Guest Author - Rebecca Graf
Africa existed long before Europe had the technology and courage to begin exploring the large continent. When it did, valuable resources were discovered that would change the face of African history forever. Europe needed the resources that Africa possessed. The logical conclusion for the Europeans was to take what they needed. The land was carved up, people subjugated, and Africa became another tool for Europe. The end result would be disastrous for Africa. European colonization would do damage to Africa that would take years to begin to mend with some areas of the continent still feeling the effects into the twenty-first century.
Africa was never ‘unknown’ as many would view the New World across the Atlantic Ocean. Greece and Rome moved through the upper portions of the continent and established their own colonies. During the waning years of the Roman Empire and after the fall, Christianity spread throughout the northern parts of Africa and stretched into the continent. Christian monks and missionaries would be the first ‘explorers’ of the land with no regard to resources aside from the souls to be saved. That changed as technology from Europe advanced, and the seas were no longer daunting to the sailors. The Portuguese were the first to do more than sail around the edges of the large land mass. Their goal was economic and political to reach India. As they made their way south, the Portuguese sailors saw the vast riches in the Swahili towns and their advanced trade routes. They could not allow such an opportunity to pass them us as they “determined to seize control” of the area even if they had to shed blood to do so.
Exploration and control of Africa was still minimal as it was looked more as a way to get to India. The Muslims moved in to gain as much control as they could to protect their trade routes and to find slave labor. Man was the first resource discovered in Africa despite the Portuguese’s discoveries during their travels. The rest of Europe turned toward the large pool of human labor when the New World was discovered and the development of it extended beyond the means Europe had.
The slave trade was not a European invention. It had existed for thousands of years throughout the world. Even Africa had its own version of slave labor that it created as wars fought between tribes yielded war prisoners that were used as slaves and/or incorporated into the winning tribe. Yet, the transatlantic slave trade changed the entire perspective of the acquisition of slaves. The colonists in the New World found themselves needing more labor than they had to manage the plantations and the mines as the natives of the New World were dying left and right from the new diseases spread by the Europeans. African slaves knew how to work in intense heat and many situations that would be found in the New World. As they were also known to have “developed a certain level of immunity to some tropical diseases”, they were the perfect choice to develop the new world. The fact that slavery was already an established trade in Africa helped the Europeans “mobilize the commerce” just by “tapping existing routes and supplies. The European presence was now to grow by leaps and bounds though it was still relatively limited to the land it actually it claimed. They did not have to bribe the natives they found on the coast. They exploited man’s greed that was not restricted to Europe. Many rulers of some African areas desired more slaves of their own and did not mind helping out the Europeans who gave them “aid and commodities” in return. Slavery was taking a new and sinister turn. It was changing as well as changing the entire continent.
As more of the land was explored, more settlers poured in. Though originally looked at as a source of slave labor, Africans’ status did not change much once the slave trade was abolished. Britain implemented rules that would keep the natives ‘in line’ such as having them ‘registered’ and still under the control of the white settlers. Anything of African origin was up for grabs to the European greedy powers.
As resources beyond labor were discovered, Europeans began to push further into the continent. All of Africa felt the effects rubber, diamonds, and gold brought forth as the European presence “accelerated into a head-long rush for territorial conquest” in the late 1800s with Britain, France, and Portugal as well as Belgium and Spain turning their lustful eyes south. This led into conflict over who would get what part of Africa and how it would be ruled. The Berlin Conference in early 1885 resulted. The General Act addressed the carving up of Africa by giving the Congo basin to King Leopold of Belgium as long as he agreed “to allow European traders and missionaries free access to the area”. Leopold was to rule his area in a way where “all nations shall enjoy complete freedom” as well as not be subjected to any additional taxes beyond normal trade.” The nations were to treat each other with respect. Beyond that, it was agreed by all parties that any area of Africa claimed by a European power had to be ruled effectively. If they did that, the other European nations were to respect their territory and leave it be. There was to be no fighting.
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