Imperialism in Africa

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 burden.

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.

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.