British Imperialism In Africa
by Scott Baldwin
Britain unenthusiastically became involved in
Africa for numerous reasons, mostly to serve their own interests. The British were some of
the most anti-slavery Protestants the world had to offer and felt morally obliged to stop
the Swahili slave trade. This, though, would not have been enough to get British soldiers
on the mainland of Africa, it was merely enough to get their feet wet. The Suez Canal and
South Africa heightened British interest because they appeared to be two financially
beneficial opportunities. The British only became involved in Egypt involuntarily to
protect their own interests, primarily the Suez Canal.
When Henry Stanley found Dr. Livingstone in 1871, Stanley found out about the horrible
"New Slave Trade". In fact, the slave trade that the Swahili controlled was by
no means "new", but hundreds of years old. Efforts to stop slavery were helped
by the black African pallbearer, Jacob Wright, when he accompanied Dr. Livingstone's body
back to England. Jacob Wright's honorable deed motivated the morally correct British to
stamp out the slave trade. Shortly there after, the British Navy stopped Zanzibar from
trading with anyone in 1775. Zanzibar had a change of moral conscience almost instantly
and decided that slavery was bad. The embargo was effective and rewarding for the British.
They had won a moral victory in Africa.
Aside from morals, the British had financial interest in Africa. The Suez Canal cut off
six thousand tedious miles of travel which otherwise had to be made for a British ship to
travel to India. The canal made their colony, India, in the East much more accessible than
it had ever been before at a cheaper cost. Although the canal chiefly benefited the
British, they weren't the engineering breed of people the French seemed to be, so they
took absolutely no part in building in it. Accordingly, the British had no stock in the
Suez Canal when it opened in 1869. The khedive of Egypt had been granted stock by the
French because it was his land the French had built their canal on. This generosity
backfired when the khedive of Egypt ran into money trouble in the mid 1870's. The British
seized the opportunity to bail the khedive out of financial trouble by buying up his
stock. In 1875, the British had bought the canal away from the French by taking the
majority of the canal's shares.
Like the Suez Canal, the tip of Africa appeared profitable. As far as the British were
concerned, the port cities in Africa became obsolete with the opening of the Suez Canal.
It wasn't a passage way that drove the British in flocks to the tip of the dark continent,
it was the possibility of fortune. Where modern day Kimberley stands, (about 300 miles
inland from East, West, and South), an incredibly rich diamond field was discovered in
1870. With check books for brains, the British annexed it in 1871. In 1877, the British
annexed the Transvaal. This was the home to many Boers, and they weren't pleased to have
their homes stolen from them. The Boers revolted in 1881, and defeated the British. The
Boers were back in power until greed once again influenced the British. This time it was
gold in the Transvaal instead of diamonds further South. The Boers desperately sought to
keep themselves in power and did so by oppressing the British fortune seekers. The British
couldn't stand to be second class citizens. In 1895, Cecil Rhodes plotted to overthrow the
Transvaal government and failed. Relations between the two countries became less and less
friendly until the eventual outbreak of the second Anglo-Boer war in 1899.
The Boers fought bravely in outnumbered odds, but they still lost in 1902. Britain
wasn't a colony aficionado by any means, but now they had another one. Britain had learned
it's lesson when their own country men revolted in 1776. Britain granted the Boers
self-rule in 1906 right after defeating them in war and making the Boers members of a
British colony just four years earlier. By granting the Boer Republic independence, the
British avoided a morally questionable situation, and more than anything, financial
Unlike their encounter in South Africa, the British were involuntarily sucked into
Egypt. They were obliged to protect the Suez Canal that they had bought when nationalists
revolted in Egypt in 1882. The British army did all the work in restoring order because
the French government wouldn't allow the French army to participate in Egyptian affairs in
fear of committing political suicide. This was a stroke of luck for Britain's prestige.
Britain's army crushed the insubordinate nationalists and regained a world-class standing.
They placed a new khedive in power that they could conveniently manipulate after the war.
France was bitter to have lost her share of power in Egypt, and in the future, would make
an effort to annoy Britain in anyway possible.
Clever Frenchmen scared the British by talking about diverting the Nile away from
Egypt. Knowing that if this did happen, Egypt would become nothing but a cumbersome
sandbox, Britain wanted more control of the Nile. In 1898, the British took over the slave
trading capital of Khartoum that was being ruled by a self-deemed religious prophet named
Mahdi. This gave the British a better power grab on the Nile, as well as another moral
victory similar to the one in Zanzibar regarding Africa's infamous slave trade. The
foolish talk of the French drying up Egypt ceased the same time Khartoum was re-taken by
The British had a respect for the past that many other imperialistic countries in
Europe couldn't understand. Their experience with America was bad enough that 100-130
years later Britain still had an anti-colony sentiment. The British had dealt with
colonies before and knew how burdensome they could become. While France was trying to turn
Africans into Frenchmen, the British were trying to reap a profit wherever possible. If a
part of Africa appeared financially worrisome, the British sagaciously would leave. It was
for this reason that the British didn't want to control the Niger formally like the French
would have liked. It was for this reason that the British said farewell to the Boers
shortly after conquering them. The British didn't want any entanglements in Africa that
would require a controlling effort, unless it was extremely beneficial to themselves, as
in the case of the Suez Canal. The British in their time in Africa always treated whatever
ever situation they were in as if it were burning money. Profitable, yet dangerous.