Social and Economic Impacts of European Imperialism on Africa
The era of colonialism brought a significant number of problems to Africa. The lack of equality or virtuous intentions regarding the relations between the two continents is the primary factor. Instead, private interest and the struggle for power and resources were the central goals of the European empires. Instead of enlightenment and support, the epoch of European Colonialism has increased the developmental gap between the rich metropolitan countries and the undeveloped African nations. Imperialism imposed the belief of European superiority, while colonization enhanced the exploitation of African resources. The former neglected proper social development, while the latter fostered the economic backwardness of the region. Ultimately, this led to the all-encompassing exploitation of the African continent by the Europeans, which has severely undermined the level of social welfare, economic sustainability, and the ability of self-governance; it has deprived the lands of its natural resources and imposed oppression and slavery over the African people.
The analysis of primary documents of the time shows that imperialistic countries did not care about the ethnic and cultural peculiarities of these nations nor of large developmental gaps. They were primarily interested in material and economic benefits that they could derive from the continent. Hence, the quote of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie about the “inaction of those who could have acted” and “the indifference of those who should have known better” refers to the Europeans, who were better educated and developed, but instead of sharing the experience and developing these nations, they focused only on the exploitation of African lands, people, and resources. Meanwhile, Laura Collins’ picture of a native family illustrates the poor level of social welfare in Africa. In conjunction, these conditions have predetermined the backwardness of social and economic development, as the interests of African tribes were disregarded.
Indeed, the monologue of Mark X of Moshweshewe shows that the metropolitan countries did not recognize the claims of African peoples. Moreover, it shows how the colonial rulers used coercion and intimidation for their own purposes. Therefore, once promised an equal coexistence and justice, African rulers faced the harsh reality of deceitful governors who claimed their lands. In such a way, any attempt for political self-governance by an African tribe was doomed to failure. Also, this point is noteworthy because it also took place against the backdrop of the conflicts of Europeans for power and influence in South Africa, which is known in history as “The Scramble for Africa” (Rutz 2). The map from the first document also reinforces this point, as the African lands were shared almost completely between the European countries, neglecting both the interest of African lands and the ethnic borders (Hertslet). On the other hand, the map reflected the conflicting interests of the states and their struggle for power.
Indeed, as the speech of Jules Ferry shows, the territorial expansion and the spread of influence were one of the primary reasons for colonial expansion. Hence, the states could not stay aside when there was a division of resources and “safe harbors” for the fleet in the world (Ferry). As soon as one state began to claim a territory, others reacted immediately. Therefore, the competition between the European powers arose, which caused the race for the best territories and resources. In that regard, some countries tried to extend the zone of influence as much as possible. There is a cartoon that illustrates British colonialist Cecil Rhodes, who reminisces on the Colossus of Rhodes in an attempt to connect Capetown and Cairo with a telegraph line (Sambourne).
Overall, it reflects the British domination over the continent, which strides from one end to another. However, it seems that the author intended to mock the pointless attempt to connect the continent, which rather reflects the greedy nature of the British Empire. These views are quite in line with widespread public criticism of colonization, which spread in Britain and certain European countries (Gann, Duignan, and Turner 673). Thus, the critics argued that the colonization economically favored only European countries, while African peoples faced economic struggles and social backwardness. At the same time, the colonists barely tried to overcome the gap in the level of social organization.
In that regard, the popular excuse for the colonization was the belief in the higher goal of “enlightened” European races to bring knowledge, religion, and social order to Africa. Alternatively, as Jules Ferry puts it, European people represent a “higher race” who “have a right over the lower races.” This meaning of colonization testifies to the hypocrisy of European intentions in Africa. Another primary source shows that the actual goals of European powers were two-fold, namely, to educate undeveloped African people through the missionary activities on the one hand, and “to take the cattle and the land, and make you [African people] slaves without legal rights” on the other (Freensen). Hence, these goals are not compatible, and quite often, the higher intentions turned out to be a veil for cruelty and personal interests. As the German soldier Gustave Freensen admits, Europeans understood that Africans were not brothers as missionaries preached, but slaves, deprived of rights and the ability to resist. Another prominent remark from the story by Gustave Freensen is the requirements that Europeans pose before the Africans to consider them their brothers. Hence, they thought that Africans should achieve success in technologies and education in order to become “worthy brothers” of Europeans, but this requirement clearly disregards the fact that the oppression did not facilitate the progress of African nations, but only hindered it. At the same time, that attitude established the belief that African people should occupy only a subordinate position (Van Nieuwenhuyse and Valentim 229). Therefore, colonization imposed double standards and bias on the African people, and instead of enlightenment, they faced exploitation, coercion, and slavery.
Meanwhile, the exploitation of resources was all-encompassing, and it included not only lands but ecosystems and natural resources as well. For instance, colonization brought a surge in the ivory trade, which is evidenced in a picture from Theodore Roosevelt’s book African Game Trails which depicts a killed elephant. Africa became a fertile area where the European empires could receive new material resources for their development, including sources of raw materials and markets for industrial products. The resources were very diverse, ranging from precious metals to iron ore. Finally, it is also necessary to highlight the slave trade and slavery itself, which flourished in African colonies. The account of Olaudah Equiano depicts the inhumane conditions of slave trade ships, and the author desperately claims that death would be a better option than the cruelty of white people. Hence, it reveals that Europeans established the comprehensive exploitation of resources, including both natural and human. All in all, it has left a significant footprint on the further economic sustainability of the region.
Conclusively, European Imperialism negatively influenced the African continent for several major reasons. First of all, it was focused on European interests solely, and the great empires disregarded the interests of African peoples. Instead of development and support on an equal basis, the Europeans enacted a harsh, one-sided approach, which perceived the African nations as the lower race. Hence, there were clear signs of European superiority that left Africa in social and economic instability. Unfortunately, it was only enhanced by the severe exploitation of African resources, both natural and human. Overall, it has severely impacted the social and economic development of the African continent.
Duignan, Peter, and L. H. Gann. Colonialism in Africa 1870-1960: 1st ed., CUP Archive, 1975.
Ferry, Jules. “Jules Ferry: On French Colonial Expansion (1884).” The Latin Library, http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/imperialism/readings/ferry.html.
Freensen, Gustave. “Gustave Freensen: In the German South African Army, 1903-1904.” The World’s Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, Eva March Tappan, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1914, pp. 465-484, Accessed 15 Aug 2018.
Hertslet, Edward. “The Map of Africa by Treaty,” London, 1909.
Mark X of Moshweshewe. “Moshweshewe: Letter to Sir George Grey.” Records of Southeastern Africa, G. M. Theal, Government Of Capetown, Capetown, 1903, Accessed 15 Aug 2018.
Olaudah, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. 1745.
Roosevelt, Theodore. African Game Trails. 1st ed., Macmillan, 1988.
Rutz, Michael A. King Leopold’s Congo and the “Scramble for Africa.” 1st ed., Hackett Publishing, 2018.
Sambourne, Linley. “The Rhodes Colossus: Striding from Cape Town to Cairo.” Punch, 1892.
Van Nieuwenhuyse, Karel, and Joaquim Pires Valentim. The Colonial Past in History Textbooks. 1st ed., IAP, 2018.
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