How Europe Conquered Africa

Whatever happens we have got. The maxim-gun and they not

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 8

Despite numerous examples of spirited resistance, Africans by and large succumbed to European colonial invasion. Historians have sought to understand how and why this happened, and with such relative ease.

Here we will explore four factors:

Explorers and missionaries

European have been interested in the African continent for centuries and for varying reasons. By the fifteenth-century, Europeans had reached the West African coast, with the Portuguese building the fort of El Mina (in modern-day Edina, Ghana) in 1481. The ensuing centuries saw European powers acquire spheres of influence in Africa in various ways - through settlement, exploration, commercial posts, missionary settlements, the occupation of strategic areas, and by making treaties with African rulers. By 1880, Europeans were on the whole far more knowledgeable about Africa and its interior - its physical appearance, terrain, economy and other resources - than Africans were about Europe.

Trade imbalances

Africans and Europeans had engaged in various levels of trade since the fourteenth-century; however, the majority of trade relations between Africa and Europe heavily favoured the European powers. Trade saw people, gold and other valuable resources leave Africa, with rum, guns and cloth arriving. The Europeans, on the other hand, received free labour, precious metals and other resources that fuelled the acceleration of the industrial revolution. The material and financial resources available to Europe were overwhelming in comparison with those of Africa. While European powers could afford to spend millions of pounds on overseas campaigns, African states were unable to sustain any protracted military confrontation against them.

Peace and war

The late eighteenth-century was, according to historian John Holland Rose, marked by:

“A state of political equilibrium which made for peace and stagnation in Europe.”

This same period was, in contrast, typified by inter- and intra-state conflict in Africa - the Mandingo against the Tukulor, the Asante against the Fante, the Baganda against the Banyoro, the Batoro against the Banyaro, the Mashona against the Ndebele, to name but a few. Not only was there a lack of solidarity, unity or cooperation amongst African states, but some of them did not hesitate to ally themselves with invading European forces against their neighbours, only to be vanquished by the same European forces later themselves. The Baganda allied with the British against the Banyoro, the Barotse with the British against the Ndebele, while the Bambara teamed up with the French against the Tukulor. As a result of all this, the heroic and memorable stands which the Africans took against the European invaders were, more often than not, isolated forms of uncoordinated resistance.

Killing machines

Finally, and quite easily the most decisive factor was the overwhelming military might of the European powers. While Europe was using professional armies, very few African states had established standing armies, and fewer still had professional armies. Most African states recruited and mobilised individuals on an ad hoc basis. In addition to their own armies, Europeans were also able to recruit African mercenaries and levies, which often gave them the numerical advantage they needed. Above all, the terms of the 1890 Brussels Convention saw imperial powers agree not to sell arms to Africans. As a result, most African armies were armed with old and often unserviceable guns. The European armies, on the other hand, were armed with the most up-to-date heavy artillery, including the Gatlin and the Maxim guns. It is significant that the two African leaders who were able to inflict some defeats on the Europeans, Samori Ture of the Mandinka and Menelik II of Ethiopia, managed to obtain some modern weapons.

It is clear that in the face of these economic, political and above all military advantages enjoyed by the European powers that this contest was far from even. The destructive power of the Maxim gun must have been a sobering experience for the Africans. Indeed for Africa, the timing of the colonial conquest could not have been worse.

The words of English poet Hilaire Belloc sum up the situation aptly:

"Whatever happens we have got. The maxim-gun and they not."