From the March 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
In two dramatic decades, virtually the entire continent of Africa was carved up among the European powers in what has appropriately been called “the scramble for Africa”, leaving only Ethiopia independent. What gave rise to this sudden change? For the answer we must first look at Europe itself.
England, for a long time the “workshop of the world”, was facing increasing competition. Her industrial supremacy was diminishing rapidly. In 1870 she was still smelting half the world’s iron —more than three times that of any other country—but before the close of the century she was overtaken by America and hard-pressed by Germany for second place. The growth of manufacturing created the need to open up new markets, a need well understood by the then French Prime Minister, Jules Ferry, when he remarked: “What [our great industries] lack more and more is markets. Why? Because . . . Germany is covering herself with barriers; because, beyond the ocean, the United States of America have become protectionist .. .”. The so-called Golden Age of Laissez-Faire capitalism was coming to an end, as England’s competitors waxed stronger. Stanley, the famous explorer of the Congo Basin, enthusiastically addressed the Manchester Chamber of Commerce in 1884 with the words: “There are forty millions of people beyond the gateway of the Congo, and the cotton spinners of Manchester are waiting to clothe them. Birmingham foundries are glowing with the red metal that will presently be made into ironwork for them”. But it was Leopold the Second of Belgium who employed Stanley to establish military posts in the Congo and make treaties with the local tribes. These were the foundations of Leopold’s empire, where the most barbaric practices (such as the flogging to death of fugitives or slackers with the sjambok) were commonplace.
Along with new markets, the colonies could provide raw materials such as copper, rubber, palm oil, timber and cotton which the expanding home industries craved. They also provided highly profitable outlets for the export of capital.
The means of communication and distribution were rapidly advanced with the invention of steamships, locomotives and telegraphs, the effects of which were only felt in the world at large in the last few decades of the century. These made possible massive increases in colonial trade and the expansion of empires. All these factors, working in conjunction, created the possibility for many powers to lay claim to vast territories, reacting to each others’ claims by annexing more, in a sort of complex chain reaction. Hitherto lack of competition, amongst other factors, had detracted from the sense of urgency which now accompanied empire-building.
The specific motives—and pretexts—or colonisation differed from area to area. In North, West and East Africa, colonisation was “largely governed by strategic requirements having little to do with Africa herself”, as far as the British were concerned. South of the Zambesi River “British policy was driven by a deliberate and determined desire to establish a British dominion in South Africa” (Scramble for Africa A. Nutting). Thus Britain gained control of the Suez Canal Company (on the strength of a loan from Rothschilds) and eventually Egypt, to protect the route to her valuable possessions in India. To secure her hold in Egypt she looked upon her territories elsewhere as “disposable assets”, to be bartered if necessary.
By no stretch of the imagination could South Africa be a mere “disposable asset”. The second half of the nineteenth century revealed her immense mineral wealth, beginning with the discovery of diamonds in Qriqualand West in 1867. Bitter disputes broke out over the ownership of the diamond fields involving the Boer republics and the various Qriqua and Tswana chiefs. These were effectively resolved by the annexation of Qriqualand West by Britain in 1871. Diamond wealth spawned the De Beers Consolidated Mining Company, whose vast resources were used to promote the activities of the British South Africa Company. It was through this organisation, with the megalomaniac Cecil Rhodes at its helm, that Rhodesia was brought under European domination.
In 1877, after unsuccessful attempts to establish a federation of states in South Africa, which people like Rhodes dearly wanted, Britain annexed the Transvaal only to hand it back in 1881 after suffering a humiliating defeat by the Boers. In 1884, Germany laid claim to South West Africa and Rhodes, fearing a possible link-up of Boers and Germans, succeeded in getting Bechuanaland annexed by Britain, thus driving a wedge between the two and securing the strategically important “missionary Road to the North”, important for it gave access to what he believed was the Eldorado of the North. From the 1860s explorers had come across the ancient gold workings in that area and in the Tati district the German explorer, Karl Mauch discovered gold. Rhodes and his company finally captured this fabled land of King Solomon’s mines with such ruthlessness against the Matabele that the Company’s own ambassador in Bulawayo felt prompted to remark that “the Pioneer at his most highly developed state is a white savage, the most terrible of men”.
However, the real Eldorado lay not to the north but southwards, for in 1886 in the Witwatersrand area of the Transvaal a rich gold bearing reef was discovered. With the rising fortunes of the Transvaal grew the fear that British supremacy in South Africa was threatened and that the British colonies there might throw in their lot with the Boer Republics. For the next thirteen years British policy was directed at denying the Boers access to a seaport by surrounding the Transvaal with newly acquired British territory. With the completion of the railway line between the Rand and Portuguese held Delagoa Bay every effort was made to exploit the grievances of the “Uitlander” population of mainly British extraction living on the Rand. Such was the determination of British imperialism to resolve the issue by force that Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, faced with the relatively generous Boer concessions to Britain’s demands, despairingly commented: “I dread above all the whittling away of differences until we have no causus belli left”.
But Chamberlain need not have worried for all along an overriding “causus belli” was there. It was still there when the frictions resulting from the partition of Africa played an important role in dividing the world into two armed camps that led to the outbreak of World War One. And today it continues to menace our very existence, until the workers of the world are prepared to learn from its blood-soaked past that the capitalist system of society cannot and will not be made to behave otherwise, and resolve therefore, to abolish it from all the continents of the earth.