10 Eyeopening Details About the Colonization of Africa

10 Eyeopening Details About the Colonization of Africa

Larry Holzwarth - June 21, 2018

Although parts of North Africa were colonized in antiquity, by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, and even the Vandals, the true carving of Africa into colonies of the European empires was in the late nineteenth century. France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Portugal established colonies and exploited the natural wealth of the continent, creating riches for themselves at the expense of the people under their rule. King Leopold II of Belgium ruled over his own colony of the Congo Free State, independently of his rule over Belgium, for more than twenty years. It was a reign notable for its corruption and for its cruelty.

The European empires divided the continent through treaties and gentlemen’s agreements with little concern over the desires of the natives. When those natives rose up in protest against the cavalier manner in which their affairs were decided for them the empires brutally crushed them. Africa offered wealth for the empires, in the form of coal and oil, rubber, coffee, sisal, cotton, diamonds, gold, timber, and iron. Along the Mediterranean coast citrus fruits, olives, almonds, sheep, and other products enriched the European traders while all but enslaving the peoples of the continent. Missionaries and schools attempted to enlighten what was called the Dark Continent, though the real goal was wealth.

10 Eyeopening Details About the Colonization of Africa
Henry Morton Stanley of Stanley and Livingston fame was a leading proponent of colonization of the African continent. Smithsonian

Here are ten facts and events of the colonization of the African continent by the European empires of the nineteenth century.

10 Eyeopening Details About the Colonization of Africa
At first reluctant, Otto von Bismarck became a driving force behind the German Imperial expansion in Africa and elsewhere. Wikimedia

German East Africa

In 1884 the Society for German Colonization was formed to establish a German presence on the eastern side of the African continent, where it developed mining operations, farmland, and built railways to transport its products and workers. It was supported by its own troops, who used intimidation to cow the natives into grudging submission. Its officers and investors backed the idea of a large German navy, a goal shared by the Kaiser, in order to protect the wealth it acquired from the emerging colony of East Africa. The company was founded largely through the efforts of Karl Peters, who acquired the property which became the German colony from native chiefs.

German chancellor Otto von Bismarck was at first hesitant to allow Peters’ African investments to become a German colony, concerned about the reaction of the British Empire. Peters leveraged his position with the German government by threatening to sell the holdings of his company to King Leopold II of Belgium. Peters’ Society for German Colonization became the German East Africa Company. Peters used troops raised locally and through the hiring of mercenaries to expand German influence into Uganda and other areas of the continent, raising the ire of the British colonialists, and ruthlessly crushed native resistance to German expansion.

After the German government granted a charter for the colony of German East Africa it was obligated to protect its borders from incursions by rival empires and its interior from native insurrections. In this the German government was also responding to pressures from the investors growing rich from the produce of the colony. German troops were stationed in the colony and the German fleet patrolled its shores and ports. In 1892 Peters and representatives of the British East Africa Company established the border between their holdings. As an administrator, Peters favored harsh treatment of the native people, and their frequent attempts at resistance led to German military reprisals against them.

As the Imperial High Commissioner of German East Africa Peters held near total authority over the colony, though he reported to the colonial office in Berlin, and control of the military in the colony was in the hands of Hermann von Wissmann. Under Peters’ administration through the efforts of his officers, schools and hospitals were established in the colony, tribal wars suppressed, and infrastructure built. Peters exploited the native population further by taking native women as his personal harem, and when one of these women was discovered to have had an affair with another native servant Peters had both of them hanged.

It was his downfall. Recalled to the Imperial Colonial Office, Peters underwent a three year investigation which led to his being relieved of his position in 1897. Peters went to England and formed other companies for the exploration of British Africa, where he later uncovered lost ancient gold mines. German East Africa remained a colony of the German Empire until it was occupied by the British during the First World War. After the war the former German colony was divided by the League of Nations, which split it between the British Empire and the Kingdom of Belgium. The native African people were not represented in the decision.

10 Eyeopening Details About the Colonization of Africa
Leopold II of Belgium ruled the Congo as his private colony until atrocities forced the Belgian government to annex it under international pressure. Wikimedia

The Congo

It was the British explorer Henry Morton Stanley who first unveiled the mysteries of the Congo to Europe. Stanley wrote and gave lectures throughout Great Britain and continental Europe, describing the potential wealth to be had from the region and the possibility of bringing the “…poor benighted heathen, into the Christian fold.” Stanley described more than 40 million such people, waiting to be clothed by the mills of Great Britain, and educated by the missionaries of the Christian denominations. While Stanley was well received personally, his ideas of colonization of the Congo were not, except for King Leopold II of Belgium.

Leopold was anxious to expand Belgian influence and power, though doing so in Europe was impossible. Leopold, a constitutional monarch, attempted to create or purchase Belgian colonies but the government resisted his schemes. In 1876 Leopold sponsored and hosted an international geographic conference as a cover for the establishment of the International African Association, a corporation in which the only shareholder was himself. He then hired Stanley, promising to back his goal of a railroad into the Congo. It was Stanley’s job to establish a colony, which would be chartered by Leopold’s shell company, making Leopold the sole authority of the Congo.

Stanley purchased or negotiated the cession of land from the native tribes occupying it, and began the construction of wagon roads connecting the trading stations he set up. When Stanley finally left the project, physically and mentally exhausted, he was replaced by Francis de Winton, a former officer of the British Army. Both Stanley and de Winton were not above playing the various tribes against each other and betraying alliances by killing recalcitrant tribal leaders and their followers. In 1885 Leopold announced a new name for his colony, the Congo Free State. During its existence the population of the region dropped by up to fifteen million according to some estimates.

His reign featured the mutilation of workers, child laborers, harsh reprisals against protesters, and the calculated destruction of whole villages. Paramilitary soldiers, hired to enforce labor policies which were established by the companies harvesting rubber, sometimes simply cut off the hands of protestors rather than kill them, establishing the proof of an action for which they would be paid and leaving the maimed to die or live as nature decided. As reports of the atrocities in the Congo reached Europe and the United States, international outrage grew, and the Belgian government was pressured to take action to suppress the violence. Leopold ignored the outcry.

Joseph Conrad based his novel Heart of Darkness on the situation in the Congo, and a campaign of reformers including Conrad, Mark Twain, and the popular British writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle urged the international community to act. Both Britain and France considered annexing the Congo, an action opposed by the Germans as it would shift the strategic balance between the rival empires. Leopold and the companies in the Congo argued that the atrocities were exaggerated. Finally in 1908 the Belgian government annexed the Free State and it became the Belgian Congo, and Belgian law for the colony was established. Leopold died the following year, leaving behind a vast fortune attained through his personal colony.

10 Eyeopening Details About the Colonization of Africa
The Berlin Conference delegates agreed to a framework by which their nations would divide and exploit the African continent. Wikimedia

The Berlin Conference

The three great European Empires – France, Great Britain, and Germany, were by the early 1880s making significant advances into Africa, carving out profitable but oppressive colonies which enriched them at the expense of the African native population. The three empires were wary of the power each was attaining, and all three were involved in an arms race including the expensive expansion of their respective navies. Forays into the continent by the Portuguese and the Italians further complicated the balance of power, which shifted with alliances and treaties on intervention. By 1882 Great Britain occupied Egypt and the Sudan, concerned about a potential threat to its trade routes to India.

In 1884 German Chancellor Bismarck called for an international conference in Berlin, supported by Portugal and Great Britain, to reach mutual agreement on the disposition of Africa. Fourteen nations, including the United States, sent representatives to the conference, although the Americans reserved the right not to accede to the conference’s results (the Americans were represented by Henry Morton Stanley, among others). Bismarck chaired the conference, which convened in the autumn of 1884 and ran until the end of February the following year. There were no representatives for any of the African tribes.

Although slavery was officially abolished in most of the western world, it was still practiced among the rival African tribes within the spheres of European colonies. The standard practice of all of the European nations was to ignore slavery among the tribes, rather than take steps to eradicate the practice. The Berlin conference attendees agreed to eliminate the practice among the African tribes and the Islamic controlled regions. None of the attending nations took immediate steps to do so in their areas of control. The conference also recognized the validity of the private colony of the Congo Free State, which was seen as a buffer between colonies of France, Great Britain, and Germany.

The conference agreed that any further occupation of African territory was subject to the prior notification (but not approval) of all of the powers which signed the agreement. It was further agreed that colonies were subject to actual occupation by the claiming nation, rather than just making the claim of the territory. Effective occupation could be had through the establishment of treaties with tribal leaders. The general regions of the continent which could be colonized by the Europeans were defined by the conference members, and the continent was effectively assigned to the colonial powers for their use and development. Free transit zones for trade purposes were also established.

The Berlin Conference led to an increase in colonization of the African continent, due in part to its requirement that a colonizing power take possession of the land. Ten years after the conference the only independent states in Africa were Morocco, Liberia, the Majerteen Sultanate, the Ethiopian Empire, and the Sultanate of Hobyo (northern Somalia). After the British seized the Boer Republics 90% of Africa was under the control of the European powers, and subject to the rivalries between the French, Germans, and British. With the subject of seizure of African land and colonization of the continent agreed to the conquest of Africa began in earnest.

10 Eyeopening Details About the Colonization of Africa
A caricature of Cecil Rhodes which appeared in Punch. Rhodes believed the Anglo-Saxons were a superior race, destined to rule the world. Wikimedia

The Cape to Cairo Red Line

After the British seized Egypt and the Sudan, as well as South Africa and the Boer states, the only remaining block to the creation of a connected string of colonies across Africa from South Africa to Suez were the Belgian Congo and the German colony of East Africa. The dream of connecting all of the British colonies from south to north was known as the red line, based on the practice of British territories and possessions being displayed on international maps in red. It was the long established goal of an English businessman named Cecil Rhodes, who established the Rhodes Scholarship in part in the hope that American scholars would lobby for the United States to rejoin the British Empire.

Rhodes was a racist and a believer that there was one race superior to all others, and that was the Anglo-Saxons. “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race,” he wrote in his last will and testament. Rhodes believed that it was the obligation of the Anglo-Saxons, the British, Americans, and Germans, to subjugate the rest of the world and ensure global peace. To help make this vision a reality Rhodes established his scholarship as open to students from British colonies, former British colonies, and Germans.

Rhodes advocated the completion of the Cape to Cairo Railway, which would link the plantations and mines of South Africa with the other British colonies to the north. Unfortunately for Rhodes and other backers of the plan, two obstacles prevented the railway from being completed. German East Africa blocked the advance to the north along the coastal route. The terrain and weather of the Free State of Congo, later the Belgian Congo, prevented the railway from being completed using the inland route. Meanwhile the French African Empire was attempting a similar venture, attempting to build a route across Africa from Senegal to Djibouti. Had the railways been completed, they would have somewhat resembled a cross.

In 1897 the French sent an expedition to establish a protectorate in the Sudan, and explore a route to Ethiopia. The French were also interested in forcing the British to abandon Egypt, the occupation of which by the British they viewed to be illegal (though they had been invited to join in the occupation, which they rejected). The French expedition was confronted by a British joint naval and land expedition at the town of Fashoda, in Sudan. Both commanders decided to remain where they were and wait for instructions from Paris and London. Although the situation at Fashoda remained calm, it set off a flurry of war threats in the British and French capitals.

Level heads prevailed, and the French, wary of potential conflicts with the Germans, decided to back down. The French were also aware of the British military superiority in the region. In spite of the rising nationalism in France the government had no desire to pursue a colonial war with the British Empire. “They have soldiers. We have only arguments,” lamented the Foreign Minister of France. The Royal Navy and the British army mobilized. The French withdrew without conflict and by November the crisis had abated in the capitals of the rival empires. It was the last major colonial dispute between France and England. Neither empire was able to complete their transcontinental railways.

10 Eyeopening Details About the Colonization of Africa
Kaiser Wilhelm II triggered the First Morocco Crisis, in part to test the strength of the new British-French entente. Wikimedia

The First Morocco Crisis

The Berlin conference had left Morocco as an ostensibly independent nation, but representatives of the European empires jockeyed with each other to expand their influence with the ruling Alaouite dynasty. By 1904 France was negotiating the establishment of Morocco as a French protectorate, and had succeeded in obtaining the support of Spain and Great Britain. France and England also signed the Entente Cordiale, establishing an alliance between the two empires. The British were given a free hand to act in Egypt, while the French obtained the same rights in Morocco, with both sides agreeing to support each other.

The German Kaiser, who was building a Navy to rival those of England and France, decided to forestall the expansion of French influence in North Africa. French occupation of Morocco, coupled with the British occupation of Gibraltar and Egypt, would put the gateways to the Mediterranean in the hands of the new allies, a situation the Kaiser found intolerable. In March 1905, Kaiser Wilhelm II traveled to Morocco. In Tangier, the Kaiser met with the advisers and servants of the Sultan Abdelaziz. He then delivered a speech in Tangier in which he denounced French intervention in Moroccan affairs and announced Germany’s support for its continued independence.

The support of the Kaiser, or perhaps secret threats of German intervention, convinced the Sultan to reject a series of reforms which had been proposed by the French. The Sultan called instead for an international conference, to be held at Algeciras in Spain, which would propose reforms for the Moroccan government and the nation. The French bristled at the suggestion, calling it unnecessary and an illegal German intrusion on both French and Moroccan affairs. The Germans responded that further French activities in Morocco were a cause for war. By June 1905 the French Navy was mobilizing. Germany responded by announcing that they would negotiate a treaty of alliance with Morocco.

In July the French agreed to attend the conference, which was scheduled for January, 1906. German and French warships were sent to Tangier, where they were observed by naval vessels of the United States and Great Britain. The German army began mobilizing its reserve units and the French responded by moving troops to the border with Germany. On January 16 representatives from 13 nations attended the Algeciras Conference, where the Germans learned that other than their ally Austria-Hungary, there was no support for their position. Even worse, the United States and Great Britain, which both had warships in the harbor at Tangier, strongly endorsed the French.

Rather than bluster, the Germans offered a solution which allowed them to attain a semblance of influence in Moroccan affairs. The French agreed to allow control of the Moroccan security apparatus to remain in the hands of the Sultan. All of the other reforms presented by the French were accepted and the French Empire assumed control of the Moroccan government and foreign affairs. Once the crisis was averted the French assumed control of the police forces and customs offices as well. An irate Kaiser determined to avenge himself for the humiliation he suffered during the First Moroccan crisis and his anger led to a second crisis over Morocco a few years later.

10 Eyeopening Details About the Colonization of Africa

Troops under Menelik II of Ethiopia humiliated the Italians, leading them to seek revenge decades later. Wikimedia

Italian adventurism in Ethiopia

Italy was but recently unified as a Kingdom (1861) when it joined the race to establish colonial possessions in Africa. The Italians coveted the area around the Horn of Africa, nominally ruled by Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia. Italian diplomats promised Menelik financial and military support against the enemies within his empire in return for territories including possessions in what is now Eritrea, Somalia, and Libya. These negotiations followed the defeat of Italian troops in an invasion of Ethiopia in 1887 at the Battle of Dogali by troops under Menelik’s predecessor, Yohannes IV.

The wording of the treaty which ceded territory to the Italians was interpreted differently by the signees, with the Ethiopians deciding that the Emperor retained the right to deal with foreign affairs as he saw fit. The Italians interpreted the treaty as establishing Ethiopia as an Italian protectorate, with its foreign relations in the hands of the Italian government. Relations between Italy and the Ethiopians deteriorated as Menelik appealed for help in retaining autonomy. He received it from the Russians, who provided military advisors, volunteer troops, and military equipment. In 1895 Italian troops again invaded Ethiopia.

The Italian troops were poorly equipped, outnumbered, and little prepared for combat against trained Ethiopian troops supported by the Russians. When the two forces met at the Battle of Adwa after some preliminary skirmishing the Italians were routed. Italian losses were over 11,000 men, with more than half of them killed in the fighting. Italian prisoners taken in the battle were spared, but native troops supporting them were butchered by the Ethiopians, who considered them to be traitors. The remnants of the Italian army retreated to Eritrea. The following year the Italians and Menelik signed a treaty which abrogated its disputed predecessor and established Ethiopia as an independent state.

In Italy, the response was one of outrage and humiliation. Nationalism became dominant in Italian politics and pressure mounted within the Italian government to re-establish the Mediterranean elements of the Roman Empire in the Mideast. Another war with the Ottoman Empire during 1911-12 led to the Italians conquering Libya and the Dodecanese Islands. While these acquisitions were a balm on the wounded Italian pride, the desire for revenge against the Ethiopians remained a significant political force in the Italian government. In 1935 Mussolini appealed to the restoration of Italian honor when justifying his invasion of Ethiopia.

The Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 was declared over by the Italians after their troops captured Addis Ababa in May 1936, but significant fighting continued until 1939. The Italians declared the Ethiopian Empire to be dissolved and its territories absorbed into Italian East Africa. The invasion was the last of the many colonial wars fought on the continent of Africa between its indigent peoples and the European colonizers. As in all of them, atrocities were committed by both sides, but particularly against the Africans who served in the European armies as colonial troops.

10 Eyeopening Details About the Colonization of Africa
The Agadir crisis brought the European Empires to the brink of war, but was settled with territorial concessions. Wikimedia

French North Africa

In 1848 Algeria, which had been under French control since its capture of Algiers in 1830, was declared to be an integral part of France, and was governed as such. Following the humiliating defeat of the French in the Franco-Prussian War, Italy and Great Britain began using their influence to increase their control of Tunisian affairs, which though nominally independent was returned to the Ottoman Empire as a province in 1871. French and British diplomats desired to keep Italian influence in Tunisia (and the rest of the Mediterranean) at a minimum. In 1878 the Congress of Berlin was called to create a new map of the Balkans following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.

At the Congress it was agreed that France would be given control of Tunisia in exchange for British authority over Cyprus. Neither the Tunisians nor the Cypriots were consulted on the matter. Rebellious bands roving Tunisia provided the French with an excuse to occupy the country with troops, establishing a protectorate. In April 1881 the French invaded Tunisia, and despite urging of his cabinet to resist, the Bey of Tunis accepted the new state of affairs. While he remained the Bey, the French took control of the government, finances, and military forces of Tunisia. Once presented with the treaty establishing French control, which had been dictated in Paris rather than negotiated with Tunisia, the Bey accepted.

The French seized Tunisia with the approval of both Great Britain and Russia, since it helped to limit the extent of Italian power in the Mediterranean. In turn, the Italians protested vigorously, but rather than challenge the French they looked to the east and the seizure of Libya. After several years of attempting to procure Libya the Italians initiated the Italo-Turkish War with the Ottoman Empire, seizing Libya by military action. The French ignored the Italian protests and considered expanding its North African Empire to the west, in Morocco. France had increased its influence there following the crisis of 1905-06.

The second Morocco crisis, also known as the Agadir crisis, erupted in 1911 as a result of a rebellion against the Sultan, who was soon isolated in Fez, his palace surrounded. French troops invaded Morocco in late April. In June Spanish troops seized Moroccan cities. German warships were dispatched to the port of Agadir, explained as being sent there to protect German citizens and businesses. The British responded with ships dispatched from Gibraltar. The Germans made it plain that they had no territorial desires in Morocco, but demanded compensation from France in return for accepting a full French protectorate.

The French conceded a portion of their equatorial Middle Congo colony to the Germans, which granted them access to the Congo River. In return, the formal pretense of Moroccan independence was abandoned. Great Britain and Russian approved of the settlement of the Agadir crisis. The settlement led to an agreement in which the Royal Navy of Great Britain would protect the northern ports and coast of France, allowing the French fleet to maintain the bulk of its strength in the Mediterranean to counter the Italians. The area ceded to the Germans became the colony of Kamerun.

10 Eyeopening Details About the Colonization of Africa
An Ashanti warrior, described as a black warrior in French. Wikimedia

The Ashanti Wars

In some ways similar to the Europeans who settled in North American colonies, the Europeans who colonized Africa found numerous indigenous tribes which fought over territory, took slaves from other tribes, and maintained long held enmity. The Europeans sided with some tribes in opposition to others, leading to continuous wars, rebellions, and atrocities throughout the colonial period. There were simply too many wars to cover them all, but the Ashanti wars were in many ways descriptive of them all. The Ashanti wars were a series of conflicts between the Ashanti people and Great Britain, which was supported by other native tribes.

The Ashanti Empire dominated the region of West Africa which became the British colony of the Gold Coast, through trade with other African states and military superiority. The Ashanti practiced slavery, with slaves usually acquired through the capture of enemies during wars, and also practiced human sacrifice, including the ritual sacrifice of slaves as part of their master’s funeral rites. Early contact with Europeans allowed the Ashanti to be armed with firearms through the trading of gold for weapons. After the arrival of the British to the Gold Coast many of the coastal tribes, enemies of the Ashanti, turned to the British for protection.

The British fought two wars with the Ashanti in the first half of the nineteenth century, supporting the Fante and Ga tribes, historic enemies of the Ashanti. In 1867 the British created the colony of the Gold Coast, expanding it five years later by purchasing the Dutch Gold Coast, and in 1873 launched an expedition against the Ashanti. The expedition was a response to an Ashanti invasion of the territory purchased from the Dutch, who had maintained the peace between themselves and the Ashanti. The British responded with a force including British regulars, colonial troops, and support from the Fante.

The Ashanti were defeated in the field in several battles and the Ashanti capital was razed by the British troops. The British then dictated the terms of a treaty which included reparations in gold to be paid by the Ashanti. The British also stipulated the end of the practice of human sacrifice. The Ashanti accepted the terms and signed the treaty, but in practice continued many of their traditions, including those forbidden in the treaty. In 1891 the British absorbed the Ashanti into a protectorate, which the Ashanti refused. Another attempt in 1895 was likewise refused. Although the Ashanti attempted to negotiate the British launched another expedition.

The Ashanti leaders were forced to accept the British protectorate and were then exiled to the Seychelles. A final war occurred in 1900, when the British representative to the colony demanded to be allowed to sit on the Golden Stool, the sacred throne of the Ashanti. Troops were dispatched to locate the stool and bring it to him. The Ashanti attacked the search parties and the British responded with another military expedition. On New Year’s Day 1902 the Ashanti lands became part of the Gold Coast colony, and Ashanti autonomy was dissolved, though the British did not locate the Golden Stool until it was discovered by accident in 1920.

10 Eyeopening Details About the Colonization of Africa
Access to the navigable section of the Congo River was an important consideration of the Belgians, Germans, and French. Wikimedia

The European Rivalries

During the latter portion of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, the colonization of Africa by the European Empires was driven by a variety of factors. One of the first was the expansion of the Europeans into other areas of the world. Navies of the day were powered by coal, and coaling stations and supporting naval facilities were important to the communication with other portions of their empires. The British, French, Spanish, and German Empires all had important holdings in the Pacific, and reaching them from the mother country required a support system.

Unlike the colonization of the North American continent, relatively few settlers migrated to Africa to establish a European dominated population. The majority of the African colonies were dominated by their native populations, administered and governed by Europeans. The resources which were exploited by the businesses which operated within the colonies did go to improving the infrastructure of the colonies insofar as it added to the profits and the viability of trade. Natives dug in the mines, harvested the fields, and labored on the roads and railways, but the vast majority of the fruits of their labor went to the empires.

The growing rivalries of the European empires was reflected in the African colonies, which were often seen and used as bargaining chips when other issues were being resolved. Colonies which had large populations were valued by the British and French Empires, which created colonial military units for use during the colonial wars within Africa (and throughout their realms), and during the soon to be launched First World War. The fabled French Foreign Legion was born out of the colonization of Africa, formed to defend the French colony of Algeria in 1831.

The rivalries of the European Empires in Africa contributed significantly to the tensions and intertwining alliances which led to the First World War. The Entente Cordiale, which ended a millennium of imperial rivalry between Great Britain and France, remained in effect when the Triple Alliance of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Italy collapsed at the outset of World War I. Both England and France went to war in Europe and Africa as allies, but Italy remained neutral at the beginning of the war ending the Triple Alliance. The colonization of Africa also accelerated the naval race between the Germans and Great Britain.

Germany had scarcely been unified when it entered into the race for African empire, but its holdings in Africa made it the third largest of the colonizing nations in terms of territory. In terms of population under German control, about 9% of Africans occupied German colonies, while the British controlled just over 30% of the population of the continent. By 1914 the greatest amount of land in Africa was under the control of the French, but part of that was the unusable Sahara. At the end of the First World War German possessions in Africa, some of which had been lost in the war, were partitioned by the French, British, and Belgians.

10 Eyeopening Details About the Colonization of Africa
The Coat of Arms of the Independent Republic of Liberia, where slavery continued to be practiced well into the twentieth century. Wikimedia


Liberia was a colony and protectorate of the United States before it became an independent nation. In 1816 the American Colonization Society (ACS) was formed by politicians and several prominent southern slaveholders, who wanted free people of color relocated out of the slave states. It was widely believed that the presence of free blacks in the south encouraged slaves to attempt to flee to the free states of the north. Abolitionists also supported the idea of sending free blacks to Africa, since many northerners, though opposed to slavery, resented their presence in the north, where they could be hired for lower wages and thus took jobs away from whites.

Re-settlement to the region of Africa known as the Pepper Coast began in 1822, with financial support of the ACS. The settlers were volunteers, who arrived in the region to find hostility against them from the native peoples. The colonial towns which they created suffered from raids and attacks from the indigenous peoples of the region, which often carried away survivors of attacks to slavery within Africa. Kru and Grebo raids on the new settlements led to retaliation by the settlers, in a situation not unlike that on the American frontier of the same day. The migration to the colony from the United States continued until by 1867 approximately 13,000 free blacks had been sent.

The settlers found themselves isolated from the local populations, even those not openly hostile to them, separated by differing cultures, religions, and most importantly by language. The colonists established an elite society among themselves, and developed into a group which they called Americo-Liberians, intermarrying rather than assimilating with the local population. When other groups in the United States started similar colonies on the Pepper Coast they were gradually absorbed into Liberia. The Liberian government recognized the indigenous tribes within the boundaries of the colony, and enforced Liberian law among them, but did not allow them to vote or otherwise participate in the political process.

The Americo-Liberians instead attempted to assimilate the native population within western culture, and established schools and missions for the purpose, supported by the ACS and other American organizations. In 1847 the Americo-Liberians prepared a Declaration of Independence from the United States and a written Constitution establishing the former colony as a republic. A strong trading partner with Great Britain, Liberia was recognized as an independent republic by Great Britain first, and by the United States in 1862. Liberia was the first independent republic to emerge on the African continent, and has retained its independence ever since.

Up until the Christy Investigation in 1929, compulsory unpaid labor – slavery – was practiced in Liberia by business interests using several minority groups within its borders. The practice of slavery was widespread throughout all of Africa during the colonial period, as dominant African peoples enslaved those of lesser groups. Much of the slavery was in the rubber and coffee plantations throughout the continent. A colony created by Americans to help end slavery in the United States thus allowed the practice, though not openly, well into the twentieth century. Both the president and vice-president of Liberia, Charles King and Allen Yancy respectively, resigned as a result of the Christy Investigation.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The German Colonial Empire, 1884-1919”, by W. O. Henderson, 1993

“King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa”, by Adam Hochschild, 2006

“The Scramble for Africa”, by Thomas Pakenham, 1992

“Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the coming of the Great War”, by Robert K. Massie, 1992

“Cecil Rhodes”, by John Flint, 2009

“The Rape of Ethiopia”, by A. J. Barker, 1971

“Greater France: A History of French Overseas Expansion”, by Robert Aldrich, 1996

“The Drums of Kumasi: The Story of the Ashanti Wars”, by Alan Lloyd, 1964

“Divide and Rule: The Partition of Africa, 1880-1914”, by H. L. Wessling and Arnold Pomerans, 1996

“Transformations in slavery: a History of Slavery in Africa”, by Paul E. Lovejoy, 2011