"Britain Takes a Dare"

by Gary Besser, Class of 97

The greater part of Britain's experience in Africa between 1865 and 1912 is best described as being a competition with continental Europe, primarily Germany and England's long time rival, France. The British had instituted protectorates and semi independent trade colonies in Africa for roughly 200 years before 1865, the approximate year of Britain's development of a heightened interest in the "Dark Continent". The gains made by other countries in colonizing the land mass spurred the British into action in an effort to retain their long held "upper hand" in the area of colonial trade. As other European nations made advancements in the settlement of the continent, Britain found herself pushed into a rat race to control Africa, to preserve her prestige as the "merchant nation" and to retain her vital role as the prime figure in the international trade scene.

The discovery of gold in the Dutch South African territory then known as Transvaal in 1866 led to Britain's first real vie at African land, and to her first notable spot of competition with anther European force for such. Dutch farmers, or Boers, had settled the land 200 years before, and had, up to that point, not faced any competition for the land from non -Africans. Even after 1815, when the British acquired the land under the Congress of Vienna treaty they expressed little interest in the supposedly barren land except as a pit stop on the route to India around the cape of Good Hope. The discovery of rich gold mines in the area changed all this greatly. The ever business minded British were quick to move in on the land, ergo the Boers as well. By 1877 the Transvaal was under British rule, but by 1881, the Transvaal was independent from Britain once again. After an unsuccessful attempt by the British to overthrow the Boer government in 1895, the Dutch South Africans (under president declared war on Britain, with the support of Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II. This led the British into a four year engagement known as the Boer War. The affair left England looking very badly to the rest of Europe, and is one the best examples of how British involvement in Africa was always characterized by a competition with another force. In a market that heavily depended on gold base, the South African mines were too much for Britain to let go.

Another prime example of Britain's constant competition with continental Europe is in the case of Egypt. The French had retained control of the land in the Versailles Treaty and in 1869 the great French engineer Lesseps built the Suez canal as a money making scheme for France to grant passage for traders interested in an easier route to the east. However, such a project takes funding, so the French owners of the canal sold pieces off as stock. The British took advantage of this and bought the canal away from the French establishing the feud between France and England over control of Egypt. The British then bought off the Egyptian Khedive, further establishing their power in the area. British control of Egypt, the Suez, and even the Nile river is marked by a constant competition with France. In 1882 when Arab forces attempted to seize Egypt from European hands, the British out-did the French by taking on the strong military role and crushing the Arab forces.

Finally in 1898, France developed a plan to divert the Nile to Ethiopia. This would have rendered both Egypt and the canal useless, so the British gave leeway to the French in western Africa, which diverted their focus from the coveted path of the Nile. Again the British were forced to compete with another European power to achieve their goals and once again they came out on the up side. The British experience in the Niger River area of western Africa is marked with a constant competition with both France and Germany French encroachment on British company holdings on the river in 1897 led to the Battle of the Flags. The conflict in the region was eventually settled (mainly due to Britain's military superiority in the situation), with Niger becoming a protectorate of Britain, and the French ceding their holdings along the central Niger.

Other West African territories taken by the British were a result of a German land grab of Togo and Cameroon, for Britain was none to anxious to see Germany gain to much power in any region of Africa. The British experience in West Africa is noted by same characteristics as in the cases of South Africa and eastern Africa from Egypt to the Sudan: at all times the British were striving to simply keep their holdings above those of their European rivals, to keep the upper hand in trade and the precedent of bringing "European Perfection" to the Dark Continent. For every conquest made by the British on the African Continent, there was always a factor of competition with opposing European forces to occupy the land. Whether from the Dutch Boers, or the French and German governments, the British never were able to make a colony or a protectorate of a region without opposition from her competitors. This is why the British imperialism of Africa as best characterized as a simple competition with continental Europe. Had the powers that be in Europe not been so focused on the conquest of Africa, Britain would not have made such an effort in its acquisition either.