The imperial competition to control Africa spawned a predatory colonialism of mines, plantations, and machine-guns and propelled humanity towards industrialised world war writes Neil Faulkner.

Cecil RhodesOn 2 September 1898, a British army of 25,000 men confronted a Sudanese army of 50,000 at Omdurman, near Khartoum, at the heart of one of the few remaining independent states in Africa.

The Sudan was a merciless country. Its million square miles ranged from burning desert to disease-ridden rainforest. This was the view of the Sudanese themselves: ‘When Allah created the Sudan,’ they would say, ‘he laughed.’ For life was hard in such an unforgiving land.

Yet the British had come to take it from the people who lived there.

Spread across a thousand miles of Africa, formed of some 600 tribes, speaking a hundred languages, and pursuing perhaps a dozen distinct lifeways, the Sudanese had only recently been welded into a single polity. What caused this to happen in the late 19th century – in an exceptionally violent way – was the impact of imperialism.

The Turco-Egyptian conquest of the Sudan had begun in the 1820s and was still ongoing 60 years later. The occupation was exploitative and oppressive. Tax-collection in Sudanese villages was a paramilitary operation, carried out with the assistance of the kourbash (a rhinoceros-hide whip). Officials were routinely corrupt, so that bribes and pay-offs were piled on top of taxes.

To the harshness and poverty of the landscape, therefore, was added the bitter experience of bullying foreign overlords. But this, between 1881 and 1884, had produced a mighty upsurge of resistance which swept the foreigners out of Sudan and forged an independent Islamic state.

The resistance took an Islamic form because only religion offered a framework of leadership, cadre, organisation, and ideology capable of overriding Sudan’s diversity and fragmentation. And because it was forged in a struggle against imperialism, the state was not only Islamic, but also rather authoritarian and militarised.

Coincidentally, in 1882, the Egyptians had made their own revolution against a British-backed puppet regime in Cairo. But this had been crushed, and the British had replaced the Turks as the effective rulers of Egypt.

Immediate British efforts to reconquer the Sudan had failed, however, leaving the new Islamic state in full control of its territory after 1885. These first efforts had, in fact, been rather half-hearted: Sudan was an impoverished wilderness, hard to control, hardly worth having, and the British government had lacked the will to fight for it.

Much changed over the following decade. Until 1879, most of Africa had been an unknown ‘dark continent’ as far as Europeans were concerned. Their influence was limited largely to trading stations on or close to the coast, many dating from the 17th century, reflecting the predominantly mercantile character of European capitalism at the time.

Map of AfricaThe rest of Africa remained a patchwork of polities at many different stages of development. Egypt had been governed for much of the 19th century by modernising nationalist regimes. The rest of North Africa was ruled by traditional Islamic potentates owing some sort of allegiance to the Ottoman Empire.

Abyssinia (Ethiopia) was an inland highland kingdom with an ancient Christian culture. The Ashanti of West Africa and the Zulus of South Africa were militaristic tribal kingdoms. Much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa was similar to the Sudan: a mosaic of smaller tribal entities.

A major exception was South Africa, where the British controlled the Natal and Cape Colony, while the Boers (or Afrikaners) – white farmer-settlers of Dutch origin – ruled the Transvaal and the Orange Free State in the interior.

This African political geography was completely transformed in the generation after 1879 by British, French, Portuguese, Spanish, German, and Italian imperialism.

During the mid 19th century, the spread of industrial capitalism across much of Europe had created a fast-growing demand for primary products, new markets, and outlets for the investment of surplus capital. A financial crash in 1873 and a global slump thereafter had intensified competition among European capitalists.

In consequence, between 1879 and 1913, virtually the whole of Africa was carved into colonies by the European powers. The extent of the land grab – ‘the Scramble for Africa’ as it was known – is best viewed on a map like that reproduced here.

Africa supplied gold, diamonds, copper, tin, rubber, cotton, palm oil, cocoa, tea, and much else to the growing industries and cities of Europe. The continent’s inhabitants, including increasing numbers of white settlers, provided markets for European manufactures. Colonial infrastructure projects, like railway construction, made European industrialists and bond-holders rich.

Victims of Belgian imperialism in the CongoBecause of this, and also because geopolitical tension between the great powers was rising, the carve-up of Africa was competitive and contested. This gave it a dynamic independent of the economic value of particular territories.

The great powers seized colonies to pre-empt one another. They used them as barriers to block one another’s expansion, and as platforms for the projection of military power into one another’s ‘spheres of influence’. They also wanted them as bargaining chips in imperial horse-trading.

The French, with control over virtually the whole of the Maghreb and West Africa, dreamed of an empire extending across the continent from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. The British, by contrast, talked of an empire extending north-south, ‘from Cairo to the Cape’, linking together existing possessions in Egypt, East Africa, and South Africa. But the Germans grabbed Tanzania and got in the way of both.

The cost to the people of Africa was immense. Resistance was crushed by artillery, machine-guns, and massacre. Land was taken at gunpoint to create white-owned estates. Native farmers and herders were forced to become wage-labourers by a mixture of dispossession, taxation, press-gangs, and straightforward thuggery.

Sir Frederick Lugard, British High Commissioner for the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria, insisted on ‘annihiliation’ in response to a peasant revolt in 1906. Around 2,000 African villagers armed with hoes and hatchets were shot down by soldiers using magazine rifles. Prisoners were executed and their heads cut off and put on spikes. The rebel village was razed to the ground.

Tens of thousands of Herero and Nama tribespeople died of starvation and thirst when the Germans drove them into the Namibian desert between 1904 and 1907. General Lothar von Trotha, like Lugard, was an explicit advocate of ‘annihilation’.

In the Belgian Congo, millions died, possibly as many as half the population, due to war, starvation, and disease between 1885 and 1908, as the entire territory was transformed into a vast forced-labour camp. Native labourers who failed to meet rubber collection quotas had their hands cut off.

It was the intensification of the Scramble for Africa between 1885 and 1895 that brought the British back to the Sudan. The example of an independent African-ruled state was regrettable enough. But it was the possibility of French intervention in Britain’s backyard that made the matter urgent.

The Battle of OmdurmanGeneral Herbert Kitchener spent two years advancing down the Nile, building a railway to keep his army supplied as he went. His men were equipped with modern rifles, machine-guns, and artillery. Most of the Sudanese were armed with spears and swords.

The Battle of Omdurman was a massacre. Kitchener’s army suffered 429 casualties, while the Sudanese lost 10,000 killed, 13,000 wounded, and 5,000 prisoners. The British abandoned the Sudanese wounded to die where they lay on the battlefield.

Meantime, a small French military expedition had arrived at Fashoda on the upper reaches of the Nile in southern Sudan. Kitchener moved upriver to confront them, and Britain threatened war if they were not withdrawn. The French backed down.

The ‘Fashoda Incident’ was an expression of the growing imperial tension between the great powers – not just in Africa, but in the Far East, Central Asia, the Middle East, the Balkans, Central Europe, and the North Sea.

Capitalism had spawned not only a predatory colonialism of mines, plantations, and machine-guns. It was propelling humanity towards its first modern industrialised world war.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.