Please note: This topic's content was written in 2003 and is part of the old curriculum content, we have modified it slightly to fit the new curriculum but we will be further updating the content in the coming months.

Many countries in the world experienced imperialism when they were taken over and ruled by a more powerful country. The main motive for imperialism was to obtain and control a supply of raw materials for industries. This meant that a weaker country with abundant natural resources would be colonised. Imperialists were often brutal in the way they treated the indigenous population. Sometimes they chose a less aggressive approach, obtaining the co-operation of the local people and working with their traditional rulers and social and political structures and practices.

This section is quite long so we have broken it into two pages: Defining Imperialism

In the late 18th century, life in Europe and America changed dramatically. Revolutions in America and France ushered in a new political order. The Industrial Revolution in Britain modernised farming, the processing of raw materials and manufacturing of goods. Later industrialisation spread to Europe and to the USA. Economic progress came at the cost of rapid urbanisation and social problems. Industrialisation also influenced political change. Britain developed into a democracy as a result. Industrialisation created a huge demand for raw materials and led to the colonisation of Africa and Asia for these resources. Industrialisation and technological progress boosted European and American confidence, and national pride. They became convinced that they were superior. Their lust for power climaxed in the two World Wars of the 20th century.

The word imperialism comes from the term empire. Imperialism refers to the practice of domination of one country by another in order to expand territory, power and influence. It usually carries with it the idea of cultural superiority on the part of the imperialist, judging the way of life, traditions and beliefs of those colonised as inferior and worthy of replacement:

"Imperialism, as distinct from colonialism, refers to political/cultural/economic rule over indigenous people transforming their ideas, institutions, and material culture (i.e., goods)." - Source:

Imperialism takes the form of political control and creating economic dependence. In Europe, the period of imperialism coincided with growing nationalism and unification when previously divided political units were united under a single monarchy. Unification allowed for empire building because people were gathered under a monarchy that claimed the right to rule them. Examples are German and Italian unification. Towards the end of the 19th century, imperialism became a policy of colonial expansion pursued by different European powers. The Prime Minister of France, Jules Ferry in his justification of this policy told his parliament that:

"I repeat that the superior races [European] have a right because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilize the inferior races [non Europeans]...." Source:

France and Britain saw imperialism as a way of carrying out their responsibility to civilise non-European societies. Other imperialists believed imperialism was necessary for their country's economic growth. They argued that Europe's high import tariffs (government fees allowing foreign traders to bring in goods for sale) made it difficult to access customers and markets there. They had no choice but to look for other markets outside Europe. Lord Lugard of Britain said that:

"It is sufficient to reiterate here that, as long as our policy is one of free trade, we are compelled to seek new markets; for old ones are being closed to us by hostile tariffs, and our great dependencies, which formerly were the consumers of our goods, are now becoming our commercial rivals."

Lugard further justified the policy of colonial expansion by saying that the benefits were not limited to Britain. Colonies would gain access to superior European goods and influence. The Scramble for Africa in the 1880s to 1900 was motivated by these ideas.

Imperialist ambitions in Africa were boosted by the expansion of competitive trade in Europe. The main aim was to secure commercial and trade links with African societies and protect those links from other European competitors. Europe established trade relations with African rulers and encouraged them to trade with them exclusively. European traders were at first not interested in expanding into the interior of Africa. As long as African rulers assured them of a supply of slaves from the interior, they felt no need to expand into the interior. The rapid expansion of industries made European countries look to African for a supply of cheap raw materials and (slave) labour. West Africa was particularly important for the development of industries in Europe. The production of African palm oil used as industrial oil was in high demand for European industries. Greed for ever-greater profits meant intensifying and expanding industrial production. European countries realised that by taking control of African territories they could secure a very cheap supply of raw materials that would ensure industrial success and overall economic prosperity. Colonial governments organised agricultural production in the colonies to match the demand for raw materials in Europe.

Imperial expansion of Europe into the African interior saw many African farmers forced off their land and turned into farm labourers on white-owned plantations, where they were usually subject to cruel exploitative practices. European governments encouraged their citizens to become permanent settlers in their African colonies, providing them with farming land. The loss of land caused much resentment among African people. Those who remained on their land and plantations found themselves forced to farm cash crops such as cotton, tobacco, coffee and sugar that were important for European industries instead of their traditional staple foods in order to survive. The price they were paid for these harvests was also very low especially when compared with the selling price of it after processing in Europe. It is not surprising then that early resistance to colonial rule in Africa revolved around the use of land and its restoration to its traditional owners.

Not all European countries had imperial ambitions for Africa. It was only the major powers in Europe that competed for the control of Africa. These were Britain, France, and Germany and the weaker powers of Spain, Portugal and Italy who had very small possessions in Africa. Britain and France were at the forefront of imperialism in Africa. These two countries were in competition with each other to dominate European politics and economics. They each aimed to beat the other through vying for greater control of Africa and thus her natural resources and labour supply. They also claimed exclusive trading rights with their colonies. These practices guaranteed them markets outside Europe for the sales of surplus goods and led to the practice of dumping. Dumping refers to the practice of offloading goods at very low prices to crush local competition for customers. African producers could not match these prices especially in the absence of similar government support and so they were unable to withstand European competition. This undermined the development of African industries and wealth and locked the continent into an unfair economic relationship with Europe in which African producers were barely able to survive by supplying cheap cash crops and primary goods. Moreover, African countries became dependent on European aid and loans, a state of affairs that remains today. Many African countries have been crippled by the burden of repayment of these loans.

The map shows how major imperialists, England and France used Africa to extend their competition for dominance in Europe. As the map shows, England came to be a dominant power in southern Africa, with only two Portuguese and French colonies in the region. France took control of most parts of West Africa.

Colonial Rule

Colonial rule was the result of competition among European countries for control of African resources. In the beginning, control was limited to colonial authorities securing the loyalty of African chiefs and kings. This meant that African chiefs would trade only with their colonial government. Towards the end of the 19th century colonial governments began to play a more active role in the affairs of African societies. Different colonial governments adopted different methods of rule.

Towards the end of the 19th Century and during the early 20th Century most African countries were under colonial rule except for Liberia and Ethiopia. Colonial rule refers to the conquest and capture of foreign territories in order to expand power. Colonisation of African countries by European powers, like Britain and France was used to protect their trade ambitions and led to exploitation of Africa. European countries used colonies to supply their industries with raw materials. Britain charged other European countries taxes for trading in their colonies as part of its economic competition. Colonial rule also ensured that European manufactured goods would have a ready market in Africa. Countries that had colonies in Africa were:

  • Britain
  • France
  • Portugal
  • Germany
  • Belgium
  • Italy
  • Spain

In terms of governing their colonies, these countries developed different systems of rule. The British government was famous for its indirect rule system that it introduced in many of its colonies. The French and other European governments like Portugal and Belgium practised direct colonial rule. The two systems were very different and as a result had different effects on African societies.

British Colonial Rule

The British system of indirect rule simply meant that power over colonies would be exercised through indigenous political structures. These structures which is related to a customary law were preserved and allowed to continue. In the early years of colonial rule, local rulers were still powerful and they were able to maintain the integrity of their political structures and system of government. To a large extent ordinary people did not suffer or feel the impact of colonial rule, and for many there was a little change.

This did not mean that African rulers were free to behave as if nothing had changed with colonisation. The British government introduced policies to limit local rulers power to govern their societies. For example, chiefs lost their authority to sentence anyone to death. Crimes requiring a death penalty were given to the magistrate who applied British law to judge the merits of the case. Chiefs were also forced to give up their support by a military unit made up of volunteers.

Chiefs were only allowed to rule in accordance with customary laws. However, in some cases the British government introduced new laws and forced chiefs to pass them as customary laws. For example, they introduced a Hut Tax to increase revenues to colonial governments. This tax was charged on every one who owned a hut, poor or rich. The tax was not a customary law, but it was portrayed as a customary practice by the British colonial governments.

French Colonial Rule

French and Portuguese colonies were ruled differently. Unlike the British system, the French and Portuguese gave a role to local African leaders preferring to adopt a system of direct rule. Colonies were treated as if they were extensions of the two European states. For example, French colonies were treated as French departments. The French government did not include any African rulers. They were stripped of all their powers and the people were ruled directly by French colonial officers often with a military background. These colonial officers replaced African rulers because most areas were divided into districts and departments. The division of French colonies into districts and departments did not take into consideration existing boundaries of different ethnic groups.

Whereas the British policy was based on the separation of races and preserving the culture or identities of African societies, the French policy was based on inclusion. Their policy was to encourage Africans to become French in every sense of the word. This policy was part of expanding French civilization to African people. However, this policy did not mean that African people in French colonies were treated with equality. Their inclusion into French societies was based on inequality between the French people and colonised Africans.

Portuguese Colonial Rule

The Portuguese introduced the prazo system. The prazo is a Portuguese system of land grants that was introduced in the colonies. It was a mixture of local political structures and a Portuguese political system. It was not an indirect rule system because land was taken from African rulers and given to Portuguese settlers. The control of land gave Portuguese the power to control African people. Because Portuguese rule was very weak, Portuguese holders of these land grants (prazo) legitimised their control of land by marrying into African royal families. These Portuguese rulers called themselves chiefs (like African chiefs) and ruled like African chiefs.

The prazo system was adopted largely because the Portuguese government was a weak colonial power as compared to other colonial powers. The Portuguese did not have the wealth required to administer their colonies. As a result, Portuguese colonies were the least developed colonies in Africa. They had to adapt their colonial rule to the African context.

Belgian Colonial Rule

In Rwanda, the Belgians used an indirect rule system. Instead of accommodating all traditional authorities within their colonial system, they favoured one group, the Tutsis. They used the Tutsis to control other groups in Rwanda. The Congo was ruled as the personal property of King Leopold II. Belgian colonial rule was characterised by the most cruel and exploitative treatment of the local people. People were forced to work and those who refused to carry out their duties had their hands chopped off.

German Colonial Rule

German colonial rule was also based on direct rule. However, there was no attempt to turn Africans into Germans. German colonial rule lasted for a brief period as Germany lost her colonial possessions after the First World War. Her colonies were mandated to British and French colonies.

Italian Colonial Rule

Italy was the latecomer in the colonisation of Africa, becoming involved only after the Italian unification of 1870. By this time other European countries had already claimed most parts of Africa. The Italian government developed a centralised administration with the aim of sending Italians to live in the colonies. The other reason for Italian colonialism was to show old European countries that Italy was also a strong nation. In an attempt to prove this, Italy attempted to colonise Ethiopia. The Ethiopians defeated and humiliated the Italians in the Battle of Adowa.

Spanish Colonial Rule

Spain had only two colonies in Africa, Equatorial Guinea and Western Sahara. These colonies were underdeveloped as compared to those of the European powers.

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