Fighting fire with fire
Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 22
The end of the nineteenth century saw European imperialist rhetoric turn into an unprecedented invasion of Africa.
The 1884-1885 Berlin Conference, which determined that ‘effective control’ of a territory was to be the accepted prerequisite for the recognition of colonial control, sparked a wave of conquest and occupation.
As mentioned in our article on ‘How Europe Conquered Africa’, European colonialism was made possible in large part due to a distinct military edge.
African leaders were quick to recognise the necessity of neutralising this European arms advantage if they were to survive - here we will look at the responses of a few Central African states.
Many African societies were already engaged in international commerce and had benefited from access to the weapons market. A number of these societies had started to acquire vast arsenals through trade.
The Chokwe, Ovimbundu and Chikunda, for example, were so successful in acquiring arms that their forces were often better armed than the respective Belgian and Portuguese troops who sought to conquer them.
Other Central African peoples, previously not involved in extensive commercial ventures, increased their exports to obtain modern guns and ammunition. For example, the Ovambo and Shangaan acquired modern rifles during the last quarter of the nineteenth century in anticipation of a conflict with the Europeans.
Wherever possible, African leaders expanded their arsenals through skilful diplomacy.
Ngungunyane, leader of the Gaza Empire (modern-day Mozambique), was able to play off the British against the Portuguese and acquire arms from the former, while Bemba fighters acquired arms from the Arabs who feared Britain’s growing global presence.
Other states such as Quitanghona in northern Mozambique and the Chikunda states of the Zambezi valley even agreed to recognise Portugal’s nominal rule in exchange for large caches of weapons, weapons that were ultimately used against Lisbon’s forces.
A number of these African societies also expanded their defensive capabilities through internal military innovations. The Barue, for example, developed munitions plants that produced gunpowder, rifles and even components for heavy military weaponry.
In some societies, new and expansive defensive structures were built to withstand European incursions, such as the aringa people of the Zambezi and Luangwa valley who developed fortified towns.
However, for many Central African societies that were unable to offer effective opposition or, in fact, failed to understand the implications of colonial rule, peaceful submission was seen in the first instance. These societies would, however, inevitably rise up in an effort to regain their independence.
This pattern of delayed confrontation occurred with great regularity in the Congo, where the indigenous population initially considered the agents of the Congo Free State trading partners and allies.
It was only when Free State officials sought to impose taxes, and conscript labour did local societies recognise that they had inadvertently given up their freedom.
Between 1885 and 1905, more than a dozen indigenous groups revolted in the lower and central Congo.
Of these, the most successful were the Yaka, who effectively fought the Europeans for more than a decade before they were finally conquered in 1906, and the Budja and Bowa, who mobilised more than 5,000 people in revolt against forced labour on rubber plantations.