At a later stage of the conquest of Africa, Europeans sought to subdue inland ethnic groups in order to establish complete colonial rule and to exploit mineral resources. In the 15 and 16th centuries, slaves became the major commodity for European trade. The Portuguese began the slave trade around 1510. The Dutch took over all Portuguese possessions along the African coast in 1642.


Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade:


During the so-called triangular trade that ensued from European colonization of Africa, slaves were purchased in West Africa, shipped to the Americas to produce cotton etc. The cotton was then shipped to Europe and converted into textiles. The textiles were then shipped to Africa in exchange for more slaves.

·      1st part of the journey: Canaries current and the NorthEast Trade winds aided travel from Portugal to Cape Verde.

·      2nd Leg: from Sierra Leone, the Guinea currents took them to the Gold Coast and beyond (a well timed journey could, with the aid of ocean currents and winds, last two months or less)

·      The Return journey was a bit difficult but was still assisted by the Equatorial Counter current which also aided movement of ships across the Atlantic to North and Central America.


Number of Slaves Involved:


16th Century = 900,000 slaves from West Africa had been shipped to the Americas

17th Century = 2,750,000

18th Century = 7,000,000

19th Century = 4,000,000


Most slaves were taken from the area between the Gold coast and the Niger Delta which was soon named the 'Slave Coast'. Slave trade extended from West Africa to include areas such as Angola and some Eastern Africa countries. Attempts made by the British to abolish slave trade did not succeed until the British Parliament passed the Abolishing Law in 1807 that made slave trade by British subjects illegal.




After the abolition of the slave trade, European interests in Africa was sustained by several factors:

1.  The need for markets for industrial goods produced in Europe.

2.  The search for raw materials supply for European Industries

3.  The prestige attached to ownership of colonies

4.  Scientific and geography curiosity that results from exploration of new areas


Between 1840 and 1890, land explorers such as Henry Stanley (An American employed by King Leopold of Belgian,) David Livingstone (along the Zambezi) and Mungo Park (along the Niger river) began to explore the hinterland. Their reports about the resource potential of the continent led to intense competition among European powers. The competition set the stage for the scramble for territories in Africa. With their most profitable trade seemingly now gone, Europeans turned to the natural resources of West Africa again. These resources were now required in greater quantities to feed the expanding European manufacturing industries. In order to maintain their hold on these colonies to the exclusion of other Europeans, the dominant powers had to exercise both economic and political control. Economic control included the creation of infrastructure (most of them ancillary to exploitation) and established political authority. By the end of the 19th century, most of the world's valuable colonies were in Africa.


In order to reduce competition and to establish effective formal control, the Berlin Conference of 1843/44 to which no African was invited, formally partitioned Africa among the major European powers. By 1914, the political map of Africa was complete and little or few changes took place prior to the march to Independence. The land explorers were followed by Christian Missionaries, who preached the Bible, introduced Western education, condemned aspects of traditional African practice, and converted many Africans into Christianity.


At the of World War I, the victorious allies took over German territories.

·      Togoland and Cameroon were divided among the British and French. Britain administered their portions of Togo and Cameroon as parts of the Gold Coast (Ghana) and Nigeria respectively. France ruled her share as separate countries

·      In German East Africa, Britain took over Tangayika while Ruanda-Urundi possessions were given to Belgium. To reward Italy, Britain ceded Jubaland from Kenya to Italian Somaliland

·      German possession South West Africa (Namibia) was given to South Africa

·      The ex-German territories became League of Nation Mandates that were administered by the Allies in “Sacred 'Trust'. The “Trust” territories were transferred to the UN in 1945 and later granted Independence.


The final breakdown of African Territories among European Powers was as follows:




·      France: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia

·      Britain: Egypt

·      Italy: Libya

·      Spain: Ceuta, Melilla and Ifn (Spanish Sahara)




·      Britain: Gold Coast (now Ghana), Nigeria, Sierra Leone, the Gambia

·      France: La Cote D'Ivoire (formerly Ivory Coast), Upper Volta (Now Burkina Faso), Mauritania, French Sudan (now Mali). Niger. Dahomey (now Benin)

·      Portugal: Cape Verde

·      Spain: Sahara Province (Now Spanish Sahara)

·      Germany: Togoland (Shared among the British and French after World War 1; British Togoland joined the Gold Coast to independence in new Ghana).




·      France: Equatorial Africa (Central Africa Republic); Chad

·      Germany: Cameroon (Divided among the French and English) Ruanda-Urundi (Now Rwanda and Burundi)

·      Portugal: Sao Tome and Principe (both are islands)

·      Spain: Rio Muni, Fernando Po and Annobon (all islands)

·      Belgium: Congo (now Zaire), Tanzania




·      Britain: Part of Somaliland, Sudan

·      Italy: Part of Somaliland; Eritrea

·      France: Part of Somaliland




·      Britain: Uganda, Kenya, Pemba Island and Zanzibar Island.

·      Germany: Tangayika (now Tanzania)




·      Britain: South Africa, Basutoland, Bechuanaland, Northern and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia); Nyasaland.

·      Portugal: Angola. Mozambique

·      Germany: South-West Africa (Namibia)

·      France: Madagascar




The colonial powers adopted different approaches to rule their African territories. Some European powers (such as the French) sought to convert Africans in their colonies into French citizens. They therefore abolished rules by African chiefs and instead set up “headmen”. With others such as the British, Africans were made to rule over themselves while they appointed some local people as state officials who worked for the British Crown. The various European administrative policies are explained below.




The British adopted two approaches in their territories in Africa. In areas such as South Africa and Northern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) where some whites settled permanently, the British treated such territories as extensions of Britain. For example, in the highland regions of east Africa, South Africa etc, the British assumed that their outposts would develop along the lines of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. The complication was that, unlike Australia, New Zealand, and Canada where native population was tiny, Africa was populous and the natives resisted European rule. British policy in such territories aimed at safeguarding the interest of native and non-white immigrants with a system based on the political and economic dominance of the white minorities. The British sought to entrench certain clauses in the constitutions of these countries to safeguard the rights of the natives as they moved towards self-rule. However, they did not question the rights of the white minorities to rule the majority indigenous population. These clauses were to no avail as the white minorities took control of the territories as happened in the case of South Africa, Zimbabwe, and other areas.


In other parts of Africa, especially in West Africa, the British approach was different. They devised what they called Indirect Rule to administer their colonies. Lord Luggard, in his book The Dual Mandate in Tropical Africa published in 1926, explained this policy. The colonial possessions were territories held in trust and consequently it was Britain's obligation to develop the resources of the colonies not for the exclusive benefit of Britain but for humankind generally. The British did not interfere with existing native institutions but used them to implement policies that benefited them. Where no such viable local institutions existed, British efforts to create them often caused confusion and chaos. By relying on existing traditional institutions and the natives themselves, the British reduced confrontation and protests from local people. It also gave some autonomy to local citizens and somehow prepared their leaders for early independence as it happened in Ghana.




Unlike the British, French rule in Africa was well defined and more pragmatic in its aims and methods. It was based on two main principles: Direct Rule and Assimilation. The French believed themselves to be the heirs of the Roman traditions and saw their mission as that of a Superior Race with a duty to extend benefits of their advanced civilization to the Backward Inhabitants (Africans) in their colonies and reward them with French Citizenship when they showed sufficient evidence of having embraced this civilization.


To pursue this objective, the French paid little attention to native institutions which they considered Primitive. Rather, a government that was based on French ideas was imposed. Power was concentrated in Paris and radiated from there through a Governor-General to Local Governors and Assemblies down to the Natives in the Colonies. There were 2 Governor-Generals, one for Afrique Occidentale Francais based in Dakar, Senegal, and one for Afrique Equatoriale Francais based in Brazzaville.


Two main features of French rule were the

1.  Imposition of poll tax

2.  Forced labor on all adult population who were not French citizens


'The idea of Assimilation was based on the revolutionary doctrine of the equality of man and the assumption that French Culture was superior to that of the Africans, while the policy of direct rule was a necessary adjunct of the policy of assimilation. The French never really faced the full implication of their assimilation policy and in practice very little was done to put it into full effect. At the initial stages, wholesale French citizenship was granted to Senegalese of the coastal towns (as far back as 1848). As more areas came under French rule, they replaced the policy with 'Association' under which only selected individual Africans were granted French citizenship. For example, by 1921 (i.e 20 years after the formal establishment of the French Empire), 555 Africans outside Senegal had been granted French citizenship and franchise.


By 1939, 21,236 citizens (out of 15 million in French West Africa) outside the Senegalese towns of Dakar, Goree, St. Louis and Rufisque had French citizenship in French West Africa. All the rest had the inferior status of 'sujet' or 'subject people' which made them liable to forced labor and summary administrative justice. Although the French sought to include local rulers in their administration at a point in time, they soon gave up the idea. The few local leaders who were retained were reduced to ordinary functionaries and tax collectors. Through their approach, the French managed to undermine or even kill local institutions which had traditionally been 'undivided religious, economic and political sources of authority and replaced it with a foreign ones without local roots'.


Changes were made during the wartime. At the Brazzaville Conference of 1944, a federation of African colonies with France was proposed. The constituent assembly meeting held after the war in 1945 recommended a union. Forced labor and the status 'sujet' were abolished. Despite all these changes, French political rule did a lot of harm to Africa in general by undermining its traditional political institutions and developing only the coast and its citizens at the expense of the interior.




Portugal was the first colonial power in Africa. Their administrative policy was based on Assimilation and Paternalism. In general, the Portuguese were more ruthless than any of the colonial masters. They were also the last of the European powers to leave Africa. Their decline as world power and their relative poverty (compared to the European powers) forced Portugal to exploit the colonies in a brutal manner. It would appear that both the policies of assimilation and paternal responsibility were nothing more than myths used to conceal Portugal's cruel exploitation of her helpless colonial subjects. Despite Portugal's boast about non-racial Christian civilizing missions in her colonies, official Portuguese sources disclosed in 1950 that there were 1,478 civilized and 502,00 uncivilized Africans in Portuguese Guinea; 30,089 civilized and 4,006,598 uncivilized in Angola; and 25,149 civilized and 5,646,957 uncivilized in Mozambique' (Boateng, 1978)


By 1961, only 1% of the people of Angola, Portugal's largest and richest colony, were classified as 'literate'. Following the World War II agitation for Independence started. Following Ghana's Independence in March 1957, the tempo of decolonization went up and by 1966, all Africa except Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Guinea Bissau and a few others were still under colonial rule. In places like Algeria, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia, it took major confrontations before independence was finally granted




Factors that Contributed to Decolonization:

a.   The rise of native Africans against colonialism

b.  The experience of African Soldiers during World War II

c.   The Atlantic Charter of Nations

d.  The formation of the League of Nations and later the United Nations (and the UN Charter of human rights).

e.   The exhaustion of Europe

f.     The rise of super powers dedicated to ending colonialism - USA, Soviet Union, Cuba etc.




Although all of Africa has been decolonized, it is argued that the European Colonial Masters still exercise a strong presence in the African countries in what is termed as Neocolonialism. Kwame Nkrumah the first president of Ghana has explained the Neocolonialism concept in a book. He writes:


“Faced with the militant peoples of the ex-colonial territories, imperialism simply switches tactics. Without qualm, it dispenses with its flags, and even with certain of its more hated expatriate officials. This means, so it claims, that it is 'giving' independence to its former subjects to be followed by 'aid' for their development. Under cover of such phrases, however, it devises innumerable ways to accomplish objectives formerly achieved by naked colonialism”.


Review Questions

1.  Compare the colonial policies adopted by the British and French in administering their colonies in Africa and assess the impacts of such policies on 1) Africans and their culture and 2) in preparing the native Africans to rule their countries after Independence.


2.  Compare West Africa with East Africa in terms of European colonization, exploitation and slave trade and explain why European influence was more intense in West Africa than it was in the Eastern province of the Continent.