(EMPIRE in AFRICA and the CARIBBEAN – continued)

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The British in Africa to 1880


Believing they were brighter than any of the darker-skinned people, the British and other Europeans thought it was okay to interfere in the lives of these people, to take over their land and to tell them what to do. Those who believed in this included the dumbest of army privates, corporals or sergeants.

In eastern Africa, the British had been in conflict with Tewodros II, emperor of Ethiopia (Abyssinia) since 1855. Tewodros sent a letter to Queen Victoria asking for British help in removing the Turks from the Red Sea. For two years his letter went unanswered, and when the reply came it was negative. Tewodros responded by arresting British subjects serving in the British consulate. Britain demanded their release, and when this did not happen they sent 30,000 troops. Tewodros was able to put together an army of no more than 4,000. The British troops freed their consulate personnel. Tewodros killed himself on the battlefield with his pistol, and the British left Ethiopia, uninterested in absorbing Ethiopian territory or its natural resources.

In West Africa the British had bought out the last of the Dutch and Danish trading forts and in the early 1870s had acquired a trading monopoly along the Gold Coast. In 1874 the British turned that coastal area, about a 100 kilometers deep and 400 kilometers wide, into a colony, to be called Ghana. The British fought a war against the kingdom of Asante, whose kings had claimed jurisdiction over the coast and had challenged the British there. The British commander, Wolseley, had his troops wear brown jackets and khaki trousers – a move toward the modern habit of camouflage. The British defeated the Asante army, burned the Asante capital, Kumasi, and withdrew. The British force had been about 50,000 strong, the Asante force about 60,000, the British losing about a 1,000 men, the Asante about 2,000. The Asante were shocked that their military had been defeated. The Asante king was deposed by his subjects, and areas that had been dominated by the Asante kingdom were inspired to revolt against Asante rule. The inland region in and near Asante had become destabilized, with civil wars and rebellions to follow in the years to come.

South Africa

The British had been established in South Africa with its Cape Colony since 1795. Diamond deposits had been discovered in southern Africa – at Kimberley in the land of the Griqua, or Griqualand, on the northern frontier of the British colony. In 1870 diamond diggers were rushing there – Africans, whites from Europe, Australia and the Americas. Britain persuaded the Griqua chieftain Waterboer to accept British protection from the nearby Dutch Boers, and in 1881 Britain annexed the territory, which became Griqualand West.

Bantu tribal peoples in southern Africa had been on the move southward to wherever better grazing land was available, and sometimes running from rival tribes. And they were also bumping into white settlers who were pushing onto lands that tribal peoples had come to consider as theirs. Both whites and blacks in southern Africa were dependent on raising animal herds and growing crops, exporting skins, ivory and ostrich feathers.

Intruding on this way of life by 1875 was southern Africa becoming the largest diamond producing area in the world. Company owned mines were replacing individual diggers, and the companies were employing black migrant labor. They came from surrounding kingdoms and earned enough money to buy guns, which they took with them back to their tribal areas. The blacks were becoming better armed in their perennial conflicts with their Dutch neighbors, the Boers.

Financial mismanagement bankrupted the Boer government in the Transvaal – the Republic of South Africa. Better armed, the Pedi tribe in their mountain stronghold drove the Boers out of their territory. The Xhosa, who had acquired guns on the diamond fields, were eager to regain lost lands, and they made war on the whites and their black allies, the Mfengu.

The British approached the Boers and stressed the dangers from their republic's bankruptcy and from hostile Zulus and Pedi. The British promised to put the Boer territory back on a sound financial footing while allowing a degree of local self-rule, and they promised to rid the Boers of the menace of the Zulus. Acting on the supposition that a majority of the Boers were in favor of British rule and that the Boers at any rate were too divided to resist, Britain annexed the Boer republic in April 1877. More than 6,500 Boers, in a nation of around 20,000, signed a petition protesting the annexation, but the British government was adamant that the annexation would remain.

In 1878 the British ordered the King of the Zulus, Cetshwayo, to disband his army of 40,000 to 60,000. When the king did not respond, British troops advanced into Zulu territory without precautionary scouts. The Zulu army attacked at Isandhwana, killing 800 British and capturing 1,000 rifles, with ammunition – a historic defeat for the British. The British overcame that defeat and overpowered the Zulu, at the Battle of Ulundi, on July 4, 1879. Queen Victoria urged "kind and generous treatment of [King] Cetshwayo," who was captured and exiled to Cape Town. The Queen worried that in disarming the Zulus of their guns, should they be attacked "we are bound to defend them." The British left the Zulus to rule themselves but divided and therefore weakened, under thirteen separate chiefdoms.

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