Imperialism in Africa

British Involvement in the Scramble for Africa

by Becky Anderson, Class of 1997

The motives of Britain's imperialist activities in Africa from 1869 to 1912 were strategic and defensive. While other motives did exist, such as to colonize, to search for new markets and materials, to attain revenge and world prestige, to convert natives to Christianity, and to spread the English style of orderly government, the main motives evident in many events of the period showed attempts to safeguard the country and protect former land holdings. As its free trade and influential relationship with Africa was threatened, Britain began to turn trade agreements into stronger and more formal protectorates and even colonies. Britain acted to protect the route east and its connection with the Indian Empire. Rather than to expand the British Empire, Britain fought battles over territory to prevent French or German control in Africa.

Britain's imperialist involvement in the scramble for Africa occurred in response to the actions of the French and even German. Britain had a history of African trade agreements and, compared to its European counterparts, the highest degree of control in Africa. France and Britain began an earnest race for the Niger in 1883, agreeing then to divide the territory--Lagos to Britain and Timbuktu for France. This did not neutralize the competition, however. Britain had to act in Nigeria (1885) and Nyasaland (1891) to protect existing spheres of commercial and missionary activities. France's strategy to declare its "right of occupation" and then seek negotiation further urged Britain's aggressive maintenance of territory. The British annexed Bechuanaland (1885) partly to guard against the Germans; partly to prevent its absorption by the Transvaal, which would have increased the power of the Boers. (Faber 57-58) Later, in 1888, the French threatened the Britain dominated Nile Valley, hinting they might divert the water of the Nile to render the area useless.

In East Africa the British had strategic motives to protect the Suez Canal and the route to the east. As the scramble exploded in the 1880s, Britain was suddenly challenged for her right to trade and conduct financial and military business. "The prime object was defensive [in the eighties], as it had been under Disraeli: the prevention of serious inroads on British power; the anticipation of other powers, when strategically necessary, in the 'Scramble for Africa'; the protection of the route to India and the East. The safety of the Suez Canal had already become a cardinal point of British policy." (Faber 57)

The first showdown over the route to the east between Britain and France occurred in Egypt. French pride over a new Egyptian canal, built in 1869, was soaring. It was abruptly grounded in 1875, however, by a surreptitious British purchase of the majority share in the Suez Canal. A dubious balance of power was achieved through duel Anglo-French control of Egypt. Britain was able to prevail over France during the Egyptian Crisis, as the French government did not allow French involvement in smothering the rebellion.

This afforded the British a chance to re-establish their role in world military dominance. These conflicts were clearly not for the purpose of monetary gain on Britain's part. The Economist observed in 1892 that East Africa was 'probably an unprofitable possession'; it was primarily for strategic reasons that the government held on to it.

By 1893, France was still not reconciled to Britain's role in the Nile Valley. They tried to follow through on earlier threats to divert the headwaters of the Nile to devastate the valley. An expedition headed by Jean-Baptiste Marchand finally departed in 1896 and marched from the west coast to Fashoda, a city on the upper Nile. Britain responded to rumors of this expedition by ordering that an army lead by Herbert Horatio Kitchener conquest the Sudan in order to protect the Nile from the French. Kitchener crushed the politically separatist Sudanese, winning the famous Battle of Omdurman in 1898. He took Khartoum and moved on to Fashoda by September, where Marchand had been camped out since April. Britain and France teetered on the brink of war, which was finally averted by careful handling by both Marchand and Kitchener.

Britain's action in South Africa helped to protect their connection to the Indian Empire. They officially annexed South Africa in 1877, recognizing this might lead to a reduction of British responsibilities South Africa. It was also important that they maintain their control to keep other powers from getting a foothold. The Boer War ended in 1902, while the Transvaal was given self-rule by Britain 1906.

Britain was not an instigator in the scramble for Africa, but rather a reactionary nation who responded to the actions of other forces. As French and German forces threatened loose trade deals, Britain set up protectorates and colonies. As British holdings in Egypt and in East Africa were threatened, Britain fought to maintain its power.

Works Cited

Faber, Richard. The Vision and the Need: Late Victorian Imperialist Aims. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1966.