(TURN of the CENTURY IMPERIALISM – continued)

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The British in Africa, to 1910

Steamships had replaced sailing ships in the transport of goods and military men. Steam driven locomotives made transport easier between colonized ports and inland, with raw materials being transferred from the interiors to the ports and soldiers being transferred from the ports inland. The telegraph tied distances closer together.

At the turn of the century, the British were letting the Egyptians run their own internal affairs. The British were content to maintain control over the Suez Canal and to remain in charge of military and foreign affairs in Egypt. They left Egyptian lands to Egyptian landowners, who were growing cotton to sell to the British manufacturers. The British advocated no reforms in Egypt, fearing that talk of reforms there would inspire unrest.

A conflict with Egyptian opinion remained concerning who ruled in the Sudan, just south of Egypt. The Sudan had been ruled by Egypt. But to ward off French expansion into the region the British had expanded there. In 1899 the British had fought a great battle against the Sudanese at Omdurman, just north of the town of  Khartoum, and now, in British eyes, the Sudan was ruled by Britain. And, as in Egypt, the British left lands there in the hands of African landowners, who were also growing and selling cotton to Britain.

Second Boer War

In southern Africa, Britain's high commissioner for South Africa and governor-general of its Cape Colony, Alfred Milner, was interested in the gold mines in Boer territory, and he wanted to create a Cape-to-Cairo confederation of British colonies. He pushed for political rights for those British who had entered the Boer territory in search of gold, and this heightened tensions between the British and the Boers. The Boers of the Transvaal – descendants of the Dutch – were feeling closer to the Germans than to the English, and they were planning to link with German Southwest Africa. The British wanted to prevent this. Seeing war coming, the Boers attacked first, with some success, against Britain's colony of Natal and into Cape Colony.

The British sent around 350,000 volunteers to fight the Boers, while the Boers had no more than 40,000 men under arms at any one time. The British public supported their troops, with much singing of "Britannia Rules the Waves." Those distributing leaflets opposing the war found overwhelming hostility.

The British managed to defeat the Boers' regular military units, and the Boers resorted to guerrilla warfare. The British government sent their famous general Kitchener from Egypt to take charge in South Africa. Kitchener built defensive block houses to protect rail lines. He strung barbed wire. He removed Boer women and children from their farms, and he began systematic drives against one small section of Boer country at a time. Deaths from poor sanitation and disease in the concentration camps killed around 20,000, and indignation arose around the globe.

The Boers surrendered unconditionally in May 1902. The British had lost 5,744 dead from combat, 22,829 wounded, and thousands of British soldiers had died from disease. More than 7,000 Boers are reported to have died in combat.

Having won control over South Africa, the British now wanted the Boers to cooperate with their rule. Kitchener congratulated the Boers for their "good fight" and welcomed them as members of the British Empire. Amnesty was extended to all the Boers, and the British agreed to grant them loans and to help them restock their farms. Britain united its territories in South Africa, forming the Union of South Africa, which in 1910 became a state within the Commonwealth of Nations.


Uganda – just north of Lake Victoria – was an area of black peoples and an area that had been penetrated by Muslim Arabs with firearms from Africa's eastern coast. Protestant and Catholic missionaries had been there since the late 1870s and had converted many to Christianity. There were civil wars. Then in 1894 the British established a protectorate in the region (rather than a colony), the British signing agreements with local tribal chieftains, offering them autonomy under British protection. The chiefs viewed their agreements with Britain as between sovereign nations. The British brought peace to Uganda while Ugandan chiefs and their legislators exercised authority over their people and collected taxes that were delivered to Britain ostensibly for Britain's maintenance of the region. The British discouraged white settlers from moving into Uganda, and Ugandan lands remained in the hands of Ugandans. The British in Uganda encouraged cotton cultivation, and in 1904 the larger Ugandan farmers began growing cotton as a cash crop for export.


At the turn of the century, the British were just beginning to establish themselves in Kenya. They found the hills, plains and woodlands of Kenya foreboding. Here the disease called rinderpest was killing herds of cattle. Locusts were devouring crops, and smallpox was decimating and sapping the energies of local people. The British intended merely to pass through Kenya with a railroad they were building for transport between the coastal city of Mombasa to the inland commercial areas around Lake Victoria. But building the rail line required building fortified posts as a defense against hostile peoples. And passing through Kenya came to mean occupying it.

In Kenya, during the century's first decade, the British fought a series of skirmishes with the Nandi people. Military expeditions gave the British a reputation through much of Kenya, and peace was secured as tribes recognized the superiority of British arms. With British domination, the continuous tribal warfare that had plagued the region came to an end, replaced by arbitration. And with the end of tribal wars came a new freedom of movement. Hill dwellers moved onto plains. People spread out from their fortified villages. Lands that had been thought too dangerous to till came under cultivation. The British persuaded the Masai to move onto reservations, where they would experience fewer designs on their women by intruding Westerners, but there they would feel restricted.

In Kenya, Indian tradesmen migrated up the rail line from Mombasa, as did white settlers hoping to farm. Kenya was becoming a racial mix, European, Asian and African. The Europeans established a policy of forbidding Asians from settling in areas designated for Europeans. European and African farmers competed with one another in selling their products. African farmers – largely Kikuyu – were often able to undersell European farmers, and many European immigrants with small farms failed. European farmers who continued to farm learned that the best crops to plant were coffee, sisal and maize. Those with larger farms were hiring African laborers. And some Africans on the edge of European areas began working on European-owned lands as tenants, growing their own crops and grazing their animals.

Western Africa

Along the Atlantic coast of western Africa, the British ruled in Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast (now called Ghana) and Nigeria. They had followed trading companies, including slave traders. And by the twentieth century where the British ruled, the Africans recognized the superiority of British arms and reluctantly accepted British domination. Here Britain had colonies rather than protectorates. The British encouraged African agriculture, and the Africans produced the greatest amount of the world's cocoa and exported cocoa, palm oil, groundnuts and timber. The British were impressed by how hard and diligently these Africans worked at advancing their agriculture.

From the Gold Coast and from the coast of Nigeria, the British tried to push inland at the beginning of the century. Inland from the Gold Coast they encountered the Ashanti (Asanti) Empire, and rather than local people responding to liberation from Ashanti rule by the British, they were outraged by British arrogance. It took several months of fighting by the British to subdue these peoples. The British also had to fight to extend their rule into the interior of Nigeria, where Muslims ruled and many people had never seen a white man.

In forcing their rule onto the Africans, the British wished to be thought of as extending order and freedom. Indeed, by Britain bringing an end to tribal wars and stronger Africans preying upon weaker Africans, Africans under British rule had more time to devote to their economic activities and to peaceful trade.


Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.