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Between the 1880s and the first decades of the 20th century, Europeans imposed their control over most of Africa. Learn about this ‘Scramble for Africa’ and its effects on the continent in this lesson.

Africa Before Imperialism

We all have our routines in life. Think about your personal schedule, your friends and family circles, and the way you do everyday things in your community.

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Think as well about your deeply held beliefs in terms of religion, politics, or social relations. What if a group of people suddenly came into your town, told you to forget those things (or else), and proclaimed they were in charge. Sounds shocking, doesn’t it?Now imagine that happening to an entire continent. This was the effect of European imperialism in Africa in the late 19th century through the mid-20th century. Imperialism means that in various ways–some violent, some informal, some more hands-off than others–a group of people takes control of others’ lands, and often dictates their lives as well.Prior to the era of Imperialism from the 1880s onward, Africans lived in a variety of ways.

There were large kingdoms and sprawling urban centers, and there were smaller villages headed by elders and chiefs. Some Africans tended herds of animals while others were educated elites or Islamic religious leaders. Others worshiped local gods and goddesses and their lives centered on the family and clan. Imperialism changed all this, as Europeans disrupted these traditional ways and imposed their beliefs and social structures on colonized Africans.Europe and Africa had centuries of interaction before colonialism. Most of these connections occurred, however, at coastal outposts in Africa.

Few Europeans ventured into the interior of the continent. The Industrial Revolution brought new technologies–especially military technologies–to the hands of Europeans, along with motivations to exploit Africa’s natural resources and raw materials. These conditions, coupled by Europeans’ belief in their superiority and Africans’ inferiority, enabled the British, French, Belgians, Germans, and Italians to increase their control over Africa to 90 percent by 1914.

Economic and Social Effects

Europeans turned the small farms and pastures that dotted sub-Saharan Africa into commodity-producing plantations.

Here, Africans worked for their new colonizers growing cotton, coconuts, palm oil, or cocoa for export. Forced to pay taxes to the imperialists, Africans now had little choice but to work for wages on European-owned large farms. Others found themselves laboring for Europeans in a variety of ways, such as the diamond mines of British financier Cecil Rhodes.

These changes drastically altered long-standing patriarchal family structures, as men labored far from home. Women and children remained in villages, often alone for long periods of time. Europeans now stood atop a new hierarchy, with European-educated Africans below them, and with African workers at the very bottom.

European Ideals and Institutions

With the creation of Christian mission schools across the European colonies, some Africans were converted to Christianity and learned Western ways. This allowed them to move up the social ladder, above those Africans doing manual work but still below their European rulers. Traditional African justice systems and administrative structures came to be replaced by European concepts, as African lawyers, soldiers, and bureaucrats ran the colonies under the supervision of the imperialists.

African Resistance

Although some African peoples were overwhelmed by the firepower and technology of the Europeans and others saw a chance to learn the ways of the imperialists and better their situation, some Africans fought back against these invaders, demanding the return of control of their own lives and societies. In these often extremely violent clashes, Africans exercised the human desire to rule oneself, but rarely came out on top.The Zulu people of present-day South Africa, for instance, battled the descendants of Dutch settlers, called the Boers.

In Sudan, the Mahdists destroyed a powerful British and Egyptian army in Khartoum in 1885. And most remarkably, the Ethiopians, armed with modern weaponry, defeated outright Italian imperialist armies in 1896. As a result, Ethiopia was one of only two places in Africa (Liberia was the other) in which Europeans did not impose colonial control.

Postscript

After World War II, European colonialism in Africa began to break down. Europe was in shambles and weakened, and the fight against fascism in the name of freedom and democracy laid bare the hypocrisy of European imperialism in Africa. One after another, African independence movements across the continent created dozens of new nations in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a hopeful sign, though the new African nations confronted new challenges as young countries on the world stage.

Lesson Summary

Beginning in the 1880s, European nations imposed colonial control over most of Africa. Imperialism disrupted traditional African ways of life, political organization, and social norms. European imperialism turned subsistence farming into large-scale commodity exports and patriarchal social structures into European-dominated hierarchies and imposed Christianity and Western ideals.

Though many Africans found a place in this situation, others strongly resisted imperialism. European colonialism broke down in the decades after World War II, and young African nations faced new challenges as independent states.

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