An Essay on the European Imperialism in Africa
Throughout the 19th century, many European countries engaged in imperialism, or the expansion of a nation-state’s area of control outside of its original boundaries. Most affected by this practice was Africa, as only one-tenth of the continent remained independent by 1895, compared with the nine-tenths of Africa that were free in 1875. Britain and France were particularly prominent imperialists, as Britain expanded its empire by 4.25 million square miles and 66 million citizens between 1871 and 1900, while France added about 3.5 million square miles and 26 million people. Several factors contributed to Europe’s imperialist practices, ranging from somewhat understandable rationales such as economics to far less moral motivations including nationalism and racism. Much of Africa was permanently affected. Because industrial powers in the West desired inexpensive labor, raw materials, and new markets for their manufactured products, Europe’s imperial expansion into Africa came to be seen as a matter of economic survival. In an effort to grow their economies, European nations invaded African countries and subsequently advertised products, exploited natural African resources such as minerals, and even enslaved the native people. Many Europeans – especially the French – forced Africans to work on mines or plantations, where their poor treatment resulted in the death of millions. Thus, Europe justified its imperial expansion by arguing that it was necessary for their economy – this only lent credence to Lenin’s argument that capitalism made imperialism inevitable.
However, economic factors were not alone in rationalizing European imperialism. Another key component was nationalism, which could be summarized as the competition for “bragging rights over having the largest empire”. By appealing to their citizens’ love for their country, European leaders were able to justify the invasion of waterways like the Suez Canal as well as the involuntary religious conversion of Africans by Christian missionaries. In fact, some European governments even attempted to militarily repress those Africans who disliked the Christian invasion – a practice out of which rose the saying “the flag followed the Bible”. A third and final justification for European imperialism over Africa was racism. Largely as a result of social Darwinism, the West was considered stronger and generally better than all other civilizations. It became their moral imperative to bring the benefits of European civilization to “lesser” cultures around the world. Because African cultures were considered inferior to Europe under this racist logic, it was seen as acceptable to spread European culture through any means necessary – after all, Europe would only be “helping” the poor Africans. European imperialism had many lasting effects on both the continent of Africa and its native peoples. For instance, European invaders often chose to claim areas of Africa most conducive to agriculture. Here, they set up farms on the land where they forced native Africans to work for them on plantations. Today, South Africa is still home to a large diamond industry which traces its roots back to Europe, and this industry continues to support European business. As in the days of the imperialist plantations, the diamond mining industry exploits indigenous Africans through low wages and unclean living quarters. Additionally, many African countries continue to speak French, a language brought to them by their 19th century European colonists. The 19th century was a time where several European powers – especially Britain and France (with the latter being the more violent invader) – sought to expand their empires. They did so for various reasons, primarily economic, nationalistic, and racist motives; as a result, they devastated Africans’ lives as well as the continent of Africa itself. To this day, Africa continues to be affected through mining as well as language.