Imperialism in Africa

From the time of European explorations in the later part of the 15th century, a new phase began in the history of some parts of Africa besides the establishment of commercial relations with some parts of Africa, this phase was characterized by slave trade, till about the last quarter of the 19th century, European control over Africa extended over about one-fifth of the territory of the continent. However, within a few years almost the entire continent was partitioned among various European imperialist countries though it took them much longer to establish their actual effective occupation.

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Slave Trade

  • Although Europeans started exploring Africa since late 15th century but for a long time their presence remains mainly to certain coastal areas.
  • But even these limited contacts led to the most tragic and disastrous consequences for the Africans- due to slave trade.

Why Slaves Were Needed:

  • During this era, Spanish were ruling Americas
  • It led to result in the large-scale extermination of the original inhabitants of the Americas (Native Americans).
  • Native Americans were forced to work in gold and silver mines under inhumane conditions
  • Native Americans lacked immunity to European diseases (smallpox, mumps, and measles)
  • In North America slaves needed for Plantations of tobacco, rice, and indigo, Cotton
  • In South America slaves needed for Plantations of Sugar.

Why African Slaves Preferred:

Native American

  • They could easily run away and hide in jungles. They were familiar with the territories, knew how to survive on local plants and animals.
  • They lacked immunity to European diseases (smallpox, mumps, and measles) and died easily in plantation.
  • Not immune to tropical malaria and yellow fever died easily.
  • They could also escape and blend in as white town-folks in the colony

On the other hand, African slaves offered following advantages:

  1. African slaves came from an environment where those who survived into adolescence acquired some immunity to such “Old World” diseases as smallpox, mumps, and measles.
  2. They also had some immunity against tropical maladies as malaria and yellow fever.
  3. Hence, African laborer lived three to five times longer than white laborers under the difficult conditions on plantations.
  4. When Africans ran away from plantation, they could neither go home nor disguise themselves among town folks. (Unlike those white prisoners).

Thus, African slaves were inexpensive labor for the plantation owners.

Most of the slaves transported in the Atlantic slave trade were adult men. Why?

  • Because African chiefs tended to retain women slaves, as agricultural workers and to bear more children.
  • Children were less economical to trade: because they cost as much to enslave and transport, yet brought lower prices when sold.

Who Ran The Slave Trade

In medieval times, Arabs had dominated the slave trade.

  • They organized slave caravans and moved them from the interior to the Gold and Slave coasts (= Now region of Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria). Then Portuguese entered the Slave trade business.
  • They had two advantages over others. Early in the exploration race of Africa.
  • Its Colony in Brazil was @relatively short distance from Africa.
  • Portuguese established a slave market in Lisbon.
  • Spaniards bought slaves from that Lisbon market and took them to American colonies. But later the demand for slaves in America increased, so slaves were sent directly from Africa to America.
  • The Spanish church saw the black-slaves as an opportunity for converting them, so also gave tacit approval.
  • Portuguese themselves also needed Black slaves to work in their sugar plantations of Brazil.
  • Slave traders raided African villages, kidnaped people and handed over to the European traders.
  • Some African chiefs also took part in this business. They sold slaves to Europeans in exchange of guns and ammunition, cloth, metal ware, spirits, cutlery, coins, decorative wear, horses, salt and paper.

Slave Trade British Entry

  • Initially the Portuguese were dominating African slave trade. But then British decided to take over this business.
  • Sir John Hawkins went to Africa to bring slaves in a ship called Jesus. He also shared a part of his slave-trade profit to the British Queen Elizabeth I.
  • 17th Century:  a regular company received a charter from the King of England for purposes of trade in slaves. The share of the king in the profits from slave trade was fixed at 25 per cent!
  • Later, Spain gave the monopoly of slave trade to Britain. (Spain only bought slaves from Britain, to work in their American colonies).

Triangular Trade

It is the term used to describe the prosperous trading cycle across Atlantic as a result of Slave trade:

First Phase:

  • European merchants purchased slaves from African chiefs in exchange of manufactured products from European factories. (clothes, cutlery, firearms.)

Second Phase:

  • They sold the slaves in the Caribbean and purchased such easily transportable commodities as sugar, cotton, and tobacco.

Third Phase:

  • Finally the merchants would sell sugar, cotton, and tobacco in Europe and North America= truckload of profit.
  • They will use some of this profit to buy manufactured goods, then go back to Africa and get new slave and thus trade cycle continued.

Result of Slave Trade

  • Millions of Africans were uprooted from their homes.
  • Many were killed while resisting the raids on their villages.
  • In the American plantations, they were forced to work in inhumane conditions.
  • If a slave tried to escape from American plantations, he was beaten and tortured.
  • If a (white) man killed a runaway slave, local authorities even gave him reward.

Middle Passage:

  • It is the term used to describe brutal manner in which slaves were transported from Africa to Americas, in Atlantic Ocean.
  • Slaves were taken in ships as inanimate objects. They were given less than half the space allotted convicts or soldiers transported by ship at the same time.
  • Male slaves were kept constantly shackled to each other or to the deck to prevent mutiny.
  • In the ships, they were kept in such unhygienic conditions that sometimes even sailors revolted.
  • Not even half of the slaves captured reached America alive.
  • Lakhs of them died during the long voyage, Dysentery was the biggest killer.
  • So many dead bodies were thrown into the ocean that sharks regularly followed the slave ships on their westward journey.

The Decline:

After 1850s, slave trade quickly declined.

  1. European economies began to shift from agriculture to industry. Plantations remained profitable, but Europeans had promising new areas for investment.
  2. The slave-operated American plantations had to compete for capital and preferential laws with textile mills and other industries that hired free laborers.
  3. American slave societies approached the point where they could reproduce enough offspring to meet labor needs= not much need for further slave-import from Africa.
  4. Slavery was also a hindrance if the interior of Africa was to be opened to colonial exploitation.
  5. In fact, some colonial powers waged war against African chiefs/kings in the pretext of abolishing slave trade, so they could establish colony there. (recall how British used to wage wars on Indian princely states citing “maladministration” as a reason!)


  • It removed of millions of young men and women from Africa, led to depopulation that stifled African creativity and production.
  • Slaving and slave trading stimulated warfare, corrupted laws (making more crimes punishable by enslavement=to get more slaves.)
  • It created a class of elite rulers and traders.
  • Slave trade was the beginning of a dependency relationship with Europe.
  • This relationship was based on the exchange of Africa’s valuable primary products (slaves, ivory, timber, gold etc.) for European manufactured goods
  • This dependency continued after the slave trade ended, through a colonial period and beyond.
  • In this sense, the slave trade was the first step toward modern Africa’s current status as a region where technological development has yet to match that of more industrialized nations.
  • African culture mixed with Europeans and Native Americans: led to new mixed-races, music, literature, cuisine, culture, religious practices, deep impact on American history, civil wars etc.

Anyways, by the time Slave trade declined, the exploration of the interior of Africa had begun and preparations made by the European powers to impose another kind of slavery on the continent of Africa —for the direct conquest of almost entire Africa.

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