Dr. Livingstone, I Don't Presume...

by Valerie Cullen

In the nineteenth century, Britain had a huge empire, extending to many different regions of the globe. Before 1869, Britain only controlled a small amount of land in Africa. The British concentrated on imperialism in other, more profitable places around the world; places that would give them more markets for trade and more opportunity to increase their economy. Suddenly, the British were annexing land in places like Egypt and South Africa; in 1869 these were places that did not have monetary value. What in the world at that time changed, to change the British attitude toward Africa? What were the reasons for their continued imperialism in Africa after 1869, even though their experience in Africa consisted mostly of conflicts and embarrassments (such as the Boer war and Isandalhwana)?

Before the 1870's, thanks to the influence of Livingstone, the main reason for British imperialism in Africa was to bring Christianity and European-brand civilization to African countries. They also practiced imperialism for trade purposes, but very little in Africa. The British economy has always depended heavily on trade, and Britain did want the West Coast of Africa for its palm oil. They took control of it simply because the native political structure was too unstable for good commerce without British control. For trade purposes, they concentrated on practicing imperialism in India and the Caribbean. Since the slave trade in Europe was stamped out in the 1830's, the British were not very interested in Africa. People had been one of the few resources they were interested in. However, after the 1870's, the motivations behind British imperialism in Africa changed drastically, for several reasons.

Probably the greatest reason the British annexed land in Africa after 1869 was to protect their biggest money maker: India. In 1869 the French completed the Suez canal in Egypt. This was a quick route to India, but if another country had control of the canal, the possibility existed that they would cut off the British and take India for themselves. In 1875 the British had their opportunity: they bought shares in the canal from the Khedive of Egypt and gained control of it. The French were very upset, to say the least. Later in 1882, the English gained sole control of Egypt after the battles of Tel el Kabir and the Nile.

The British also annexed South Africa in 1877. Once again, the motivation behind this was the fear of losing India to another country. Capetown was an essential stop on the route to India. The British didn't fear losing South Africa--there was nothing there except Boers and Zulus. Nothing there, that is, until 1870--gold and diamonds were discovered. The British decided to annex all of South Africa to save their route to India. They endured a crushing defeat at the hands of the Zulus at Isandalhwana in 1879, and went to war with the Boers in 1899. Keeping India was essential to Britain's survival as an empire.

Survival as an empire was another reason for Britain's interest in Africa after 1869. The British economy has always depended heavily on trade, and having colonies was the way to expand trade. Before the 1870's, the British had very little competition in gathering colonies--Germany and Italy were not unified, the French were busy fighting with the Prussians, and the revolutions of 1848 created internal instability in other European countries. They didn't have any interest in external affairs. However, by 1871, Germany and Italy were unified. France had just lost Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans after the Franco-Prussian war, and were being encouraged by the Germans to look for colonies in Africa to regain national pride (and also to try to help them to not be so upset over losing Alsace-Lorraine). In order to encourage the French, Bismarck, who had never wanted colonies before, began some imperialism in Africa. France quickly followed. The English were suddenly faced with competition. They felt if they did not take over land first, the Germans or the French would and thus take away their markets. They also believed that if Britain didn't expand, she would lose the colonies she already had to Germany and France. Because of this, the British mentality was that the Germans and French forced them to expand to save the empire. An economic depression in Europe in the 1870's and the 1880's didn't help matters. The British believed that markets were scarce because foreigners (especially Germans) were taking them all, and if other countries cut Britain off in foreign trade, she would no longer be economically first, no longer an empire. So, in 1883 the British divided up the Niger with France, and began taking colonies in 1884 out of fear after Germany claimed Togo and Cameroon as protectorates. They tried to take control of the Sudan while supporting the Italians against Menelik in 1896. The British also had an excuse for their imperialism; many of the colonies were supported by trade and not by taxpayers. In short, land was cheap.

After 1890, the reasons behind British imperialism in Africa were the same, with a new one added. The British had no allies. Colonies would provide them with allies around the world. They believed that they were already in an economic war with Germany, and a real war would not be far behind. Some referred to imperialism as gearing up for war. During 1897 France was still angry about losing the Suez Canal. Russia looked interested in India, and was encouraging France to be angry against England. France and Britain also began the "Battle of the Flags," a dispute about towns along the Niger River that almost led to war. In 1898 the British took Khartoum. In 1901 they annexed from Ashanti to the Gold Coast, and in 1903 they added to Nigeria. The British war hawks turned out to be right; World War I began in 1914.

From 1869 until nearly the start of World War I, the British practiced imperialism in Africa out of fear of losing their empire. They took South Africa and Egypt to keep India from being stolen, and they annexed other parts of Africa (such as areas around the Niger) to compete economically with France and Germany, and to keep the land they already had from being taken by France and Germany. They also annexed land in order to have allies in case a war should start. The British claimed they didn't want to practice imperialism; that Germany and France forced them to do it to keep their empire. Maybe so, but fear of losing the British economic status and the British empire to Germany and France, not Germany and France forcing imperialism down the English people's throat, seems to be the better answer to why the British practiced imperialism in Africa from 1869 to 1913.