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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
16th - 17th century
North America
West Indies
France and Britain
The Caribbean
Cape Colony
Anglo-Russian rivalry
     French and British in Africa
     Cecil Rhodes
     The Mahdi and the British
     Anglo-Egyptian Condominium

Heyday of empire
South Africa
To be completed

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French and British in west Africa: 15th - 19th century

After the Portuguese open up the African coast to trade, in the 15th century, the other European nations of the Atlantic coast are soon sending their ships into the region. The first motive is piracy. As on the Spanish Main in America, ships returning to Europe laden with booty are attractive prey.

As early as 1492 a French vessel arrives off Elmina, a fortress built ten years earlier by the Portuguese in what is now Ghana, and seizes a shipment of gold setting off for Lisbon. During the next few centuries the Portuguese face competition on these coasts from the Danes, the Dutch and the British as well as the French.


Increasingly these rival European nations sail south not to plunder Portuguese vessels but to win a share in the rich trade which the Portuguese have pioneered - in gold, ivory, gum and above all slaves. To do so they need to build their own fortified trading stations, or (a more frequent course) to seize such places already established by rivals.

The story of European involvement in west Africa, from the Senegal river down to the Cape, is one of small markets and harbours along the coast tenuously held and frequently changing hands. The only settlement of any real permanency, and the only one where the settlers penetrate any distance inland, is the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope.


Elsewhere a great deal of ruthless and profitable trade is carried on, including the eventual export of some twelve million slaves to the Americas. Nevertheless the Europeans do little more than scratch the surface of the continent. They thrive like leeches, attached to the outer skin. Where they first choose to bite is often accidental. Yet the eventual pattern of colonial Africa, from the 1880s, depends very largely on where each nation's representatives happen to be located.

The estuaries of the great rivers are the natural place for these European trading posts. Captives, brought from the interior of the continent in canoes, can here be transferred to ships for the Atlantic crossing.


Fluid though the situation often is, various coastal regions of northwest Africa gradually become a particular sphere of interest of one nation or another. And by the 18th century the main rivals are France and Britain, the two greatest colonial powers of the time.

The Senegal river becomes associated with the French, who build their first trading station on its estuary in 1638. Further along the coast a 17th-century settlement at Ouidah begins a lasting French presence in Dahomey. Beyond this again, the Niger becomes of particular interest to the British - as evidenced in the late 18th century by the explorations of Mungo Park.


It is the 19th century which brings a consolidation of French and British interests in west Africa, and the reason is no longer slavery. It is the very opposite, the campaign to end slavery.

The first early step in this direction is the British establishment of Freetown in Sierra Leone as a settlement for freed slaves. Subsequently the French adopt a similar scheme, and the same name, in founding Libreville on the estuary of the Gabon river in the 1840s.


Meanwhile British merchants have been pressing inland from the Gold Coast (modern Ghana) and up the Niger river in search of economic ventures to replace the slave trade. The result, in both regions, is increasing British involvement at an official level - to protect the legitimate traders and to discourage the clandestine activities of the slavers.

These various semi-accidental events create the final placing of the French and British pieces in the African board game. When the scramble begins (after the great explorations of Livingstone, Stanley and others), each nation presses inland from its own sections of the coast to stake out its colonial claims.


Cecil Rhodes: 1871-1891

In the last quarter of the 19th century the driving force behind British colonial expansion in Africa is Cecil Rhodes. He arrives in Kimberley at the age of eighteen in 1871, the very year in which rich diamond-bearing lodes are discovered there. He makes his first successful career as an entrepreneur, buying out the claims of other prospectors in the region.

In the late 1880s he applies these same techniques to the gold fields discovered in the Transvaal. By the end of the decade his two companies, De Beers Consolidated Mines and Gold Fields of South Africa, dominate the already immensely valuable South African export of diamonds and gold.


Rhodes is now rich beyond the reach of everyday imagination, but he wants this wealth for a very specific purpose. It is needed to fulfil his dream of establishing British colonies north of the Transvaal, as the first step towards his ultimate grand vision - a continuous strip of British empire from the Cape to the mouth of the Nile.

The terms of incorporation of both Rhodes's mining companies include clauses allowing them to invest in northern expansion, and in 1889 he forms the British South Africa Company to fulfil this precise purpose. Established with a royal charter, its brief is to extend British rule into central Africa without involving the British government in new responsibility or expense.


The first step north towards the Zambezi has considerable urgency in the late 1880s. It is known that the Boers of the Transvaal are interested in extending their territory in this direction. In the developing scramble for Africa the Portuguese could easily press west from Mozambique. So could the Germans, who by an agreement of 1886 have been allowed Tanganyika as a sphere of interest.

Rhodes has been preparing his campaign some years before the founding of the British South Africa Company in 1889. In 1885 he persuades the British government to secure Bechuanaland, which will be his springboard for the push north. And in 1888 he wins a valuable concession from Lobengula, whose kingdom is immediately north of the Transvaal.


Lobengula is the son of Mzilikazi, the leader of the Ndebele who established a new kingdom (in present-day Zimbabwe) after being driven north by the Boers in 1837. Fifty years later, in 1888, Lobengula grants Rhodes the mining rights in part of his territory (there are reports of gold) in return for 1000 rifles, an armed steamship for use on the Zambezi and a monthly rent of 100.

With these arrangements satisfactorily achieved, Rhodes sends the first party of colonists north from Bechuanaland in 1890. In September they settle on the site which today is Harare and begin prospecting for gold. In support of Rhodes's scheme, the government declares the area a British protectorate in 1891.


The Mahdi and the British: 1881-1898

In or shortly before 1881 an ascetic religious leader, Mohammed Ahmed, living with his disciples on an island in the White Nile, is inspired by the revelation that he is the long-awaited Mahdi. Publicly announcing his new role, he calls for the creation of a strict Islamic state. The immediate result is an order from Khartoum for his arrest, followed by the escape to the mountains of the Mahdi and his followers.

The fervour of the faithful, combined with the Mahdi's own skills, results during 1883 in a series of astonishing victories - the rapid defeat of three Egyptian armies (the last of them under a British general) and the capture of several key towns, including El Obeid.


The Egyptian garrisons further to the south are now dangerously isolated. So is the capital, Khartoum, with its vulnerable population of non-Sudanese civilians. In this crisis the British government, led at the time by Gladstone, hastily appoints Gordon to rush south to Khartoum on a rescue mission. But he is provided with woefully inadequate support.

Gordon reaches Khartoum on 18 February 1884 and begins to organize an evacuation. Some 2000 people - mainly women, children and the sick - have escaped by the time the Mahdi's forces close in, on March 13, to begin the siege of the city.


Gordon has only a demoralized Egyptian garrison under his command, but he contrives to defy the Mahdi's forces for a space of ten months. For nine of these London has no news of what is happening, for the Sudanese cut the telegraph line to Cairo in mid-April.

The unknown but all too imaginable fate of Gordon, already a hero from past campaigns, galvanizes public opinion in Britain and eventually forces a vacillating government to plan for the relief of Khartoum. In September 1884 Garnet Wolseley sails from London to lead an expedition up the Nile. His vanguard reaches Khartoum on 28 January 1885 - too late by just two days.


On 26 January the Mahdi's forces have finally breached the walls of Khartoum and have massacred Gordon and the starving troops and citizens. Wolseley's small army withdraws. The remaining Egyptian garrisons in the Sudan make their way north as best they can.

The Mahdi has made his camp around the small village of Omdurman, on the left bank of the Nile a short way downstream from the confluence of the two rivers. This now becomes the capital of a Sudan administered as an Islamic state in imitation of the early caliphate. The Mahdi rules until his death in June 1885, when he is succeeded by the man whom he has appointed as caliph - Abdullahi ibn Mohammed, usually known simply as the Khalifa.


For thirteen years the Khalifa maintains a military Islamic state in keeping with the early traditions of the caliphate, and on occasion his efforts at expansion meet with some success - as in his interference in 1889 in neighbouring Ethiopia.

But in the long run the Anglo-Egyptian alliance to the north has an irresistible military advantage. The death of Gordon is finally avenged in 1898 when Herbert Kitchener (a member as a young man of Wolseley's failed expedition) mows down the Khalifa's forces at Omdurman with artillery and machine-gun fire. This victory restores British and Egyptian control in the Sudan - though it is challenged two weeks later by France in the dangerous confrontation known as the Fashoda Incident.


Anglo-Egyptian Condominium: 1899-1956

The victorious army at Omdurman is mainly composed of Egyptian troops, though led by senior British officers, and the avowed purpose of the campaign is to restore order in this southern province of the khedive of Egypt. The Anglo-Egyptian partnership continues in the arrangements now made for the government of the Sudan. Sovereignty in the region is to be shared by the British crown and the khedive. British and Egyptian flags are to fly side by side.

But cooperation does not prove easy, particularly when politicians in Cairo after World War I begin to demand the incorporation of Sudan within Egypt - a policy vigorously opposed by Britain.


In 1924 outbreaks of anti-British violence in Egyptian units in the Sudan are followed by the assassination in Cairo of Lee Stack, the British governor general of the southern colony. The British response is to force the withdrawal of all Egyptian forces. For twelve years the British govern the Sudan on their own, until an Anglo-Egyptian treaty in 1936 restores the role of Egyptian officials.

There are further disputes. In 1951 Egypt's king Farouk, indignant that Britain has facilitated the first steps towards Sudanese independence (in the form of a legislative council), unilaterally declares himself ruler of a united kingdom of Egypt and the Sudan.


This declaration has little meaning on the ground, pleases no one in the Sudan and is soon rendered irrelevant when Farouk is himself overthrown in the 1952 coup by Naguib and other officers.

Naguib immediately recognizes Sudan's right to self-determination, and in 1953 Britain and Egypt jointly agree to facilitate the transitional period. Elections in 1954 are won by the National Unionist Party, led by Ismail al-Azhari who has campaigned on a policy of merging Sudan with Egypt to achieve the 'unity of the Nile Valley'. However his views are altered by the experience of office as prime minister. Contrary to his campaign rhetoric, he leads the nation into a separate independence at the start of 1956.


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