The Scramble for Africa: How Europe Conquered a Continent

The division of Africa by imperial Europe exemplifies the destructive power of colonialism. The Scramble for Africa changed the continent forever.

Jun 29, 2024By Thomas Bailey, BSc Geography

scramble africa europe conquered continent


In the 19th century, Europe’s imperial superpowers were locked in a battle for global supremacy. Their colonial gaze soon fell upon Africa. The continent became a battleground for European competition as the powers scrambled to conquer the entire landmass. Europe’s conquest of Africa would haunt the African people for generations and change the continent’s course of history forever.


Early European Exploration

Portrait of Scottish explorer David Livingstone by Frederick Havill. Source: Wikimedia Commons


By the early 19th century, the great European powers, fuelled by their colonial appetite, had begun spreading their reach around the world. Britain had conquered India and had long-established colonies in North America and Australia. Neighboring France had also attempted to spread their imperial control in North America. The Iberian states of Spain and Portugal successfully gained a monopoly over South America.


Africa had remained relatively unaffected by European colonialism, though it had been devastated by the transatlantic slave trade. The continent would experience increasingly frequent visits from European explorers and cartographers. David Livingstone, the famed Scottish adventurer, extensively explored the continent’s interior regions, which had been previously unreached by Europeans.


Europe had already established small colonial trading settlements along the African coast, mostly to assist with the transatlantic slave trade. However, Britain passed the Slave Trade Act in 1807, which made slavery illegal, and the US followed suit, banning slave importation in 1808. The end of the slave trade, unfortunately, would not end European colonialism; instead, it only increased.

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European nations began rapidly expanding their African territories. France took Algeria in 1830. Britain gained control of the Cape Colony (modern-day South Africa) in 1877 and the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana) in 1874. Portugal controlled the colonies of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau, where they had a presence as early as the 15th century. By the 1870s, Europe controlled 10% of the African continent.


Causes of European Expansion in Africa

Cartoon depicting the European powers dividing Africa by François Maréchal, 1884. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Several key factors of the 19th century contributed to European colonial expansion in Africa. Importantly, Britain was facing a growing trade deficit, exporting far more goods than it was importing, which was of great economic concern to the imperial power. This coincided with the Long Depression, one of the most severe economic recessions in history, which began in 1873. Europe was hit hard, especially Britain, and many states began adopting more protectionist economic policies. Africa and its abundant raw materials provided an opportunity to grow new open markets for trade and capital investment.


The ever-present imperial rivalry between the European powers also likely contributed to the scramble for land. Africa’s resources and economic potential would provide significant advantages to those that gained the largest foothold on the landmass.


The continent also had great strategic value. Africa was an important crossroad for trade between Europe and Asia. The Suez Canal in Egypt and the Cape of South Africa were vital strategic positions for control over shipping routes. These areas were particularly important for Britain and its colonial interests in India and China.


The emergence of two new European powers eager to grow their international reputation would also inspire the scramble. Italy officially unified in 1861 and was quickly followed by Germany in 1871. Both powers were keen to establish their status in Europe and begin their imperial endeavors. It was a widely held belief that no nation could be considered a superpower if it did not control any overseas territory.


The Beginning of the Scramble

Explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley. Source: Historic UK


The beginning of the 1880s saw a significant increase in the size of Europe’s territory in Africa. France annexed Tunisia in 1881 and the region known today as the Republic of the Congo in 1882. Germany took control of Namibia, Togo, and Cameroon in 1884. The same year, Spain carved out an area of territory in Morocco.


France and Britain’s attention soon fell upon Egypt, whose leader, Isma’il Pasha, fell into financial difficulty. The two nations had significant shares in Egypt’s Suez Canal, and as economic issues persisted, Britain and France assumed responsibility for Egypt’s economy. In 1879, a nationalist uprising fought against the foreign influence of Turkey and Europe, known as the Urabi Revolt. In response, Britain launched a widespread military invasion. The revolt was ultimately crushed, and Britain took control of the administration of Egypt.


In 1876, Belgian King Leopold II established the International African Association. He dispatched renowned explorer Henry Morton Stanley to the Congo. There, Stanley signed several treaties and agreements with local chiefs and leaders for ownership of their land. Most chiefs were not entirely aware of the nature of the treaties they had signed. In 1885, Leopold II named the region the Congo Free State (today known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and claimed the extensive area of land as his personal property.


The Berlin Conference

The Berlin Conference of 1884-5. Source: Illustrierte Zeitung via Wikimedia Commons


In November 1884, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck convened a conference in Berlin to discuss the colonization of Africa. Representatives of 16 parties attended the conference. These were Germany, Austria-Hungary, Spain, Denmark, the US, France, Britain, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Sweden-Norway, the Ottoman Empire, and representatives from King Leopold’s Congo.


The conference set the rules for European colonialism and decided how best to divide the continent to avoid conflict among themselves. Notably, the conference established the principle of effective occupation, which determined how European powers could acquire new territory. It asserted that states could acquire lands if they had treaties with local leaders, planted their flag there, and established an administration to govern the territory with a police force to maintain order.


The Berlin Conference also recognized the currently existing colonial territories, including King Leopold II’s personal ownership of the Congo Free State. For Germany and von Bismarck, hosting the Berlin Conference signaled the recognition of Germany’s status as a great imperial power.


Despite the Berlin Conference deciding the division and fate of Africa, no African representatives were invited to attend.


Europe Completes its Conquest

The division of Africa by the European powers by 1912. Source: via Stanford University


The Berlin Conference opened the floodgates for European imperialism. It would result in a rapid expansion of European colonies as the imperial powers scrambled for every remaining parcel of land.


Following their acquisition of Egypt in 1882, Britain would also add Sudan, Nigeria, and Kenya to their territory in 1888, as well as Uganda in 1890. Britain also expanded and consolidated their control in South Africa after defeating the Boer republics of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State in the Second Boer War in 1902. Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe and Zambia) fell under the administration of the British South Africa Company in 1889.


The Rhodes Colossus cartoon, depicting British businessman Cecil Rhodes stretching across Africa, by Edward Linley Sambourne, 1892. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Italy also rapidly expanded its territory, annexing Eritrea in 1885, Somalia in 1889, and Libya in 1911. The acquisitions of Eritrea and Somalia provided Italy with significant influence in the Horn of Africa.


France took control of Niger in 1890, Burkina Faso in 1896, Chad in 1900, and Mauritania in 1902, which consolidated France’s monopoly of power in West Africa.


The Berlin Conference also led the German Empire to assert its control over Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi. The territory was combined and designated as German East Africa.


By 1914, 90% of Africa was controlled by seven European powers. The only African states to evade imperial tyranny were Liberia and Ethiopia.


The Tools & Technologies of Imperialism

Maxim Gun used by British troops in Chitral, India, 1895. Source: National Army Museum



Europe’s rapid conquest of Africa was assisted by Europe’s significant technological developments. Iron-hulled steamboats allowed European colonialists to penetrate further into the African interior by traveling upriver. Without steamboats, it is highly unlikely that Europeans could have conquered the continent as quickly or efficiently.


Malaria was the greatest hindrance to European expansion. The mosquito-spread disease resulted in the decimation of countless expeditions into Africa’s interior. William Bolt’s expedition to Mozambique in 1777-79 resulted in the deaths of 132 out of 152 European expedition members. In 1841, the British government sent Captain Trotter and a major expedition up the Niger River aboard three iron-hulled steamboats. Malaria claimed the lives of 55 out of 152 Europeans.


However, in 1854, Dr. William Balfour Baikie, Captain of the steamboat Pleiad, administered quinine to his European crew. The ship sailed up the Niger and back again, and nobody died. The use of quinine as a treatment for Malaria opened the gates of Africa for Europe’s invasion.


The 1860s witnessed the introduction of breechloading weapons. This followed the earlier inventions of rifling, percussion caps, and cylindro-conoidal bullets. Together, these developments resulted in the creation of the modern gun. These were followed by the creation of repeating rifles, and in 1884, the first automatic machine gun was conceived, known as the Maxim gun.


British cavalry charge at the Battle of Omdurman by Harry Payne. Source: British Battles


The native populations in North Africa and coastal regions had obtained guns through European traders. However, further inland, the more isolated populations had little access to such weaponry. In eastern and southern Africa, weapons such as spears and bows were commonly used. Before the discovery of quinine, these regions had not needed advanced weaponry, as Malaria had provided a natural defence.


Europe’s technological advancement proved devastating to the African peoples, who were entirely ill-equipped to defend against their invaders. This is best illustrated during the Battle of Omdurman, during Britain’s conquest of Sudan in 1898. The 25,000-strong British-Egyptian forces armed with twenty Maxim guns and four artillery pieces fought against the opposing army of 50,000 men. By the end of the battle, 12,000 Sudanese lay dead, while Britain lost just 48 men.


African Resistance & Colonial Crimes

The Battle of Abu Klea, 17th January 1885 by William Barns Wollen, 1896. Source: National Army Museum


Despite the overwhelming technological advantages the Europeans enjoyed, they were often met with resolute resistance by the African peoples.


In 1881, the Mahdist Sudanese fought against British and Egyptian rule. The Mahdists were led by Muhammad Ahmad bin Abdullah, who proclaimed himself the Mahdi (translated to “Guided One”) of Islam. The Islamic forces also unsuccessfully invaded other neighboring states, which resulted in them fighting Italy, Ethiopia, and the Congo Free State. The Mahdist forces were ultimately defeated at the previously mentioned Battle of Omdurman, and Sudan fell under British control.


Germany also faced resistance against their rule in Tanzania. Highly unpopular German colonial policies triggered an insurgent resistance that attempted to drive out the German colonizers. The resistance was led by Kinjikitle Ngwale, a supposed prophet who believed he had a sacred liquid that would repel German bullets. The Maji Maji Uprising would eventually be crushed by a brutal German counter-offensive. Famine was also weaponized by the Germans against the rebellion. Tanzanian crops were burned, resulting in a famine that has been described as genocide.


Tanzania was not the only colony that Germany would inflict genocide on. Between 1904 and 1907, German forces destroyed crops and poisoned wells in Namibia. Within three years, 80% of the Herero people and 50% of the Namaqua people had been killed.


Children in the Congo Free State displaying severed hands. Source: Rare Historical Photos


During the Second Boer War, between 1899 and 1902, Britain constructed around 40 concentration camps for Boer refugees. The camps held approximately 150,000 people in terrible conditions with little food or shelter, and disease became rampant. It is believed that as many as 28,000 Boers died in British concentration camps, the majority of whom were women and children.


Perhaps the worst crimes of European colonialism occurred within King Leopold II’s Congo Free State. Rubber was an abundant resource within the Congo and was becoming increasingly valuable. The Congolese people were forced deep into the jungle to harvest it. Strict quotas were enforced, and those who failed to meet them were punished by having their hand severed. This punishment was even imposed on children. Over the course of Leopold’s reign, from 1885 to 1905, ten million Congolese were killed, mostly through starvation, but others by murder.



Kwame Nkrumah, 1st President of Ghana. Source: Africa Is a Country


The post-war period in Africa was defined by revolution. An emergence of African intellectuals rose to prominence to lead their people. Figures such as Patrice Lumumba of the Congo and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana mobilized their people and promoted nationalist identity against the European colonialists.


Some African nations would gain their independence relatively peacefully. The Democratic Republic of the Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960 through a peaceful referendum.


Julius Nyerere, 1st President of Tanzania, celebrating self-governance, 1961. Source: Chatham House


Other nations would have to pay for their freedom in blood. Algeria fought a seven-year-long struggle for its independence from France, resulting in the deaths of one million civilians. Angola similarly achieved independence from Portugal in 1975 after 13 years of bloodshed.


Independence, unfortunately, did not ensure long-lasting peace on the African continent, and the impact and legacy of colonialism are still visible today.


When the European powers descended on Africa and divided the land among themselves, they drew rudimentary borders with complete disregard for geography, ethnicity, or religion. When African countries gained their independence, these irrational borders continued to divide the African people. Ethnic groups, such as the Mandinka (or Malinke) people located in West Africa, found their population of 11 million people divided into eight separate countries.


Colonial divisions have resulted in numerous wars and even genocide. The African borders resulting from imperialism scar the continent’s landscape. The scramble for Africa dramatically changed the continent’s course through history and continues to define its future. Europe’s prejudiced, unrelenting inhumanity toward the African peoples is testimony to the injustices of colonialism.

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By Thomas BaileyBSc GeographyThomas is currently studying for an MA in International Relations at the University of Portsmouth, England, and holds a BSc in Geography from Bangor University. He is passionate about African history and politics, having written his master’s dissertation on the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.