colonial rule, but African conditions were quite different. The shape of the colonial state responded to the imperatives of organizing alien rule over vast territories at minimal cost to imperial treasuries.

B. Consolidating colonial control

The first crucial goal was to consolidate colonial control over the territory. At the Berlin Conference in 1884 and 1885, where diplomatic agreement was reached among imperial powers on major outlines of the partition, the principle of "effective occupation" was enunciated. To confirm its title to a zone of African territory, a colonial power had to demonstrate to its European rivals that it exercised military control over the area; failing this, an imperial rival might snatch it away.

"Effective occupation" was to be achieved, however, with small outlays. Finance ministers and parliaments in Europe insisted that military commitments be kept small, and that the newly conquered territories pay for their own administration. Important consequences for the colonial state flowed from the twin imperative of consolidating hegemony and generating revenue.

C. European administrative outposts

A grid of European administrative outposts was created, to guarantee effective occupation. European personnel were costly, though, and only modest numbers could be covered by colonial budgets. In 1900 the colonial administration in Nigeria had only a few hundred British officers, and even later it never had more than a few thousand. African intermediaries were indispensable to complete the infrastructure of control. Often these were found by conferring colonial recognition upon the ruler of an African state or community. In return for his collaboration in upholding the colonial order and participation in implementing its directives (collecting taxes, building roads, supplying labor), his own authority was confirmed and reinforced by the power of the colonial state. In other areas, needed intermediaries were found among the subaltern employees of the colonizer (soldiers, messengers, clerks).

Superior power was the ultimate currency of colonial rule. With this as lever, intrigue, artifice, and diplomacy were inexpensive alternatives to sheer brute force for consolidating the framework of European hegemony. The revenue imperative compelled early initiative to enforce restructuring of the economy. The subsistence-oriented rural economies in most of Africa offered little extractable surplus for the colonial state. The discovery in south Africa of rich diamond deposits in 1869 and gold in 1885 aroused hopes of treasure troves, but these were initially disappointed. Most of the mineral wealth of Africa was to be discovered only after World War II.

D. Primary mobilizable resources

The primary mobilizable resources in most territories were African labor and land. With direct or indirect coercion playing a central role in most areas, Africans were compelled to produce crops for sale. Because there was little internal market, these were mainly commodities salable on the international market: cotton, peanuts, palm oil, cocoa, and sisal, among others. In parts of north, east, and southern Africa where temperate climatic conditions prevailed, European settlement was encouraged. African land rights were extinguished by the colonial state, and fertile tracts were offered to prospective settlers for nominal payments. Access to low-wage labor was required for these farms to prosper; colonial administrations cooperated in its recruitment. African labor was also conscripted, with slender or even no renumeration, to create the basic infrastructure of roads and railways for communication.

The major policy instruments for mobilizing labor were imposition of some form of head tax on African peasants and regulations requiring labor service on such public works as roads. To earn the money required for the head tax, the African peasant was compelled to cultivate a cash crop or to seek temporary employment with a European enterprise. To enforce their hegemony, European administrators were armed with an array of arbitrary ordinances, permitting summary punishment for such offenses as disrespect for a chief or district officer and failure to comply with an administrative order.

By the 1920s, the colonial order had been institutionalized nearly everywhere. Taxation of external trade provided a modest but sufficient basis for financing the colonial administration. The system of African intermediaries was institutionalized and maintained local order. An increasingly professional and almost exclusively European bureaucratic elite manned the policy-making levels of the administration and an apparatus of regional control and supervision. The head tax acquired the familiarity of long usage and African labor increasingly became available, even at low wages, without muscular conscription. The more harshly coercive features of the colonial state were less visible.

 E. Ideological justification

By way of ideological justification, the colonial system made three major claims.

In its framework of local administration and justice, carried out by African intermediaries under European supervision, the colonial state purported to supply "good government."
The colonial state asserted its performance of a "civilizing mission," in sponsoring introduction of European culture. The culture-dispensing function was in good part carried out by Christian missions, except in Islamic zones where their presence was unwelcome.
The colonial state, as self-appointed trustee for the subjugated populace and mankind in general, charged itself with developing the natural resources. This responsibility was entrusted to the metropolitan private sector, often induced by large concession, state-assured supply of labor, and fiscal advantages.

F. Changes after World War II

After World War II, colonialism in Africa was placed on the defensive. Global politics was now dominated by the Soviet Union and the United States, who had no ultimate stake in perpetuating European rule. A rising tide of nationalist protest in Africa challenged the legitimacy of alien occupation. In response, the colonial powers made "development" a more explicit goal, with large-scale public investment programs. Also, "welfare" of the subject population became a significant state responsibility; for the first time, sizable public resources were committed to postprimary education, rural health facilities, safe water supplies, and other basic needs. As these were supplied, the state expanded greatly. In the final decade of British colonial rule in Ghana, from 1947 to 1957, state expenditures rose tenfold. In Zaire (then Belgian Congo), state outlays in 1960 were forty-five times higher than in 1939.

The colonial experience in Africa was distinctive in several ways. Africa was the last continent to fall under direct European rule; colonial administrations were organized at a historical moment when the state had far greater resources (communications, military technology, professional bureaucracies) than had been available in earlier centuries. The revenue imperative and absence of established fiscal machinery (like the land tax, which supported colonial administrations in Asia), led to forcible restructuring of rural economies, to compel or induce African labor into a cash economy that could provide subsistence for the colonial state. Culturally, Africa was held in low esteem by its colonizers. Colonial conquest of Africa coincided with an outburst of evangelical fervor in Europe and North America. Usually supported by the colonial state, the Christian mission societies deployed more personnel than the state administration, and had profound influence as vehicles not only for proselytizing, but also for diffusing European cultural values.

Although broad similarities marked colonial influence, there were important variations. The several colonial powers in Africa applied somewhat different doctrines of administration. These reflected the political culture of the home country and the character of its own state institutions. For France, Germany, and Belgium the concept of the state was shaped by the absolutist tradition, which stressed centralization, hierarchy, and bureaucratic dominance. At home, this culture was overlain with nineteenth-century notions of constitutionalism, which were stripped away in designing state structures for conquered African domains. The British state had a distinctly different texture, with looser structure, greater diffusion of power, and more regional variation and autonomy.

G. Varied styles of African administration

These differences produced varied styles of African administration. The British, in seeking intermediaries, were more inclined to recognize and make use of existing African rulers, whose institutions were adapted to the purposes of the colonizers; this colonial ideology was known as "indirect rule." As a consequence, customary political structures retained more significance in areas formerly under British rule. Other colonizers, while often making use of existing chiefs as administrative intermediaries, treated them more as simple local agents of a centralized bureaucracy.

The centralized, bonapartist state ideology also had implications in the cultural sphere. Particularly in the French and Portuguese colonies, policy was aimed at permanent incorporation of the African domains. Ultimate "assimilation" of the subject populations was proclaimed as the goal. Although this doctrine was sporadically and incompletely applied, it had significant influence in cultural policy and on the character of the African elite produced by the colonial experience.

In the former French colonies the first generation of post-colonial leaders, such as Leopold Senghor of Senegal or Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast, were profoundly affected by French culture, and had developed intimate and durable ties in the upper echelons of French political society. In the Portuguese colonies, an Afro-Portuguese class, Portuguese-speaking, often partly Portuguese in ancestry, had an important role both as intermediaries in colonial times, and as leaders of the liberation movements that threw off metropolitan rule.

Other significant variables affecting colonial influence included the scale of European settlement, and the type of resource base. In territories where European immigration was extensive, the settler population was a powerful interest group, with colonial policy skewed to serve its interests. This was particularly marked in Algeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Angola, where Europeans at their peak constituted 5 to 10 percent of the population. In south Africa, the European community was granted exclusive control of the state when Britain transferred sovereignty in 1910.

Territories that either were distant from the coast or lacked known natural resources (or both) experienced more skeletal colonial occupation and minimal development. The extreme here is Chad, which entered independence with an unusually weak state structure; by the end of the 1970s it had all but ceased to exist. Other countries with minimal colonial presence are Niger, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, and Botswana.




II. Legacy of the Colonial State

The contemporary African state system is affected in a number of ways by its colonial origins.

A. State reflects colonial partition

To begin with, the territorial definition of the state reflects the administrative boundaries of the colonial partition. A handful of African states have historical continuity with a precolonial epoch, but most originated as units of colonial administration. The imperial powers paid little heed to African cultural or political units in dividing up the continent. As a consequence, African state boundaries frequently divide ethno-linguistic groups. Also, African states have, with few exceptions, extensive internal diversity-ethnic, racial, linguistic, and religious.

B. Institutionalizing alien rule

A second major legacy of the colonial state was organized as a structure of institutionalizing alien rule; its vocation was domination of a subjugated population. A command mentality, a paternalistic mode of rule, a hegemonic relationship with the populace: these attributes of the colonial state are deeply ingrained in the daily routines of administration. Legally and practically, the colonial state considered the indigenous populace as subjects, not citizens. The African leadership that succeeded to power has, to varying degrees, endeavored to eradicate this heritage. the inertia of the colonial state tradition is powerful, however, and continues to color state-society relationships.

C. The process of yielding power

A third crucial effect of the colonial state lay in the process by which it yielded power to African successor regimes. One by one, in the three decades following World War II, colonial powers became persuaded that nationalism was an irresistible force. In a handful of cases, this conclusion was forced upon the colonizer by prolonged armed struggle (Algeria, 1954 to 1962; Guinea-Bissau, 1961 to 1974; Mozambique, 1964 to 1975; Angola, 1961 to 1975; Zimbabwe, 1973 to 1979). In most instances the withdrawing power recognized the need for accommodation with nationalist forces by negotiation. Once this conclusion was reached, the colonial power retained considerable means to influence the terms and method of decolonization.

The formula for decolonization generally called for creating political institutions closely modeled on the colonizing power's constitutional structure. The formal institutions of constitutional democracy-elected parliaments, competitive parties, and politically recruited cabinet-were hastily grafted onto the authoritarian bureaucratic colonial state. Yet in the home countries this process was a long and gradual one, before constitutional democracy was institutionalized. African states were asked to make an instantaneous transition from colonial subjugation to representative democracy. Enormous difficulties arose, and in most the initial constitutional structures failed to survive.

Some differences in this process are worth noting. Limited African participation, through appointive membership on consultative legislative councils, had existed before World War II in West African territories under British rule, and in coastal Senegal, then a French colony. Except for territories with settler populations, British colonial power tolerated earlier and more extensive associational activity, including political parties, than did other colonial powers. It is no accident that popular commitment to democratic values and insistence on a competitive party system appear most strongly rooted in Nigeria, where African political participation and expression began early.

The French, in keeping with the centralist ideology of the French state, permitted modest but very visible African representation in the French National Assembly in Paris long before an African voice was tolerated in Africa itself. A Senegalese leader, Blaise Diagne, entered the French Parliament in 1913 and served as junior minister in four French cabinets. Not until 1956 were territorial assemblies with significant power created in French-ruled tropical Africa. The Belgians prohibited African political activity until urban elections in 1957 and parties were not tolerated until 1959, the year before independence.


This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Related casahistoria sites on this topic:

  British Imperialism
  USA & Japan, the latecomers
 The native experience   
  The anti colonialists 
European Emigration 



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