The Scramble for Africa: Two Views on European Imperialism

December 7, 2010

The Scramble for Africa

“And this [London] also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” –Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

In the late eighteenth century a drastic change took place in the continent of Africa, the results of which are still affecting the fate of African nations today. This change is known as the Scramble for Africa. Around 1880, Portugal, France and the British Empire all had a few colonies they possessed on “the Dark Continent,” but as new unified states began to rise up in Europe, there were more powers who became interested in taking a slice of the cake. With these new powers desiring to play a part in the game of empire, and the older powers feeling threatened, there was a mad scramble for countries to gather in as much land as possible and as quickly as possible. Within twenty years, nearly the entire African continent was possessed by European powers. As they stole, killed and destroyed to get a hold of more than their neighbors back home, these powers gave little thought and consideration to the varieties of peoples who already inhabited the land. It was truly a mad grab for more and more land. Among the powers grabbing for land, the British came out on top possessing most of the South, East and significant areas in the North, but there was an unusual player in this Imperial game who managed to receive nearly the whole center of Africa. King Leopold II of Belgium took control of the Congo and began a reign of terror that lasted at least forty years. The issue of Empire, focusing on the British, is taken on by Niall Ferguson in his book simply entitled Empire. Adam Hochschild quite literally and literarily takes on the abuses in the Congo in his book King Leopold’s Ghost. Both authors have a purpose in mind for their work and both are passionate about getting their point across, but they each come to very different conclusions about Empire.

Just the title of Hochschild’s book lets us know his thoughts that the colonization of Africa had devastating effects on the continent. Ferguson, however, is a little harder to get. It is clear that Ferguson thinks that empire is ultimately a good thing; well, at least the British Empire was a good thing. He spends a lot of time pointing out the economic and technological advances that are spurned on by imperialism; however, he isn’t shy about talking of the negative results of empire either, though he certainly downplays England‘s atrocities. To Ferguson, the atrocities of imperialism seem to be unfortunate side-effects of a generally good thing. His purpose is not to condemn imperialism, but to help us see what went wrong in the past so it can be done better in the future. Hochschild, rather, takes a purely humanitarian perspective; when an empire displaces and abuses millions of people, when it wipes out entire cultures, it doesn’t matter what the profits are; it is wrong. While King Leopold is considered an extremist in his abuses of African peoples, Hochschild consistently pauses in his story to point out that most of the other Europeans nations were not much better.

As Europeans began to take over more and more land, it became fashionable to justify themselves with the ideas that they were bringing enlightenment to races who have been behind in the development of society. They felt it was their duty to bring Christianity and Capitalism to these uncivilized nations. The only way to do it would be to take over their land, secure the profits and when these nations were able to fully embrace God and fully embrace “free trade,” the imperialists would pull out and have a gratefully indebted ally. According Hochschild these motives are hypocritical at best. He states, “Underlying much of Europe’s excitement was the hope that Africa would be a source of raw materials to feed the Industrial Revolution…Expeditions quickened dramatically after prospectors discovered diamonds…and gold…in South Africa…But Europeans liked to think of themselves as having higher motives” (27). He leaves no one innocent, later he states that “Around the time the Germans were slaughtering Hereros, the world also was largely ignoring…[that] U.S. troops tortured prisoners, burned villages, killed 20,000 rebels, and saw 200,000 more Filipinos die of  war related hunger and disease. Britain came in for no international criticism for its killings of aborigines in Australia” (282). Hochschild reminds us that we all have skeletons in the closet. Ferguson does admit to, and does not at all support, the negative aspects of the empires in the Scramble for Africa. He is unusually critical of the actions of some of his ancestors. During his chapter on the Scramble, he says that  “even the most gilt-edged generals and proconsuls exhibited symptoms of what is best described as decadence” (222), yet he still holds that the Empire was a benefit to the peoples who it dominated. Speaking of the decline of the Empire, he later states “the Empire was dismantled not because it had oppressed subject peoples for centuries, but because it took up arms for just a few years against far more oppressive empires. It did the right thing, regardless of the cost. And that was why the…heir of Britain’s global power was not one of the evil empires…” (296).

Hochschild’s devil is clearly King Leopold II; he is portrayed as a swindling liar and a cunning thief. Unable to gain a colony through conquest or purchase, he works the national leaders of his day and more or less tricks them into handing him over a large chunk of land in the interest of humanitarianism and free trade. But rather than elevating the “noble savages” up to European standards he almost utterly destroyed them. Rather than abolishing the slave trade that still existed in the interior of Africa, he reduced entire tribes to slaves. The extent of abuses of the Europeans on the Africans in this book is equaled only by Hitler’s pursuit of the Jews. But at least Hitler was upfront about his intentions. Leopold is a man obsessed with dominion and riches. All the profit of the Congo went into his pocket, so that he could continue to seem “non-profit.” Though Leopold’s web of deceit and horror is intricate and complicated, Hochschild makes sure we know who his enemies and heroes are by the end of his book. Ferguson however, continues to remain ambiguous. Leopold’s British counterpart was definitely Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes also possessed an obsession for imperial dominance over the natives in South Africa and his first and main goal, though at least he was outspoken about it, was more land for more money. Ferguson is open about Rhodes’ greed, but he doesn’t seem to want to get involved in the gritty details that Hochschild devotes much of his book to. In fact, when Ferguson first introduces us to Rhodes it is hard not to notice a bit of admiration for him in his description; “He was at once business genius and imperial visionary; a robber baron, but also a mystic…He aspired to be more than a money maker. He dreamt of becoming an empire builder” (224). Though Rhodes destroyed entire people groups as he was “bestriding Africa” (224), he also brought civilization and capitalism. At least that was supposed to be the case.

Hochschild makes it clear through his book that Africans would have had no problem governing their land. He reminds us of their greater civilizations of old, and he spends a great deal of time on Roger Casement who declares that “Self government is our right, a thing born in us at birth; a thing no more to be doled out to us or withheld from by another people than the right to life itself” (286). Ferguson does recognize the existence of African nations and the wrong done to them by the European powers, while commenting on the Berlin Conference in which European leaders met to decide the boundaries of their African colonies he states “the ‘existing rights’ of native rulers and their peoples were patently not what the [European leaders] had in mind” (237). But he was just stating the obvious. As stated before, Ferguson clearly is in favor of the Empire.

Colonial Africa 1914

Europeans justified their conquests over Africa with a long-term goal of creating free states governed with the principles of liberty that they used on their own native soils. The idea was to introduce Africans to a better way of life and lift them up. But what was the result? Hochschild tells us the somber history of Zaire, what used to be the Congo. After gaining political independence from Belgium, eventually an oppressive leader Joseph Mobutu rises to power and has proven to be almost as bad as Leopold himself. And what of Southern Africa? Still bearing the name of its colonial conqueror till as late as 1979, Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe is bearing the fruit of colonization. The natives have decided they want their land back. Without going into the complicated web of detail that always exists with African issues, the white minority which owns the majority of land, are being driven out. The result is political and economic upheaval. An African man who has taken advantage of the free land says, “We are reclaiming our land. The British pushed us out, and we’re taking it back. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret the British coming…we would have still been in the Stone Age” (Godwin 105). So we have a “native” expressing gratefulness for technical advancement, but clearly expressing his rights to the land. This suggests there could have been a better way. Of the militant actions of President Mugabe another African, the Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu remarks that he is “almost a caricature of all the things people think black African leaders do. He seems to be wanting to make a cartoon of himself” (Godwin 113). Maybe the legacy European Imperialism left to Africa was not liberty and justice, maybe Africans, rather in reaction to submitting to abuse for centuries have learned to become the abuser. Is it possible that the fruit of the Empire has been what empire seems to be about? Land grabbing, political dominance and wealth seeking; never mind the cost.

Peter L Richardson
February 3, 2004

Ferguson, Niall. Empire, The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and Lessons for Global Power.London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2002.

Godwin, Peter. “A Land Possessed” National Geographic Magazine. August 2003.

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost, A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

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