So it turns out it’s pretty difficult to write about Africa. That’s not because of a lack of subjects to write about, obviously: 130,000 years of human settlement (three times as long humans have lived as Europe, ten times as long as in the Americas – crazy, right?) tend to throw up a few interesting stories. The capital city of an empire that spanned of three continents. The most extraordinary and far-flung colony of the aboriginal Australian navigators. The king who started a religious movement by accident and the richest man who ever lived. Africa is a really difficult place to write about mostly because its lasting legacy – what it is known for now and what people think about it now – is almost entirely the result of a span of about thirty years in the 19th century with a situation called the Scramble for Africa. In brief, it was a rush of sudden colonialism that put almost the entire continent under European rule and it’s the pivotal moment you need to understand to understand Africa today. It was when the stereotypes about the continent were made, and also when some of them started to come true. It was when the shape of almost every country was determined, along with many of the economic and societal problems Africa is infamous for today. African history isn’t just the story of colonialism – calling it that is like calling British history the story of Tony Blair – but it was an event that affected every single acre of the continent, and for that reason you have to understand it before I feel I can move on to better, more positive views of African history.
The weird thing about Africa – sub-Saharan Africa, at least, because the North has seen more masters than a marathon of Doctor Who – is that it remained untouched by European influence until very late in the colonialism game. While Spain powered through Central America like a knife through resilient and angry Mesoamerican butter, while the Netherlands traded their way to the East Indies and invaded what they couldn’t outsell, even while the British attempted to turn Australia into HM’s biggest prison camp, Africa remained the “Dark Continent” – inaccessible, unknown and mysteriously wealthy. What contact the Europeans had with Sub-Saharan Africa was limited to buying, selling, and occasionally making ports on uninhabited islands to make their journeys around the Cape of Good Hope easier. The only real attempt to create a western colony on African soil was a half-arsed attempt by America to create a country for their few freed slaves in 1847, a sort of back-to-Africa initiative supported by the likes of Lincoln and Monroe because it meant freedom for slaves without them dirtying up their fine white country (This is, unfortunately, a genuine belief expressed by Lincoln, although I’m making assumptions about his motivations. For the record, Liberia still exists). Africa was just too difficult to conquer – unlike easier targets like the Americas, it was densely populated, used to vicious warfare, full of debilitating diseases like malaria that could stop adventurers in their tracks and…well, really not worth it in terms of natural resources. In short, Africa was a little too like Europe at the time to colonise. But then, in around 1880, the status quo suddenly changed. And the Scramble for Africa began.
The Industrial Age provided a motive and a means for European colonisation of Africa. To be fair, Europe didn’t really need a means – they’d already got used to their “white man’s burden”, the desire to educate and convert the “uncivilised masses” of the world which conveniently manifested itself as invading the third world and taking its stuff. But the growth of industries that needed iron, cotton and rubber encouraged many countries to go out and seize those resources to secure trade, and you can probably guess where in the world those were most prevalent. The brand new means of colonising Africa? That lay with scientific advances like a vaccine for malaria, the invention of a mode of transport that could pass quickly across Africa – the steamship – and the grisly invention of the Maxim Gun, the first machine gun and one that tipped the balance of power firmly in the hands of…well, whoever was behind it. Almost overnight, colonies sprung up and wars were fought and one with Africa (famously, the British Empire fought a war with Zanzibar that lasted 38 minutes). A conference called in Berlin (called the Berlin Conference…damn, this bit of history has dull names) essentially declared the whole continent fair game, and by 1914 all but two countries in Africa were actually independent. Of those two, one was Liberia – essentially an American colony, if you remember – and the other was Ethiopia – which would later be invaded and almost conquered by Italy in 1936. When I say that colonialism affected every country in Africa, I really meant it.
As it turned out, African colonialism was not the shining pinnacle of “white-man-civilising-the-natives” it was made out to be. It was horrific, deadly and corrupt. In Southern Africa – the British bit – men like Cecil Rhodes carved out empires from blood and diamonds, enforcing de facto slave labour (miners were locked up when not working “to stop them sneaking the company’s gems out) and monopolising the precious metal and ore trade. In Namibia – the German bit – the very first extermination camp was built to surreptitiously dispose of Namibian ethnic groups (35 years before the Holocaust, and largely forgotten in its wake) And in the Congo – the Belgian bit, a huge chuck of Africa that had been cleverly turned into a corporate-run “Free Trade Zone” in which King Leopold of Belgium was the only shareholder – conditions were debatably worse: an importer famously realised that while the Congo was exporting rubber, coal, iron, gold, everything Africa was famous for, it was only importing guns and ammunition. A thorough investigation into the conditions revealed that the residents were being extorted into working for the King, and the death toll of this system – thought to be around 10,000,000 in only 23 years – is now enough to class it as an act of genocide. The bloody system had crippled Africa’s economy and dragged it kicking and screaming into the western world, and when decolonisation came – in the 1940s and 50s, imperialism thoroughly discredited by the imperialistic ambitions of Germany, Italy and Japan and nationalism made heroic by figures like Mohandas Ghandi and Mohammed Ali Jinnah in the British Raj, Herbert Macaulay in Nigeria and Soekarno in Indonesia – it left Africa depleted, with poor infrastructure and reliance of trade with its former imperial partners – a new kind of colonial rule.
Africa suffered under colonialism for a good part of its history, and that’s something that we have to remember when we look at the continent today. If you see a country deep in civil war, remember that the boundaries between countries were essentially made up by European officials during decolonisation in the 20th century. If you see a country destroying its rainforests to fuel its failing economy, remember the roots of that failing economy in European exploitation. If you see a seemingly backwards country filled with intolerance and zealous religion, remember whose actions caused that intolerance and instilled that religion. I wish I could now say that understanding this is the first step towards solving Africa’s problems, but it’s not. History doesn’t give us all the answers, because a) the future can’t be studied like the past can and b) Africa’s never going to be pre-colonial again. The only thing we can viably do is learn, understand and support as an entire continent strives to find a safe place in the modern world. And that’s probably for the best.