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Chapter 6: Global Imperialism: “This Time, It’s Industrial”

As much as industrialization changed the Western world from within, its biggest impacts were undoubtedly global in scope: because industrialization requires more and more natural resources to continue and grow, Europeans naturally looked elsewhere for those raw materials. (See “mercantilism” from the America Empires unit for review.) Because the North and South Americas, by the mid-19th century, were mainly independent of European control, Europeans set their eyes elsewhere for natural resources: territories and ports throughout Southeast Asia (known in China as “treaty ports”) and, especially, the entire continent of Africa.

Like the “Dark Ages,” Africa was known as the “Dark Continent,” and for similar reasons: so little of it was known to the outside world. Diseases like malaria, powerful rivers that flowed from the interior (rather than into it), and very territorial locals had kept Europeans away for centuries. However, with the development of quinine (a treatment for malaria), the steam engine (to power boats upriver), and the machine gun (to “handle” even large numbers of angry natives), the Europeans started to invade Africa in the mid-19th century.

By the 1880s, Europeans realized that the “open” land in Africa could cause another European conflict over competing land claims. So, in 1885-1886, fourteen European powers sat down in Berlin: The “Berlin Conference” split up the entire continent, completely ignoring native African tribal boundaries that had been in place for hundreds (if not thousands) of years. An ethnic group in Africa, with a unique language, custom, and religion, could find itself split in half—with half of the population suddenly being on “British” land and the other half on “German” land. Similarly, two ethnic groups that had traditionally been enemies could suddenly find themselves in the same European-defined “country.” Unfortunately, the boundaries decided in Berlin mostly continue to operate as the national boundaries today. Why couldn’t Africans return to the old boundaries? We’ll find out shortly…

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Unlike the Native Americans, native Africans did not die of European diseases, which is what makes the story of African imperialism just as tragic (if not more tragic). The root for much of the continent’s current political/economic condition is to be found in the age of imperialism.

During the 19th century, the industrialized Europeans felt, once again, superior to the non-industrialized Africans. The reasoning was now more “scientific”: Europeans twisted Charles Darwin’s views of evolution to apply to the human species. They justified this take-over of an entire continent with social Darwinism. The Europeans viewed themselves as more “advanced,” not just in terms of their industrialized technology, but also in terms of religion, style of dress, and written language. All European countries (except for Belgium) claimed that they were actually helping or “civilizing” the Africans by invading their lands and showing them the “better” (European) way to life. What about the hundreds of African civilizations that were around before? They weren’t European, so they weren’t civilizations at all. Native African religious beliefs, centering around animism, were not “real” religions to the Europeans. Since Africans did not wear a shirt-and-tie in the African climate, they were not “civilized” in terms of their dress, either.

This racist attitude explains the type of “progress” that the Europeans brought to Africa in exchange for reaping its resources (like rubber from the rubber plants in the Belgian Congo).

No longer was colonization alone used—while colonies were established in some locations with very rebellious populations, a more “civilized” manner of imperialism was practiced through establishing a protectorate. What were the Europeans “protecting” the Africans from? “Themselves,” might be the answer that the Europeans would propose. Assimilated native Africans had authority over less “civilized” Africans (those who had not yet assimilated to the European culture). Therefore, the Europeans needed less direct control, and the Africans who became assimilated would consequently be considered “improved” while “improving” their fellow Africans. Given the ethnic divisions mentioned above, some Africans adopted European ways in order to exert their control over people that they had been trying to dominate for centuries.

Based somewhat on the “mother country” metaphor, there was an even more uncomfortable metaphor involving children that the Europeans used. To justify their “this is for the best” attitude about African imperialism, they claimed to be paternalistic. The Europeans saw themselves as the “parent figures” and treated the natives as children who may one day “grow up” to become “mature” and “civilized” if they followed in their parents’ footsteps.

The Europeans, therefore, did not see African societies as civilizations full of adults with their own complex traditions. Instead, because of European ignorance of African customs, the African societies were labeled as “simple” or “savage.” The Europeans ignored these societies as anything worth respect or serious study, outside of a glimpse into more “primitive” history of earlier stages in the development of “civilization.”

The fact that the Europeans of the 19th century ignored the hundreds of pre-existing African societies does not mean that we are entitled to do the same, even in our reductionist course. I’ll be the first to admit that this course has been relying on an oversimplification of Western societies. I’ll also be the first to admit most of us are on the outside of native African culture. We therefore need to take a closer look at these native societies. Only in this way can we realize the suddenness of the change to “modern” Western culture and its continuing effects on the continent of Africa. Therefore, with the aid of another “text,” written in English by a native African, we will see how “things” fall apart.

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IMPERIALISM CARTOON, 1882. 'The Devilfish in Egyptian Waters.' An American cartoon from 1882 depicting John Bull (England) as the octopus of imperialism grabbing land on every continent.