Colonial Resistance in West Africa

Confrontation. Alliance. Submission

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 30

Between 1880 and 1914, the whole of West Africa, with the sole exception of Liberia, was brought under colonial subjugation. This loss of African sovereignty, independence and land, was accomplished in two phases.

Each of these phases saw various European campaigns and, in response, many different reactions from the indigenous population, reactions that were very much determined by local circumstances.

The first phase, which lasted from 1880 to the early 1900s, saw either the use of diplomacy or military invasion or both by the Europeans. This was the classical era of treaty-making in practically every nook and corner of West Africa, followed almost invariably by military aggression, conquests and occupation.

Never in the known history of the continent had so much military action been seen and so many invasions and campaigns launched against African states and communities.

During this first phase, practically all Africans had the same objectives: defending their sovereignty and traditional ways of life - however, their means and methods varied.

Three options were open to the Africans, that of confrontation, that of alliance and that of submission. The strategy of confrontation involved open warfare, sieges, guerilla tactics, scorched earth policies, and diplomacy.

As one can imagine, all three options were resorted to, sometimes in combination. Here we will look at conquest and reaction seen in both French and British West Africa during phase one.

(The second phase, which lasted from the early 1900s to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, will be discussed in another article.)

French West Africa, 1880-1900

From 1880 onwards, the French resorted almost exclusively to the tactic of military conquest, as opposed to the treaties largely favoured by the British.

In terms of African reactions, all the options open to them were resorted to, namely, submission, alliance and confrontation. However, a significant proportion of the African leaders opted for the strategy of military confrontation than those of submission or alliance.

This proclivity for confrontation resulted in far more protracted conflicts between Africans and Europeans than anywhere else in West Africa.

One reason for this was the French penchant for military conquest as a first resort. This brash approach invariably evoked military responses from many African states.

Another reason was the number of Islamic territories that the French attacked. As historians have pointed out, the imposition of white rule on Muslim societies meant submission to the infidel, which was untenable in these societies.

It is for these two reasons in particular that conflicts in French West Africa tended to follow a combative route.

For example:

Samori Ture, founder of the Mandinka empire, chose the strategy of confrontation when dealing with the French colonial intrusion. The Mandinka army was a powerful and well-equipped army by 1882 when the first encounter between Samori and the French occurred. Mandinka blacksmiths were trained to effectively manufacture copies of European rifles. Samori also purchased arms using finances from the sale of ivory and gold mined in the region of Bure. In 1885 when the French occupied Bure, Samori resolved to expel the French from the area by force. Three armies were charged with this operation and through shrewd military tactics easily recaptured Bure forcing the French to retreat.

British West Africa, 1800-1900

While the French resorted mainly to warfare in their occupation of French West Africa, the British opted to combine the strategies of diplomacy and warfare.

Using the former approach, the British concluded a number of treaties of protection with African states in the northern parts of Sierra Leone, the northern part of the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and in some parts of Yorubaland (modern-day Nigeria).

In other parts, as in Asante (Ghana), Ijebu in Yorubaland, in the Niger Delta areas and especially in northern Nigeria, the British by and large used force.

For example:

Although the Kingdom of Benin had signed a treaty of protection with the British in 1892, the nation nonetheless guarded its sovereignty with determination. This, of course, would not be tolerated by the British, who launched a punitive expedition against Benin in 1897. Though the Oba (king) himself is said to have wanted to submit, a majority of his chiefs raised an army to beat back the invasion. They were, however, defeated with the capital (Edo) looted of its precious bronze treasures and burnt by British soldiers.