Economic Factors in British Imperialism in Africa

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For over a century, Africa witnessed the inflow of Europeans. Cross-Examination of the formal annexations and colonization of Africa presents an argumentative paradigm to historical research due to differing opinions. The dissection of the topic reveals that economic and commercial motives override other reasons. Interestingly, scholars of the African history agree that the 19th century presented a phase when the European presence in Africa had succeeded in endowing Europe with among others, natural resources, human labor, and mineral resources critical for its prosperity and advancement. Besides, the industrial revolution in Britain necessitated the need for markets, and Africa offered such a market. This paper seeks to unravel the extent to which economic factors compelled Britain to advance its imperial colony in Africa. 

This paper highlights the economic undertone behind the British imperialism in Africa. Notably, the decline of the slave trade towards the end of the 19th century fueled the hope that Africa presented a rich market for the manufactured goods from Europe. As an alternative market, Britain identified colonization as a way to secure viable markets; this was attributed to the fact that Africa was endowed with cheap raw materials. The commercial possession of Sir George Goldie over the Niger Delta to the extent of organizing his British competitors into a monopoly to fight off other European nationals. The aim was to position Britain to have a comparative advantage over other European nations in trading their surplus goods.

Nevertheless, Africa presented an economic promise to the rival powers especially that of trade protectionism which dominated in the thoughts of western economies in that century. The discussion of economic factors will be highlighted in specific countries of interest across Africa.

To start with, this paper turns its focus on Egypt and the economic benefits that Britain accrued from Egypt. The purchase of 44% of the shares in the Suez Canal gave Britain an influence over the areas. Besides, it opened a major trade road with India. This, therefore, enabled Britain to control major trade activities in the area. The fundamental importance of the canal saw Britain shift from the longer route of transporting goods from Africa to a more convenient, faster and cheaper route. The British had colonized India, and they held trading interests there, and due to these interests, the Suez Canal was known as the spinal cord of Britain's economy. Without it, the British would have been economically incapacitated. Different colonial powers were eyeing the canal due to the importance it held. Colonizing the North meant they had easy access to the canal. The British bought 44 percent of the Suez Canal shares in an attempt to safeguard their continuous use of the canal and their economic interests in India. They finally occupied Egypt in 1882, and this assured them of the canal's usage (Sherif, 6).

Before the 1850's, Britain had little interest in Africa, in fact, it did not have any colonies on the continent. However, the American civil war of 1981 to 1985 sparked the interest of Britain in Africa. The British cotton mills were starved of raw materials, and this made them shift their interest to Egypt which had good quality cotton. The cotton in Egypt would replenish their stock and ensure continuous production. Without Egypt, the British cotton industry was doomed. The already established farming system required the British to create good relations with the natives so that they can supply the cotton. With the invasion of Egypt by the British, they were able to acquire cotton which was a raw material in their cotton mills (Sherif, 5).

East Africa

Sir William Mckinnon was a British nationality who had a great interest in East Africa. He had the belief that the region had a large economic potential. He had the support of the Britain government who backed him in conquering East Africa when they saw Germany had an interest in the area. They agreed with Germany where it was to colonize present-day Tanzania and Zanzibar while the British established their rule in Kenya and Uganda. Their original main interest was to trade in Zanzibar for their vast amounts of metals and minerals. However, they lost that region during the split. During this period, the British were more concerned with acquiring other resources such as South Africa. They, therefore, left the administration and exploitation of East Africa to Sir William McKinnon. He formed the Imperial British East African Company (IBEAC) that was in charge of carrying out trade within the region. The British government granted the company the Imperial Charter which gave immunity from persecution to the British hence allowing them to raise taxes, deliver justice and generally acts as the government of the land. In 1984 however, the British took full control of the region as the company proved to be incompetent in administering local businesses. Their main development in the East African region was building a railway line (Brown, 20).

Kenya was mainly composed of subsistent farmers hence it was a subsistence economy. However, the colony had fertile lands, especially on the highlands. The British had built the railway road from Mombasa to Lake Victoria for strategic reasons. It was meant to transport goods from the port of Mombasa to different parts of the country and transport raw materials from the different regions to the port of Mombasa. This economy was not conducive to make the railway road self-paying and self-sufficient quickly. They utilized the highlands of Kenya which were cool and hence conducive for the white people. In 1905, a policy was made that encouraged white settlers to come and do large-scale food production for export purposes. This policy involved offering the white settlers' large pieces of land at a low price and retired army officers were offered free land as a pension. One settler was Lord Delamare, who got a large piece of land and his farm is operational to date and produces among the most premium fruit products in the country. The land was acquired by vacating natives and land that was within one mile from the railway line was considered as vacant land (Keller, 312). This was meant to increase the usage of the railway line making it self-paying and sufficient within a short period. This system displaced many natives making them tenants in their own country.

After 1870, Britain was concerned about the security and maintenance of the prosperity they had acquired and enjoyed for a long time. This led to the development of an imperial economy which involved the allocation of specific functions to its new colonies. An example is an East African protectorate which was established in 1895 (Ferro, 17). This was the body that was tasked with the responsibility of ensuring the cost of the railway line was being catered for by the local economy. Their main form of operation was the promotion of agriculture through the promotion of white settlement for large-scale agricultural purposes. This was the case for many protectorate bodies. However, some failed to establish agriculture as an important economic activity in the regions they were responsible over. They had to look for other means of economic exploitation. An example is the gold and diamonds mining that was the main economic activity in South Africa during the colonization era.

West Africa

In West Africa, their main plan was to use the assimilation policy which led to the rise of an elite group of Africans who noticed the discrimination they were facing. They aimed for assimilation since there were already established trading routes since West Africa had been trading with the rest of the world for some time. Setting up their trading routes might not have been ineffective, and they would have been costly (Brown, 20). The complaints by the elite Africans made the system to change into employing only the whites in administrative positions. However, there was only a small number of whites who were willing to serve in administrative positions in an African country. This ultimately led to the use of the indirect rule policy. The policy for whites only to rule was economically driven as they believed whites should benefit from their conquests. Indirect rule was practical in West Africa since the natives were responsible for producing palm oil. This made it practical as they were able to interact with locals through intermediaries that were receiving some incentives and hence were on their side (Keller, 302).

British West Africa was the collective name given to all the countries in West Africa that were colonized by the British. The main policy in this region was the indirect rule. The main interest of the British was in the palm oil trade which was essential for their thriving soap industry in Britain. The scramble for Africa led to the Berlin West Africa Conference in 1884 and 1885 which culminated in the signing of the Berlin Treaty (Brown, 20)). This treaty saw the British gain monopoly over the palm oil trade in the region. The soap industry was a large and thriving industry in Britain; palm oil is a key ingredient, it made it an economic factor for Britain to conquer West Africa. Before colonization, Britain had acquired its palm oil from West Africa without any interest of colonizing the region, however, when other colonial powers showed interest in the area, their source of raw materials was threatened. They had to conquer the region to protect their source of raw materials hence ensure economic developments back at home.

Sir George Goldie was instrumental in establishing the British rule over West Africa. He established the Royal Niger Company which traded in the region and helped it grow economically. He represented Britain in the Berlin West Africa Conference and defended the claim of the British over West Africa. Due to his commitment and royalty, the government granted his company charter to operate within the region. However, the company operated under a lot of hostilities from the local communities. This pushed the British government to ask Sir George Goldie to relinquish his power over the region. This was done at a price; the government had to pay Sir Goldie a sum of eight hundred and sixty-five thousand euros (Keller, 299). The British carried Nigeria as a commodity rather than a country when this transaction was done. They made efforts of improving infrastructure in this region with the aim of increasing trade and also enhancing economic development.

South Africa

In South Africa, Cecil Rhodes was critical in the rule and expansion within the region. Initially, the main factors for conquering South Africa were political. However, with the discovery of gold and diamonds in the Cape Colony, the objected shifted to an economic one. He formed the British South African Company which received a royal charter to carry out businesses within the region. He formed a partnership with a London based diamond syndicate and this ultimately made him the owner of all the diamond mines in South Africa which accounted for approximately 90 percent of the world production. He had the vision of expanding to the North by creating a railway line that ran from cape to Cairo (Lester, 16). Discrimination was the policy that was used to rule in South Africa. It was aimed at ensuring the whites continued exploiting the resources without opposition while obtaining cheap labor from the natives.

Between 1870 and 1900, there was massive economic growth in Britain. This was mostly due to the economic motivation held by many of the British people. During this period, there were several chartered companies found in Africa whose financial interests were being vehemently defended. Some of the included the Imperial British East African Company and the British South African Company. In regions where this company operated, there was a ready market for the goods manufactured in Britain. There was an increase in mass production in Britain due to industrialization. Therefore, these markets were essential for continued growth. Together with a large number of natural resources, the British invested heavily in these regions leading to immense growth in their economy (Ferro, 9).

Different policies were implemented by the British during their rule in Africa which were governed by their economic interests. There was the policy of differentiation whereby they had different rules for the whites and blacks. This was mainly experienced in South Africa were even facilities were provided with regards to the skin color. It was hard for Africans to obtain most of the amenities. This was the background for apartheid that engulfed South Africa for a long period. The policy of assimilation was used to help the Africans gradually accept the western laws and customs. This was done with the introduction of schools, hospitals, and churches. Law was also administered by local leaders who were meant to introduce the European law gradually. However, European ‘advisors' were being used to oversee the general administration. It was mostly used where there was a well-established system or where there were few white people to provide administration services. The policy of indirect rule was used where the British used the traditional leaders to carry out the day to day rulings of the areas. There were Europeans who were appointed to advise them and supervise their work similarly. Direct rule was also used where the colonies were governed directly by the colonial office in London. There was no consideration of the existing African laws, and no African leaders were used. Everything was carried out the European way. These different policies were utilized in different regions or countries depending on various factors such as economic, strategic or political (Ferro, 13).

In conclusion, then, the colonization of Africa by Britain was majorly attributed to economic and commercial motives. The motives have always been cloaked in different ways over the time, some scholars classified the motives as moral, religious, political, and economical reasons, the facts remain that the economic impulse overrode all these reasons. The industrialization era saw a surplus production of goods in Britain, and they had to get a market for their extra goods. Additionally, raw materials were required for existing companies, Africa was the hub for producing good quality raw materials at a cheap cost due to the cheap labor. During the colonization period, the British economy saw tremendous growth and success.

Works cited

Brown, David S. "Democracy, colonization, and human capital in Sub-Saharan Africa." Studies in Comparative International Development 35.1 (2000): 20.

Ferro, Marc. Colonization: a global history. Routledge, 2005.

Keller, Richard. "Madness and colonization: Psychiatry in the British and French empires, 1800-1962." Journal of Social History 35.2 (2001): 295-326.

Lester, Alan. Imperial networks: Creating identities in nineteenth-century South Africa and Britain. Routledge, 2005.

Sherif, Lobna. "Architecture as a system of appropriation: colonization in Egypt." International Union of Architects. Conference. UAI & Society of Egyptian Architects. Alexandria, Egypt. 2002.

November 13, 2023
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