Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1982) presented an interesting overview of the European conquest of Africa when he wrote, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it much,” (p 10). This, however, should not be taken as it is. Conrad went on to portray Africa and its people as savage and a mere backdrop to European disentanglement to their own “reality.” This pretty much showcases how Africans were and had been during the European conquest as this essay presents with reason taken from Chinua Achebe’s When Things Fall Apart (1969) where “live and let live” was an often repeated theme.
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Africa before the colonies came, has an organized system unlike what Conrad (1982) had depicted. As was described by Achebe, in Umuofia, individual achievement was highly regarded than age or ancestry. “As the leaders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings.
Okonko had clearly washed his hands and so ate with kings and elders,” (Achebe, 1969, p 12). In fact, Achebe portrayed a society that encourages people to strive for success, although the same society also took care to shield the weak from the strong by restraining the mighty from intimidating the less fortunate. In fact, their ethics extend to distinguishing a just from unjust wars. As Achebe wrote, “And in fairness to Umoufia it should be recorded that it never went to war unless its case was clear and just and was accepted as such by its Oracle – the oracle of the Hills and the Caves,” (p 16).
Aside from just wars, the Africans in Achebe’s book have a traditional technique for computing the month, the day of the week and the year using natural objects such as the cockcrow and the position of the sun to the extent of determining date of their annual festivals such as the New Yam festival. There were also indications of individual-based respect and harmonious tribes which were to change when the Europeans came.
Prince Henry “the Navigator” planned to acquire African territory for Portugal during the 15th century. Portuguese navigators began a series of voyages of exploration which resulting in the circumnavigation of Africa and the establishment of Portuguese sovereignty over large areas as they rounded Cape Bojador in 1434, Cape Verde in 1445, and by 1480 the whole Guinea coast. Diogo Cão reached the mouth of the Congo in 1842, and the Cape of Good Hope was rounded by Bartolomeu Dias in 1488. By 1498, Vasco da Gama sailed up the east coast and established at Sofala and Malindi where Portugal claimed sovereign rights except in the southern parts of the continent (Martin and O’Meara, 1995).
The Guinea coast nearest to Europe was first exploited as European forts and trading stations were established in places such as São Jorge da Mina or present-day Elmina. The main commodities dealt in the area were slaves, gold, ivory and spices. The consequent European discovery of America in 1492 was followed by a leap of the slave trade of the Portuguese era almost exclusively confined to Muslim Africa. The trade was lucrative as much as the large quantities of alluvial gold obtained by the Portuguese. This led to other nations’ attention to the Guinea coast as English mariners were followed by Spaniards, Dutch, French, and Danish.
The coasts of Senegal to Lagos became dotted with forts and factories of rival European powers that persisted into the 20th century (Martin and O’Meara, 1995). The 16th century saw Christianity largely adopted in the Kongo Empire and Portuguese power extended farther south to São Paulo de Loanda or present-day Luanda which was founded in 1576.
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The African Slave Trade
The trans-Saharan was considered the earliest African slave trade which became viable when camels were introduced from Arabia in the 10th century. Slaves in North Africa were mainly servants rather than laborers of which an equal or greater number of females than males were taken, often employed as chambermaids to the women of northern harems as male slaves were turned into eunuchs. Consequently, the Atlantic slave trade eventually was far greater and had a much bigger impact that created a huge demand for labor — for agriculture, mining and other tasks — in Brazil. African kings sell their war captives or barter with European slave traders for firearms, rum, fabrics and seed grain while European traders also conducted their own, discrete and independent slave raids (Martin and O’Meara, 1995).
Colonization of Africa
The Napoleonic Wars distracted the attention of Europe from the exploitation of Africa and the invasion of Egypt in 1798 to 1803 by France and then by Great Britain resulted in an effort by Turkey to regain direct control over the area, followed in 1811 by the establishment of Mehemet Ali of an almost independent state. The Egyptian rule extended over eastern Sudan from 1820 onwards, while the United Kingdom seized Dutch settlements at the Cape, and in 1814 Cape Colony, which had been continuously occupied by British troops since 1806 (Martin and O’Meara, 1995).
The 19th century saw Protestant missionaries on the Guinea coast, in South Africa and in the Zanzibar dominions who later turned into explorers or became agents of trade and colonialism.
Partition among European powers
By the last quarter of the 19th century, Africa was transformed as lines of partition marked the possessions of Germany, France, Britain and the other European powers. In addition, railways entered the interior as more areas were opened up to European conquest. This was due to the economic and political state of western Europe at the time of which Germany, recently united under Prussian rule as the result of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, was seeking new outlets for her energies, new markets for her growing industries and markets (Martin and O’Meara, 1995).
Germany was the last country to enter the race of colonies with Africa as the only field left to exploit. South America was considered the fiefdom of the United States, while at the same time, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain had divided Asia and the rest of the world among themselves (Martin and O’Meara, 1995).
Discoveries of early missionaries and explorers led to aroused especial interest among two classes of men in western Europe: the manufacturing and trading class, which saw in Central Africa possibilities of commercial exploitation, and the philanthropic and missionary class, to Christianize and civilize savages. The possibility of utilizing both these classes in the creation of a huge private estate stirred the imagination of Léopold II, but without attracting rivals’ attention.
King Léopold in September 1876, summoned to a conference at Brussels representatives of Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Russia, to deliberate on the best methods to be adopted for the exploration and Westernization of Africa. This led to the opening up of the interior of the continent to commerce and industry. In the Berlin Conference by 1885, no African countries were consulted during the partitioning of Africa as an “International treaty” was signed, an utter disregard to the ethnic, social and economic composition of the people that lived in that area.
The effect of the European colonization of Africa with view to race and profit provided a major change in the region, basically negative. Europeans saw themselves as the higher race, or the dominant race that needs to control Africans and their lands. This view had the Africans considered as beasts and savages, good for trading and slavery. As Europe’s found preference to affluence, Africa provided goods of gold and slaves that Europe much needed. Apart from destroying a semi-contented, placid but nevertheless a sufficient culture and society, Africa and its people were plundered for its riches as its peoples are sold all over the west as slaves and remain so for decades to come.
Achebe, Chinua (1969). When Things Fall Apart. Anchor.
Conrad, Joseph. (1982). Heart of Darkness. Green Integer.
Martin and O’Meara (1995). Africa (3rd Ed.) Indiana: Indiana University Press.