CAUSES OF THE SCRAMBLE FOR AFRICA
The ‘Scramble for Africa’ is the term that historians use to refer to the expansion of European empires into Africa. It is referred to as a ‘scramble’ due to the way in which the European nations raced to capture territory to expand to their empires. The Scramble for Africa is considered to have occurred from approximately 1870 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. During these years, almost all of Africa came under the control of the major European powers, including: Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Portugal and Spain. There are several main causes to the Scramble for Africa, including: European competition, ethnocentrism, the spread of Christianity and new innovations.
The first main cause of the Scramble for Africa was that European nations were seeking large sections of territory to increase their access to resources and people. In the century or so before the start of the Age of Imperialism, Europe underwent a major transformation in the form of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution saw the main European nations (especially Britain) transform their economies from being based on agriculture to the factory system. This resulted in the construction of many factories throughout the cities in Europe. Due to the rise of the factory system, the European nations were in search of territory in order to gain access to more resources, which could be used to develop products in their resources. As such, this led to the ‘scramble’ in Africa as the European nations competed for different regions of the African continent.
Another cause of the Scramble for Africa was the view of racial superiority that Europeans expressed throughout the 19th century. More specifically, as Europeans travelled the globe and colonized different regions, they came into contact with all sorts of different indigenous people. As such, European beliefs about their own supposed racial superiority helped inform their interactions with the people they encountered, including native Africans. The term that best relates to this concept is ‘ethnocentrism’, which is the concept of judging other cultures based upon the views of your own. Further to this idea is the concept of ‘eurocentrism’. Eurocentrism is similar to ethnocentrism but focuses specifically on Europeans and the views of superiority expressed in relation to the timeframe of imperialism. These Eurocentric beliefs were justified by European governments due to a concept called Social Darwinism. In short, Social Darwinism is the idea that some ethnic groups or races are superior to others and therefore more ‘fit’ to rule over those that are less ‘fit’. Charles Darwin was the renowned British scientist who is credited with developing the theory of evolution in his famous book ‘Origin of Species’. While Darwin was referring to biological studies of species, others used his ideas and applied them to human beings. Therefore, supporters of Social Darwinism attempted to use the ideas of Charles Darwin to scientifically justify or prove ethnocentric beliefs. Social Darwinism was particularly popular in the early 1870s, when Europeans were carrying out their massive imperialistic campaigns as part of the Age of Imperialism. The beliefs of ethnocentrism and Social Darwinism can be seen in a famous poem by Rudyard Kipling called ‘The White Man’s Burden’. In the poem, Kipling calls on Europe to ‘send forth the best ye breed’ to ‘take up the white man’s burden’. In general, Kipling is promoting the idea that people of European descent are biologically more superior to other people from around the world, and the ‘burden’ of the white man is to ‘fix’ the uncivilized indigenous peoples. As a result, the beliefs of ethnocentrism and eurocentrism led to the events of the Scramble for Africa in 1870 because the views of superiority on the part of the Europeans empowered them to dominate the people they encountered.
A third cause for the events of the Scramble for Africa was the need for the European nations to promote their own religious values around the world. Similar to the belief in their own racial superiority, Europeans also promoted Christianity as superior to the religious beliefs of the indigenous peoples that they encountered, including those in Africa. In fact, Christian missionaries often accompanied early explorers to the African interior, and the spread of Christianity was a key feature of European imperialism in Africa. For the European nations, Christianity was an essential aspect of using their culture to dominate and control the African societies that they encountered during the Scramble for Africa. As well, European missionaries felt it was their duty to help spread Christian beliefs to new people.
A fourth cause of the Scramble for Africa is the new technologies and innovations that helped the European nations to overpower the different African societies. As stated above, the major European powers had industrialized throughout the 19th century with the events of the Industrial Revolution. This period of industrialization led to the development of several significant inventions and advancements. For example, the steam engine was an important invention that led to other advancements such as the steamboat, steam train and railroad construction. These allowed the European powers the ability to trek further and faster into the African interior and were major aspects of the Scramble for Africa. For instance, as the European powers raced each other to capture territory in Africa, the new advances in transportation caused them to scramble to develop railroad networks across the vast continent. However, likely the most significant European advantage came in the form of weaponry. For example, the development of the Maxim gun played a vitally important role in Europe’s success in Africa. In short, the Maxim gun was a machine gun that was invented by Hiram Maxim and could fire up to 600 rounds per minute. In fact, it was the first recoil-operated machine gun in history and is often considered to be one of the main factors of European dominance in the Scramble for Africa and the Age of Imperialism. In fact, British poet Hilaire Belloc commented on the importance of the Maxim gun and the military advantage it gave the British in Africa when he wrote: “Whatever happens, we have got/ The Maxim gun, and they have not”. (The Modern Traveller, 1898) Therefore, European inventions from the 19th century helped the major European powers more easily travel through the African territory and overpower African resistance.
The fifth and final cause of the Scramble for Africa was the competitive nature and rivalries that existed between the major European nations in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Europe has a long history of wars and conflicts between its major nations, and this was still true in the 19th century. In fact, nationalism became a central motivating factor among the European nations in the 19th century and pushed them to expand their empires of control across the world. Furthermore, the European nations experienced a period of prolonged rivalry through the Age of Exploration, which occurred from the 15th century until the 17th century. By the time of the Scramble for Africa, these nations were still politically and economically competitive with each other, as they each raced to capture as much territory as they could. This sense of rivalry was so intense that it eventually led to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. As such, historians considered the rivalries that existed between the European nations in the 19th century as a major factor in the Scramble for Africa.
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