The Age of Imperialism took place during the mid to late 1800s and into the early 1900s in Africa. Imperialism is when one country takes control of the political, economic, or cultural life of another country. Europeans took over almost all of Africa at this time, dividing up the land at the Berlin Conference in 1884. Causes of imperialism in Africa included the Industrial Revolution during the mid 1800s, which was the growth of factories and commercially produced goods in Europe. This provided the European need for raw materials to use in factories, and an expanded market on which to sell their goods. Other reasons were feelings of nationalism, ethnocentrism, and racism. Although most of the effects of European imperialism were negative for the colonies and positive for the Europeans, there were also a few negative outcomes for the Europeans and positive outcomes for the colonies that help make Africa what it is today.
One aspect of African life that was changed by European imperialism was the economic aspect. Traditionally, African were used to subsistence farming, or farming to produce just enough to meet their needs, and a barter economy. Europeans introduced a money economy, as well as cash crops, or goods sold on the world market, and wage labor. They forced Africans to pay taxes in money, rather than goods, although Africans didn’t earn nearly enough from wage labor. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, Europeans exploited Africa of its natural resources to use in their own factories. J. A. Hobson says, “In the typical colony, the most fertile lands and mineral resources are owned by the white foreigners. These holdings are worked by natives under their direction” (Doc. 1). Europeans did not allow factories to be built in Africa, as Europeans needed an expanded market for their goods, and wanted Africans to purchase them. This caused Africa to be economically on Europe when they gained their independence later on. Africa had no industrial base, and needed to diversify the goods they produced. There were also some positive outcomes of European imperialism for Africans—Europeans improved methods of communication and transportation, along with sanitation and medical technology. The advances in medical technology mixed with the African tradition of large families meant that the rate of infant mortality went down, and children lived long enough to have their own children, causing a population boom.
Nationalism was the main political motive that led to European imperialism of Africa. Nationalism is the pride in and devotion to one’s country. European nations wanted to expand their empires and make them bigger and better than that of other European nations. To accomplish this, they took land in Africa, ignoring all African boundaries and customs, up until the Berlin Conference in 1884. At the Berlin Conference, fourteen European nations divided up Africa amongst themselves without any African consent and created new artificial political boundaries. As a result, many different African tribes were grouped together under the same rulers, causing disagreement and fighting. Africans found European laws and legal systems unjust due to their impersonal nature, as they were used to discussing issues until the entire village reached a consensus. Europeans governed their colonies by either direct or indirect rule. Countries such as France or Belgium who didn’t have as many colonies and could afford to send their own officials to the colonies to displace current African rulers and implicate European laws used direct rule. Countries such as Great Britain that had too many colonies to send officials to every one used indirect rule. They would make the laws and expect current African leaders to enforce them. Both ways of governing the colonies left former African leaders with no power, and left all Africans with no political experience once they became independent. George H. T. Kimble supports this by saying, “None of the newly independent countries had…an electorate that knew what independence was all about” (Doc. 4).
The cultural motive for European imperialism had to do with ethnocentrism and racism. Ethnocentrism is the judging of other countries by the standards of your own culture. Racism is the belief that one racial group is naturally superior to another. Ethnocentrism was what led Europeans to believe that they were doing the right thing by colonizing Africa; racism was what led them to believe that they could colonize Africans. Sekou Toure, an African nationalist, says, “Colonialism’s greatest misdeed was to…convince us that our civilization was nothing less than savagery, thus giving us complexes that led to our being branded as irresponsible and lacking in self-confidence” (Doc.2). This illustrates the effects of racism on Africans. Westernization, or the adoption of Western culture, caused the loss of traditional African lifestyle to Christianity. An African proverb states, “When the whites came to our country, we had the land and they had the Bible; now we have the Bible and they have the land” (Doc. 5). Christians believed that it was their job to spread the benefits of the western culture across Africa.
Overall, imperialism in Africa had many different effects, both on the colonies and on the Europeans. Many were negative outcomes for Africans, such as actions resulting in economic independence, political instability, and loss of traditional culture, but some were positive, such as better health care and better education. Although most think of imperialism as positive for the colonizers, there may have been some negative impacts, such as colonies costing “more than they were worth in trade” (Doc 7), as suggested by Grover Clark in Balance Sheets of Imperialism. Positive impacts for Europeans included gaining the raw materials and resources needed for factories and the money earned from trade. The European imperialism of Africa changed what both Africa and Europe are today.