Tuesday, 29 September 2015
On the extent to which the Scramble for Africa was motivated by financial and economic reasons
The Scramble for Africa was a series of annexations by European powers of African colonies. It took place between 1870 and 1914, during which time approximately 90% of the territory of Africa was appropriated, a third of it British. To understand how far it was driven by financial motivation we must examine a series of complicated issues and factors leading different European nations toward African colonies and connect them to various imperialist theories.
There can be little doubt finance was a major attraction in controlling overseas territories. Many have seen the Scramble for Africa in little more than economic terms: John Hobson, in his Imperialism: A Study of 1902, described finance as ‘the governor of the imperial engine, directing the energy and determining the work’. Even Niall Ferguson, a historian with a largely pro-imperialist outlook, admits that in Brailsford’s words ‘the profits go exclusively into private pockets’. The statistics, too, are formidable: at the centre of the banking world stood the Rothschild Bank, which had combined assets of £41 million, making it the most powerful financial institution in the world: much of this was invested in government bonds in overseas territories such as Egypt and South Africa. By 1914, 35% of British exports went to Africa, which also took 13% of overseas investment (though this was significantly lower than India, in proportion to its size). Between 1860 and 1919, there were 22 new millionaires in overseas merchant banking; and as McDonough says, ‘they went in search for the best possible returns on their capital’. Davis and Huttenback showed in 1986 that Empire was a catastrophic waste of money for all but the elite of investors and companies. Such views fit the Leninist theory of imperialism, that the Scramble for Africa was essentially the exploitation of foreign peoples for the profit of a small elite group of capitalists.
Mere evidence of wealth, however, is not evidence of financial motivation. Specifically referring to African nations, it is clear that they attracted European interest and investment partially because of the hope of financial gain. The French government poured money into the Suez Canal after 1869, and the British government under Benjamin Disraeli bought major shares for £4million, which, while it did not give Britain full control, certainly granted it more of an interest in Egyptian finance. British and French bankers lent money to Egyptians at exorbitant rates of interest. Even the ‘reluctant imperialist’, William Gladstone, personally invested in the canal. It does not therefore seem surprising that Britain should eventually feel, in 1882, that its financial interests in Egypt were too high to leave the nation in command of a ruler unable to quell nationalist riots. The subsequent annexation that followed could certainly be said to stem from the economic interest the British and the French had expressed in the preceding decades. Arguably the same impulses led to the capture of the Sudan and the tense Anglo-French relations in the area: the nationalist Mahdi threatened British security in Egypt, which made him an enemy; and the Fashoda incident of 1898-9 was caused in part by British financial interests in the region. Though Sudan itself was not hugely valuable, its strategic importance in protecting the Egyptian investment made it an area worth capturing if need be.
There are a number of other major examples. In 1867 minerals were discovered in Cape Colony and the Transvaal, focusing British attention on these areas of land. The ‘mineral revolution’ became the focus of rivalry with the Boers, the original Dutch settlers who had been living there since the 17th century. Although the Transvaal emerged as a prosperous area, much of the wealth went to men on the spot known as ‘Rand millionaires’, British and German entrepreneurs who had established mines and attracted investment. Foremost among these was Cecil Rhodes, who bought a substantial share in the Witwatersrand after the great gold discoveries of 1886. He then amalgamated his interests with the Rothschilds, forming the De Beers Consolidated Mines Company to allow further expansion. With his wealth he bought his way into South African politics and remained a major figure until 1902. Thus British control over these areas arose at least partially because of a desire for profit.
Rhodes’ ambitions seemed to reach far beyond South Africa, however. Bechuanaland contained a vital trading route to the Great Lakes and, due to Rhodes’ expansionism and the legitimacy he gained from the British government, it became a protectorate in 1885. Mashonaland and Matabelelend attracted the attention of the German explorer Karl Peters, who believed they contained the site of the legendary mines of King Solomon, and Rhodes became similarly interested. Thus, although the major players were different (in this case, individual pioneers rather than expansionist governments), financial interests were still the key driving factor. That Mashonaland’s gold mines turned out to be illusory is in one sense irrelevant: the colonialism had arisen from a desire for profit nonetheless.
In West Africa, the entrepreneur George Goldie and his United Africa Company was engaging in ‘creeping imperialism’ and forging a similar path to that of Rhodes. Though he acted without government approval, his motivation was the economic attraction of palm oil, used in the manufacture of soap; the palm oil industry in the area was extremely successful. In a similar way, the maverick Belgian ruler King Leopold chose to establish the Congo Free State entirely out of his own pocket, in the name of scientific exploration but in reality a brutal exploitation of natives for the sake of his personal profit. The Cameroons were another desirable area, linking the oil rivers of the Niger and the Gabon, over which the British and the Germans struggled in 1884.
In East Africa, the two pioneering explorers William McKinnon and Karl Peters vied for the approval of the Sultan of Zanzibar. The former headed the British East Africa Company, set up to make profits on cash crops in the region. The competition between them led to them receiving limited financial support from their respective governments. The Italians also sought economic benefits in both their capture of Eritrea and Somaliland in 1882 and 1889 but also in their attempted colonization of Abyssinia in 1896.
Clearly, to Europeans, the chance of expanding an increasingly competitive domestic market into untouched nations of the Dark Continent was just too good to refuse. Companies raced to make profits, with little or no regard for the human beings they found on the land they wanted – and in such respects the Scramble for Africa fits to a large degree the theories of Lenin and Hobson.
However, the situation was never quite as simple as their conspiracy theories make out. Governments did not exactly do shady deals with financiers to take colonies; rather, the financial interests of the two overlapped to such an extent that economic co-operation of the kind we see in Rhodes’ charter of 1889 was inevitable. Gladstone, Disraeli and many other British politicians were linked to the Rothschilds by marriage: small wonder their financial motivations were aligned. This in turn fits the theory proposed by Cain and Hopkins, that of a class of ‘gentlemanly capitalists’, both a part of the City of London and of Parliament, thus controlling the economic and imperialist direction of the nation. The kind of people running banks were also running the country, Cain and Hopkins argue, and thus they prized each other’s priorities more than those of others.
More importantly, other factors besides matters purely financial were also of vast significance. AJP Taylor suggested that behind the scramble for colonies lay something even less tangible and even harder to acquire than money: power. In many cases investment and profit only followed after conquest. For many, financial power was not enough. The jingoistic nationalism which spread across Britain in the Victorian era, institutionalised in boarding schools and movements like the Boy Scouts (founded by Lord Baden-Powell, himself an imperialist hero after the Siege of Mafeking), was only part of a general movement toward stronger European nationalism in this period. The French public was more divided: while there were some who opposed imperialists in preference for revenge against Germany, the support for colonialist expansion to restore national pride, especially after the 1871 defeat, was also strong.
Germany, meanwhile, seemed drawn into the Scramble for Africa solely for reasons of political gain and manipulation. To restore his popularity at home, establish Germany as a major player, and set Britain and France against one another, Otto von Bismarck called the Berlin Conference in 1884-5, at which a set of rules were laid down for the seizure of African colonies. “When I left the foreign office in 1880,” recalled Lord Salisbury, “nobody thought about Africa. When I returned to it in 1885, the nations of Europe were almost quarrelling with each other as to which portions of Africa they could obtain.” The Berlin Conference was a turning point, at which the model for the next twenty years was established: imperialism rapidly became a matter of national pride.
There are numerous pieces of evidence to support this. After the power struggles of the 19th century including the Crimean War, and given the rapid industrialising of these major European powers, some kind of confrontation was inevitable, and Africa was the battleground. In Ferguson’s words, Cecil Rhodes ‘aspired to be more than a money maker. He dreamt of becoming an empire builder’. This was the man who envisaged a ‘Cape to Cairo’ railway linking Egypt to South Africa under British rule, less out of economic reasons than because he believed the Anglo-Saxon race was destined for greatness.
The same attitude can be found in other imperialist figures such as Sir Alfred Milner, British High Commissioner in South Africa, and the fanatic New Imperialist, Joseph Chamberlain. George Goldie dreamed of ‘colouring the map red’ with British conquests. Portugal and Spain longed to maintain their former imperialist prestige by retaining the colonies they already possessed. The Italians wanted a New Roman Empire; Mancini, the minister for Foreign Affairs, stated in 1884 that ‘it would not in any case have been possible for Italy to watch, idle and indifferent, the peaceful crusade undertaken by all the great powers in order to civilise the populations of Africa, without seeing Italy’s good name disgraced in Europe’. Britain and Germany struggled long over Zanzibar and Tanganyika, but neither seemed all that interested in making profit once they held the areas: indeed, the East Africa Company went bust because of lack of investment.
It was not just politicians and men on the spot to whom this faith in imperialism can be applied. It was often equally frenzied among the public. National defeat and humiliation often led to further expansionism, because the nation in question felt it had to restore its public standing. Newspapers across Europe published stories of how their country had valiantly and heroically resisted the barbarians in far-flung territories. The British outcry at the death of General Gordon in Khartoum is one such example; Gladstone was viciously attacked for the incident and the feeling of national sorrow was immense, as we can see in the Archdeacon of Northampton’s words on the occasion: “a nation mourned a son, a true son, fallen by a death of betrayal and desertion in the cause. England wept today”. Much the same outburst of feeling occurred over the Fashoda incident of 1898-9 when, for a few anxious days, it seemed as though Britain and France would go to war over a small strip of desert land in the Sudan. This was not a case of financial acquisition, but national petty-mindedness. When the Italians were defeated by the Abyssinians at Adowa in 1896 (in part, it is worth adding, due to the superior firepower the latter had received from the French – yet another indication of the ‘power game’ at play in Africa), the national outrage was once again overwhelming: the largely innocent General Baratieri was dismissed, street demonstrations were held, the Prime Minister resigned, and the date was declared a day of mourning. Italy’s reaction, in part due to the founding of the Italian Nationalist Association, was to increase expansionism by taking Libya in 1911. Other examples include the Battle of Isandlwana against the Zulu in 1879, where defeat led to greater determination to conquer. Thus this trend of national pride, followed by national humiliation which then rekindled national pride, can be seen as indicative of the attitude Europeans had toward Africa during this period.
Power politics cannot be separated from another important factor in European imperialism: a belief in racial superiority. While this was arguably more a justification for imperialism than a motivation, such beliefs had been around for a sufficient length of time by 1870 to inform the imperialist mind-set. When the Portuguese explored Mozambique and Angola in the 15th century, they came as equals: a far cry from the beliefs of Rhodes and the treatment of Hutus and Tutsis under the Belgians. But phrenology, a pseudoscience of the brain based on the belief that brain size is equivalent to intelligence, had been established in the late 18th century and social Darwinism became prevalent after the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, reaching a zenith in the eugenics theories of Galton in the 1870s and Haeckel’s 1899 theory that non-European societies were inherently primitive. This way of thinking certainly seems to have influenced many imperialists and provided, if not exactly a motivation, certainly more impetus to ‘bring the benefits of civilization’ to ‘the backward peoples of the world’. This often expressed itself in religious terminology, with missionaries of all denominations hastening to Africa to spread the Good News to the ‘barbarians’ they found living there. Part of this mission, as with John Kirk and other Methodists in Zanzibar, was to end the slave trade on which Britain had itself turned with such self-loathing over the previous century. For David Livingstone, Cardinal Lavigerie, Mary Slessor, and others, the opportunity to bring the Christian message to African tribes was a moral obligation, something to be pursued with missionary zeal. Such motivation was popularly held at the time – there were 120 000 such people abroad by 1900 – and is certainly to be differentiated from financial reasons.
In 1961, historians Robinson and Gallagher argued in a ground-breaking study that imperialism arose as a result of ‘events on the ground’, a series of accidents or coincidences which coerced unwilling Europeans into the annexation of African land. It is a convincing theory at first. In its support is the notion of ‘informal empire’ and the policy of ‘reluctant imperialism’ Britain seemed to be holding until the mid-1880s: trade was all the Europeans wanted, it is argued, and governing colonies was a last resort. That areas were ‘protectorates’ rather than outright colonies, that Rhodes and other explorers were left to establish their own individualist empires but involve the government as little as possible, suggests imperialism was not a primary concern. The nationalist riots of Egyptians which led to the annexation of 1882 imply that the event was caused by the original populace rather than the dispassionate, restrained Victorian government. The argument also extends to African nationalism: it runs that occupation was not necessarily an undesirable outcome for many African leaders, and they largely co-operated in annexation, making it a two-way phenomenon. The best example is African leader Moshoeshoe I’s appeal to Queen Victoria in 1868 to turn Basutoland into a British protectorate, so as to be protected from the Boers, but other African tribal leaders such as Lobengula and the Sultan of Zanzibar signed treaties and deals with European powers. Without these treaties, it was made clear at the Berlin Conference, Europeans had no colonial legitimacy, and so the African co-operation was vital in bringing about imperialism.
In reality, however, these treaties can receive little credit or legitimacy. They were misleading, dishonest, and written in languages the tribal chieftains were unable to understand. Lobengula died of smallpox fleeing Rhodes’ forces and trying to annul the treaty with which he had been tricked. They were obtained in often suspicious circumstances; there can be no serious claim that they played a pivotal role in imperialism. Similarly, the Victorian ‘reluctance’ should not be taken at face value: in practice, Britain ‘never flinched from defending [its] economic interests whenever and wherever they were felt to be threatened’. There seems little reluctance in Milner’s resolve that he would ‘teach those bloody Boers a lesson’, or in the Italian generals’ preference to crush the Abyssinians by open battle because it would appear more glorious than besieging them. Events on the ground which had been at least partially caused by the European powers themselves were used as pretexts or justification for annexation: the riots in Alexandria came about as a result of British financial policy in the region. Although it is tempting to discredit ‘conspiracy theories’ in which Europeans planned out annexation in every detail years in advance, it is too simplistic to revert to the other extreme and claim that the same people were passive imperialists, that empire ‘happened to them’ despite their best intentions.
Where, then, lies the principal European motivation for imperialism? McDonough calls British imperialism at least ‘a mixture of power politics and economic necessity’, but the question remains which of the two was the most significant. Certainly, some colonialist actions (the Fashoda incident, expansionism in Tanganyika, and the Italians in Abyssinia) seem to have their origins in ‘New Imperialism’, the idea that imperialism was a good idea simply for its own sake, because Europeans believed they were morally right in expanding their empires. They appear motivated by beliefs to which eugenics and phrenology had contributed: that Europeans were fundamentally superior to Africans, and furthermore, that in the power struggle of the late 19th century, it was necessary for the nation in question to prove its greatness over rival European powers. Davidson comments that ‘it soon became clear that many colonies were [not at all vital to colonialists]. Enormous territories were ‘held’ simply because they had been formally enclosed; having got them, the imperialist countries clung onto them until, long afterwards, they discovered that they did not need them at all.’ By such logic, colonies were blindly seized for the sake of possessing power and legitimacy on the colonialist stage: this ascribes a kind of childish competition to the European powers which, it is true, is visible in some of their interactions.
However, it is far too simple to see all colonies in this light – clearly, Rhodes and Peters clashed over Mashonaland and Matabeleland largely because they were believed to be rich in gold. Areas were not usually picked out at random. King Leopold took the Congo specifically for its rubber industry. South Africa was attractive to Rhodes because he believed he could make his fortune in the diamond mines of Kimberley; that it also formed a part of his great imperialist dream does not diminish the underlying financial motivation. It also becomes evident that the link between individual ‘men on the spot’ and the classes of ministers, politicians and bankers at home is complex, occasionally divided, but often close (as Cain and Hopkins suggest). It was not hard for a man like Rhodes to expand in South Africa if the Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, shared his views. The governments often had wider considerations to take into account – such as the repercussions of the Boer War in 1902 – and had to act accordingly, but that does not stop the spheres of interest between the two from closely overlapping.
Whether these individual pioneers acted out of sheer personal greed or a kind of self-sacrificial duty to the great dream of national expansion is of course impossible to fully determine. The fact remains that most invested in areas where they expected some kind of financial return, even if they did not obtain it. Admittedly many also espoused views of ‘Cape to Cairo’ or a West African French Empire which certainly fit the power politics model. The motivation of nationalism, of surpassing one’s neighbours, was certainly instrumental in driving the Scramble for Africa, but to some extent it grew out of financial interest. Rapidly industrialising societies needed somewhere to make profit, and they found it in Africa: the clashes they were then led towards, whether Britain and France in the Sudan or Germany and France in Morocco, formed a kind of ‘power game’, and the importance of prestige was a crucial component in explaining the later expansion. But the first pioneers, the bankers, the entrepreneurs, set up shop in the Dark Continent with fortune in their sights, and it is this which points to the great significance of financial reasons in the motivation behind the Scramble for Africa.
1. Ferguson, Niall. Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, Penguin, 2003.
2. Chamberlain, M.E. The Scramble for Africa, Longman, 1983 (extracts)
3. Freund, Bill. The Making of Contemporary Africa, Indiana University Press, 1984.
4. McDonough, Frank. The British Empire 1815-1914, Hodder Education, 1994.
5. Davidson, Basil. Africa in Modern History: The Search for A New Society, Allen Lane, 1978.