What Caused the Scramble for Africa?

Why was Africa so rapidly colonized?

By Alistair Boddy-Evans

The Scramble for Africa (1880-1900) was a period of rapid colonization of the African continent byAfrica Scramble 1 European powers. But it wouldn’t have happened except for the particular economic, social, and military evolution Europe was going through.

Before the Scramble for Africa — Europeans in Africa up to the 1880s
By the beginning of the 1880s only a small part of Africa was under European rule, and that area was largely restricted to the coast and a short distance inland along major rivers such as the Niger and the Congo.


 Britain had Freetown in Sierra Leone, forts along the coast of The Gambia, a presence at Lagos, the Gold Coast protectorate, and a fairly major set of colonies in Southern Africa (Cape Colony, Natal, and the Transvaal which it had annexed in 1877).

  • Southern Africaalso had the independent Boer Oranje-Vrystaat (Orange Free State).
  • France had settlements at Dakar and St Louis in Senegal and had penetrated a fair distance up the river Senegal, the Assinie and Grand Bassam regions of Cote d’Ivoire, a protectorate over the coastal region of Dahomey (now Benin), and had begun colonization of Algeria as early as 1830.
  • Portugal had long established bases in Angola (first arriving in 1482, and subsequently retaking the port of Luanda from the Dutch in 1648) and Mozambique (first arriving in 1498 and creating trading posts by 1505).
  • Spain had small enclaves in north west Africa at Ceuta and Melilla (África Septentrional Españolaor Spanish North Africa).
  • And the Ottoman Turks controlled Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia (the strength of Ottoman rule varied greatly).

  What Caused the Scramble to Happen?

There were several factors which created the impetus for the Scramble for Africa, most of these were to do with events in Europe rather than in Africa.

  • End of the Slave Trade— Britain had had some success in halting the slave trade around the shores of Africa. But inland the story was different — Muslim traders from north of the Sahara and on the East Coast still traded inland, and many local chiefs were reluctant to give up the use of slaves. Reports of slaving trips and markets were brought back to Europe by various explorers, such as Livingstone, and abolitionists in Britain and Europe were calling for more to be done.
  • Exploration— During the nineteenth century barely a year went by without a European expedition into Africa. The boom in exploration was triggered to a great extent by the creation of the African Association by wealthy Englishmen in 1788 (who wanted someone to ‘find’ the fabled city of Timbuktu and the course of the Niger River). As the century moved on, the goal of the European explorer changed, and rather than traveling out of pure curiosity they started to record details of markets, goods, and resources for the wealthy philanthropists who financed their trips.
  • Henry Morton Stanley— A naturalized American (born in Wales) who of all the explorers of Africa is the one most closely connected to the start of the Scramble for Africa. Stanley had crossed the continent and located the ‘missing’ Livingstone, but he is more infamously known for his explorations on behalf of King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold hired Stanley to obtain treaties with local chieftains along the course of the River Congo with an eye to creating his own colony (Belgium was not in a financial position to fund a colony at that time). Stanley’s work triggered a rush of European explorers, such as Carl Peters, to do the same for various European countries.
  • Capitalism— The end of European trading in slaves left a need for commerce between Europe and Africa. Capitalists may have seen the light over slavery, but they still wanted to exploit the continent – new ‘legitimate’ trade would be encouraged. Explorers located vast reserves of raw materials, they plotted the course of trade routes, navigated rivers, and identified population centers which could be a market for manufactured goods from Europe. It was a time of plantations and cash crops, dedicating the region’s workforce to producing rubber, coffee, sugar, palm oil, timber, etc for Europe. And all the more enticing if a colony could be set up which gave the European nation a monopoly.


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