Society and Culture

Europe’s Colonization of Africa

Roger Casement sat listening to the natives’ tales, shocked. ” [W]e brought rubber into the white men’s stations . . . when it was not enough[,] the white men would put some of us in lines, one behind the other, and would shoot through all our bodies. . . .” [1] One after another, natives from each village he visited told him of atrocities committed by the colonial military and government. Investigating rumors in the Belgian Congo [2] in 1903, the British Consul would not have believed many of the horrors reported to him but for the confirmation of Christian missionaries who had witnessed the atrocities themselves. Tales of forced labor, a rubber “tax,” [3] starvation, mutilation, beatings, murders, and other brutalities came to the ears of those who dared to investigate almost any of Europe’s African colonies. What on earth had happened to the legacy of missionaries such as Robert Moffat, Mary Slessor, and David Livingstone with his “3 Cs” [4] —commerce, Christianity, and civilization? In Europe’s famous “Scramble for Africa,” [5] they had been left behind in the dust.

Prior to the 19th century, the rest of the world knew very little about Africa – the Dark Continent. What trade was transacted between Europeans and African traders occurred on the coast. However, beginning in the early 1800s, explorers began to explore the African interior. Many of the first European explorers in Africa were missionaries who felt called to minister to the pagan African tribes. Many of these missionaries also wanted to eradicate the poisonous trade that wrecked havoc on so many poor Africans, the slave trade. After seven centuries of being brutalized by the Arab slave traders, Europeans took great advantage of the existing system of blacks capturing blacks to feed the huge demand of large plantations in the Americas.So Swahili or black traders trekked throughout Africa, capturing blacks or buying prisoners from other native tribes to sell as slaves on the coast.

Led by Christian officials such as Willberforce, Great Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1834[6]. British ships started to patrol the African coast to try to prevent other nations from engaging in the slave trade. Meanwhile, more and more explorers, whether Christian or secular, British or not, began to explore Africa. At first African diseases and hostile natives repulsed most expeditions into Africa. However, as European society made progress with new inventions and discoveries such as the Maxim gun [7] and quinine. [8] Armed with these innovations, explorers began to cut their way through the African jungle — and natives. Great Britain led the way in African colonization with colonies in South Africa. Then France invaded Tunisia in 1881, and Great Britain took over Egypt which Great Britain and France had previously ruled jointly. Henry Stanley [9] and Pierre de Brazza, exploring for Belgium and France respectively, rushed around in West Africa in an attempt to gain the Niger River for the countries supporting them.

To avoid a European war that might arise from the conflicting claims, German chancellor Otto von Bismark held the West African Conference in Berlin from November 1884 through February 1885 which became known as “the Scramble”. Ambassadors attended to talk about African policies, particularly the notification of any new conquest by one signing country to all the other signing countries. Although this conference had everything to do with Africa, not a single of the fourteen countries represented at the West African Conference was African. [10] Of the seven European countries that would eventually control most of Africa, Great Britain, France, and Belgium together controlled most of Africa’s territory. But what were the motives, policies, and abilities of these nations, and how easily would their colonization of the territory turn into independence?

Numerous motives instigated Great Britain, France, and Belgium’s colonization of Africa. For one thing, since Europe felt depleted of natural resources needed for industrialization, all the nations had an interest in the raw materials found in Africa. But besides this, the countries’ major reasons for interest in Africa differed. After Napoléon Bonaparte was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815, the humbled Frenchmen saw colonization in Africa as a chance to gain back some of their dignity and prestige in their traditional competition against the English.

As for Belgium, King Leopold II actually supported the idea of a colony in Africa, not the country. All of the king’s advisors and counsel members thought that Leopold, who spent much of his own private fortune into the colony later called the Belgian Congo, must have lost his marbles. [11] Leopold II expected great returns from his overseas colony. Unlike the purely lucrative interest in African colonization sought by France and Belgium, Great Britain had a Biblical motive to colonize the continent. Of course many Englishmen looked at Africa as an economic opportunity, but some Englishmen also wanted to open up the continent to Livingstone’s “3 Cs.” They wanted to end slavery, convert the blacks, and civilize the continent.

One unfortunate result of the African colonization, however, was the fact that the colonizers often mistreated the indigenous inhabitants in African colonies. Officials in the Belgian Congo won first prize as the most abusive of almost any other colonizer in Africa. After Leopold finally got the Belgian Congo running and making a profit, rumors began to reach Europe of atrocities occurring in the Congo river basin. However, these remote rumors had few witnesses, and fewer who spoke up because Belgium often gave them tax cuts and other benefits to keep them quiet and happy. It was not until 1904 when the British Foreign Office published a report on the Belgian Congo by Casement, that the skeletons in Leopold II’s closet became exposed. For in reality, Leopold II used the “Belgian” Congo as a private asset rather than a state colony. He did not care what happened to the inhabitants so long as he profited from the colony’s resources. When the British Foreign Office published the report, France paid little attention to it because France had started to follow the lead of the Belgian Congo, exploiting the land at whatever cost to the natives. British humanitarians and Christians, however, were shocked. Great Britain certainly did not treat the natives in British colonies the best, but at least they did not treat them as slaves or wild animals as officials treated them in the Belgian Congo or French Equatorial Africa.

As for missionary work in the French, British, and Belgian colonies, missionaries, either Protestant or Catholic, had freedom to work in any of the British colonies. They gave medical aid through hospitals they built, education through mission schools, worked at translating the Bible into the local dialect, and of course tried to win converts to Christianity. Missionaries in the French and Belgian colonies did not have as much freedom. Around the beginning of the 20th century, the French government fell out with the Roman Catholic Church. As a result, the French government stopped supporting all missionaries in the colonies. Nevertheless, the missionaries had the freedom to remain in the colonies. Ironically enough, the severance did their evangelism a good turn. “The blacks are far from ignoring that the colonial authorities are hostile to us and that our religion is not that of the whites who live in the [French] Sudan,” reported one Mgr. Bazin. [12] However, missionaries in the Belgian Congo had the toughest time of all. Before Belgium took control of the Belgian Congo (from Leopold II) in 1908, Leopold II had expressly forbidden any Catholic missionaries to work in the Belgian. Despite this, he did let several Protestant missionaries into the area. But of the three countries, Leopold limited missionary work in Africa the most.

The African colonies eventually gained their freedom later on in the 20th century. Almost all of the British, French and Belgian colonies struggled as independent nations when they gained their liberty, though. Most of the new African nations did not have a capable citizenry. However, some of the former British colonies had more capable citizens than the former French and Belgian colonies because of the importance of the education due to the missionaries.

On the whole, Europe’s colonization of Africa underdeveloped the country. Europeans had exploited the resources throughout the nation without making much progress in developing the colonies it controlled. Due to the slave trade and the virtual slavery in many of the European colonies in Africa, the number of inhabitants in Africa dropped significantly, leaving an insufficient number of natives to cultivate and develop the country, particularly after the African countries had gained their independence. For example, scholars estimate that due to the cruelties perpretrated in the Belgian Congo, Leopold II reduced the area’s population by at least 50%. [13] Many Africans were not provided with an education sufficient enough to to rule a country in the forced manner of the European model. To complicate matters, the arbitrary boundaries of colonies set during “the Scramble” had originally been made regardless of indigenous ethnic diversity, preventing the formation of unified national spirit necessary to start a new country.

Some of the traditional superstitions and evil practices of the natives (despite the horrors carried out by the Europeans, the blacks were no angels either) set back progress even after their independence. Immoral practices, idol worship, slavery, war, and land disputes resulted in starvation from crop failure (mismanagemnt, i.e., modern Zimbabwe), terrible diseases such as AIDs (which are often the result of sexual promiscuity), and the result of other sins against biblical instruction. Occult practices and immoral lifestyles might have been one reason God allowed the European nations to conquor Africa in the first place. As recognized by black African Christians, the violent and vile Europeans were a tool in the hand of God to eventually bring light into the darkness of Africa. The principle of a nation reaping what it sows was exemplified by Israel of King David’s time who wrote, “Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever. For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones. They will be protected forever, but the offspring of the wicked will be cut off…” [14] The wicked Assyrians, and later the Babylonian pagans, were raised up by God to punish the people he loved.


1Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa (New York: Random House, 1991), 598.

2This is primarily the area now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

3Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa, 598.

4Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa, xxii. Livingstone proposed his ” 3 Cs” as the solution to the slave trade in Africa. Rather ironically, by 1903, when Europe controled most of Africa, even more blacks were slaves in everything but name&8212;forced to work their own land for the Europeans.

5Charles Kimball, “The Opening Up of the Dark Continent,” 2001, <> (11 Jan. 2004).

6Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa, 18.

7The Maxim gun, later called the machine gun, was a large, wieldy predecesor of modern machine guns, requiring a four to six man team to operate it.

8Quinine was found to ward off malaria, one of the worst and deadliest African diseases.

9Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, and Spain.

10“Africa: 1830-1990,”, 2001, <> (11 Jan. 2004).

up11In other words, they thought he was crazy.

up12Dr. Neil Lettinga, “The Roman Catholic Church in the Colonial Era (1890-1960),” 7 June 2000, <> (11 Jan. 2004).

up13Matt Rosenberg, “Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 to Divide Africa,” <> (11 Jan. 2004).

up14Psalm 37:27-28 (NIV),, <> (11 Jan. 2004).
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