The Beginnings of European Colonization in Africa

European colonization of Africa has extended back for thousands of years. In most cases these colonies were limited to North Africa, above the Sahara desert. For instance the Roman Empire extended across the entirety of the North African Mediterranean coast.

Outside of North Africa, Europeans did not extend their dominions much further. Despite knowing of kingdoms in sub-Saharan Africa, some of which were extremely wealthy, Europeans did not seriously attempt colonization for hundreds of years. Why was Africa not colonized sooner?

With the first trip around the Cape of Good Hope by Bartolomeu Días in 1488, and the first sea trip to India by Vasco De Gama in 1497, Europeans finally found a reason to explore Africa further. Trade with India and the Far East could be very lucrative, and Europeans raced to establish trade routes.

However, the trip around Southern Africa was very far. Nations needed to establish settlements and ports along the coast to be able to supply ships going to and from the Far East. This is how the first colonies sprung in the sub-Saharan part of the continent.

Despite this, Europeans did not make much inroads in Africa. Their colonies stayed along the coast and did not extend into the interior, despite the vast amount of available natural resources. Despite a presence of hundreds of years, as late as 1870 most colonies were still relegated to the coasts.

The Beginnings of European Colonization in Africa

European Colonization of Africa Pre-World War I

There were multiple reasons behind the long delay. Firstly, Europeans are very susceptible to tropical diseases present in Africa such as malaria and yellow fever. Mortality rates were too high for large numbers of Europeans to push inland. By the mid 19th century, advances in medicine helped to combat these diseases opening the way for further settlements.

Secondly, it took centuries for some European nations to become unified. For instance Germany and Italy were not fully unified until the mid to late 19th century. These nations had missed out on the earlier partitioning of the Americas and wanted the prestige that came with having overseas colonies.

The natural resources of Africa were also heavily coveted. By the late 19th century advances in technology such as railways and steamships made extracting resources from the interior much easier and profitable.

The “Scramble for Africa” as it’s called is usually noted to have began via the Berlin Conference of 1884. This conference set the “rules” for the partitioning of the Africa and its aim was to avoid war between European powers while extending their colonies through the interior.

By 1914, Europeans controlled nearly 96% of the continent. Only Liberia (which had close ties with the United States) and Ethiopia (due to its strength) remained independent. It would not be until after World War II that the continent was largely decolonized.

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