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A map of Africa in 1910

The history of external colonisation of Africa can be divided into two stages: Classical antiquity and European colonialism. In popular parlance, discussions of colonialism in Africa usually focus on the European conquests that resulted in the Scramble for Africa after the Berlin Conference in the 19th century.[1][2]

In nearly all African countries today, the language used in government and media is a relic inherited from one of these waves of colonization.


History of AfricaEdit

Ancient and Medieval colonizationEdit

North Africa experienced colonization from Europe and Western Asia in the early historical period, particularly Greeks and Phoenicians.

Under Egypt's Pharaoh Amasis (570–526 BC) a Greek mercantile colony was established at Naucratis, some 50 miles from the later Alexandria.[3] Greeks also colonized Cyrenaica around the same time.[4] There was also an attempt in 513 BC to establish a Greek colony between Cyrene and Carthage, which resulted in the combined local and Carthaginian expulsion two years later of the Greek colonists.[5]

Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) founded Alexandria during his conquest of Egypt. This became one of the major cities of Hellenistic and Roman times, a trading and cultural centre as well as a military headquarters and communications hub.

Phoenicians established a number of colonies along the coast of North Africa. Some of these were founded relatively early. Utica, for example, was founded c. 1100 BC. Carthage, which means New City, has a traditional foundation date of 814 BC. It was established in what is now Tunisia and became a major power in the Mediterranean by the 4th century BC. The Carthaginians themselves sent out expeditions to explore and establish colonies along Africa's Atlantic coast. A surviving account of such is that of Hanno, which Harden who quotes it places at c. 425 BC.[6]

Carthage encountered and struggled with the Romans. After the third and final war between them, the Third Punic War (150–146 BC), Rome completely destroyed Carthage. Scullard mentions plans by such as Gaius Gracchus in the late 2nd century BC, Julius Caesar and Augustus in the mid- and late 1st century BC to establish a new Roman colony near the same site. This was established and under Augustus served as the capital city of African continent Roman province of Africa.[7]

Gothic Vandals briefly established a kingdom there in the 5th century, which shortly thereafter fell to the Romans again, this time the Byzantines. The whole of Roman/Byzantine North Africa eventually fell to the Arabs in the 7th century.

Arabs introduced the Arabic language and Islam in the early Medieval period, while the Malay people introduced varieties of their language to Madagascar even earlier.

Map of West Africa, ca. 1736, "explaining what belongs to England, Holland, Denmark, etc."

Early modern periodEdit

Early European expeditions by the Portuguese concentrated on colonising previously uninhabited islands such as the Cape Verde Islands and São Tomé Island, or establishing coastal forts as a base for trade.

Areas controlled by European colonial powers on the African continent in 1913, shown along with current national boundaries
Areas of Africa controlled by European colonial powers in 1939

Scramble for AfricaEdit

Established empires, notably Britain, Portugal and France, had already claimed vast areas of Africa and Asia for themselves, and emerging imperial powers like Italy and Germany had done likewise on a smaller scale. With the dismissal of the aging Chancellor Bismarck by Kaiser Wilhelm II, the relatively orderly colonisation became a frantic scramble. The 1885 Berlin Conference, initiated by Bismarck to establish international guidelines for the acquisition of African territory, formalised this "New Imperialism". Between the Franco-Prussian War and the Great War, Europe added almost 9 million square miles (23,000,000 km²)—one-fifth of the land area of the globe—to its overseas colonial possessions.

Vincent Khapoya notes the great self-esteem some European states felt at possessing territory many times larger than themselves. He adds the significant contribution made by Africans to struggle among the Great Powers. He states that one million people of African descent fought for the Allies in World War I and two million in World War II.[8]

Khapoya considers the colonisers' administrative styles. "The French, the Portuguese, the Germans and the Belgians exercised a highly centralised type of administration called 'direct rule.'"[9] The British sought to rule by identifying local power holders and encouraging or forcing these to administer for the British Empire. This was indirect rule.[10]

France ruled from France, appointing chiefs individually without considering traditional criteria, but rather loyalty to France. France established two large colonial federations in Africa, French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa. France appointed officials, passed laws and had to approve any measures passed by colonial assemblies.

Local groups in German East Africa resisted German enforced labour and taxation. The Germans were almost driven out of the area in 1888.[11] A decade later the colony seemed conquered, though, "It had been a long drawn-out struggle and inland administration centres were in reality little more than a series of small military fortresses." In 1905, the Germans were astonished by a widely supported uprising. This resistance was at first successful. However, within a year, the insurgency was suppressed by reinforcing troops armed with machine guns. German attempts to seize control in Southwest Africa also produced ardent resistance, which was very forcefully put down.[12]

King Leopold II of Belgium called his vast private colony the Congo Free State. Effectively this meant those exploiting the area were free of all restraint and answerable only to the Belgian king.[13] The treatment of the Africans under this system was harsh enough to cause the other colonial powers to plead with the Belgian king to exercise some moderating influence. Eventually the Belgian government annexed the territory as a Belgian colony.[13]

Khapoya notes the significant attention colonial powers paid to the economics of colonisation. This included: acquisition of land, often enforced labour, introduction of cash crops, sometimes even to the neglect of food crops, changing inter-African trading patterns of pre-colonial times, introduction of labourers from India, etc. and the continuation of Africa as a source of raw materials for European industry.[14] Colonial powers later focused on abolishing slavery, developing infrastructure, and improving health and education.[15][16]


Vincent Khapoya notes the significant resistance of powers faced to their domination in Africa. Technical superiority enabled conquest and control. Pro-independence Africans recognised the value of European education in dealing with Europeans in Africa. Some Africans established their own churches. Africans also noticed the unequal evidence of gratitude they received for their efforts to support Imperialist countries during the world wars.[17]

Vincent Khapoya also notes that while European imposed borders did not correspond to traditional territories, such new territories provided entities to focus efforts by movements for increased political voice up to independence. Among local groups so concerned were professionals such as lawyers and doctors, the petite bourgeoisie (clerks, teachers, small merchants), urban workers, cash crop farmers, peasant farmers, etc. Trade unions and other initially non-political associations evolved into political movements.

Khapoya describes the differences in gaining independence by British and French colonies. Britain sought to follow a process of gradual transfer of power. The French policy of assimilation faced some resentment, especially in North Africa.[18] Shillington describes the granting of independence in March 1956 to Morocco and Tunisia to allow concentration on Algeria where there was a long (1954–62) and bloody armed struggle to achieve independence.[19] Khapoya writes that when President de Gaulle in 1958 held a referendum in its African colonies on the issue, only Guinea voted for outright independence. Nevertheless, in 1959 France amended the constitution to allow other colonies this option.[20]

As Shillington describes farmers in British East Africa were upset by attempts to take their land and to impose agricultural methods against their wishes and experience. In Tanganyika, Julius Nyerere exerted influence not only among Africans, united by the common Swahili language, but also on some white leaders whose disproportionate voice under a racially weighted constitution was significant. He became the leader of an independent Tanganyika in 1961. In Kenya, whites had evicted African tenant farmers in the 1930s; since the '40s there has been conflict, which intensified in 1952. By 1955, Britain had suppressed the revolt, and by 1960 Britain accepted the principle of African majority rule. Kenya became independent three years later.[21]

Shillington vividly portrays Belgium's initial opposition to independence, the demands by some urban Africans, the 1957 & 1958 local elections meant to calm this dissatisfaction, the general unrest that swept the colony, the rapid granting of independence and the civil strife that ensued.[22]

The main period of decolonisation in Africa began after World War II. Growing independence movements, indigenous political parties and trade unions coupled with pressure from within the imperialist powers and from the United States ensured the decolonisation of the majority of the continent by 1980. While some areas, in particular, South Africa, & Namibia retain a large population of European descent, only the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla and the islands of Réunion, the Canary Islands, and Madeira remain under European control, the latter two of which were never part of any African polity and have an overwhelmingly European population.

Theoretical frameworksEdit

The theory of colonialism addresses the problems and consequences of the colonisation of a country, and there has been much research conducted exploring these concepts.

Mahmood MamdaniEdit

Mahmood Mamdani

Mahmood Mamdani wrote his book Citizen and Subject in 1996. The main point of his argument is that the colonial state in Africa took the form of a bifurcated state, “two forms of power under a single hegemonic authority”.[23] The colonial state in Africa was divided into two. One state for the colonial European population and one state for the indigenous population. The colonial power was mainly in urban towns and cities and were served by elected governments. The indigenous power was found in rural villages and were ruled by tribal authority, which seemed to be more in keeping with their history and tradition. Mamdani mentions that in urban areas, native institutions were not recognised. The natives, who were portrayed as uncivilised by the Europeans, were excluded from the rights of citizenship.[24] The division of the colonial state created a racial segregation between the European ‘citizen’ and African ‘subject’, and a division between institutions of government.

The division Mamdani spoke about in Citizen and Subject is still visible in African cities. The segregation he talks about was based on race, but now is also based on wealth and class. Urban areas of African cities are divided between rich areas and poor areas that do not have services. This is best illustrated by Johnny Miller, who created a project called Unequal Scenes to showcase the inequalities found in some urban African spaces. One city that Miller looks at is Nairobi in Kenya. The photographs he provides highlights the housing inequality. The suburb of Loresho is home to the rich that live in gated communities, and to the poor that live in slum communities. They are only separated by a concrete barrier. This barrier represents a class segregation and the uneven distribution of wealth.[25]

Achille MbembeEdit

Achille Mbembe

Achille Mbembe is a Cameroonian historian, political theorist, and philosopher who has written and theorized extensively on life in the colony and postcolony. His 2000 book, On the Postcolony, critically examines postcolonial life in Africa and is a prolific work within the field of postcolonialism. It is through this examination of the postcolony that Mbembe reveals the modes through which power was exerted in colonial Africa. He reminds the reader that colonial powers demanded use of African bodies in particularly violent ways for the purpose of labor as well as the shaping of subservient colonised identities.

Through a comparison of power in the colony and postcolony, Mbembe demonstrates that violence in the colony was exerted on African bodies largely for the purpose of labor and submission.[26] European colonial powers sought natural resources in African colonies and needed the requisite labor force to extract them and simultaneously build the colonial city around these industries. Because Europeans viewed native bodies as degenerate and in need of taming, violence was necessary to create a submissive laborer.[26]

Colonisers viewed this violence as necessary and good because it shaped the African into a productive worker.[26] They had the simultaneous goals of utilizing the raw labor and shaping the identity and character of the African. By beating into the African a docile nature, colonisers ultimately shaped and enforced the way Africans could move through colonial spaces.[26] The African’s day-to-day life then became a show of submission done through exercises like public works projects and military conscription.[26]

Mbembe contrasts colonial violence with that of the postcolony. Mbembe demonstrates that violence in the postcolony is cruder and more generally for the purpose of demonstrating raw power. Expressions of excess and exaggeration characterize this violence.[26]

Mbembe’s theorization of violence in the colony illuminates the unequal relationship between the coloniser and colonised and reminds us of the violence inflicted on African bodies throughout the process of colonisation. It cannot be understood nor should be taught without the context of this violence.

Stephanie Terreni BrownEdit

Stephanie Terreni Brown is an academic in the field of colonialism. In her 2014 paper she examines how sanitation and dirt is used in colonial narratives through the example of Kampala in Uganda. Writing also about Abjection through sanitation planning in the city and how this plays a key role in this narrative of colonisation.[27]

Brown describes Abjection as the process whereby one group others or dehumanizes another. Those who are deemed Abject are often avoided by others, and seen as inferior.  Abjectivication is continually used as a mechanism to dominate a group of people, and control them. In the case of colonialism, she argues that it is used by the west to dominate over and control the indigenous population of Africa.[27]

Abjectivication through discourses of dirt and sanitation are used to draw distinctions between the Western governing figures and the local population. Dirt being seen as something out of place, whilst cleanliness being attributed to the “in group”, the colonisers, and dirt being paralleled with the indigenous people. The  reactions of disgust and displeasure to dirt and uncleanliness are often linked social norms and the wider cultural context, shaping the way in which Africa is still thought of today.[27]

Brown discusses how the colonial authorities were only concerned with constructing a working sewage system to cater for the colonials themselves, and weren’t concerned with the Ugandan population. This rhetoric of sanitation is important because it is seen as a key part of modernity and being civilised, which the African population are therefore seen as not being. This lack of sanitation and proper sewage systems add to this discourse of the people of Africa and Africa itself being savages and uncivilised, playing a central role in how the west justified the case of the civilising process. Brown refers to this process of abjectification using discourses of dirt as a physical and material legacy of colonialism that is still very much present in Kampala and other African cities today.[27]


Critical theory on the colonisation of Africa is largely unified in a condemnation of imperial activities. Postcolonial theory has been derived from this anti-colonial/anti-imperial concept and writers such as Mbembe, Mamdani and Brown, and many more, have used it as a narrative for their work on the colonisation of Africa.

‘Post colonialism can be described as a powerful interdisciplinary mood in the social sciences and humanities that is refocusing attention on the imperial/colonial past, and critically revising understanding of the place of the west in the world.’ [28]

Postcolonial geographers are consistent with the notion that colonialism, although maybe not in such clear-cut forms, is still concurrent today. Both Mbembe, Mamdani and Brown’s theories have a consistent theme of the indigenous Africans having been treated as uncivilised, second class citizens and that in many former colonial cities this has continued into the present day with a switch from race to wealth divide.

Mbembe is one of the most prominent writers within the field and this has led to his work being reviewed by numerous academics. On the Postcolony has faced criticism from academics such as Meredith Terreta for focusing too much on specific African nations such as Cameroon.[29] Echoes of this criticism can also be found when looking at the work of Mamdani with his theories questioned for generalising across an Africa that, in reality, was colonised in very different ways, by fundamentally different European imperial ideologies.[30] In contrast to Mbembe and Mamdani, Brown is a less prominent writer and one whose work is yet to be reviewed by other academics meaning it is currently harder to grasp what academic theoretical critiques could be brought against her work.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Harris (1914)
  2. ^ Miers & Klein (1998)
  3. ^ Boardman (1973), p. 114
  4. ^ Boardman (1973), p. 151f
  5. ^ Boardman (1973), p. 208
  6. ^ Harden (1971), pp. 163–168
  7. ^ Scullard (1976), pp. 37, 150, 216
  8. ^ Khapoya (1998), p. 115f
  9. ^ Bensoussan (2012)
  10. ^ Khapoya (1998), p. 126f
  11. ^ Shillington (1995)
  12. ^ Shillington (1995), p. 340f
  13. ^ a b Khapoya (1998), p. 131
  14. ^ Khapoya (1998), pp. 14–1431
  15. ^ Lovejoy (2012)
  16. ^ Ferguson (2003)
  17. ^ Khapoya (1998), p. 148f
  18. ^ Khapoya (1998), p. 177f
  19. ^ Shillington (1995), p. 380f
  20. ^ Khapoya (1998), p. 183
  21. ^ Shillington (1995), p. 385f
  22. ^ Shillington (1995), p. 391f
  23. ^ 1946-, Mamdani, Mahmood (1996). Citizen and subject : contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism. Kampala: Fountain Publishers. p. 18. ISBN 9780852553992. OCLC 35445018.
  24. ^ Mamdani, Mahmood (1996). Citizen and subject : contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism. Kampala: Fountain. p. 16. ISBN 9780852553992.
  25. ^ Miller, Johnny. "Nairobi". Retrieved 30 October 2017.
  26. ^ a b c d e f Mbembe, Achille (1992). "Provisional Notes on the Postcolony". Africa: Journal of the International African Institute. 62: 3–37. doi:10.2307/1160062. JSTOR 1160062.
  27. ^ a b c d Brown, Stephanie Terreni (2014-01-02). "Planning Kampala: histories of sanitary intervention and in/formal spaces". Critical African Studies. 6 (1): 71–90. doi:10.1080/21681392.2014.871841. ISSN 2168-1392.
  28. ^ Clayton, Daniel (2003). "Chapter 18: Critical Imperial and Colonial Geographies". In Anderson, Kay; Domosh, Mona; Pile, Steve; Thrift, Nigel (eds.). Handbook of Cultural Geography. Sage London. pp. 354–368.
  29. ^ Terretta, Meredith (2002). "Review Work: On the Postcolony by Achille Mbembe". Canadian Journal of African Studies. 36 (1): 161–163.
  30. ^ Copans, Jean (1998). "Review of Citizen and Subject". Transformation. 36: 102–105.


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