WORKING WITH EVIDENCE
Colonial Conquest: The Scramble for Africa
The centerpiece of Europe’s global expansion during the nineteenth century
occurred in the so-called scramble for Africa, during which a half dozen or so
European countries divided up almost the entire continent into colonial
territories (see Map 18.2). The “scramble” took place very quickly (between roughly
1875 and 1900), surprising even the European leaders who initiated it, as well as the
many African societies that suddenly found themselves confronting highly
aggressive and well-armed foreign forces. It is remarkable that the entire partition of
Africa took place without any direct military conflict between the competing imperial
countries. But in establishing their control on the ground, Europeans faced
widespread African resistance, making the scramble an extremely bloody process of
military conquest. The sources that follow illustrate some of the distinctive features
of the scramble for Africa as well as the differing ways in which it was perceived and
Source 18.1 Competition and Conquest
As the scramble for Africa got under way in earnest in the 1880s and 1890s, it became
a highly competitive process. French designs on Africa, for example, focused on
obtaining an uninterrupted east-west link from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. But
the British, entrenched in Egypt and in control of the Suez Canal, were determined that
no major European power should be allowed to control the headwaters of the Nile on
which Egypt depended. Those conflicting goals came to a head in 1898, when British
forces moving south from Egypt met a French expedition moving northeast from the
Atlantic coast of what is now Gabon. That encounter took place along the Nile River at
Fashoda in present-day Sudan, threatening war between France and Great Britain. In
the end, negotiations persuaded the French to withdraw.
Source 18.1, the cover of a French publication, shows the commander of the French
expedition, Jean-Baptiste Marchand, who gained heroic stature by leading his troops on
an epic journey across much of Africa for more than eighteen months.
How did the artist portray Marchand? How might a British artist have portrayed
What does this source suggest about the role of violence in the scramble for
Notice the large number of African troops among Marchand’s forces. What does
that suggest about the process of colonial conquest? Why might Africans have
agreed to fight on behalf of a European colonial power?
How do you understand the fallen soldier lying between Marchand’s legs?
Commandant Marchand across Africa
Source 18.2 “Pacification” In East Africa
In European eyes, conquest was frequently termed “pacification,” with the goal of
ending all active resistance to colonial authorities. For African communities, it often
meant devastating violence. Source 18.2 provides a vivid example of what the scramble
for Africa meant at the level of a single village. It comes from the diary of a young British
soldier who took part in the takeover of what is now Kenya.
What posture did this soldier take toward this military action?
How might this experience be described from the viewpoint of one of the
surviving young women?
How does the violence depicted in this account differ from that shown in Source
A Small Slaughter
I have performed a most unpleasant duty today. I made a night march to the village at the edge of
the forest where the white settler had been so brutally murdered the day before yesterday.
Though the war drums were sounding throughout the night, we reached the village without
incident and surrounded it. By the light of the fires, we could see savages dancing in the village,
and our guides assured me that they were dancing around the mutilated body of the white man.
I gave orders that every living thing except children should be killed without mercy. I hated
the work and was anxious to get through with it. So soon as we could see to shoot we closed in.
Several of the men tried to break out but were immediately shot. I then assaulted the place before
any defense could be prepared. Every soul was either shot or bayoneted, and I am happy to say
that there were no children in the village. They, together with the younger women, had already
been removed by the villagers to the forest. We burned all the huts and razed the banana
plantations to the ground.
Source: R. Meinertzhagen, Kenya Diary (London: Oliver and Boyd, 1957), 51–52.
Source 18.3 From Cape to Cairo
Nowhere did the vaulting ambition of European colonial powers in Africa emerge more
clearly than in the British vision of a north-south corridor of British territories along the
eastern side of the continent stretching from South Africa to Egypt, or in the popular
phrase of the time, “from the Cape to Cairo.” A part of this vision was an unbroken
railroad line running the entire length of the African continent. That grand idea was
popularized by Cecil Rhodes, a British-born businessman and politician who made a
fortune in South African diamonds and became an enthusiastic advocate of British
imperialism. Source 18.3, an 1892 cartoon published in the popular British magazine of
satire and humor named Punch, shows Rhodes bestriding the continent with one foot in
Egypt and the other in South Africa.
Is this famous image criticizing or celebrating Rhodes’s Cape-to-Cairo dream?
Explain your reasoning.
What does this source suggest about the purpose of the Cape-to-Cairo scheme
and the means to achieve it?
How did the artist portray the African continent? What does the absence of
African people suggest?
The Rhodes Colossus
Source 18.4 Ethiopia and the Scramble for Africa
The East African state of Ethiopia played an intriguing role during the scramble, for
alone in all of Africa, it successfully resisted incorporation into a European empire. But
Ethiopia also participated in the scramble, almost doubling the size of the country at the
expense of neighboring peoples. Source 18.4A presents a letter written in 1891 from the
Ethiopian emperor Menelik II to the great powers of Europe announcing his outlook and
intentions as the scramble for Africa picked up speed. This warning, however, did not
prevent the Italians from claiming a protectorate over Ethiopia, an action that led to
war. Source 18.4B records Menelik’s call to arms in 1895 as that war unfolded. The
famous Battle of Adowa, which followed in 1896, marked a decisive victory for Ethiopia
over the Italians. Ethiopia had preserved its independence, becoming a symbol of
African resistance and bravery. The people forcibly incorporated into a growing
Ethiopian empire, no doubt, saw things differently.
How would you summarize Menelik’s goals as expressed in Source 18.4A?
How does Menelik try to distinguish his kingdom from others in Africa? In what
ways does he try to appeal to European sensibilities?
On what basis does Menelik appeal to his people to mobilize against the Italians
in Source 18.4B?
Letter to the European Great Powers
Being desirous to make known to our friends the Powers (Sovereigns) of Europe the boundaries
of Ethiopia, we have addressed also to you (your Majesty) the present letter.
These are the boundaries of Ethiopia: [Then follows a detailed description of Ethiopia’s
While tracing today the actual boundaries of my Empire, I shall endeavour, if God gives me
life and strength, to re-establish the ancient frontiers (tributaries) of Ethiopia up to Khartoum,
and as far as Lake Nyanza with all the Gallas.
Ethiopia has been for fourteen centuries a Christian island in a sea of pagans. If powers at a
distance come forward to partition Africa between them, I do not intend to be an indifferent
As the Almighty has protected Ethiopia up to this day, I have confidence He will continue to
protect her, and increase her borders in the future. I am certain He will not suffer her to be
divided among other Powers.
Formerly the boundary of Ethiopia was the sea. Having lacked strength sufficient, and
having received no help from Christian Powers, our frontier on the sea coast fell into the power
of the Muslim-man [Muslims].
At present we do not intend to regain our sea frontier by force, but we trust that the Christian
Powers, guided by our Saviour, will restore to us our sea-coast line, at any rate, certain points on
Source: Mohamed Osman Omar, The Scramble in the Horn of Africa (New Delhi:
Somali Publications, 2001), 143.
Enemies have now come upon us to ruin our country and to change our religion. Our enemies
have begun the affair by advancing and digging into our country like moles. With the help of
God, I will not deliver my country to them. Today, you who are strong, give me your strength,
and you who are weak, help me by prayer. Men of my country, up to now I believe I have never
wronged you and you have never caused me sorrow. If you refuse to follow me, beware. You
will hate me, for I shall not fail to punish you. I swear in the name of Mary that I shall never
accept any plea of pardon. . . . Meet me at Were Illu [the place of assembly for Menelik’s
forces], and may you be there by the middle of [October]. So says Menelik, elect of God, king of
Source: Quoted in Rick Duncan, Man, Know Thyself (Bloomington, IN: XLibris, 2013),
Source 18.5 Empire Building in North Africa
In North Africa, the primary European rivalries for territory involved Great Britain,
which occupied Egypt in 1881; France, which came to control Tunisia, Algeria, and
Morocco; and Italy, which seized Libya in 1912. Source 18.5 portrays two of these
rivals — Britain, on the right, and France, on the left — toasting one another while
standing on piles of skeletons. This image appeared in the Cairo Punch, a Britishowned magazine in Egypt published in Arabic, probably around 1910.
This image refers specifically to two incidents. On the British side, the cartoon
evokes a 1906 quarrel between British soldiers hunting pigeons and local villagers of
Denshway that resulted in the death of one of the soldiers. In response, outraged
British authorities hanged several people and flogged dozens of others. The
following year in Morocco, French civilians building a small railway near the harbor
of Casablanca dug up parts of a Muslim cemetery, “churning up piles of bones.”
When attacks against European laborers followed, killing eight, the French
bombarded the Arab quarter of the city, with many casualties — European and Arab
alike — in the fighting that ensued. Both incidents stimulated nationalist feelings in
these two North African countries.
What references to the incidents described here can you find in Source 18.5?
The British and French generally saw themselves as rivals in the scramble for
Africa. How are they portrayed here?
What posture toward colonial rule does this image reflect? While the artist
remains unknown, do you think it more likely to have been an Egyptian or a
Writing in 1915, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, the African American
scholar and activist W. E. B. DuBois reflected on the scramble for Africa, arguing
that it was a leading cause of the war.
How does DuBois characterize the process of the scramble?
With which of the earlier sources does the tone of his essay most clearly
What connection does DuBois see between the partition of Africa and World
W. E. B. DuBOIS
The African Roots of War
Africa is a prime cause of this terrible overturning of civilization [World War I]. . . .
The Berlin Conference to apportion the rising riches of Africa among the white peoples met
on the fifteenth day of November, 1884 . . . and before the Berlin Conference had finished its
deliberations, [Germany] had annexed . . . an area over half as large again as the whole German
Empire in Europe. Only in its dramatic suddenness was this undisguised robbery of the land of
seven million natives different from the methods by which Great Britain and France got four
million square miles each, Portugal three quarters of a million, and Italy and Spain got smaller
but substantial areas.
The methods by which this continent has been stolen have been contemptible and dishonest
beyond expression. Lying treaties, rivers of rum, murder, assassination, mutilation, rape, and
torture have marked the progress of Englishman, German, Frenchman, and Belgian on the dark
continent. . . .
The present world war is, then, the result of jealousies engendered by the recent rise of armed
[nations] . . . whose aim is the exploitation of the wealth of the world mainly outside the
European circle of nations . . . , and particularly in Africa. . . .
[I]n the minds of yellow, brown, and black men the brutal truth is clearing: a white man is
privileged to go to any land where advantage beckons and behave as he pleases; the black or
colored man is being more and more confined to those parts of the world where life for climatic,
historical, economic, and political reasons is most difficult to live and most easily dominated by
Europe for Europe’s gain.
Source: W. E. B. DuBois, “The African Roots of War,” Atlantic Monthly (May 1915),
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